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Los Angeles, - April 20: Kawhi Leonard, center, of the LA Clippers looks on from the bench in street clothes against of the Phoenix Suns in the first half of game 3 of a first round NBA playoff basketball game at the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on Thursday, April 20, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Everyone who bothers to have an opinion on this agrees that the Stanley Cup playoffs are a cool thing, mostly because of sudden-death overtime, which the NBA understands is not suitable for what it does. There are even those who will posit that the NHL’s playoffs are better than the NBA's, although that is genuinely an eye-of-the-beholder thing meant mostly to see if you can get into a swinging-beer-stein fight with the guy at the next table at your local Chicken Wings Of Death chain.

This much, though, is true. The NBA's main storylines so far are (a) who got tossed and (b) who got hurt, and no matter your favorite sport, those are unappealing developments in a star-based league.

The Clippers have lost, for varying lengths, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Bucks are working without Giannis Antetokounmpo. Memphis has done without Steven Adams and Ja Morant and will do without Brandon Clarke. Miami has lost Tyler Herro. Minnesota's Rudy Gobert is questionable. New York's Julius Randle just got greenlit for Game 3 against Cleveland. Draymond Green and James Harden have already been ejected from games for excessive flagrantizing, and Joel Embiid came close. Across the board, absenteeism is all the rage, and in a star-driven vehicle like the NBA that already has a load-management crisis it seems unwilling to address, the guys who aren't playing are becoming an aesthetic problem.

The NHL has its issues as well, even though their body parts are far simpler for doctors to deal with, because there are only two: upper and lower. Patrice Bergeron in Boston is out for the foreseeable, as are Andrei Svechnikov in Carolina, Gabriel Landeskog in Colorado, Andre Burakovsky in Seattle, and Erik Cernak in Tampa, who got clocked with a stick by Toronto meathead Michael Bunting. But the litany does not seem so appalling, maybe because hockey factors owies into the sauce-making and maybe because the truly best players, Bergeron aside, are all getting their regular minutes and then some.

I'm not bagging excessively or unnecessarily on the NBA, mind you; just let Tony Brothers explain the subtleties of those two terms if you don't believe me. The playoffs have begun their reversion to the less attractive postseason style that is long on body work and short on scoring. The margins aren't any more appealing; the average game score so far is 116-104, and almost none have ended with highlightable late-game heroics. Three series look about decided already (76ers-Nets, Celtics-Hawks, Nuggets-Wolves) and a fourth (Suns-Clips) is getting there if the Clippers' injury list keeps looking like it does.

On the other hand, both Kings-Oilers and Golden Knights–Jets have shaped up quite well so far, and I'm not naming those just because as the westernmost series you have probably slept through them or watched Wolves-Nuggets instead so I can say whatever the hell I want without fear of commenter contradiction. Despite the fact that Edmonton has yet to get much from Connor McDavid and Vegas just learned it is about to be given a baseball team it never asked for, the two most electrifying teams in the west have run into defense-first teams in L.A. and The 'Peg, which are the great leveler in hockey as they can never be in basketball. McDavid is the NHL's pick-your-NBA-comp player, as he is clearly the best show the league has even though most of the entertainment in this series has been provided by running mate Leon Draisaitl, who is after a cursory check the indisputably greatest Leon in North American sports history. As for Vegas-Winnipeg, no two more disparate cities exist on the continent, and the Jets have in goalie Connor Hellebuyck the antidote to nearly any other team—the mobile upright refrigerator who can steal whole series from superior teams when on his best. These are the series mostly likely to go seven games, and the NHL has been historically better at dragging series out than the NHL. After all, a postseason can be judged by the number of games below the maximum of 105 that can be played, and the NBA is routinely 10–15 games below the NHL in that department. Inventory matters.

But under most circumstances, basketball fans do quite nicely without noticing hockey, so it's going to take a few more stars going down for them to even be tempted. There is still Joel Embiid and Stephen Curry and Nikola Jokic and Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant and ... well, you know. Still, the NBA has struggled so far to find the effervescence that highlighted its regular season, and no matter how much fun he can be to watch as an antidote to players who can't play, Kevon Looney cannot carry an entire postseason just by himself.

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