And so another eventful round of the National Basketball Association playoffs drew to a close early this week, setting up the stage for the conference finals, which from all indications point to yet an interesting stretch anew in this season’s postseason.
Left to dispute the Western Conference title are the defending world champions Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trail Blazers while in the Eastern Conference remaining standing are the top-seeds Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors.
Admittedly for this space I did not see the Warriors-Blazers pairing out in the West, particularly Portland which I found wanting still heading into the playoffs.
But the Blazers have been balling in the first two rounds, led by their dynamic duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
They dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the opening round that was capped by the spectacular game-winning triple by “Logo Lillard” in the series-clinching Game Five. The third-seeded Blazers then dug deep to outlast the second-seeded Denver Nuggets in the conference semifinals that went the full route of seven games.
And the thing about Portland is that it is not relying now solely on Lillard and McCollum as guys like Enes Kanter, Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood, Mo Harkless, Evan Turner and Zach Collins have also been making their presence felt on both ends.
These Blazers are not as star-studded as their 2000 version that had Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells, Jermaine O’Neal and Damon Stoudamire, among others, and made it to the Western Conference finals, but they have shown the ability to get the job done, more so if provided with an opening.
To see the Warriors in the West finals, meanwhile, is not at all surprising, after all they have been in it in the previous four years.
It has not been so much a breeze for Golden State in these playoffs as it was made to sweat by the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets in each of the first two rounds.
The Warriors though are still there thanks to a recognition of what they are as team and the personnel they have and collective experience in high-stakes matches.
The loss at the moment of playoff leading scorer Kevin Durant is a concern but Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the rest of the Warriors are seemingly ready to fill in the vacuum and continue the fight.
The Warriors I am picking still over the Blazers in this one although I expect this to be a long one than what it is on paper.
Over in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks and Raptors in the finals is what we fans deserve, not only because they were the top two teams at the end of the elimination round and hands down the best teams in the conference all season long but also because of the way they carved their way to it in this year playoffs.
Milwaukee continues to show why it is the top team in the conference, having lost only one game to date in nine matches in the postseason.
And the Bucks are not about done it seems with Giannis Antetoukounmpo on the lead and a host of highly capable teammates who can deliver at any time following him.
Toronto, for its part, has been battle-tested after going past the Orlando Magic and the Philadelphia 76ers.
That series Sixers was just wow and I expect the Raptors only for the better for it.
Kawhi Leonard’s arrival is surely a boon for Toronto in a lot of ways.
As far as the series goes, Giannis versus Kawhi is must-see TV.
The Bucks boast of a deeper team which should work in their favor but the Raptors have had no quit in them in these playoffs and are ready to counter.
This is a toss-up for this space and a Game Seven is highly likely.
It is now the conference finals in the NBA playoffs and the stakes are even higher. Root for your teams.
(The conference finals begin today with Game One between Golden State and Portland at 9 a.m.)
Michael Angelo S. Murillo has been a columnist since 2003. He is a BusinessWorld reporter covering the Sports beat.