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Next Generation of Stars Step into the Spotlight in the NBA Finals

With only four teams and two rounds remaining in the NBA playoffs, the drawback of so much new blood is so evident. It may sound fine until you realize how many well-known players have dropped out, including greats LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, and even more recent additions Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, and Jayson Tatum.

From Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton to Giannis Antetokounmpo, a new crop of young stars have risen to produce their own spectacular postseason experiences.

What can’t be replaced is the old guard’s degree of experience, especially at these playoff heights. Reaching the conference finals, let alone The NBA Finals, is no easy feat. It’s made much more difficult by the fact that certain stars and their squads squat on them like good parking places. This is the first “Final Four” since 2010, for example, in which there is no James or Curry, or both.

In the just concluded conference semifinals, 36 players had at least some experience in a prior conference championship series. Ten had previously appeared in three or more of them.

With Brooklyn, Denver, Utah, and Philadelphia off the list, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard (6 appearances to the conference finals, including this year) and Rajon Rondo (5) are the only players left. Serge Ibaka, an injured teammate, would have qualified with six as well if he hadn’t been ruled out for the postseason due to back surgery.

Leonard and Rondo (along with Ibaka) are the only remaining players with championship rings. Ironically, they now play for a team that has never made it to the conference championships until this year, despite winning them elsewhere.

Tyronn Lue, who coached the Cleveland Cavaliers to three Finals appearances and one championship from 2016 to 2018, feels that experience comes up at crucial moments in games or series.

“I think [it shows] in key moments,” Lue said Sunday, “like you saw in Games 5 and 6 against Utah. Best player [Leonard] goes down, other guys step up and make big plays for the team.”

Milwaukee advanced to the Eastern Conference finals just two years ago, taking a 2-0 lead over Toronto before falling to the eventual champion Raptors in four straight games. However, of the Bucks’ current players, only Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Pat Connaughton remain.

With Atlanta — coach Mike Budenholzer – and backup guard Jeff Teague made it to the Eastern Conference finals in 2015, while defensive ace P.J. Tucker made it to the Western Conference finals with Houston in 2018. Bryn Forbes, a three-point specialist, guided San Antonio to the Western Conference finals in 2017, when the Spurs still had Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker as ties to their Tim Duncan-led dynasty.

“You’re playing for a championship berth. That’s a different level,” Forbes recently told reporters of the conference finals. “That’s always going to be a little more. The playoffs are already intense and everybody’s ready to go, but that’s a different level.”

The Hawks and Suns have very little postseason experience compared to the Clippers and Bucks. Clint Capela of Atlanta joined Houston in 2015 and returned to Tucker in 2018. Solomon Hill appeared in the East finals for Indiana (2014) and Miami (2020), as well as the 2020 Finals.

Veteran forward Jae Crowder started for the Suns all the way to the Orlando-bubble Finals in 2020. Last year, Torrey Craig advanced to the West finals. As a rookie with Boston, E’Twaun Moore appeared in the 2012 East finals for seven minutes.

Chris Paul has played in 119 playoff games, although he and his teams have only reached the conference finals once, with the 2018 Rockets team. Paul holds the record for the most playoff games played without reaching the Finals among all players still alive.

Craig stated at the close of the regular season that their team attempted to create a playoff atmosphere in order to be ready. “We’ve been talking about it in the huddles of games,” he said, “like, ‘Hey, this is what the playoffs are like. Hey, we need a stop right here.’ ‘Momentum change, we need to find a way to respond from their run.’ … It’s not quite the same, but it’s as close as you’ll possibly get to the playoffs.”

With a hamstring injury, Utah guard Mike Conley, who reached the Western Conference finals in 2013, missed the opening five games of the conference semifinals against the Clippers. Conley’s experience in the last game couldn’t save the Jazz from squandering a 25-point lead.

Coach Erik Spoelstra of Miami was evasive when asked about the importance of postseason experience. After all, this year’s Heat had more experience than last year’s.

“Each experience is different,” said Spoelstra. “You want to be present as much as possible for the challenge that’s right there in front of you. … I think for experienced veteran players, I think it does matter, being in these kind of playoff atmospheres time and time again. Our young guys … they don’t know what they don’t know, and I think that’s a good thing.”

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