Midsummer Musings: Young Stars Shine Bright in NBA Conference Finals
With the excellent play of young budding superstars under the brightest lights of the playoffs, the NBA may be experiencing a changing of the guard.
This is the first edition of Midsummer Musings, a summer term column on the latest happenings in the world of sports.
If the third round of the NBA playoffs has shown viewers anything, it’s that we are witnessing a changing of the guard. Sure, the best players in the world who aren’t still in the playoffs probably won’t face the same issues next year: LeBron James and Anthony Davis will try to stay healthy, as will Kyrie Irving and James Harden, while Stephen Curry will benefit from a clean bill of health for Splash Brother Klay Thompson. Many of the injuries that have plagued these playoffs can likely be attributed to the NBA’s shortened schedule as a result of the pandemic, and all of these players will likely be back in more effective fashion next year. Still, their respective absences from these playoffs have allowed a new crop of stars to take center stage in the most important games of the season.
In the first game of his first-ever Western Conference Finals appearance — in the midst of his playoff debut, to boot — the 24-year-old, eminently explosive Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker erupted. Already coming off of a dismantling of the defending champion Lakers in the first round and a clean sweep of the Denver Nuggets in the second, there were still some questioning the ceiling of Booker’s Suns, particularly with new arrival Chris Paul slated to miss the beginning of their Conference Finals matchup after testing positive for COVID-19. Booker silenced those voices, posting his first career triple-double behind a 40-point, 13-rebound, 11-assist statline in 44 minutes while leading the Suns to a six-point Game 1 victory over the Clippers.
Even more exciting was the finish to Game 2. Down one point with 0.9 seconds left, many would have expected the Suns’ budding supernova, fresh off of the most dominant outing of his young career, to seek out the ball and take his shot at postseason glory with a game-winning shot. Instead, Booker showed off the evolution of his game, dismissing complaints that he was a score-first player who did not contribute to winning games. Booker, already sporting stitches on his nose courtesy of a Patrick Beverly headbutt, set a screen on Ivica Zubac, a 7-foot, 234-pound mountain of a man, in order to free young and emergent center Deandre Ayton to roll to the rim. One perfect inbound pass later, Ayton was slamming in the game-winning alley-oop as time expired, securing a 2-0 series lead for the Suns.
In two games, Booker showed off his all-around evolution that has led to the Suns’ incredible success. We already knew that he was a dynamic scorer — this is the same player who scored 70 points in a single game against the Celtics back in 2017. But beyond developing the areas that allowed him to display all-around dominance in Game 1, Booker has become the type of player who will sacrifice his own personal glory to make the winning play. When those traits converge within the same player, something special happens. Booker has become the type of player who can be the first option on a legitimate title contender and the Suns — now only two wins from the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance since 1993 — are reaping the rewards.
A similar breakout is occurring in the Eastern Conference. Trae Young, the 22-year-old point guard phenom for the Hawks known for his deep-range shotmaking ability, has led an upstart fifth-seed Atlanta Hawks all the way to an upset away victory in Game 1 of their Conference Finals matchup. In the process, Young knocked off an overachieving Knicks team in the first round (much to this writer’s chagrin), along with the No. 1 seed in the East, the Philadelphia 76ers, in a second-round series that went seven games. Young, like Booker, is achieving all of this success in his first playoff appearance. Beyond his incredible play — peaking with a 48-point, 7-rebound, 11-assist line in Wednesday night’s in Milwaukee — Young has embraced his role as an underdog spoiler and a road villain in these playoffs, feeding off the energy of opposing crowds first in Madison Square Garden and now in Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum. He has proven, time and time again, that he is built for the biggest stage in basketball.
The absence of the NBA’s usual established stars at this stage in the playoffs has opened the window for young guns like Booker and Young to firmly plant themselves in the conversation for the top 15 to 20 players in the league, and the league-wide parity that has resulted from their ascensions is creating one of the most intriguing title races in recent memory.
Any four of the remaining teams — the Bucks, Hawks, Clippers and Suns — could feasibly win the title this year, and any of those teams would be accomplishing something that has seemed out of reach for decades. None of these franchises has won an NBA championship since before the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, and any one of them would come with a satisfying narrative arc.
Will Giannis Antetekoumpo, the Bucks’ 26-year-old two-time MVP and one-time Defensive Player of the Year finally secure his first ring, dispelling concerns about his game’s ability to translate to the playoffs? Will the Suns win it all, giving 36-year-old, first-ballot Hall of Famer Chris Paul his long-awaited first championship in the process? Will the Clippers go all the way, seeing Kawhi Leonard — assuming his eventual return to play from an ACL injury — earn his third ring with a third franchise, while also vindicating co-star Paul George, who struggled mightily in his playoff run last year? Or will the Hawks pull off one of the most shocking one-season turnarounds in league history, announcing Trae Young’s arrival to Finals contention at only 22 years old and jumpstarting a possible Eastern Conference dynasty?
For the first time in years, I truly have no idea which of these teams is the favorite to pull it off. The emergence of exciting young talent on teams that have waited so long for a chance to return to contention has blown this title race wide open, and I think I speak for all basketball fans when I say that the change is a welcome one. These playoffs have already given us two rounds of competitive, exhilarating basketball, and they’ve set up a conclusion that I cannot wait to watch.