CLEVELAND—LeBron James squared up on Mike Scott, stutter-stepped, drove left, got to the basket, took contact, and finished the basket while earning a free throw to boot. A microphone that James was wearing during that play, from Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, captured his businesslike reaction. "Come on, man," James snarled at the Atlanta crowd. "That's too easy."
Too easy indeed. James claimed his 15th consecutive series victory against East teams on Tuesday, thanks to Cleveland's blowout 118–88 win over Atlanta, which mercifully provided an early end to this lopsided Eastern Conference finals. Since 2010-11, James is 60-18 (.769) against the East in the postseason, and he's needed seven games in just two of those 15 series. The Cavaliers will enter the Finals, which are set to begin on June 4, after posting an impressive 12-2 record in the postseason.
As the Cavaliers built toward this sweep, James kept repeating that he has "seen every defensive coverage there is," a polite, textbook way of phrasing the obvious fact that the Hawks had no hope of stopping him. This series was a clinic: James beat Atlanta with his scoring from the post, with his scoring at the rim, and with his passing to the perimeter, and he nearly averaged a triple double for the series (30.3 points, 11 rebounds, and 9.3 assists). The back-and-forth game-winner drama of Cleveland's second-round series against Chicago gave way to an inevitable countdown to James's latest coronation. Only Game 3 offered any tension, and even that required James to open the night by missing his first 10 shots and close the night fighting off cramps. Even with his offensive burden at record highs and his shooting efficiency at record lows, James and the Cavaliers completed the sweep with an average victory margin of 13.3 points.
Game 4 was over as soon as Kyrie Irving returned to the court after sitting two games with a knee injury, making his first basket and getting the energy up in Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavaliers express was rolling from that point forward, and both teams looked resigned to the fact that this would be a good old-fashioned stomping very early in the game. Cleveland held a double-digit lead in the first quarter, a 20-point lead by halftime, a 25-point lead in the third quarter, and a 30-plus point lead by the final period. Turn off the lights, sweep up the confetti, and wait to find out if the Warriors can close out on Wednesday.
Don't blame the Hawks for this. They earned their first trip to the conference finals since joining the Eastern Conference in 1970 with a promising, sometimes awe-inspiring 60-win season that has unfortunately fallen apart in a postseason pile of injuries, offensive stagnation, and pecking-order uncertainty once they reached primetime.
Instead, blame the NBA's flawed playoff format, which continues to undercut the quality of the league's postseason product. A few weeks back, there was much moaning, deservedly, about the Clippers facing the Spurs in the first round. That was only one side of the coin, though, and this frustratingly bland Eastern Conference finals was the other.
The NBA playoffs should be a thorough, ruthless process of separating the contenders from the pretenders. That's happening in the cutthroat West, but not in the wayward East. Taking the top eight teams from each conference, rather than the top 16 teams overall, costs basketball fans the best their game has to offer at every stage of the postseason.
Atlanta might have earned its trip to the conference finals, but it didn't deserve to be one of the NBA's final four teams. The Hawks were able to obtain a conference finals berth primarily by virtue of their geography. Their zip code benefits played a part in their success at every stage. Atlanta's first-round opponent, Brooklyn, finished 38-44, which was the worst record in the postseason and would have been tied for the 11th best record in the West. Atlanta's second-round opponent, Washington, finished 46-36, just one game better than the West's No. 8 seed.
Imagine the better, alternate world, where the NBA's 16 best teams make the playoffs. The Nets would have been on the outside looking in, rather than serving as soft first-round fodder for the Hawks. The Wizards would have been the No. 12 seed out of 16, meaning they would almost certainly have gone home in the first round, rather than producing a forgettable second-round series against the Hawks. Yes, Paul Pierce's three game-deciding shots made for great theater, but a real series shows its quality over 48-minute games rather 18 seconds worth of Vine loops. As for the Hawks, it's very hard to believe they would have won two series if they had to beat teams like the Clippers, Grizzlies, Spurs and others to get to the conference finals stage. They simply haven't been potent, disciplined or energetic enough.
There's no way to ignore the obvious disparities between the conferences when it comes to individual talent and team ability. Six of the top eight teams by regular-season point differential, 12 of the top 16 offenses, and four of the top six defenses resided in the West, while seven of the 10 worst teams by regular-season point differential were in the East. Four of the five All-NBA First Team selections and 12 of the 15 total All-NBA selections play in the West. All five of the All-Defensive First Team selections and eight of the 10 total All-Defensive selections play in the West. Most likely, nine of SI.com's "Top 10 players of 2016" will play in the West (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge/Marc Gasol/DeMarcus Cousins), while James is on track to be the East's lone representative.
Here's what the ideal 1-to-16 seed format would have looked like this year.
There are benefits to the 1-to-16 format at every step: The first round quickly dispenses of the weak teams, preserves Cavaliers/Bulls, and adds awesome matchups like Rockets/Thunder and Clippers/Pelicans. The second round serves as a reckoning for the Hawks and includes exciting Rockets/Spurs and Clippers/Grizzlies matchups, and the final four delivers two ideal showdowns in Warriors/Clippers and Cavaliers/Rockets. The "dream" Finals matchup between the Warriors and Cavaliers would still be in play.
The current system, by comparison, is broken: Brooklyn never should have been in the playoffs, Washington never should have been in the second round, and Atlanta—after coasting through its cake bracket—never should have been in the conference finals. If matched up in the second round in a "top 16" format, there seems little doubt that the Rockets, Clippers, Spurs and Grizzlies would have revealed the depleted, disjointed Hawks to be pretenders.
All year, excited observers pumped up the Hawks as the "Spurs of the East," given their style of play and coach Mike Budenholzer's San Antonio ties. Why does the NBA's playoff format make us settle for one of the wannabe Spurs in the conference finals at the expense of the Real Spurs, who looked brilliant at times in their epic seven-game first-round loss to the Clippers? Why does the NBA's playoff format make us settle for a bored James rather than one who would be getting challenged by 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, or one who would be going dime-for-dime and dunk-for-dunk with Blake Griffin?
What's more, MVP candidate Russell Westbrook didn't get even into the postseason, MVP candidate Anthony Davis joined All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Dirk Nowitzki in going home early like the Spurs, and the Clippers departed in the round of eight even though they were one of the playoffs' top two or three teams before choking away a 3-1 lead to the Rockets. It's sad to think how many potential enduring moments were snuffed out with those exits.
The best development during the 2015 playoffs has been the rush of new blood. Golden State, Houston, Atlanta, Washington and the Clippers all enjoyed, or seriously flirted with, a level of success their franchises haven't seen in years. The Warriors, Cavaliers (and Rockets) are also chasing a title for the first time in decades.
This changing of the guard has produced a lot of fun, and it's made a compelling case that geographical or historical rivalries are less important than ever. The Warriors and Pelicans played a great first-round series without anything substantial in the way of history between the two teams, as did the Clippers and Spurs. The Clippers and Rockets held a jaw-dropping second-round series despite no long-lasting tension. The Warriors and Rockets are playing thrilling ball in the Western Conference finals thanks to a showdown of today between Curry and Harden, rather than decades-old hard feelings. The East's best series so far, a second-round affair between the Cavaliers and Bulls, wasn't saved by its history. Instead of rising to the moment with blood thirst, Chicago totally folded at home in Game 6.
Silver is banking on James to save the day, as he usually does. This is an understandable position, given that the assumed Finals showdown between the Cavaliers and Warriors would be rich in interest, pitting James, a four-time MVP, against Curry, the 2015 MVP. But even if Warriors/Cavaliers winds up pulling monster ratings as it goes seven compelling games, the NBA shouldn't sweep the rest of these uneven playoffs under the rug.
To co-opt perhaps the favorite phrase of NBA coaches everywhere: The playoffs should be judged by their process, rather than the final result. That process, in its current form, has faults through and through, gifting advancement to teams like the Hawks at the expense of more worthy teams like the Clippers, Spurs and others.
[daily_cut.NBA]Silver has framed his position on the hotly contested intentional fouling issue by turning to an excellent philosophy: "It's the game above all." The playoff format issue should be held to that same standard, and the game should be placed above geography, time zones, rivalries and travel concerns. Placing the game above all requires giving the best teams the best chance to win as many postseason games as possible. Period.
That didn't happen this year, as James jogged through a weak East bracket that turned out to be stocked with pretenders. Even with a brand new team after The Decision II and despite injuries to Kevin Love and Irving, James just waltzed to his fifth straight Finals appearance, a feat never achieved by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. This latest run will go down as another remarkable testament to James's singular brilliance, but it really didn't need to be this easy.