Column: NBA playoffs are wide open – for once
Hey, here’s something we haven’t heard before.
The NBA playoffs are wide open.
At perhaps no other time in the league’s history have so many teams gone into the postseason with a real shot at hoisting the trophy at the end of this two-month grind.
From the top seeds in Houston and Toronto, to the old stalwarts in Golden State and Cleveland, to the brash up-and-comers in Philadelphia and Minnesota, there are potential storylines galore and no real way to predict how it all may shake out.
”We’ve got a chance,” said LeBron James, who will be seeking his eighth straight trip to the finals. ”That’s all you can ask for.”
For pretty much the NBA’s entire history, there’s been little reason to tune in for the playoffs until they got to the finals. No wonder Charles Barkley became so enamored with the NHL version of the postseason – that’s a sport that actually doles out some real drama once the regular season is over.
Over the last four decades, a top-seeded team has claimed 28 championships. All but one of the remaining titles went to teams seeded second or third going into the postseason – and even several of those were clearly the best team (see: the 2012 Miami Heat with their Big Three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; the 2001 and 2002 Los Angeles Lakers featuring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal; the 1993 Chicago Bulls claiming their third straight title led by Michael Jordan).
Looking a little deeper over that same 40-year span, and you’ll find only five teams lower than a No. 3 seed that lost in the finals. Such dominance by a handful of dynasties and superteams has largely rendered the early rounds of the playoffs a moot point, a mere coronation on the way to the inevitable matchup at the end.
This year, it makes sense to tune in right from the start.
At the risk of getting things totally wrong, here’s a few predictions for these most uncertain of playoffs:
ROCKETS‘ TOUGH ROAD
Houston posted the league’s best record (65-17), and it’s hard to bet against a team that has James Harden. But the Rockets are facing a tough opening-round series against Minnesota, which broke a 14-year playoff drought with a dramatic overtime victory on the final day of the regular season . If the Timberwolves can ride that momentum – and it’s entirely possible, with Jimmy Butler coming back from a knee injury – they could make things real interesting. The Rockets will be without a valuable rotation player, Luc Mbah a Moute , who sustained a shoulder injury this week in a meaningless game. Assuming they get past Minnesota, the Rockets could be derailed in the second round by the Oklahoma City Thunder, a perplexing squad that has pretty much spent all season trying to figure out how to mesh the immense talents of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. They seemed to figure it out late in year, winning 11 of their last 16 games – with the five losses by a total of 13 points. The Thunder could be the surprise team that emerges from the loaded West.
The Golden State Warriors have been to the finals three years in a row, winning titles in both 2015 and last season, and they certainly have the talent to make it back despite a less-than-dominating regular season that prompted coach Steve Kerr at one point to call out their effort as “pathetic.” Steph Curry will probably miss the opening round with a knee injury, but the Warriors should get by a fading San Antonio Spurs squad that will likely be without ailing Kawhi Leonard for the entire series. Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson give the defending champs plenty of firepower, even without Curry. The Warriors should at least make it back to the conference final, where chances are either the Rockets or OKC will be waiting.
There is no more intriguing team than the Philadelphia 76ers, who just two seasons ago went 10-72. This year, they became the first team in NBA history to close the regular season on a 16-game winning streak, surging to the No. 3 seed in the East . If Joel Embiid comes back faster than expected from a fractured orbital bone, Philadelphia could do some real damage in the East. Look for the Sixers to beat the Heat in the opening round, leading to what could be a very favorable matchup against the injury ravaged Boston Celtics in Round 2. The 76ers should be a year or two away from being a real championship contender. Then again, look what’s happened in Philly: The Eagles won their first Super Bowl championship and Villanova claimed the national title in college hoops. Maybe the precocious 76ers will follow their lead, far sooner than anyone could’ve predicted.
DON’T FORGET THE KING
James has been to the finals seven years in a row – four times with the Heat, three more since returning to Cleveland. The Cavaliers are only a No. 4 seed after enduring a season of dysfunction, but the King is ready to take this team on his back. At 33, James has been as dominant as ever , and he has a way of flipping the switch to an even higher level in the playoffs. He’s still the guy you start with if building a championship-ready roster.
Maybe we’ll get a Cavaliers-Warriors final for the fourth year in a row.
At least it would be a bit of a surprise this time.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul newberry
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