DALLAS – It’s over now. Officially over.
The Miami Heat’s elimination of the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals last night at American Airlines Arena guaranteed that we’ll have a NBA Finals that doesn’t include Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant for the first time since the 1998.
Think about that for a second … let it marinate … and then realize that those are the three players that define their generation. Their faces make up the Mount Rushmore of the league since 1998. No one starred brighter on the biggest stage as much as — or more often than — those three future Hall of Famers.
Their teams fell like dominoes in this postseason. Duncan’s Spurs went out in the first round to the No. 8-seeded Hang Time Grizzlies, a shocking exit for a team that finished with the best record in the Western Conference during the regular season.
Bryant’s Lakers topped Duncan’s crew, losing to Dallas in the conference semifinals in just four games. It was a stunning end to the two-time defending champions’ threepeat bid and the worst possible way for Phil Jackson — the fourth face on our hoops Mount Rushmore from this passing era — to end his Hall of Fame coaching career.
Shaq wasn’t even in uniform for the Celtics’ finale, his body betraying him in the twilight of his career the way it has so many other larger-than-life legends before him. His inability to play against the Heat no doubt changed the course of the Celtics’ playoff fortunes, while also raising the question (once again) about what time is the best time for a living legend to ride off into the sunset. And it’s a conversation that’s extremely tough to have, as Celtics coach Doc Rivers explained late last night in Miami (via the Boston Herald):
“I don’t know,” Rivers said of whether this may be the end for O’Neal. “It’s too early to talk about it. I’ve learned personally that you never try to make a decision in the heat of the battle. Emotionally you’re always going to make the wrong choice then. He’ll walk away for the summer and then decide what he wants to do.
“But this has been emotionally draining to him, more than you guys would know,” said the Celtics coach. “He feels awful about this, because this is why he came here, to get to the playoffs and then play in the playoffs, and not being able to do that has really hurt him.”
Rivers has obviously seen this scenario unfold with other great players.
“It’s hard, especially when you know him. It’s that way with any of those guys when they get older,” said Rivers. “I had Patrick Ewing his last year in Orlando, and I played with him, and I was the coach telling him you’re not going to play any more. That’s an awful position, because what makes them great is their pride. Even when they’re barely walking they think they can actually change the outcome of a game, and sometimes you have to be the one to tell them they can’t, and that’s very difficult.”
But maybe it’s just time, although Jackson left the door open at his retirement news conference Wednesday in Los Angeles when he said, “Today, I’m sure [about retiring]. What it’s going to be like in six months, who knows?”
Maybe it’s time for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Zach Randolph (yeah, I stuck my main man Z-Bo in there) to have their turn on the big stage (Wade has been there before, but he did it with Shaq watching his back as the Heat won the 2006 NBA title).
Generation next is suddenly generation now. And even with Bryant vowing to return to championship form with his Lakers next season, it’s hard to imagine this new crop of title-chasers stepping aside now that the superstars that previously blocked their path have been shoved aside.
This is a different way of passing the torch than we are used to, as the Prime Minister wisely pointed out.
Normally the torch is passed, or at least snatched by force. As Magic Johnson‘s and Larry Bird‘s domination of the 1980s was coming to an end, both Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan had been trying to kick the door down for years. They lead teams that had challenged those superpowers from Los Angeles and Boston for years only come to come up short time after time.
Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Rockets’ teams stepped into the championship spot after Jordan’s first retirement, a temporary seat as we found out. They did not become a consistent power even after winning those back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995.
This is much more like the shift that came with Jordan’s second retirement,when the path to the league penthouse was wide open for any team willing, able and lucky enough to step into the void. The NBA was somewhat similar in the pre-Magic/Bird era, when from 1970-79, eight different teams (New York, Milwaukee, L.A. Lakers, Portland, Boston, Golden State, Washington and Seattle) took home the title.
That said, the Mavericks have hovered around the elite for years (they played in the 2006 NBA Finals, were minutes away from a 3-0 lead before their infamous collapse and loss in six games to Miami), so if they were to win the title this year you could make a case for this passing era lasting one more season.
But all of the other remaining contenders — the Heat, Bulls, Thunder, Hawks and Grizzlies — would all qualify as relatively new kids on the block. The Heat team of James, Wade and Chris Bosh didn’t even exist before last summer.
Survey the landscape this morning and you have to admit there has been a seismic shift in the championship dynamic that none of us really saw coming.
Could this be the dawn of the Heat or Thunder era or perhaps the age of the Bulls and Grizzlies? Might they be the teams to dominate the next 10-12 years the way the Lakers and Spurs dominated the past 10-12?
Bryant insists the Lakers will be back next season, even though they don’t have a coach and there is no guarantee that their core group will remain intact. The Celtics also vowed to return, albeit reshaped and a bit younger to deal with the new challengers in Miami and Chicago, provided Rivers comes back to lead them.
“I don’t believe we’re done,” he (Rivers) declared, per Jackie MacMullan of ESPNBoston.com.
Only time will tell.
Before these playoffs began and with all the new blood out there chasing glory, we talked openly about this postseason having the potential to be one of the most intriguing in years.
Nearly a month into the process, we dare anyone to argue that we were wrong.