While the NBA playoff picture took awhile to settle, the main questions are still the same ones we’ve been wondering about all season long. In the Eastern Conference, it’s whether any team has matured enough to stop the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the Western Conference, it’s whether the Golden State Warriors can be derailed. Now that the playoff matchups are set, let’s take a closer look at what to expect.
In the West, the main focus is the Warriors (+135). They’ve long been the favorite to win the NBA championship and the assumed representative from the Western Conference in the Finals. However, one team has emerged as a real thorn in their side: the Houston Rockets (+160). The Rockets not only won the Western Conference and claimed home-court advantage, they have unquestionably been the best team in the league since January. They have won 38 of their last 44 games, which is incredible. They faced the Warriors three times this season and won two of the meetings.
Beyond that, there are some real concerns about the Warriors’ health. Steph Curry is out and will miss the opening round of the playoffs. How will he be when he’s back? And can the Warriors survive a tricky first-round series without him?
In the East, the main concern is focused around the Cavaliers (+650). With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward out for the Boston Celtics (+7000), it’s unlikely they’ll really challenge for the throne as might have been expected. That leaves the Toronto Raptors (+850) as the chief competition for the Cavs but there could be another team that makes some noise: the Philadelphia 76ers (+1500). They’re peaking at the right time, winning 16 straight games. While the Sixers are young and inexperienced, teams like the Raptors (who’ve disappointed in previous playoffs) and the Cavaliers could be vulnerable.
Speaking of the Raptors, few seem to give them a serious chance even though they won 59 games and claimed the top seed in the conference for the first time in franchise history. They were 34-7 at home – tied for the best home record in the NBA – and are as deep as any roster. But they still seem to stumble in big moments, as evidenced by late-season losses to the Celtics and Cavs. Can they finally put it all together and win the East? This could be their best opportunity since the Vince Carter years.
As for the Cavs, they had their struggles this season but finished the regular season with gusto. They completely overhauled their roster at the trade deadline and it provided a big spark for the team. They’ve been playing with confidence since Kevin Love returned and are clearly still the team to beat in the East. With LeBron James still in a Cavs uniform – at least for one more playoff run – it’ll be hard for any team to usher this team out before the NBA Finals.
The 2018 postseason begins on Saturday, April 14 and while many assumed this year would be another easy title for Golden State, there is plenty of intrigue to see how the second season plays out.