Savor this moment, everybody: for the first time in at least five years, LeBron James is not a shoo-in to advance to the NBA Finals. It honestly doesn’t make a lot of sense to me why this is happening — LeBron is having his best season since returning to Cleveland, Kyrie Irving has remained healthy and is scoring 25 ppg and Kevin Love is finally playing like something more than a third wheel — but the Cavs just look off.
They’re one of the worst defensive teams in the league, offering little in terms of either rim protection or shutting off lanes to the basket. Even backup point guards can turn attacking Cleveland’s Swiss cheese defense into a veritable layup line. We can’t simply dismiss these guys, of course; they’re the defending champs and LeBron is a top-five all-time player for a reason, he has proven time and again that he can reach another gear in the postseason. They’re my conservative pick to pick to win the East but it will be a hard-fought road and I wouldn’t be at all shocked if they found themselves supplanted.
The Toronto Raptors, currently sitting in the three seed at 49-31, look like the best bet to overtake the Cavaliers should they play them in a seven-game series.
Though Toronto slipped out of the league’s upper echelon around midseason, they are rounding into form with the return of perennially underrated All-Star Kyle Lowry and the acclimation of Serge Ibaka to the team’s balletic, midrange-oriented style of play.
Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can get to the rim at will against even the league’s best defenders and could average 60 points between them against the Cavs. DeMarre Carroll figures to match up against LeBron as well as anyone not named Kawhi Leonard, and the Raptors have enough size in Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas and emerging talent Lucas Nogueira to prevent Cleveland’s bigs from dominating the boards.
As much as I love my Boston Celtics (and there’s still a chance they get the number 1 seed!) their path to the Finals will be a tough one, as their embarrassing loss to the Cavs at home last week showed. Boston is tenacious defensively and a joy to watch when their motion offense is clicking, but nobody can create anything for himself besides Isaiah Thomas.
Oh, and their leading rebounder is at 6.9 per game. That’s not good! Washington is the last realistic contender in the East and I think totally ignored-MVP candidate John Wall would embarrass Kyrie and average a 30–15, but the Wizards haven’t shown that extra something that makes me think they can emerge from three rounds unscathed.
We’ve always known it was inevitable, so nobody should get too upset about this. Yes Russell Westbrook can win a single game against anybody by himself, James Harden is the maestro behind the best offense in the NBA (at least when he’s on the floor), and the San Antonio Patriots have won at least 50 games for the 22nd time in 24 seasons (by the way, one of those two other years was the strike-shortened 1999 season when the Spurs won the NBA championship anyway), but the West is the Warriors’ to lose.
Their season has been rockier than some pundits expected — I for one thought Kevin Durant would fit like a glove from the get-go and lead Golden State to a record-breaking 74–8 season — but at their best they have looked positively unbeatable. The Warriors play with a synergy that is far beyond what most teams can even dream of reaching. It’s as if all their personnel think and move as one, cutting, screening, and rotating with seamless efficiency. What’s more, they have the perfect failsafe for the playoffs should shots stop falling and their immaculate ball movement become stunted: they’ve now got three unguardable one-on-one scorers.
We haven’t even begun to talk about their defense, which ranks second in the NBA in points allowed per possession. Those concerns about rim protection that surfaced when Andrew Bogut walked in free agency? They didn’t take into account two things: first, as good as Bogut was, he only played about 20 minutes per game, and second, they compensated by adding one of the most versatile defenders in the league to what was already the league’s most switch-happy and suffocating scheme.
Before he hurt his knee in February, KD was enjoying the best defensive performance of his career, a multi-positional free safety who patrolled both the paint and perimeter like a taller, more athletic version of teammate Draymond Green (a note on that: reports say Durant is due back for the last two games of the regular season and would have already started playing had the Warriors been in more dire straits). Even if they don’t roster a quality traditional big man, nobody is scoring on a healthy Golden State.
Do they have any real competition? Well, you have to think that San Antonio won’t go quietly just based on their pedigree, but for whatever reason — perhaps the retirement of consummate team player Tim Duncan and the emergence of Kawhi Leonard as an individual superstar — the Spurs look a lot less “mind-meldy” than they usually do. That quality which I discussed a moment ago, where a team breathes as one, used to be San Antonio’s calling card. Now, as good as they still are, the ball seems all too often to stick in an inordinately anti-Spurs like way. They would need to be perfect to beat the Warriors, and that’s a hard thing to bank on even for Gregg Popovich.
Houston and Oklahoma City are too dependent on their individual superstars to pose much of a threat. Perhaps if either was a defensive juggernaut they would stand a chance, but that’s not the case. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have led the Clippers to another quality season but nobody is scared of their roster come playoff time. Amazingly, the three teams that could give the Warriors the most trouble are those that they would likely play in the first two rounds.
The first is the Utah Jazz, an old-school bruiser of a defensive team that plays slower than any other NBA team. You’re probably not beating the Warriors with Gordon Hayward as your best player, but at least the Jazz can take Steph and KD out of their fast-paced comfort zone.
As for the other two difficult matchups, they are currently battling for the right to play Golden State in the first round: Portland and Denver. I’m personally rooting for the latter so the world gets to see more of Nikola Jokic, the 23-year-old goliath who is the best passing big man I have ever seen, but both are athletic, tall, physically imposing units who can beat up on the Warriors’ small-ball lineups. Neither will beat Golden State, which will ultimately win the 2017 title, but don’t be surprised if they provide a difficult test.