The NBA playoffs that start this weekend already have an extremely tough act to follow.
The regular season ended with a flourish.
Wednesday’s final night of the regular season was well beyond dramatic – an overtime game between Minnesota and Denver to decide the last berth, another overtime game between Miami and Toronto to determine some East fates, a 46-point first quarter by Philadelphia, an absurd 20-rebound, 19-assist night from Russell Westbrook.
And now, the best time of the NBA year is finally here.
The playoffs are back, with Golden State and Cleveland – who’ve met in the last three NBA finals – not exactly looking like the overwhelming favorites the league has come to expect. A fourth straight Warriors-Cavs matchup is no guarantee. A fourth straight trip by either of those teams alone is far from certain, either.
It all starts Saturday, the 16-team tournament that will be a two-month grind following the six-month grind of the regular season.
“I feel pretty ready,” Toronto guard Kyle Lowry said. “We’re ready to go.”
So are 15 other teams.
Start with the East pairings:
Lowry and the top-seeded Raptors play No8 Washington
No2 Boston face No7 Milwaukee
No3 Philadelphia get No6 Miami
No4 Cleveland against No5 Indiana
“We’re one of 16 teams that have a chance to win a championship,” James said. “That’s all you can ask for.”
Philadelphia, after years of the rebuilding saga known as ‘The Process’, has a chance as well. The 76ers are going into the playoffs on a 16-game winning streak.
“Take a deep breath, then reload,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said, talking about what he wants his team to do before getting ready for Game 1.
In the West:
No1 Houston face No8 Minnesota – which earned its berth by topping Denver in the NBA’s first win-and-get-in, lose-and-go-home regular-season finale in 21 years
No2 Golden State opens its quest for a third championship in four seasons against No7 San Antonio
No3 Portland drew No6 New Orleans
No4 Oklahoma City opens against No5 Utah
“The playoffs are about moments, and you just want a chance to have those moments,” Miami guard Dwyane Wade said.
For the Timberwolves, Wednesday was a moment in itself. They needed overtime to beat the Nuggets and get into the postseason. It’s Minnesota’s first berth since 2004, and ended what was the NBA’s longest playoff drought (which now is bequeathed to the Sacramento Kings, who last played a playoff game in 2006).
“They just made the plays at the end,” Denver’s Will Barton said of the Timberwolves. “Give them credit.”
There are some rematches from the 2017 playoffs already waiting. Cleveland swept Indiana in the first round last year, and Boston needed seven games to oust Washington in a thrilling East semi-final series.
But the most intriguing should be the Golden State-San Antonio matchup – because once again, just like a year ago, the Spurs will almost certainly be without Leonard.
Those two teams played in the West finals last season, and the Spurs were up by 23 points when Leonard left in the third quarter after getting injured on a play where he tried a jumper and Warriors center Zaza Pachulia closed out aggressively. Leonard got hurt when he stepped on Pachulia on the landing; he and the Spurs haven’t been the same since.
Leonard never returned to that series, and played in only nine games for the Spurs this season.
“There is no pressure on us,” Spurs star LaMarcus Aldridge said.
There is on Golden State.
The Warriors are trying for a third title in four seasons, and will play this first round more than likely without Curry while he continues recovering from a knee injury. Golden State went 7-10 in its final 17 games, and clearly sputtered across the finish line.
But the records all reset now, and the Warriors have been waiting to get the postseason started.
“It’ll be our first meaningful game in about a month,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Looking forward to that.”
With good reason. There’s a trophy to go chase now.