The 2014 NBA Playoffs were in many ways a repeat of the 2013 NBA Playoffs, but they took a very long and strange road to reach that place. Some of the events of the playoffs were only of interest to the hardcore basketball fan, while others echoed across the country as a whole.
The first round of the playoffs was unusually active, with many games won by the underdog, or going into overtime, or stretching to the whole length of the series. While all of that was exciting to the fan, it was quickly overshadowed by action off the court when Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was caught on tape making racist remarks. This caused such an uproar in the league that the players threatened to boycott the playoffs, dropping a wildcat strike into one of the NBA's most lucrative and important periods. New commissioner Adam Silver acted quickly, banning Sterling from the league, and the playoffs continued.
After this point, the playoffs settled down a bit. In fact, despite some suspense and close games, the teams that had met in the finals the previous year, The San Antonio Spurs and The Miami Heat, kept advancing. Although the Miami Heat were the second team in the Eastern Division by their record, they were generally considered to be better than the first seed, the Indiana Pacers. So when the finals came down to a match between the Spurs and the Heat, no one was surprised. It was a much anticipated rematch of the previous year's finals.
The contest was seen as more than just a contest between two teams, but between two philosophies. The Spurs played a methodical, team-oriented form of basketball where constant passing was emphasized, and where every player on the roster could be called on to play. Earlier in the year, the Spurs set a record by having all 13 players who were dressed for the game score at least one point, rebound and assist. Many Spurs players had also come from overseas or college careers where they were obscure, but the Spurs' system molded them together as a team. On the other hand, the Miami Heat were fronted by LeBron James, widely considered to be currently the best basketball player in the world. Although the other players on the team were good, perhaps even great, the team still focused on a superstar system: the other players were meant as a supporting cast. In the previous finals, the series went to seven games, and fans and experts were expecting this series to be long and closely fought as well.
But it wasn't. The Spurs ended up winning the series 4 games to 1, with the Heat's sole win being by 2 points. The Spurs won their matches by at least 15 points each, setting a Finals' record for point differential. It was a rout, one that made the Spurs' success not seem just like a solid performance, but an overwhelming one. I read a comment to the effect that the Spurs had "solved" basketball. The current narrative, repeated by journalists and fans, is that the Spurs victory is a victory for the concept of teamwork, both in terms of gameplay and group psychology. Although the Spurs have some very good players, including Tim Duncan, who is performing the same at 38 as he was ten years earlier, and point guard Tony Parker, the easy consensus is that the team is more than the sum of its parts.
It is hard to see what the long range effects of this will be though. Just as it is hard to tell whether the Donald Sterling affair will change the way that owners, the league and players interact, it is hard to tell whether the Spurs' success will change the way the game is played. Because while "teamwork" is an impressive, and good-feeling narrative, it is also easier said than done. And basketball can change rapidly: this is the fifth championship the Spurs have won since Tim Duncan joined the team, but they have never won back-to-back. It could be that next year, the well-oiled machine of the Spurs gets a bit of grit in its gears, or just that another team plays better, and the narrative of basketball will change back to having a superstar with an unquenchable drive to win. But even if that is the case, this year's playoffs will be memorable on several levels.