The NBA playoffs are arguably the most competitive part of the season, and this year’s tournament is proving to be a hard-fought one. The top seeds from each Conference – the Philadelphia 76ers in the East and Utah Jazz in the West – both came through their opening rounds of the postseason, beating the Washington Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies respectively.
Also in that initial round of games were the gamers between the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat, both of whom were tipped to be potential Finals contenders. The Bucks ended up winning a landslide 4-0.
The Brooklyn Nets, according to the NBA championship odds, are now favourites to win the NBA title, and kept those hopes alive after beating the Boston Celtics 4-1 in their first playoff round.
The postseason has already provided a big shock, with the Los Angeles Lakers losing their opening series to the Phoenix Suns in Game 6, knocking the reigning champions out of the competition.
Now, the competition is wide open with several teams in the running to make the Finals, some of which have never done so. This begs the question; how important is experience when it comes to the NBA Finals?
Well, this year, for the Lakers it hasn’t proven too important. LeBron James has reached 10 Finals in his career, behind only Bill Russell and Sam Jones, who reached 12 and 11 in their respective careers. The Lakers have contested the Finals 32 times, more than any other franchise. Despite this deep experience, the LA outfit crashed out in the first stage of this year’s postseason.
On the other end of the spectrum are the Denver Nuggets, who have never made it to the Finals. After a strong regular season, they were seeded in third for the playoffs, matching them with the Portland Trail Blazers. In a six-game series, the Nuggets won 4-2 to progress, keeping their hopes of their first ever Finals appearance alive.
The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves in a similar position, though they have reached the championship stage before. The last time the Bucks featured in the Finals was 1974, just three years after their first time in that final series. They are looking to end that 47-year drought and have started their postseason well, with a 4-0 thrashing of the Miami Heat.
Their star man, 26-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo, has never played in an NBA Finals series but is displaying the kind of form that could get him and his team there this year. The Greek Freak does not have the best track record in playoff games, but so far this year has turned that trend on its head, landing a triple-double in Game 4 against the Heat.
Though he’s never been in the Finals, Giannis has clearly learned from his experiences in previous playoffs by approaching the net more patiently and improving his shooting.
Another top player who has never reached the Finals is the Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul. The 36-year-old is arguably the most decorated and proven player in the NBA right now to have never played in a championship series. His chances of changing that story received an enormous boost when Phoenix saw off the Lakers, with Paul proving instrumental in that opening series triumph.
Of course, nothing can replicate real experience in the Finals, and this might just be why the Nets are tipped to become champions this year. Their big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving is a force to be reckoned with. Combined, they averaged 85.2 points in the first-round playoffs sweep of the Boston Celtics, the highest-scoring series for a trio in NBA history.
Harden helped the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Finals in 2012, where they lost to the Heat, but hasn’t made it there ever since. Irving has won one championship, with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016-17, and played in the Finals the following year. Durant is a Finals veteran, winning back-to-back championships with the Golden State Warriors in 2017 and 2018, being named the Finals MVP both times. He also made several Finals with the Thunder.
These experienced players can help lead their teams when the pressure is on, and no series of games come with more stakes than the Finals. The last two teams left standing after the regular and postseason go head-to-head in a series that always produces thrills and spills.
Often, it is those teams and players who can remain composed under so much attention and pressure who perform best. LeBron proved this last year when he produced electricity on the court to help the Lakers to the championship, having been in the Finals himself nine times before. He was also able to use his experience and mental strength to shrug off the doubts raised by those who pointed to his underwhelming 3-6 record in Finals heading into last year’s series against Miami.
This year’s playoffs feature several notable players, and teams, who have never made the NBA Finals, or have not been there in decades. Experience of these championship games can prove hugely important, but it’s by no means essential.