The Philadelphia 76ers were sticking out like a sore thumb in the NBA playoffs, at least compared to the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. Sixers fans like myself readily admit that Philadelphia isn't on their level, yet they still came close to knocking off the Celtics and joining those other elite teams in the NBA final four.
But if the Sixers faced the Heat in the conference finals, no one would have expected it to last beyond five games, or maybe even four. It also would have made the Eastern finals the decided undercard behind the super showdown between the Spurs and Thunder out West. Yet after the Celtics finally eliminated the Sixers in Game 7 on May 26, the NBA now finally has an elite doubleheader of conference finals.
A Heat-Celtics showdown was the preferred matchup to a Heat-Sixers battle, in perhaps every city but Miami and Philadelphia. In fact, the only thing that may have prevented me from rooting for a Miami-Boston conference final was my loyalty to Philadelphia. Objectively, everyone should have been rooting more for the Heat to battle a Celtics team on one last title run, rather than a Sixers club that has barely put up a fight against Miami in recent years.
With Philadelphia gone, only elite teams and/or big names are left in the NBA playoffs. As such, both the Eastern and Western Conference finals have some suspense and intrigue, as the Heat just can't be penciled in to face the Spurs-Thunder winner anymore. However, most may still do that anyway, given how the Celtics barely survived the Sixers.
Boston took seven games to beat Philadelphia and needed a late Rajon Rondo run just to survive a Game 7 it largely controlled. As such, since they barely endured the Sixers and only have a day of rest before facing a red hot Heat squad, the Celtics' expectations for winning the East have sunk a bit. Miami isn't as overwhelming a favorite as it would have been if it faced Philadelphia, yet it would be a greater upset for it to lose to Boston now.
Nevertheless, having the Heat, Celtics, Spurs and Thunder in the final four does look like the perfect ending on paper. Everyone expects/knows that San Antonio and Oklahoma City will live up to the hype as the most dominant teams in the postseason. And while Miami and Boston might look less evenly matched, the prospect of the Celtics getting one last chance to win it all and keep LeBron James from his first ring will fire up audiences. At the least, it will fire them up more than the Sixers would have in challenging the Heat.
Unlike the NHL, NFL and baseball in most years lately, the best teams in the NBA throughout the season are usually the ones that last to the end. With the Sixers no longer the one exception left in this postseason, the NBA's grand finale is stacked top to bottom with the league's elite and best possible storylines. Now it's just a matter of the Spurs, Thunder, Heat and Celtics living up to that heightened billing.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident and 76ers fan - who has become quite familiar with the Celtics in that time.
Other stories from this contributor