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The NBA playoffs are everything the NHL playoffs are not. In the West, the #1 seed (Spurs) are facing the #2 seed (Thunder). In the East, #2 (Miami) faces #4 (Boston). Three of the remaining four teams have proven playoff acumen, with a combined six titles and seven finals appearances in the last 13 years.
Meanwhile, in the NHL, we get the #6 seed New Jersey Devils facing the #8 seed Los Angeles Kings. Two teams that finished the regular season closer to last place than to first.
The NBA semi-finals feature seven future hall-of famers. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce of the Celtics. Tim Duncan of the Spurs. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade of the Heat. And Kevin Durant of the Thunder. The best player of the past six years, LeBron James, could make it to the finals to face the best player of the past fifteen years, Tim Duncan. Or, Duncan could end up facing his most bitter rival and nemesis, Garnett. Or, James could face the second-best player of his era, Durant. Then there are the supporting superstars – Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, Derek Fisher, James Harden.
The NHL finals have one future Hall-of-Famer. Martin Brodeur. And one other big-time star, Kovalchuk. You can say all you like about the gritty play of Dustin Penner or the intangibles of Zach Parise – but they are not Crosby, Malkin, Stamkos, Spezza, Sedin, Ovechkin or Giroux.
Now, I know that this is a little unfair. First of all, the NBA does a much better job of marketing its superstars than does the NHL. (With the exception of Tim Duncan, of course, who is the most underappreciated athlete of all time.) And a superstar makes a much bigger difference in basketball than he would in hockey. LeBron James can take a bad Cleveland team to the finals by himself, Rick Nash can’t even get the Blue Jackets out of last place.
The point I’m trying to make is simply this – I have to try really, really hard to find a reason to care about the NHL finals. Two teams I don’t care about are meeting for a best-of-seven series having managed to grit it out throughout the playoffs as soon as the rules changed from the regular season.
Whereas in basketball, there are four incredibly compelling teams who not only have rich recent history (with the possible exception of OKC) but also have tremendously exciting rosters and playmakers. I’m OK with Sid the Kid and Ovie being out of the playoffs, but not everybody. The biggest basketball star out of the NBA playoffs is Kobe Bryant, and I’m actually thrilled that I don’t have to watch him!
One last thing the NBA does right – the setup of the series themselves. As soon as a series is set, it goes. A semi-final series in the West might begin before the East quarter-final is even over. There are two series left, and there’s a basketball game every night between now and when those series end. How long was it between the last round and the beginning of the Stanley Cup finals? A week? Two?
So I’ll be watching the NBA right to the end. And maybe the occasional hockey game should one be on TV while I’m in the room. And I will close with one more thing basketball has but hockey does not.