NBA

LeBron James' iron grip on Eastern Conference and other talking points for the first round of the NBA playoffs

Jay Asser 14/04/2018
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LeBron James hasn't lost a game in the first round of the playoffs since 2012.

The NBA’s second season is under way and set to provide us with plenty to talk about over the next two months.

From the Golden State Warriors’ quest to repeat and stamp their claim as a dynasty, to James Harden and Chris Paul attempting to change the narrative on their postseason failures and lead the Houston Rockets, to LeBron James’ potential final stand with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the playoffs are chock-full of storylines.

Here are the main talking points from the four series that get started on Sunday.

Another formality for LeBron?

As much as his own team changes, as well as the situations around him in the rest of the East, LeBron remains LeBron – which is to say he has a lot of history on his side.

James has reached seven straight Finals – a staggering number – and during that span, the East has served as little more than fodder for him.

So while the Indiana Pacers, Cleveland’s first-round opponents, enter the match-up with a better point differential and net rating, consider this: LeBron hasn’t lost a first-round series in his career. In fact, he hasn’t even dropped a single game since 2012.

These Cavaliers, however, are probably the weakest team James has played on since his first go-around with the franchise and even though the Pacers don’t figure to dethrone him, Cleveland will have their hands full in potential clashes with Toronto and/or Philadelphia later on.

Not having Kyrie Irving around anymore to help shoulder the load can’t be understated. LeBron just wrapped up his first regular season in which he played all 82 games, doing it at the age of 33, and even though he’s a physical marvel, the mileage may be exacerbated if he has to do literally everything in these playoffs.

It’s never been wise to bet against him, but this will be James’ biggest challenge in some time.

Breaking barriers

James Harden will likely win the MVP this season and Chris Paul is a Hall of Fame point guard. And yet for many, both of the Houston Rockets’ stars will be judged on what they accomplish in the playoffs, where past shortcomings have somewhat damaged their reputations.

Paul has somehow never reached the conference finals, while Harden has had his own postseason meltdowns, including last year’s disastrous finish in Game 6 of the second round against San Antonio.

If they’re going to change the narrative that they’re not primetime playoff performers, this will have to be the year. They won’t be overly criticised for falling victim to Golden State down the road, but Houston have to at least reach the conference finals and put up a fight after the dominant campaign they’ve put together.

Before that, they’ll have to take care of business against Minnesota in the first round and whoever they see in round two, but the Rockets have no excuses for falling short of expectations.

Rockets

George’s future

LeBron James isn’t the only star whose future could be decided by what happens in these playoffs, as the Oklahoma City Thunder are under a lot of pressure to win to retain Paul George.

It’s impossible to say how well the Thunder need to do for George to re-sign this summer, but losing in the first round to the Utah Jazz certainly won’t help. And unfortunately for Oklahoma City, they appear to be under the most threat of any higher seed of being upset early on, with their opening match-up arguably the closest of all the series.

The Thunder’s ceiling is undoubtedly high as they showed at times this season that they can beat the league’s elite. However, they also had Jekyll and Hyde moments when they played well below their talent level, making it hard to discern just which team will show up on any given night.

George

How far can Boston go?

For probably every other team, losing your two stars to injury would be a death knell. The Celtics, however, have somehow managed to remain competitive even as body after body has hit the floor.

It speaks to their coaching, depth and ability to constantly defy expectations that they’re still favoured in the first round against Milwaukee, who will have the best player on the floor in Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it seems inevitable that the magic will run out at some point.

Boston have nothing to lose this season and they’ll certainly play like it, making them a dangerous underdog, regardless of the talent missing.

Stevens

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Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers to advance with hard-fought series wins in first-round predictions

Jay Asser 14/04/2018
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Toronto's DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are aiming for a deep playoff push.

Golden State Warriors v San Antonio Spurs

If anyone can flip the switch whenever they want, it’s the Warriors.

Even with no Stephen Curry, Golden State are capable of playing much better than they have of late and it’s been impossible to quantify just how little interest they’ve showed in the regular season.

The Gregg Popovich-led Spurs are exactly the type of team to take advantage of mental lapses and it’s hard to imagine them not taking at least one game, simply on their cohesiveness and playing style alone.

But the talent gap is just too wide without Kawhi Leonard and even though they’ll go down fighting, they will go down.

Warriors in 5

Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards

The Raptors have to win Game 1. It seems short-sighted to suggest a series opener is a must-win and while it won’t technically decide anything, Game 1 is symbolically crucial for Toronto to show that this season is, in fact, different.

Otherwise the pressure will rise quickly, which won’t help someone like Kyle Lowry who hasn’t exactly been reliable in previous playoffs.

Fortunately for the Raptors, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan won’t have to win the guard match-up with John Wall and Bradley Beal to advance because Toronto’s bench should continue to be one of their better advantages.

Raptors in 6

Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat

Points should be at somewhat of a premium in this match-up, which pits two teams who finished the season in the top seven of defensive rating.

Especially with Joel Embiid missing at least the start of the series, there’s a chance this turns into a grind-it-out series with physical play on both sides.

When Embiid returns could prove to be important, but even in his absence Philadelphia have the talent edge, although Erik Spoelstra’s coaching helps negate some of that.

However, it’s just hard to see where Miami’s points come from on a consistent basis, with firepower their biggest deficiency.

76ers in 6

Portland Trail Blazers v New Orleans Pelicans

The teams split the season series with two wins apiece and it’s likely their first-round match-up will be similarly competitive.

Both have star players capable of winning games on their own, with Damian Lillard on one side and Anthony Davis on the other, which is why the supporting casts may ultimately be the deciders.

On paper, Lillard seems to have more help with CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, but New Orleans’ ancillary players are somewhat underrated, especially point guard Jrue Holiday who has the ability to defensively neutralise one of the Blazers’ guards. Portland will have to earn this.

Trail Blazers in 7

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NBA

Golden State Warriors have to turn it on and other talking points for the first round of the NBA playoffs

Jay Asser 14/04/2018
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Kevin Durant goes to the hoop in a game against the Spurs.

The NBA’s second season is about to get under way and provide us with plenty to talk about over the next two months.

From the Golden State Warriors’ quest to repeat and stamp their claim as a dynasty, to James Harden and Chris Paul attempting to change the narrative on their postseason failures and lead the Houston Rockets, to LeBron James’ potential final stand with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the playoffs are chock-full of storylines.

Here are the main talking points from the four series that get started on Saturday.

Can Warriors flip the switch?

It’ll be discussed ad nauseam and for good reason, because whether or not the Warriors can turn it on when it matters could determine the outlook of the entire playoffs.

It seems all but certain that Stephen Curry won’t be around for the first-round match-up with the San Antonio Spurs, which, in a vacuum, shouldn’t be much of an issue for a loaded Warriors squad.

The problem, however, is that Golden State haven’t been nearly the same team without Curry this season, managing just a 17-14 record in his absence, and limped to the finish line by literally looking like a .500 team over the final month-and-a-half.

You would think a side boasting Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green would barely have to lift a finger to remain dangerous, but since the start of March, the Warriors’ offensive rating has been a middling 106.3 points, ranking 17th in the league.

Fortunately for Golden State, their first opponent in the playoffs isn’t at full strength either as the Spurs are still missing Kawhi Leonard.

As plucky as the rest of the roster is and as much as Gregg Popovich is considered a coaching legend, the Warriors should be able to survive before Curry returns in the second round. But if they don’t start playing better before his return, Golden State will be in the difficult position of needing to go zero-to-hundred against better competition.

Raptors anxiety

Here’s a crazy stat: the Toronto Raptors have somehow lost nine straight Game 1s in the playoffs.

No one is more aware of that pattern than Raptors fans themselves, who are already preparing for the worst because they’ve been conditioned to it.

And their playoff draw certainly hasn’t quelled fears as Toronto have ended up with an unfavourable match-up against a flawed, but talented, Washington Wizards side in the first round, while a potential rematch with LeBron and the Cavaliers looms in the round two.

The fact that they may end up seeing Cleveland earlier than they would have liked certainly changes the equation somewhat, but considering how strong of a season they had and the unlikelihood of their path to the Finals being any easier in the near future means it will be a disaster if they’re eliminated before the conference finals.

A loss in the opener against Washington would really increase the pressure, which is why Game 1 is probably more important for Toronto than for any other team in the playoffs.

Lowry

Red hot Sixers

Everything is breaking right for the Philadelphia 76ers at the moment and it’s not a stretch to imagine them reaching the Finals – a notion that would have been silly at the start of the season.

Winners of 16 straight, the Sixers are owners of the longest winning streak entering the postseason in NBA history. That run also allowed them to capture the third seed in the Eastern Conference, which could mean a meeting with the injury-ravaged Boston Celtics in round two rather than the East-leading Raptors or LeBron-led Cavaliers.

Even if Joel Embiid – officially ruled out for Game 1 – is unable to play against the Miami Heat, Philadelphia will still hold a talent advantage and likely have the best player on the floor in Ben Simmons.

The stars are aligning for what used to be the laughing stock of the league and it’s happening much sooner than anyone expected.

Simmons

Mano-a-mano

Singular star talent will be on full display between the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans.

MVP candidates Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis will go head-to-head and should provide a compelling series that could go either way, thanks to their ability to carry.

As far as individual match-ups in the first round, Lillard versus Davis has the potential to feature some epic duels and thrilling entertainment.

Lillard

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