The Miami Heat entered the season heavily favored to repeat as NBA champions, and they've never relinquished that front-runner status.
Yet their path to another title has grown steadily easier as crucial players from opposing teams go down, one after another, to season-ending injuries.
The list of sidelined players reads like an All-Star game lineup. The Bulls played all season without former league MVP Derrick Rose; the Celtics lost starting point guard and enigmatic roller skater Rajon Rondo to a torn ACL; the Lakers saw one of the game's all-time greats, Kobe Bryant, rupture his Achilles; and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the top seed in the West, were not the same team after star point guard Russell Westbrook bowed out with a torn meniscus.
As a result, some of the league's best teams (at least on paper) have already been bounced from the playoffs, often without putting up much of a fight. Those early exits have squashed promising storylines and, some argue, made the playoffs a snooze-fest.
"Whether dynasties are a good or bad thing for sports is a question up for debate, but it is dispiriting that the Heat's amazing season (which included a 27-game winning streak) has been the only interesting NBA story all year," says the New Republic's Isaac Chotiner.
The upstart Bulls somehow beat the Heat in Game 1 of their second-round series, only to lose the next four. At one point, between injuries and ejections, their roster of available players dwindled to seven. The Celtics, playing what may have been their last season with their title-winning core of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, were nearly swept out of the playoffs by the Knicks.
Then there's Oklahoma City, which seemed destined to represent the Western Conference in a highly anticipated Finals rematch with the Heat. Westbrook's freak injury was enough to puncture that dream match-up; the Thunder exited their second-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies with barely a whimper.
"The story of this series — like in Boston and Chicago — was what could have been," says Deadspin's Sean Newell.
Despite his increasingly clear path to a second title, even Lebron James thinks the playoffs have lost some of their luster.
"It sucks," he said. "It's terrible that we don't have Derrick Rose, and now Russell Westbrook, David Lee, and a lot of guys that's just not in the lineup."
On the other hand, the rash of injuries has allowed unheralded players and teams to step into the spotlight for once.
"This adjusted script might be better than the original," says USA Today's Sam Amick. "Talk about a silver lining to the 'second season.'"
Had Rose been available, we never would have seen diminutive Nate Robinson torch the Nets and stun the Heat (in Game 1 at least). The Grizzlies and their young talent would likely have been stomped by the Thunder.
And the playoffs are only half over. We could still see a team do the unthinkable and oust the Heat. Maybe the Grizzlies will trounce perennial contender San Antonio, finally achieve their potential, and make Marc the more famous Gasol brother.
As these playoffs have proven, anything can happen. The recent spate of injuries is the best evidence of that.
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