Commentary

Upset potential invigorates NBA playoffs

Updated: April 19, 2011, 2:01 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Way back when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined with Dwyane Wade, angst fell from the sky. The league couldn't possibly survive this type of organized arrogance. The SuperTeam was going to be the death of competitive balance, the death of fan interest, the death of all things pure and holy in the land of the three-man weave. What if this spread throughout the land? Players would congregate in threes, one by one into the ark, and win title after title. It might even spread to other sports. Whatever will we tell the children?

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D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty ImagesO.J. Mayo and the Grizzlies, on the road as the No. 8 seed, won their opening game in San Antonio.

Then came Carmelo Anthony's forced departure from Denver. He joined with Amare Stoudemire and the angst rained down once again. Players were dictating their futures, and who could abide that? But then the Heat became good but not great, and the Knicks became occasionally good but mostly meh, and meanwhile great stories kept popping up across the land.

In Oklahoma City, of all places, and Chicago, where echoes were replaced by a full-throated roar. In Denver, where the destruction of one type of team became the creation of another. In Dallas, where the 2002 All-Star team came together for a pretty cool reunion tour.

There's always a rush to dissect the NBA, to slice open the alleged carcass and search for cause of death. A slight downtick in attendance, a dress code, a bad TV rating -- everything's fair game. But right about now, when nearly every first-round playoff game is an event, it's looking like all the gnashing and wringing was a waste of oxygen.

Competitive balance wasn't killed by "The Decision" and Anthony's pout-out; it was enhanced. I'm not suggesting cause-and-effect here, but neither of those events were as landscape-altering as originally thought. The talent spread between seeds 1 and 8, especially in the Western Conference, has hammered home a significant point: There are way too many good players to go around.

So far, blowouts are rare and tight games the rule. With the No. 8 Grizzlies taking Game 1 from the top-seeded Spurs and the No. 7 Hornets doing the same to the No. 1A Lakers, the previously unthinkable is now possible.

Dare we say it?

Upsets?

In the NBA playoffs?

[+] EnlargeRose
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesDerrick Rose and other young guards are enlivening the 2011 NBA playoffs.

Think about it: You can count the number of famous NBA upsets on one hand. I'd argue the definition of the word in the NBA isn't even the same as it is in other sports. In baseball, it's the '69 Mets or the '90 Reds or the '10 Giants. In the NFL, it's Joe Namath and the Jets, David Tyree and the Giants, Drew Brees and the Saints.

In the NBA, it's Magic Johnson being forced to play center as a rookie, Michael Jordan playing with the flu, Willis Reed playing a few minutes when nobody thought he could. In other words, in most sports upsets are defined traditionally: underdogs winning. In the NBA, it's great players doing unexpected things or overcoming something beyond their control.

What was the last great NBA upset? I'd vote for the '07 Warriors, seeded No. 8 in the West, beating the Mavericks in the first round. And what was the greatest upset in the history of the league? The same '07 Warriors? The '94 Nuggets, another No. 8 seed, beating the No. 1 Sonics in an old best-of-five? The '75 Warriors, huge underdogs in the Finals, sweeping the Bullets?

Who knows? The Spurs and Lakers could each win four straight. The Thunder might beat the Blazers by 40. Doesn't matter, because first-round games aren't an afterthought anymore.

Which brings us back to the sturm und drang of the post-Decision world. The social fabric was fraying. The center would not hold. Buzz ("Friday Night Lights") Bissinger caused a stir at the All-Star break when he suggested that white fans aren't interested in the NBA because it's too black. This was based on a sampling of white sports fans he's met, who apparently yearn for the days of George Mikan's knee pads and Hank Luisetti's set shot. The argument was couched in the but-I'm-not-a-racist lexicon of those who seem to know what's coming. More than that, though, it relied on an unreliable focus group. In my sphere of white and nonwhite people, in a highly unscientific poll conducted from memory, discontent with the NBA usually begins and ends with one word: predictability.

The NBA has had just eight teams win championships since 1980. Over that 30-year span, the NFL has had 15 different Super Bowl winners, and 20 different teams have won the World Series. This has made it easy in the past to ignore the NBA playoffs, or at least give them passing interest, until the conference finals roll around.

And the disinterest lies deeper than the final score. The predictability means the star players always get the calls late in the game, and nobody starts playing until the five-minute mark. Oh, and everybody travels -- can't forget that one.

But something's happening out there now to drown out the death knell. Regardless of race, religion or uniform, there's a lot of remarkably good basketball being played.

It's happening in the East, where Indiana might lose four straight but not without playing great team basketball and perhaps wearing down the Bulls for a later round.

It's happening in the West, where Denver shed all semblance of "known" stars when it traded Anthony and Chauncey Billups. The result: one of the most entertaining, selfless teams around.

It's happening individually. Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Jameer Nelson -- has there ever been a playoff field with more great young point guards?

I'll say it now: There will be an upset. Maybe two. It just feels like something special is going to happen, or even something crazy, like the Spurs losing in the first round.

And you know when it became clear something different was happening? On Monday night, with 23 seconds left, Rose -- the presumptive MVP -- was called for a ticky-tack touch foul on a 3-pointer by relatively unknown A.J. Price. If you want a blatant sign that predictability might be on its way out, there's one. It might be enough to keep the NBA obituary writers at arm's length.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Senior writer, ESPN.com