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Cook: NBA playoffs finally feel like a changing of the guard

| Wednesday, September 2, 2020

As an avid NBA fan, I have become used to watching the greatness of this generation of stars. It seems hard to imagine an NBA without LeBron’s chase-down blocks, Steph’s unlimited range, Kawhi’s unwavering demeanor, Kevin Durant’s pull-up threes, Westbrook’s triple-doubles, and Harden’s prolific scoring. But most of these players will retire this decade, and the league will need a new set of stars to carry the brand forward. This seems to be happening sooner rather than later, and in a year that has seen so much change in every facet of our lives, the NBA seems to be following the trend.

This year’s NBA playoffs are very different from anything the league has seen before. 22 teams traveled to the bubble to resume the season in mid-July, and after a few seeding games, the playoff bracket was set. Players have quarantined without family members, displayed social justice messages on their jerseys and boycotted games in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake.

Some things are still familiar — the Lakers back in the playoffs, the Celtics dominating the 76ers, LeBron moving to 14-0 in first-round playoff series, Russell Westbrook and James Harden back together — but the fan-free arenas aren’t the only difference this season.

While established stars like LeBron, Kawhi and Giannis Antetokounmpo will likely lead their teams to their respective Conference Finals, they have been largely overshadowed thus far in the postseason. The playoffs’ first round has seen the emergence of the league’s young talent in dramatic fashion. If you did not think that Luka Dončić, Jamal Murray, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum were ready to lead a team in the postseason going into the bubble, think again. The time seems to be now for these youngsters as the NBA begins its transition from one generation of stars to the next.

Despite losing to Clippers, Luka was often the best player on the court in his first-ever playoff series, even though he was playing against reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and perennial All-Star Paul George. He hit a buzzer-beating step-back three-pointer to win Game 4, making him the youngest player in NBA history to hit a game-winning buzzer-beater in the playoffs, per ESPN. Luka did all of this in the absence of co-star Kristaps Porzingis for the majority of the series, and he was almost single-handedly responsible for extending the series to six games.

Elsewhere in the West, Denver’s Jamal Murray and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell have caught fire on their way to a Game 7 showdown. Mitchell and Murray have become just the third and fourth players to have multiple 50-point games in the same series, and the first time that opposing players have multiple 50-point games in the same series, per NBA.com. The breakout of these two might be the most surprising development in the bubble, with Murray finally establishing himself as the costar the Nuggets need alongside Nikola Jokic.

In the East, Tatum dazzled in the Celtics’ sweep of the 76ers, averaging 27.0 points and 9.8 rebounds. His dominance in this series was relatively quiet, a testament to both his efficiency and the Celtics unselfish style of play. Tatum is widely recognized as a star, but if he can take the next step and lead the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals by beating an incredibly balanced Raptors team, then he will solidify his place among the best in the league.

But what does this mean in the short term? Not much this season, at least. With the Mavs eliminated and the winner of the Nuggets-Jazz series running into the Clippers, there likely will not be too many new faces in the Western Conference Finals. In the East, Tatum and the Celtics will have to find a way to solve the Raptors, who somehow seem better without Kawhi. If they manage to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, stopping Giannis or the red-hot Heat will be a tall task.

Beyond this season, however, the NBA finds itself at a critical juncture. The league and its fans around the world have been blessed for the last 30 years. A “greatest-of-all-time” caliber player has been in the league for the last 35 years, as Michael Jordan’s dominance gave way to Kobe’s and then on to LeBron’s. While the league is full of stars and the highest talent level ever, the question remains as to who will fill that void when LeBron hangs it up. LeBron has not only been a dominant force for years, but he has also been one of the most marketable athletes in recent memory.

This makes the emergence of the young stars in the bubble even more important. As the popularity of the league soars overseas, a new wave of talent is needed to welcome in a new era of NBA basketball. A new face of the league will emerge in a few years, but it seems unclear as to who will distinguish themselves. Will it be reigning MVP Giannis, or will his postseason struggles hold him back? Could it be Luka, whom many believe will be a perennial MVP-contender? Will Harden finally bring his regular-season scoring dominance to the playoffs? Does Kawhi continue his quiet dominance of the playoffs? Or will someone else catch us by surprise, as Murray and Mitchell have?

2020 has been a year of change. The ways we go to school, work and watch sports have been flipped on their heads. The NBA bubble has been a massive undertaking that has cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars. But it has allowed them to finish their season, make a stand for social change and, perhaps unexpectedly, discover a new group of young stars who are ready to take the basketball world by storm sooner rather than later.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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