The usual guidelines no longer appear to be relevant. The NBA postseason has become unusually unpredictable. What comes next may no longer be based on what happened before.
Aren't superstars supposed to dominate the playoffs? It has been that way for more than 30 years ... and then Dwyane Wade scored five points overall in Game 3 on Thursday and LeBron James added six in the second half to fall behind 2-1 to the star-free Indiana Pacers.
Weren't the old giants supposed to crumble under the physical stress of this lockout season? It only made sense after watching younger big men like Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Al Horford, Zach Randolph and Joakim Noah suffer disastrous injuries throughout the regular season and playoffs ... but now 36-year-olds Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett (35 until Saturday) have been running the floor and controlling the paint as if they were in their 20s.
If there was ever a year to think about the old generation giving way to the new, this was it. The absence of a meaningful training camp and the every-other-day schedule of games led to the idea that the Heat and Thunder would meet in the NBA Finals and launch a new era between them. It made perfect sense to think so, based on the rhythms of a league that has been far more predictable than the NFL or MLB. But now there are all kinds of variables that are changing the outcomes and likelihoods night after night. The injuries that doomed the Bulls, Magic and Hawks amounted to only one of those variables.
When the Lakers were blown out in Game 1 of their conference semifinal at Oklahoma City, I admit to expecting they would respond with better defense and a more disciplined approach that would give them a chance in Game 2. When they took a seven-point lead into the final 2:08 of Game 2, I also admit to never expecting Kobe Bryant to play such a large role in his team's collapse.
Normally you'd think an underdog could not recover from such a loss. But there is little normal about this season, the Lakers or Bryant, who is likely to be more determined and focused to control the pace of play and earn himself the chance to recover from that devastating loss in Game 2. It's easy to say the Lakers can't survive the kinds of mistakes they made Thursday, but what will you be saying if they slow Game 3 and give themselves a chance to return to OKC even at 2-2?
Eight teams are left in the playoffs, and only the 76ers and Clippers appear incapable of winning the championship. It has become impossible to predict who will celebrate in the end, because the dynamics keep changing.
The strongest pick appears to be the Spurs, who have lost two games in the last two months -- and one of those losses was the result of coach Gregg Popovich resting Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili on April 9 at Utah. Contenders are supposed to shorten their rotations in the postseason, but Popovich has given meaningful minutes to 10 players, and everyone on the roster tends to appear in every game.
Yet there's no guessing who will prevail if the Spurs should meet the Thunder in the conference finals. Will Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook be the best players on the floor -- and even if they are, will it make the difference? The Spurs' program is built on improving their talent in-house, as their roster around Duncan is made up of mid-to-late first-round picks and others who have turned out to be much better players than anticipated. Popovich has blended them together to play more fluidly than the Thunder or any other rival that relies on superstars.
It is amazing to realize that Duncan and Garnett each cares enough after so many years to prepare himself to play each night. And then it is more amazing to see each of them play so well now as they approach the end. Each had appeared to be diminished by a knee injury. Now Duncan says he feels better than he has in years, and Garnett looks better than he has since 2009. They are creating the possibility that they will meet in the NBA Finals next month.
But that optimism also could change instantly, as both teams well know. San Antonio held the No. 1 seed last year when Duncan sprained an ankle and Ginobili wrenched his elbow. So the Spurs take nothing for granted now. The Celtics are dealing with injuries to almost half of their rotation -- Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Avery Bradley and Mickael Pietrus -- and so they are taking each day as it comes, as experience has taught them to do.
While it's a mistake to assume anything this year, let's go this far and predict that the Celtics will advance to the conference final. Should they prefer to meet the Heat or the Pacers? Indiana took its series lead against Miami because the Pacers are the bigger and deeper team, and because their young roster is being guided by David West, who may yet turn out to be a more important offseason acquisition than his former teammate Chris Paul.
Much as Bryant must continue to be respected in the West, so must James and Wade be respected in the East. The injury to Bosh has given James an opportunity to fulfill himself as the underdog. He is going to have to play at the highest level in order to win this series, and if he should reach the NBA Finals this year then no one will be able to say he did it the easy way. An all-out run over the next few weeks will do a lot to restore his reputation. In the meantime, the Pacers aren't going to find it easy to close out Miami. It's one thing to win as the underdog with nothing to lose, and another to make the big shots that protect a lead against stars like James and Wade.
This is a strange year, and it isn't likely to turn normal anytime soon.