When the weekend began, all of the NBA Conference Semifinals’ series were tied 1-1. The Western Conference featured 2 Clippers-Rockets games that were unwatchable hack-a-player showcases that ended with massive Clipper victories. Those games sandwiched a Warriors-Grizzlies game that ended with the Grizzlies closing out against the Warriors. The Eastern Conference games featured 3 buzzer beaters by Derrick Rose, Paul Pierce, and LeBron James.
Friday showcased Game 3 of the Bulls-Cavaliers series. The score was tied at 96. LeBron knocked the ball out of Derrick Rose’s hand and Mike Dunleavy was tasked with inbounding the ball from the sideline. Derrick Rose caught the ball at the three point line and arced towards half court, eventually ending up at the United Center logo. Taj Gibson set a screen on Iman Shumpert who was guarding Derrick Rose, in order to free Rose for a game winning shot. Tristan Thompson, who was previously guarding Gibson raised his hand to defend Derrick Rose’s shot. The buzzer went off before Rose’s three pointer got to the backboard, where it bounced off the window and into the hoop, giving the Bulls the win and a 2-1 series lead.
On Saturday, the Wizards created a huge lead against the Hawks, leading by 21 points in the 4th quarter. The Hawks benched their starting point guard Jeff Teague to fight on another day with 7:03 left in the game. Then the unthinkable happened. Hawks reserve shooting guard Kent Bazemore hit a 2 pointer, and the score was 78-94. Hawks reserve Mike Scott hit a 3 and the score became 81-94. Hawks backup point guard Dennis Schroeder hits a 3 and the Wizards deficit is only 10 points. Bazemore hit a layup and the deficit was reduced to 8 with about 4 minutes left in the game. Scott hits a 3 pointer and the Wizards deficit is only 5. Hawks benchwarmer Shelvin Mack hits a 2 pointer and suddenly, the Wizards coach is frantically calling timeout as their seemingly insurmountable lead melted away to only 3. Meanwhile, during this 15-0 run, the Wizards possessions are a cacophony of basketballs clanging off the rim, whistles and buzzers signaling turnovers and resigned sighs and expletives from Wizards fans.
The timeout stopped the bleeding but the surgery wasn’t over. The Hawks backups kept trying to cut away at the deficit that the Hawks starters created. Dennis Schroeder hit a pair of foul shots bringing the lead down to 1. During a pair of Will Bynum free throws, which pushed the lead back to 3, Hawks reserve Mike Muscala enters the game. 8 in game seconds later, Mike Muscala rises and hits a 3 pointer to tie the game. Mike Muscala, former Academic All-America from Bucknell University was getting ready to force an NBA Playoff game into overtime.
But the Wizards had a Paul Pierce. Paul Pierce was drafted 17 years ago in 1998. In September 2000, Paul Pierce was stabbed 11 times with life threatening injuries that required lung surgery. On November 1, 2000, less than 2 months later, he scored 28 points in the Celtics season opener. He played all 82 regular season games. Paul Pierce, who would go on to win an NBA championship, was not going to be scared off by the Hawks reserves. With John Wall injured, there was no surprise that Paul Pierce was the one to receive the ball. There was no surprise that Paul Pierce, who was always limited athletically, did not try to drive past his defender and only shook around his aging body enough to free himself for a clean shot. It wasn’t surprising that Kent Bazemore and Kyle Korver took too long to try to help the overmatched Dennis Schroeder. Paul Pierce didn’t call bank when his midrange two-pointer careened off the glass and into the rim. He called game.
The next day, Pierce’s longtime nemesis LeBron James had his own late game heroics. LeBron was drafted 5 years after Paul Pierce and 5 years before Derrick Rose. LeBron has had his own late game heroics. He has already had 2 playoff buzzer beaters, against the Magic in 2009 and against the Pacers in 2013. Everybody in the building knew that with 1.5 seconds on the clock LeBron was going to get the ball. The Bulls, as they have all series, put their best defender on him, Jimmy Butler. The 2015 Most Improved player did all that he could, but LeBron hit the shot. Just like Rose and Pierce, he hit his game winner when the game was tied. The shot gave the Cavaliers a 2-2 tie heading back to Cleveland. It was a great shot for a buzzer beater that almost didn’t happen.
Minutes earlier, Cavaliers coach David Blatt nearly cost his team the opportunity to take a game winning shot. After the Bulls hit the game tying layup, Coach Blatt tried frantically to call a timeout to give the Cavaliers time to draw up and execute a play. The problem was that the Cavaliers ran out of timeouts during their last possession where they called multiple timeouts. Had the referees noticed Coach Blatt, the referees would have called a technical foul and the Bulls would have received possession. Luckily, assistant coach Tyronn Lue, who was drafted as a player in the same 1998 draft class as Paul Pierce, grabbed Blatt and pulled him back before the referees noticed what Blatt was doing. Luckily, the referees’ attention was on LeBron James as he raced up the opposite sideline trying to win the game.
For the entire season, the Eastern Conference has been derided for being an inferior conference with inferior teams and inferior players. The criticism was fair. But for one sweet weekend, the Eastern Conference had games that were just as good as, if not better than, the Western Conference’s product. NBA fans should be grateful for that.