Lieberman: Despite lockout-shortened season, NBA Playoffs still a treasure

Before I barrage you with a host of reasons why the NBA playoffs should be higher on your radar, an admission: I’m a basketball man at heart. So before you start crafting a list of reasons why the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are much better — or an essay on MLB as our national pastime — just stop. I don’t care. March Madness and the NBA Playoffs already have your number. Anyhow, on we go.

Among my friend group and Twitter family, the NBA seems to be getting the hype and attention it deserves. However, in my opinion, the collective action gets overlooked by a large percentage of our nation’s population. Admittedly, my view is likely skewed due to basic demographics (I’m living in a college town, whereas the NBA traditionally thrives in larger urban markets). However, it’s time for everyone to gather ’round and hear why this year’s postseason shouldn’t be missed.

1. An influx of young talent

Right now, NBA fans are enjoying an inundation of young impact players across the league. While many fan favorites are at home due to not qualifying (Kevin Love) or injury (Derrick Rose) there’s still a long list of 25-or-under players that should make serious headway over the next few weeks. @@ @@

The most obvious example of this phenomenon is Oklahoma City. After the Thunder cruised through the defending champion Mavericks (who themselves embody the opposite of youth) it’s easy to be excited about the future. The team boasts the league’s hottest young star (Kevin Durant) as well as a host of overqualified sidekicks hungry for postseason success (Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka). After a bitter end to last season at the hands of Dallas, OKC looks ready to make a statement. In 2010-11, the Thunder was the second-youngest team to ever reach the Western Conference Finals. This year could bring more milestones for the league’s brightest franchise. @@ @@ @@ @@

Outside of Oklahoma City, there is plenty of additional precocious talent spread throughout the NBA. This includes up-and-comers like the Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets. The most refreshing part of this trend is that, other than the one in Lob City, Calif., these teams largely rely on team-oriented play to succeed. All of these squads feature middling draft picks that have exceeded expectations and, as a result, lead their teams to deep runs earlier than expected.

2. Great home-court environments

While I have no empirical data to back this up, it is my belief that home-court advantage is more crucial to success in the NBA than in any other sport.

Take, for example, the NFL. Analysts and fans often hold up an extreme example like Lambeau Field as proof of home-field advantage. But look at this year’s NFL playoffs. The New York Giants were able to win three games on the road before pulling off a neutral-site upset in the Super Bowl. The Giants did the same during their Super Bowl run in 2007, as did the Pittsburgh Steelers during their 2005 championship season. Don’t tell me you think an NBA team could run the gamut without home-court advantage at least once throughout the playoffs. @@[email protected]@

I know MLB teams are built with their home parks in mind, but many other more crucial factors — such as the starting pitcher that night — affect the outcome of the game disproportionately.

The NBA is one big-four sport where, game to game, lineups and rotations remain mostly static. While coaches surely adjust strategy during a seven-game series, home courts also play a key role in determining outcomes.

Basketball has always been a game of runs, most of which result from a momentum shift. Sometimes, these shifts happen after an outstanding play or a scuffle between two hotheads. However, more often that not, crowd support can be crucial in creating the momentum to fuel a run.

Seeing how certain home courts step up (impressive, Clipper fans) while others fall back (seriously, Laker fans?) is a fun storyline and something that has legitimate implications on the outcome of every game or series. The NBA is the only league where fans and players are separated by a few inches of air, instead of a 10-yard buffer or Plexiglas. Which brings me to my next point …

3. Intimate interactions between oversized personalities

One key aspect of the NBA that has made the league increasingly popular is the fact that fans can view their favorite players without any real filter. In the NFL and NHL, players hide behind massive pads and helmets. Hats and cavernous dugouts often obscure MLB athletes from view. NBA players, however, are more or less on display for everyone to see, with heinous tattoos, bald spots and bulging muscles unencumbered.

During every key development, fans and journalists can clearly see the facial expressions of players, coaches and even teammates on the bench. After every questionable call, we see the pain of disbelief. After a three-point play, we’re treated to a fist pump and steely glare. While this access has possibly created an image problem for the NBA as a “thug league,” it nonetheless makes games compelling. Seeing two players literally go face-to-face is genuinely entertaining and something that makes NBA fans feel connected to the players they love or loathe.

Baseball is all good, and the NHL has plenty to offer. But make sure to tune into the NBA Playoffs. You’ll likely find yourself entranced by young, jaw-dropping athletes, cacophonous home crowds and larger-than-life superstars.

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