November 17, 2017

Road To The Finals 2017

Three years ago, Panini America introduced a new insert series into their annual NBA Hoops basketball card release which chronicled the prior year's NBA playoffs. They issued a unique card, serial numbered to a decreasing number as the playoffs progressed, for every single NBA playoff game of the prior year. They have continued to do that every year since that time.

I love these cards. It's a way for me to look back on each game my beloved Washington Wizards played last postseason. The only bad thing is the story ultimately ends in heartbreak.

Four years into this thing, I've collected one card from every playoff game the Wizards have played in the past four years. Of course, I only had to buy them three of the four years because, well (ahem!) they didn't make the playoffs in 2016. Here's this year's batch which represents the Wizards best playoff run in my first 17 years as a season ticket holder. In case you care, I also wrote about the 2014 and 2015 issues.

For the first time in 38 years, the Wizards (I'm including Bullets years in this calculation) finished the regular season with home court advantage in round one of the postseason. Their opponent? The Atlanta Hawks, the same team the Wizards lost to in the second round of their prior playoff appearance in 2015. The result? Much different. Two years ago, the Wizards lost at home in game six on a Paul Pierce buzzer beater that wasn't. This year? Well, let's say turnabout is fair play.

I have a couple of fond memories of this series. First I remember how whiny Paul Millsap was in the first two games in Washington as Markieff Morris absolutely stuffed him in game one. And I don't just mean on the court; I mean off the court too. A little physical play from Kieff turned Millsap into a no contact player. What's up with that? 

The Wizards did a great job holding serve in this one but after five games it really did look like a series that would go every game to the team on their home floor. Until John Wall's sublime 42 points in the Wizards 16 point in game six in Atlanta. The only thing better than Wall's performance was his press conference after the game. 

Sitting next to Bradley Beal at the post-game press conference, a grinning smiling John explained his back and forth with the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones, hip-hop artist Quavo and rapper Gucci Mane towards the end of the game when John was just unstoppable. When asked by a reporter what was "going on", John responded with a perfect "What was going on? I told 'em I was going to get 35 or more and we was going to win. And we did that." Best postgame press conference ever from the Wizards.

John gets two appearances on the first round Road to the Finals cards. Joining him are Bradley Beal and Otto Porter on the other two. On to Boston.

The Wizards and Boston Celtics spent the regular season last year beating each other at home. The Cs played two games in Washington and got beat both times. The Wiz went up to Beantown twice and came back with losses. In between the start and end of the last regular season, there was a poke in the nose, some bad blood and a game where the Wizards dressed in all black for the Celtics' funeral and beat the stuffing out of them at Verizon Center. 

Based on that season head-to-head history, all the Wizards needed was a single win up in Boston and they had the series. I thought they had it in the very first game. 16-0 Wizards. Then 22-5 Wizards. Man, this series was going to be fun! A game one upset and three Ws at home and we got the Eastern Conference Finals. At halftime it was just a five point game in the Wizards' favor. At the end of three it was a 15 point game the other way. Game one lost.

Maybe game two? Another strong first quarter had the Wizards up 13. Surely they learned from game one right? Maybe. Despite letting the Celtics to within one point in the second quarter, they carried a five point bulge into the fourth and were up five with three minutes to go before the game got tied up in the fourth. The Wizards were done in overtime, losing by ten in just five minutes of action.

The Wizards got back into it with home wins in games three and four despite the Celtics dressing in all black (not able to pull it off) but also lost Kelly Oubre, Jr. to a suspension in game five back in Boston for being sick and tired of taking elbows from Kelly Olynyk and not getting foul calls. Game five in Boston was no contest. Avery Bradley killed the Wiz. John Wall's game six dagger at the end of regulation followed by a leap up onto the scorers' table that I completely missed because I was celebrating tied it up at three apiece.

So after a six game back and forth series despite losing every game in Boston I had to think the Wizards had a chance on the road in game seven. If there were two games the road team might have won, the Wiz were the visitor in both in games one and two.

Wasn't to be. Know why? Kelly Olynyk.

Let me say that Kelly Olynyk has absolutely no business being on one of these cards. But he is because the Wizards, as they have often done with this guy, refused to take him seriously as a scoring threat. In each of Olynyk's first four seasons in the league, he's scored at least 19 once in a game against the Wizards. His best scoring game of those four years? Game 7 when he went for 26 points. This game was close...until it wasn't. The Wiz were down three with less than a minute to go in the third. Then Olynyk hit five field goals and two free throws in the fourth. How the Wiz let this guy do this is beyond me. Playoffs over. Better luck next year. Or maybe not. I'm just hoping for three rounds of cards next year.

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