What if? The thrilling conclusion to the 2020 NBA season

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By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub

Basketball is back!

Sort of.

The NBA Board of Governors approved plans for a truncated regular season and full postseason emanating from Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fl. Play is scheduled to begin July 31.

While the league anticipates crowning a 2019-20 champion, COVID-19 has already dramatically altered the trajectory of basketball history. 

Back in 1994, a labor dispute canceled baseball’s World Series, the first time a major pro sports league failed to declare a winner since 1919. Richard Hoffer’s Sports Illustrated cover story from August 22 of that summer took the partially-finished canvas that was the ‘94 season and splashed ludicrous brush strokes all over it. Because, why not?

I wondered – what if the novel coronavirus hadn’t put a four-month dent in the 2019-20 NBA schedule? It was shaping up to be a pretty good year…

Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz talk on the bench…

Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz talk on the bench during the final minutes of their game against the Sacramento Kings at the Vivint Smart Home Arena Stadium on April 5, 2019 in Salt… Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

March 11: A routine Wednesday night matchup between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder is postponed when Jazz center Rudy Gobert tests positive for COVID-19. Shortly thereafter, the NBA announces suspension of league play until further notice.

March 12: Donald Trump stays up all night on Twitter. Around 4 am, he receives a direct message from friend and former Apprentice cast member Jose Canseco. The two engage in a spirited debate on the threat of COVID-19 to the United States.

At 8 am, he addresses the nation from the Rose Garden and issues an immediate nationwide stay-at-home order.

For two weeks, America shuts down. Trump logs off social media and takes a nap.

March 26: The CDC reports the number of COVID-19 cases in the US is zero. 

March 27: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addresses fans via Periscope from his man cave. Flanked by a framed Walt Frazier jersey and a David Stern bobblehead, he announces a condensed schedule to begin in five days.

The NBA player James Harden of the Houston Rockets attends a…

The NBA player James Harden of the Houston Rockets attends a commercial event at Haixinsha Asian Games Theme Park on August 12, 2017 in Guangzhou, China. Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

April 1: The Rockets take the floor against the Lakers in basketball’s triumphant return to national television. James Harden – who shaved his beard in quarantine – appears on an NBA court without facial hair for the first time.

He proceeds to shoot 1-for-20 in Houston’s 114-98 loss.

April 3: Jayson Tatum sets a new career high with 51 points as the Celtics beat Washington. While the third-year wing’s scoring exploits are the top story, Kemba Walker exits the game in the first half with a lingering knee issue. Boston remains three back of Toronto for the No. 2 seed in the East.

April 5: Al Horford scores 28 points (including the game-winning bucket), hauls in 12 rebounds and dishes out 10 assists in Philadelphia’s 116-114 overtime win over Toronto. Ben Simmons (back) remains sidelined for the Sixers. Joel Embiid – who injured himself recording TikTok videos in quarantine – also sits.

April 9: The San Antonio Spurs shoot 0-for-30 from downtown in a loss to the Bulls. Gregg Popovich sends a message from the postgame podium: the Spurs won’t be shooting any more threes. “The season is slipping away. I’m too old to waste my time trying to be hip with the analytics. We’re going to live and die in the mid-range.”

Feb 26, 2020; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) dribbles up the court during the second half against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 26, 2020; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) dribbles up the court during the second half against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

April 10: Jayson Tatum scores an even 50 points in Boston’s 121-118 overtime win in Toronto. It’s his fourth consecutive 50-point game, tying a record shared by Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant. 

The young star pays tribute to his recently departed hero in the postgame presser. Media talking heads debate whether or not this means he wants to join the Lakers.

April 11-12:  In a battle of the league’s top rookies, the Pelicans and Grizzlies square off on consecutive nights. Ja Morant fires the opening salvo with 25 points, 10 assists and four steals as Memphis takes the opener.

Zion Williamson responds with a new career-high of 39 as New Orleans rolls in the second game. The Pelicans are two back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West.

First Things First asks Ja Rule his thoughts on the Rookie of the Year race, to which America responds, “who gives a (expletive) what Ja Rule thinks at a time like this?”

April 13: The Giannis-Harden beef takes center stage as the Rockets visit Milwaukee. The reigning MVP erupts for 36 points in 27 minutes as the Bucks cruise to a 119-100 win. A stubbly Harden goes 2-for-16 and sits during the fourth quarter while Russell Westbrook tries to keep things close. 

Sep 30, 2019; Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia 76ers center Al Horford is interviewed during media day at the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
Sep 30, 2019; Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia 76ers center Al Horford is interviewed during media day at the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

April 15: Former square peg Al Horford has another big game as the 76ers down the Suns. The Philly faithful shower Horford with cheers. Joel Embiid – still in street clothes – is seen using Snapchat from the bench.

After the game, local sports radio callers offer advice on Embiid’s apparent social media addiction.

Elsewhere, a healthy Victor Oladipo scores 38 points as the Pacers beat Houston. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni announces James Harden has taken a leave of absence to attend a yoga retreat.

April 17: The Spurs, paced by Demar Derozan’s 31 points (10-for-10 from mid-range) defeat the Nuggets for their third straight victory. The race for the 8-seed in the West continues to heat up, with the Grizzlies, Blazers, Pelicans and Spurs all within a single game of one another.

April 18: In the past two and a half weeks, Anthony Davis has missed games due to: 

LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers look on…

LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers look on during the match against the Brooklyn Nets during a preseason game as part of 2019 NBA Global Games China at Shenzhen Universiade… Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

The Lakers are .500 since the reboot. It’s clear LeBron is trying to shoulder the entire load. He plays 53 minutes and stretches his triple-double streak to nine straight games in an overtime loss to the Wizards. 

Across the hall, Isaiah Thomas smiles after scoring a career-high 54 points against his former team.

April 19: Jayson Tatum sets a new career-high with 57 points as the Celtics mow down the Timberwolves. It’s the second-highest single game total in Celtics history, trailing only Larry Bird’s 60-point effort back in 1985. 

Media talking heads spend the day yelling about whether or not Tatum has officially joined Giannis and LeBron in the MVP race.

April 21: The red-hot Pacers beat the Lakers, 119-110. Victor Oladipo drops 40 in the win. Indiana fans are wearing “Thingamajig” masks after their star player’s stint on the hit show The Masked Singer

Thingamajig and Host Nick Cannon in the all-new A Pain in the Mask…

Thingamajig and Host Nick Cannon in the all-new A Pain in the Mask episode of THE MASKED SINGER airing Tuesday, Dec. 10 on FOX Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

Oladipo is asked if he’ll be on the show’s live tour this summer. 

“Not if we’re in the Finals.”

April 24-27: A clash of styles as the Spurs and Rockets face off twice in a three-game span. Pop’s Spurs have won seven of nine since he forbade them to shoot threes while the Rockets’ long distance attack has been grounded by James Harden’s mysterious slump and subsequent sabbatical. 

San Antonio takes the first game as LaMarcus Aldridge scores 46 points and bullies Houston’s undersized front line.

However, the Rockets win the rematch, with eight-time All-Star and freshly certified yoga instructor Harden returns to score 16 points and hand out seven assists. Russell Westbrook tosses in 42 points.

April 28: Kevin Durant debuts for the Brooklyn Nets in Oklahoma City. After months away with a shoulder injury, Kyrie Irving surprises teammates at the airport. “It’s a miracle!” Irving exclaims. “I’m healed!” 

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant of Team LaBron laugh during practice for the 2018 NBA All-Star game at the Verizon Up Arena at LACC on February 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant of Team LaBron laugh during practice for the 2018 NBA All-Star game at the Verizon Up Arena at LACC on February 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Durant scores 14 points in limited minutes but the Nets lose, dropping them into a tie with Washington for the 8-seed in the East. Coach Jacque Vaughn (who replaced Kenny Atkinson in early March) elects to sit Irving until a team doctor can properly examine his surgically repaired shoulder.

Seizing the moment, Brooklyn guard Spencer Dinwiddie uses the postgame podium to pitch a “one-of-a-kind investment opportunity” to the assembled media.  

April 29: Vince Carter plays his final game in Toronto, scoring a season-high 18 points in Atlanta’s 115-106 win. The Hawks, healthy and in sync, are finishing the season on a high note.

It’s yet another loss in a brutal closing stretch for the Raptors, now looking up at Boston for the 2-seed in the East. Eschewing sentiment, Toronto GM Masai Ujiri attempts to ignite a postgame  “(expletive) Vince Carter” chant outside Scotiabank Arena.

April 30: The Clippers pummel the Lakers, 116-93, to pull within a half game of the top spot in the West.

Already missing Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma, The Lakers’ supporting cast is so weak that the team petitions Adam Silver (who relaxed rules governing transactions) to sign Bronny James.

“LeBron is his dad,” lobbies GM Rob Pelinka.

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka talks on the phone…

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka talks on the phone before a college basketball game between the Oregon Ducks and the USC Trojans on February 21, 2019 at Galen Center in Los Angeles, CA. Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

Silver denies the claim for a high school player. Pelinka sets his sights on LaMelo Ball, “a professional.”

Before Silver can remind the Lakers about the complexities of the NBA Draft, a six-week old YouTube video surfaces of Ball playing pick-up with friends at a closed-down park during the nationwide shutdown. Citing the recklessness of his public health transgression, the league immediately suspends him.

LaVar Ball resurfaces on First Take, challenging Silver to an MMA fight.

May 3: Joel Embiid returns to the court for the 76ers in Memphis and goes 3-for-12 from the field. On the other end, Jonas Valanciunas bruises the big man to the tune of 24 points and 20 rebounds. The Sixers squeak by on an Al Horford putback at the buzzer.

Embiid is later Zoombombed during a candid conversation with friends about Philly fans embracing Horford during his absence.

Oct 16, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) and forward Robert Covington (33) react during the second half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The media talking heads do what they do with this information.

May 5: The regular season concludes. The Bucks set a franchise record with 67 wins (one more than the 1971 title team featuring Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and cruise to the No. 1 spot in the East. The Celtics, with MVP candidate Tatum, a flourishing Jaylen Brown and a healthy Gordon Hayward, take the 2-seed by a game over Toronto. 

Despite a disjointed finish to the campaign, the Lakers wrap up the top seed in the West for the first time since Kobe Bryant’s squad did it ten years ago. A “Battle of Los Angeles” scenario develops as the Clippers secure the 2-seed.

May 7-9: Remember those proposed schedule tweaks the NBA discussed earlier in the season? Silver uses executive authority to implement a play-in tournament for the seventh and eighth seeds in each conference. 

In the East, the Wizards and Hawks – two teams on the rise – send the Nets and Magic packing.

Jan 23, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Washington Wizards guard Isaiah Thomas (4) shoots against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Out West, the Thunder melt down when Denis Schroeder develops an allergy to hair dye. In an act of benevolence, James Harden reaches out to recommend a yoga regimen.

The Blazers, finally healthy after a trying campaign, take the No. 7 seed. Zion and the Pelicans grab the 8-seed.

The Playoffs

First Round

May 10: Joel Embiid is ejected from Game 1 against Indiana when he takes exception to a poke in the eye from former teammate T.J. McConnell. After the game, Embiid takes to Instagram to challenge Rob Gronkowski for the WWE 24/7 title.

NBA players, Zion Williamson and Lonzo Ball of the New Orleans…

NBA players, Zion Williamson and Lonzo Ball of the New Orleans Pelicans walk on the field before the game between the New Orleans Saints and the Houston Texans at Mercedes Benz Superdome on September… Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

May 11-15: The eyes of the basketball world focus on LeBron vs. Zion. The rookie sensation wows the Staples Center crowd with 25 points in his playoff debut, but former Laker Brandon Ingram – a casualty of the Anthony Davis trade – is the story with 30 points, nine rebounds and seven assists as the Pelicans steal Game 1.

LeBron puts up a monster line in Game 2 with 39 points, 16 rebounds, 14 assists and nine blocks – just missing the first quadruple-double since David Robinson in 1994 – to even the series, but New Orleans regains the advantage as Zion goes for 40 in Game 3.

May 16: Following a Pacers sweep, the skinflint 76ers ownership announces Embiid has been traded to the Suns in exchange for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang. Phoenix GM James Jones says it’s news to him: last he’d heard, Sixers GM Elton Brand was at a hair salon.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo controls the ball…

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo controls the ball during the NBA basketball match between Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Hornets at The AccorHotels Arena in Paris on January 24, 2020. Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

May 17: The Bucks sweep the Hawks.

May 18: The Jazz dump the Mavericks in five.

May 20: Nikola Jokic dominates as the Nuggets dispatch the Rockets in six games. James Harden scores 26 points with 11 assists in the finale but Russell Westbrook denounces his teammate as “too chill” with the game on the line.

The Raptors send Jimmy Butler and the Heat packing in six. 

May 21: The Lakers trail the Pelicans heading into Game 6. It’s become glaringly evident that LeBron can no longer hide his hairline woes. He shows up at Smoothie King Center wearing a conspicuous wig, a la Rick Barry during the 1976 season.

The King pours in 46 points with his new lettuce but New Orleans prevails 116-110, sending shockwaves through the NBA.

Feb 7, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) talks with an official in the third quarter against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

May 23: Clippers-Blazers is a seven-game classic. Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Carmelo Anthony set a record for most points scored by a trio in a playoff series, but LA moves on.

Boston survives a seven-game scare from jilted former Celtic Isaiah Thomas and the Wizards. 

Second Round

May 24-June 1: The Pacers turn out to be the worst possible matchup for the Bucks. Indiana’s backcourt combination of Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon shoots the lights out, exposing Milwaukee’s tactic of giving up threes to protect the rim at all costs. 

Giannis pulls a hammy in Game 5, putting the team with the NBA’s best record on the ropes.

June 2: The Jazz send the Pelicans packing in five.

June 3: The Pacers roll in Game 6, 120-96, to eliminate the Bucks.

June 4: The Clippers hold off the Nuggets in six to punch a ticket to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Doc Rivers of the LA Clippers jaws with a referee during the fourth…

Doc Rivers of the LA Clippers jaws with a referee during the fourth quarter of the Denver Nuggets’ 114-104 win on Sunday, January 12, 2020. Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

ClipperMania explodes in LA. Various celebrities migrate to the red and blue, much to the amusement of superfan Clipper Darrell.

Meanwhile, LeBron’s “Taco Tuesday” videos are depressing as hell. 

June 6: The Celtics go the distance with the Raptors. Marcus Smart sneaks away for the winning layup in Game 7 as Kyle Lowry spends the entire possession arguing with an official.

Conference Finals

June 7-11: LA grabs an early series lead, as Jazz star Donovan Mitchell struggles with the swarming defense of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Mitchell and much-maligned backcourt mate Mike Conley spar with Jazz fans on social media and find it’s a terrible idea.

The third-year guard shows up to Game 3 in a Carlos Boozer throwback and scores 43 points in a 111-97 victory, cutting the Clippers’ lead to two games to one.

Former tennis player John McEnroe greets Tacko Fall of the Boston…

Former tennis player John McEnroe greets Tacko Fall of the Boston Celtics before a game against the Brooklyn Nets in promotion of Laver Cup Boston 2020 at TD Garden on March 3, 2020 in Boston,… Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

June 14: After falling behind 2-1 to the Pacers, Boston coach Brad Stevens makes a mid-series adjustment, deploying 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall and little-used “Time Lord” Robert Williams to contend with Indy’s mammoth front line. The parade of blocks that follows evokes memories of Dikembe Mutombo against the Sonics in ’94.

Boston wins Game 4 in a dominant defensive effort to tie the series at two games apiece.

June 16-18: Kemba Walker returns for Game 5 in Boston, swinging the series to the Celtics in six games.

The Clippers close out the Jazz in six, continuing to sail through uncharted postseason territory to the NBA Finals.

The Finals

Boston and Los Angeles meet for basketball’s world championship for the 13th time, with a twist. 

November 20, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) shoots against Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

June 21-23: Games 1 and 2 at Staples Center go to the Clippers. LA’s supporting cast is huge as Patrick Beverley locks down Kemba Walker and Montrezl Harrell is an irresistible force inside. 

June 26: The two teams return to the East Coast with Boston stuck in a late-June heat wave. Game 3 is played in sauna-like conditions, as TD Garden landlord Jeremy Jacobs apparently neglected to pay the air conditioning repairman. With temperatures approaching 95 degrees in the building and Paul George sucking wind from an oxygen mask during timeouts, the Celtics cut the series lead to 2-1. 

June 28: Unable to get his daily haircut in quarantine, Jayson Tatum elected to let his hair grow out. Media talking heads agree he’s got a “2001 Kobe Bryant thing” going on atop his head. Tatum’s barber, who hasn’t seen his client since March, tells an NBA “insider” Tatum is definitely weighing his options about considering thinking about going to the Lakers.

The Boston media freaks out and pours all their feelings about Tom Brady leaving onto its ascendant superstar as the “Jayson Tatum is Leaving” clock starts ticking. He scores 40 points in a 113-107 Game 4 win, receiving a standing ovation from the Garden crowd.

The Celtics play the “Not you too, Sean” clip from Good Will Hunting to send everyone home. The series is tied.

BOSTON, MA – OCTOBER 25: Kemba Walker #8 of the Boston Celtics holds his follow through in the second half against the Toronto Raptors at TD Garden on October 25, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

June 30: Kemba Walker, banged up during the second-half of the season and muted for much of the Finals, gets away from Beverley and hits a dagger to propel Boston to a 109-106 victory in Game 5 at TD Garden (Silver elected to switch the Finals back to the old 2-3-2 format for efficiency’s sake). The Green are one win away.

July 2: Former Celtic Marcus Morris plays the hero in Game 6, with back-to-back fourth quarter baskets to preserve a 103-101 win for LA. There will be a seventh game.

July 4: The nation shuns fireworks displays for winner-take-all basketball fireworks on TV. 

The Celtics take the lead into halftime as Tatum, stymied by LA’s wing defense in the early going, gets his teammates involved – moving the ball to Walker, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward.

LA’s veterans steady the boat in the third quarter, with Lou Williams pouring in 13 points in the frame from a variety of spots on the floor. The Clippers have a four-point advantage headed into the fourth, and manage to keep the Celtics at bay for most of the period. However, Marcus Smart draws a couple of key fourth quarter charges, Tatum drains back-to-back threes, and it’s a tie game with 4.2 seconds left.

Kawhi Leonard gets the inbound pass from Morris, pilots his way to the opposite baseline, and launches a jumper over the outstretched arm of Daniel Theis…

Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers takes a breather against the Denver…

Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers takes a breather against the Denver Nuggets during the fourth quarter of Denver’s 114-104 win on Sunday, January 12, 2020. Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

Yep. It clanks high off the rim and rattles home, giving the Clippers the 102-100 victory and the NBA title.

Bad drafts. Terrible trades. Six years walking in Bill Walton’s orthopedic shoes. Donald (expletive) Sterling. The team long known as the Lakers’ dopey little brother hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy as NBA champions.

Leonard collects his third Finals MVP. Owner Steve Ballmer goes streaking through downtown Los Angeles.

And 3,000 miles away, a city that spent the last two decades with its chest puffed out has no Tom Brady, no Mookie Betts, no Stanley Cup, and no NBA title. Boston is miserable once again.

Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can find him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.