The four remaining teams in the NBA playoffs have all persevered through decades of struggle. What can we learn from their journeys?
“Sports teaches valuable life lessons” ran through my head this week at my daughter’s soccer game. Her team is made up of 8- to 10-year-olds, one of whom was hit in the nose during the game and ran off the field crying as if she’d been hit with a shotgun blast rather than a soccer ball. In the moment, this child did not need my uplifting aphorism. She just needed time.
Sports don’t teach life lessons any more or less than retail or daycare or waiting tables. Life teaches lessons. Sports is a part of life, and the canvas of competition is an easier read for many of us, so there are insights to be gleaned from it. This year’s final four NBA teams have all encountered challenges — not simply Xs and Os, but something deeper. Each had to overcome doubts — internal, external or both — to come as far as they have. Only one will win it all, but all four offer insights that we as individuals can learn from and apply in our own lives.
The Atlanta Hawks are making the most of their opportunity
The Atlanta Hawks began as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, then spent time in Milwaukee and St. Louis before arriving in Atlanta in 1968. Their first two seasons there saw them get within one round of the Finals before falling to the L.A. Lakers. Over the next 40 seasons, the Hawks missed the playoffs 19 times. They reached the penultimate round but once, when 2015’s 60-win team featuring four All-Stars was swept by Cleveland. Historically Atlanta has had so many stars over the years: Lou Hudson. Pete Maravich. Dan Roundfield. Dominique Wilkins. Dikembe Mutombo. Joe Johnson. Al Horford. Wonderful players, all, yet whenever the Hawks met a Wilt Chamberlain or a Larry Bird or a Michael Jordan or a LeBron James, wonderful was never enough.
This time around the Hawks have Trae Young, who may be the enough they’ve been waiting for. After three years of missing the playoffs, the Hawks are three wins from what would be their first NBA Finals since moving to Atlanta. They’ve topped elite defenses in New York and Philadelphia and put up 116 in a Game 1 win over Milwaukee, another defensive power. The Bucks have firepower on both ends, led by two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But in Young, the Hawks feature a player who shows zero fear of the moment, one who looks like he was born for the postseason.
After averaging 29 and 10 vs. the Knicks, then 29 and 11 vs. the 76ers, Young exploded for 48 and 11 as an opening salvo vs. the Bucks. The Atlanta Hawks waited years for a playoff opportunity, but the team never looked just happy to be there. They’ve never looked overwhelmed, never played the underdog. The moment they got a sliver of opportunity, they blew the door off its hinges. What have you been waiting for? Are you waiting for permission to make your dreams come true? Take it from the Hawks: don’t. You never know what the next week or month of 40 years may bring.
The Milwaukee Bucks are learning from their mistakes
The Bucks are certainly more heralded than the Hawks. Featuring Antetokounmpo and fellow All-Stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee has been one of the league’s elite teams for the past three years. But don’t mistake consistency for repetition. This year the Bucks took a sledgehammer to the defense that defined their dominance and spent the regular season learning a new approach, risking fewer regular-season wins to hopefully avoid the problems that derailed their postseason runs. Milwaukee shifted from defending pick-and-rolls with drop coverage to employ more switching, a concept they struggled with but which diversified their defensive portfolio and paid postseason dividends. A year ago Miami exposed the holes in the Bucks’ defense to the tune of a 55 effective field goal percentage and an offensive rating of 115.1 in upsetting them 4-1. This time around Milwaukee held them to an effective field goal percentage of 46.2 and an offensive rating of just 96.9 in a sweep of the Heat.
In their second-round epic vs. Brooklyn, the Bucks encountered the long, willowy shape of adversity in the form of Kevin Wayne Durant, whose 49 points in Game 5 put the Nets up 3-2 and appeared to signal another fatal leak in the Good Ship Bucks. Two years ago Kawhi Leonard took over the Eastern Finals while Antetokounmpo seemed relegated to onlooker. The same thing happened in the bubble: Jimmy Butler stepped up and Giannis not only didn’t seem to, he wasn’t really asked to. The Bucks’ best player was never asked to go toe-to-toe with the other teams’ alpha. While Mike Budenholzer once again refused to bust out his best defender as KD went off, there was perhaps wisdom there, too.
Durant got all the headlines in the series, but Antetokounmpo’s 32 and 13 on 57 percent shooting for the winning team is a helluva subtitle, one that would perhaps have gone un-authored if Giannis had spent seven games chasing Durant around. The Bucks encountered adversity and adapted. Easier said than done, but consider your life. Does something you don’t want to happen keep happening? What can you control? What can you change about it? Don’t be comfortable with what you know won’t get you where you wanna be. It may take you a few years and a few tears. Go for it anyway. It worked for Phoenix.
The Phoenix Suns just kept getting back up on that horse
The Suns haven’t been capital-g “Good” for a decade. Before this year they missed the playoffs 10 years in a row and set a franchise record with six straight losing seasons. But just as the best revenge is living well, the best failures involve losing well, and more than most these Suns did. In 2015 they drafted Devin Booker at the back of the lottery. Two years later they hired James Jones as their general manager, a move that was not exactly met with excitement. On the night of the 2018 draft, they passed on Luka Dončić to select Deandre Ayton and trade for Mikal Bridges. A year later they parlayed Jarrett Culver into Cameron Johnson and Dario Sarić. 2019 also saw the Suns hire Monty Williams as their seventh head coach in eight years. Last offseason, the coup de grâce: acquiring Chris Paul for nothing they’ll miss. Now they are two wins from the Finals and are perhaps the favorite to win it all.
Phoenix was in a bad place but kept stabbing away at the dark until pinpricks of light blossomed to daylight. Now they have a front office and a roster most of the league would take as their own in a heartbeat. They got here by making smart decisions over and over again, even when they didn’t seem to add up to anything. Think of yourself as a seed. You can get from where you are to where you wanna be. But you have to be patient. You have to do things that other people will tell you don’t make sense or won’t work. You have to keep doing them, even when you’re not seeing any payoff. Stars aren’t built in a day; they take about 10 million years to coalesce. You’ve got time. Even when it doesn’t seem like it.
The Los Angeles Clippers refuse to quit
Perhaps no team in the sport can attest to the value of perseverance like the Los Angeles Clippers, who’ve been the butt of jokes when they were awful and when they were good. For decades under Donald Sterling, the Clips were the laughingstock of pro sports: between 1977 and 2011 the team won a single playoff series. Just one. Over those 35 years they missed the playoffs 31 times. After Sterling’s mistress recorded him making racist statements, his wife sold the team to Steve Ballmer. Despite a glittering roster and Lob City and six consecutive seasons winning at least 60 percent of their games (something they never did under Sterling), the Clippers could never get past the second round, much less threaten to win an NBA title. But — and this will never not sound weird to anyone who grew up with the Clips as a punchline — L.A.’s “other” team has shown remarkable perseverance. They may have even surprised themselves.
This postseason the Clippers became the first team in NBA history to win two playoff series after trailing 2-0, coming back to best Dallas in seven and Utah in six. After dropping the first two to Phoenix in the Western finals, L.A. stayed true to form, winning Game 3 106-92. If the Clippers were fully healthy, their postseason storyline would be hard to imagine. But given that they beat the top-seeded Jazz and are still alive vs. the Suns without Kawhi Leonard, who has an ACL injury, is something no one, maybe not even the Clippers themselves, would have thought likely.
It’s perhaps entirely appropriate that this franchise’s surprising toughness has been sparked in part by the surprising perseverance of Paul George. PG has long been lambasted for postseason failings, but he was brilliant in putting away Utah sans Kawhi. With the teams tied 2-2 and Leonard no longer available, George put up 37/16/5 in Utah to put L.A. ahead, then sent them to their first-ever conference finals after 28/9/7 and 3 steals in Game 6. Redemption abounds, even where belief is scarce. Just because everyone around you and inside you has reasons to doubt you doesn’t mean this isn’t the moment it finally all comes together for you.
Sports offers lessons, if we’re patient and willing to see them for what they are and not grope the lowest-hanging fruit. The lessons are not always easy to accept. Sometimes we doubt ourselves unfairly, or suffer others’ doubts without cause. Sometimes we deserve these doubts, and what needs remedying is inside us. Sometimes making changes for the better doesn’t look like it at first, and even if you are doing the right thing there’s no promise it’ll pay off anytime soon. The common bond between the final four NBA teams and ourselves was what I saw when my soccer player left the field, then was back out there minutes later throwing herself into the fray like she’d never been hurt. Life is often simply a matter of time.