After Short Season, NBA Playoffs Begin In Earnest

After a compressed National Basketball season due to a labor lockout, the playoffs have been full of exciting basketball. Robert Siegel talks with sportswriter Stefan Fatsis about the NBA conference semifinal matchups.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There are no games scheduled tonight in the National Basketball Association playoffs, which is certainly a blessing for tired players, and it might be tired fans, too. The Miami Heat, the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder have all advanced to the two conference finals. The Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers meet tomorrow to determine the last NBA semifinalist. And sports writer Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: The playoffs follow what was a condensed regular season that didn't begin until Christmas because of a labor lockout. I know this isn't a front-burner story anymore, but is it fair to say that playing on short turnaround so much probably led to some pretty big injuries that influenced the season?

FATSIS: You know, I'm not convinced that that's the case. I'm sure there are players that were banged up, and you're banged up no matter how long the NBA season or how compressed it is. But to sort of pin the long season for Derek Rose of the Chicago Bulls, for instance, his blown-out ACL in the first round of the playoffs, I don't think is fair.

What we're seeing now, though, is some pretty good basketball. I think a lot of people were worried that the season would require an asterisk, or as Bill Simmons of ESPN wrote, a footnote at least. But so far, there have been compelling storylines, mostly competitive and entertaining playoff series and at least three championship-worthy teams still standing. There are no flukes.

SIEGEL: One of those competitive series ended last night with Miami eliminating the Indiana Pacers in six games. Which do you think is the case, Stefan, the Heat shouldn't have taken six games to eliminate Indiana, or the Heat are right where they should be...

One of those competitive series ended last night with Miami eliminating the Indiana Pacers in six games. Which do you think is the case, Stefan - the Heat shouldn't have taken six games to eliminate Indiana or the Heat are right where they should be and they may yet be real competition for Boston or Philadelphia?

FATSIS: You know, I think the Heat are right where they should be, and we saw that in the last three games. And after the first three games of that series, people were writing Miami's obituary, quite gleefully given LeBron's past failures in the playoffs. Indiana was up two games to one. Chris Bosh of the Heat went down with an injury. Dwyane Wade had a terrible game. And then, oh my goodness, in the last three games of the series, Wade and James averaged 33 points apiece per game. They tore apart a tough Indiana team - acrobatic dunks, impossible passes. And not to give the other series short shrift, but it's hard to see how an aging and gimpy Celtics team or a spunky but undermatched 76ers teams can stop Miami from getting back to the finals.

SIEGEL: Of course, one view of these playoffs is that it hardly matters who wins in the East, the two Western Conference teams, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, really look great. Would either Western team be the favorite of the finals, do you think?

FATSIS: You know, against the Heat I don't think so. But you cannot deny that the Spurs and Thunder have been fantastic. San Antonio took out the Los Angeles Clippers, who were looking pretty entertaining; Oklahoma City took out the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant in five games. San Antonio is winning by an average of almost 14 points per game, Oklahoma City by eight points. The advanced metrics reflect even more dominance by these two teams.

SIEGEL: And there's a great contrast in the Western series now. San Antonio has the seasoned veteran Tim Duncan - it's a fairly old team. And on the other hand, Oklahoma City, a great young team.

FATSIS: Yeah. Let's look at Duncan, though. Thirty-six years old, he's looking great. And the reason is that Gregg Popovich, the coach of the Spurs, has found a way over the last few years to minimize Duncan's minutes on the court but maintain the fact that this offense runs completely through him. This team is on fire. They've won 18 straight games overall, 29 of the last 31 that they've played, and long-term, the San Antonio Spurs over the last 15 years have won at a greater rate than any team in NBA history. And not coincidentally, 15 years ago is when they drafted Tim Duncan.

SIEGEL: And, of course, they have lots of other terrific players besides Duncan. Oklahoma City has two great young players.

FATSIS: They do. Kevin Durant - 15 years younger than Tim Duncan. He's won three straight scoring titles. They've also got guard Russell Westbrook. These two guys, unlike Duncan, seem to need no rest. They played the entire second half of the last two games against the Lakers. Unlike the Spurs who really spread it out - use 10 players - the Thunder go to Durant, Westbrook and the guard James Harden to create their scoring opportunities. This is youth against skill and age. The consensus seems to be on the hot Spurs over the exciting Thunder, but we'll see.

SIEGEL: OK. Have a great weekend, Stefan.

FATSIS: You too, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

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