The NBA Playoffs are finally underway!
After slogging through a regular season of Lakers drama, unforeseen outcomes, and plenty of statistical history the games officially mean something.
Matchups will decide who advances. Drama will unfold. The chess match starts now to see who will hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Saturday’s lineup won’t ultimately be what turns a casual NBA fan into a true believer, but we still have plenty of storylines as the playoffs advance towards June.
Here are five things to watch for this year. Well, besides whether or not anyone can beat the universally hated Golden State Warriors.
Who in the Eastern Conference will rise up and punch their ticket to the Finals?
There are plenty of qualified candidates. The Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the entire league and arguably the 2019 MVP on their team. The Toronto Raptors (last year’s top seed in the East) added a proven champion, A-plus star in Kawhi Leonard. The Philadelphia 76ers loaded up on talent and the Boston Celtics have their two bona fide stars back for this year’s playoff run.
No one is entirely sure how the East will play out since each of those four teams also have huge question marks and injuries to deal with on their quest to get to the playoffs. Plus, the uncertainty of free agency is looming over a few of the star players here.
Without Lebron James to represent the East in the NBA Finals in the first time since 2010, the proverbial baton for the best team in the conference is laying on the ground waiting to see which team can pick it up.
Can James Harden and Chris Paul exorcise their playoff demons?
This question can take on a few different iterations. First, the CP3 injury in last year’s Western Conference Finals no doubt hangs over the Houston Rockets. Many believe the Rockets with Paul could have knocked out the reigning champion Warriors last season.
This year, the Rockets — due to a horrible start to this season when they started 11-14 and tried out Carmelo Anthony for some run — fell to the 4-seed in the West. Unfortunately the 4-seed this year means a potential rematch with the Warriors in the Second Round of the playoffs.
An early exit for the Rockets this year, again at the hands of the Warriors who this team was specifically designed to defeat, would be another stain on the legacies of Paul and Harden. Until these two superstars can break through at least to a Finals appearance (or a championship) most aficionados will knock them down a peg due to years of consistent injuries and choke-jobs in past playoffs.
So that’s why this point has two different forms. If they do manage to knock out the Warriors, perhaps this season won’t look so bad. But regardless of their path, many will need the Rockets to compete in a Finals to completely erase their previous failures.
Where is the upset in this year’s playoffs?
Every year one series produces an outcome no one quite sees coming. That can mean in the Finals or anywhere in the lead up.
The Dallas Mavericks upset the Miami Heat in 2011. The Cleveland Cavaliers upset the 73-win Warriors team (who blew a 3-1 lead).
Last year, Anthony Davis lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. My, how different things look in a single year.
Or what about the Oklahoma City Thunder losing to the Utah Jazz — who was lead by a rookie — in the first round as well?
There’s always an upset lurking at any juncture in the playoffs. It could be a bad matchup, due to injuries, or just a matter of plain old fashioned bad luck. Looking at you Phoenix Suns.
The point is there will be at least one upset moment that everyone will talk about. And the best part is you never know when it will happen.
Which superstar will take the leap?
If you haven’t already heard, Lebron James missed the playoffs this season. The King has been a playoff staple since 2006. And he has cemented his legacy as an all-time great player due to multiple playoff performances. Just last season he had the best overall playoff performance anyone has witnessed from a player since Michael Jordan played.
Who will make that leap this year?
Lebron in his first playoff game had a triple-double victory over the Washington Wizards and laid the first stone on his monument dedicated to playoff moments.
Here are my candidates — Giannis Antetokounmpo (the presumptive MVP), James Harden (on a revenge tour), Kawhi Leonard (he still plays, remember?), Kyrie Irving (his first dance without Lebron and possibly last dance in Celtic green), Joel Embiid (looking to make the leap), and Damian Lillard (who always has something to prove, especially after last season’s early exit).
A Warriors player could take this mantel, but who cares, really?
The playoffs make superstars. You either rise up to seize the possession, the game, the series to solidify your arrival as a great player. Or you crumble in because the moment is too big.
And finally, IF the Warriors are going to lose the championship this season, what will be the major reason why?
The Warriors are vulnerable. But what will be the reason they lose if it finally comes to that?
No one is ever sure how a dynasty will cease to exist until it finally happens.
If it happens in these playoffs will it be the bickering between teammates? Maybe their shots and luck run out? Or an injury occurs? Or, dare I say, an implosion of sorts that leads to suspensions?
Or maybe nothing happens, they three-peat, and Kevin Durant leaves in free agency.
Either way, there are plenty of reasons to watch the NBA Playoffs.