As we continue to make our way deeper into the 2019 NBA® Playoffs, there’s no better time to take a step back and recognize the recurring plots and storylines that have made for some of the most thrilling playoff series over the years.
True, one might argue that playoff series are like snowflakes in that no two are exactly the same, what with the unique combinations of players, coaches, cities and subplots. But the more of these unique snowflakes you watch over the years, the more you can’t help but notice the patterns emerge — ones that span eras and egos to form recognizable dramatic arcs against the canvas of a seven-game series.
From the “Handing of the Torch” to the “Contract Maker,” here are eight kinds of NBA playoff storylines worth tuning in for, whether you love basketball or not.
1. The “David vs. Goliath” Series
This is one of the most recognizable playoff storylines, primarily because the very mechanics of playoff seeding ensures that the best team will face off against the weakest remaining opponent in every round. Often, these series tend to be blowouts, with the top-ranked seeds sleepwalking through offensive sets as they dismantle their underdog opponents. But every so often, we get to witness playoff magic, when the seemingly “lesser” team does the unthinkable and pulls out multiple upset victories to steal the series. A classic example of the David vs. Goliath archetype occurred 25 years ago, when the 8th-seeded Denver Nuggets® shocked a 62-win Seattle Supersonics® team on their home floor in a critical Game 5 (the first round of the NBA Playoffs was a best-of-five game series until 2003) to make NBA history. Chills.
2. The “Extra Value” Series
Sometimes, 48 minutes just isn’t enough time to determine a clear winner. When that happens, we’re treated to the wonderfully intense spectacle of overtime playoff basketball. And when this occurs multiple times in a seven-game series? Well that’s a whole lot of extra value for the casual fan. Ten years ago, we witnessed one of the more extreme instances of the Extra Value series when games 4-6 of the Celtics® and Bulls® first-round series contained six total OTs — including a double overtime in Game 4, a single overtime in Game 5, and a triple overtime in Game 6!
3. The “Overachiever vs. Underachiever” Series
A close cousin to the David vs. Goliath series, in this archetype a scrappy team without a clear alpha dog or star player comes together to play flawless team basketball in order to defeat an opponent who, on paper at least, looks to be the more talented and star-laden team. One of the more startling displays of the this archetype came in the 2004 NBA Finals, when it took the star-less Detroit Pistons® only five games to pummel a Lakers® team that featured both Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. It’s always captivating to see team basketball come out on top.
4. The “Unstoppable Force Meets Immovable Object” Series
For decades, the platitude has been that defense wins championships. But what happens when a clamp-down defense faces off against a high-powered offense? For the team that’s built their identity on defense, it’s the ultimate stage to prove their mettle; for the offensive juggernaut, it’s a chance to defy the once-popular defense-first mentality of playoff basketball and put on a show. For fans, it’s endlessly entertaining. In fact, the aforementioned 2004 Finals series between the gritty Pistons and turbo-charged Lakers is a great example of this archetype.
5. The “Handing of the Torch” Series
There are few things more satisfying as a sports fan than watching a team or star player reach their potential in real time. One of those things is watching them do so against a more established and engrained player or team, symbolizing a handing of the torch from the present top dogs to the next generation of greatness. Think of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, when Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls® finally broke through the Detroit Pistons’ stranglehold of Eastern Conference supremacy in route to winning the first of their six championships during the Jordan era.
6. The “Keep Your Enemies Closer” Series
Over the course of an 82-game regular season, each team faces their division opponents four times — that’s four opportunities to form bad blood that can spill over into the playoffs. And when these rivalries transcend a single season and build across multiple, things can get extra spicy when rivals meet in the playoffs. Think back to round one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Playoffs, when the arch-rival New York Knicks® and the Miami Heat® literally came to blows in Game 4 as Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy helplessly clung to Heat star Alonzo Mourning’s legs to try and break it up. You can’t script moments like that.
7. The “Inevitable” Series
Until this current postseason, the past handful of NBA Finals had an air of inevitability to them as the dominant team from each conference — Golden State Warriors® in the West, Cleveland Cavaliers® in the East — fought and clawed their way to yet another championship showdown. Some might argue how the very fact that these two teams seemed predestined to play each other for the championship every year felt anticlimactic, but there is certainly something compelling about watching it play out in real time, with the drama and stakes ratcheting up considerably with each passing round.
8. The “Contract Maker” Series
The true wild card for any playoff series is the role of a team’s supporting cast. Superstars are supposed to come through in the clutch and lead their team to a win. But key reserves and specialists are the ones who can truly alter the entire trajectory of a series with an unexpected performance. For us fans, it’s like watching someone catch a temporary superpower and completely flummox the other team and their established game plan in the process. Think of the 2015 NBA Finals between the Warriors and Cavaliers and the heroic performances by then-unknown reserve guard Matthew Dellavedova. Absorbing the minutes of injured star guard Kyrie Irving, Dellavedova had a sensational two-game stretch, holding all-pro Steph Curry to a 0-for-8 shooting record in one game and then going off for a career-high 20 points in the following game, with the Cavs gutting out victories in both games. And why do we call it the “Contract Maker”? Well, in Delly’s case, he signed a cool $38 million contract following this heroic performance.
Seven games. Four rounds. So many possibilities for playoff magic to occur. It may be one of these storylines that defines this year’s Finals, or we may have to add a new one to the list next year. In either case, we’ll be watching.