- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2021

No LeBron James. No Kevin Durant. No Steph Curry.

The NBA postseason is winding down and the sport’s biggest names are no longer in the playoff picture — names that were staples of basketball in June. One would have to go back to 2010 to not see at least one of those stars in the final four. And even then, the star power void was filled by Kobe Bryant and the Lakers-Celtics rivalry.

No problem.

DeAndre Ayton’s last-second, game-winning lob dunk to cap Tuesday’s thrilling Western Conference finals Game 2 win for the Phoenix Suns was the latest in what has been an electric postseason for the NBA

The entertainment value is there — and there’s a ratings boost to match. 

According to the league, these playoffs are up 35% from last year’s postseason and are averaging 3.5 million views per game. The latter average is down 8% from 2019, though the games themselves have arguably been more exciting.

Almost as surprising: the final four squads aren’t exactly the league’s glamor teams. Few, if any, predicted the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix would be the last teams standing. Outside of the Clippers — who are overshadowed by the Lakers, anyway — the remaining teams don’t come from the league’s marquee markets.

The NBA has often been pegged as the most predictable of the four major sports. That can’t be said this year.

The Suns and the Hawks, in particular, are huge surprises — advancing much further than anyone expected. A $100 bet before the season on the Suns to win the title would net an extra $4,000. Atlanta? The Hawks were +10,000 in the preseason to win the finals.

The Clippers and the Bucks were seen as contenders, though their postseason history didn’t inspire confidence. Both franchises flamed out in the second round last year in horrific fashion, with the Bucks losing in five games to the Miami Heat while the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets.

These, to put it bluntly, are tortured franchises. The Bucks and the Hawks have won a championship before — but Milwaukee’s last came in 1971 and the Hawks’ predated their move to Atlanta. The St. Louis Hawks won it all in 1958. There were eight teams then.

The Clippers and Phoenix could only be so lucky. This is Los Angeles’ first conference finals appearance ever. Not when the franchise was in Buffalo. Not when they were in San Diego. In all, the Clippers had to wait 51 years for it to happen.

Phoenix has had more success, fielding a finals team with Charles Barkley in the 1990s and a contender with Steve Nash in the mid-2000s. But the Suns’ recent history is painful: Phoenix faced the second-longest playoff drought in the league before this year, which lasted a decade.  Phoenix’s rebuild got so ugly that at one point, owner Robert Sarver reportedly put live goats in his former general manager’s office as an inspiration — to find the Suns’ own G.O.A.T, per ESPN.

Even with stars like James and Durant out of the picture, there are plenty of talented players left. Chris Paul and Devin Booker form an excellent backcourt in Phoenix, Atlanta’s Trae Young is an emerging star, the Clippers have Paul George stepping up without a healthy Kawhi Leonard (knee) and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is a two-time MVP.

To get here, all the teams had to overcome demons and knock off the biggest names in the process. The Hawks upset the 76ers in seven games and toppled the Knicks in five. The Bucks sent home Durant’s Nets. The Suns beat James’ Lakers and then swept the reigning MVP in Denver’s Nikola Jokic. The Clippers erased 0-2 deficits in the process to beat both the Mavericks and the Jazz.

It’s hard to say whether this is the NBA’s new normal. The Lakers and the Nets were considerable favorites, only to be stricken with injuries. These teams may retool in the offseason and the league could very well go back to what it has mostly been: Stars and big markets driving winning.

But Toronto won a title in 2019 when few expected it. Two years later, there will be another unexpected champion.

If anything, enjoy it while it lasts.

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