For as fun as the regular season has been, it’s hard not to feel like it is all a warm-up act for Cavs vs. Warriors III. The two superteams seem destined to meet in a third straight NBA Finals, which has never happened before in NBA history. Injuries can change the dynamic, but the Cavs made the Finals in 2015 without Kevin Love (and played most of it without Kyrie Irving), while the Warriors could conceivably retool on the fly without either Kevin Durant or Steph Curry and still have enough firepower to roll through the West. When we look back on the season at the end of June, these two teams are going to be the story, one way or the other.
However, there are still five months of basketball between now and then. The second half of the regular season is all about jockeying for playoff position, and there is a lot to be decided before we get to a potential heavyweight fight in the Finals. The stakes may not be as high, but there will be fascinating undercards in each conference. The pecking order below the top team on each side of the bracket is unsettled, and there are a lot of questions that need to be answered about the other 14 teams in the postseason.
Out West, the dissolution of the Durant-Westbrook Thunder has left several teams fighting with the Spurs to be the main threat to the Warriors. In the East, the Raptors and the Celtics are the only other teams besides the Cavs who have managed to climb above the incredibly muddled pack in the middle of the conference. If the Finals are set in stone, the conference finals are anything but. There’s going to be plenty of drama in the first few rounds of the playoffs.
Here are the five potential series we are most interested in seeing:
Rockets vs. Spurs
The injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have created some separation at the top of the West, with the Spurs and the Rockets pulling away in the race for the no. 2 and no. 3 seeds, setting up what would be an epic second-round series. It’s yet another installment of Gregg Popovich vs. Mike D’Antoni, and this time D’Antoni has Steve Nash on steroids in the form of James Harden, the presumptive MVP favorite. Kawhi Leonard, who could win his third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award, would get the assignment to guard Harden at some point in the series, setting up an awesome game of cat-and-mouse with the number of screens the Rockets set for Harden.
Popovich has admitted to wholesale copying of D’Antoni’s philosophy in the near-decade since he last met the D’Antoni-led Suns in the playoffs, but this version of the Spurs is as old school as it gets, even without Tim Duncan. They start two giants who love to play with their back to the basket in LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, and it’s unclear whether they will be able to keep their bigger lineups on the floor against the full-frontal assault of the Rockets’ spread pick-and-roll. The Spurs could try to play big and bully the Rockets, or they could downsize and try to beat Houston at its own game. D’Antoni is going to play only one way, so it will be up to Popovich to dictate the terms of engagement.
Cavs vs. Bucks
If there was one moment this season when the collective NBA world sat up and took notice of Giannis Antetokounmpo, it came in the Bucks’ 118–101 win over the Cavs at the end of November, when Giannis dropped a 34-point, 12-rebound, 5-assist, 5-steal, and 2-block reckoning on the King. It was one of the first times in LeBron James’s career when he looked old; he was going up against an evolutionary version of himself, a younger, longer, and faster do-everything point center with the potential to take over a series with overwhelming skill and athleticism.
Of course, LeBron is still only 32, and he’s not ready to pass the baton just yet, but the first few rounds of the playoffs for the Cavs are more about setting up future challengers than anything else. The Pistons showed some spunk in the first round last season, but they’ve had a very disappointing season, and now the Bucks look like the biggest future threat to LeBron’s streak of Finals appearances. Could LeBron vs. Giannis become basketball’s Federer vs. Djokovic? Let’s hope this postseason will be the first of many clashes between the two.
Warriors vs. Jazz
It’s the same story out West, where the biggest question for the Warriors may not be who stops them this year, but what team is best set up to stop them in the future. Unlike the Cavs, who could face the best young team in their conference in the first round, the Warriors, in all likelihood, wouldn’t face the best young team in the West until the second. While Utah hasn’t made a playoff appearance since 2012, the Jazz have the talent to skip a couple of steps and make a deep run. When they’ve had their entire team healthy, they’ve been as good as any of Golden State’s potential challengers.
The Jazz have the length and athleticism on the perimeter to match up with the Warriors stars, and their big men have the foot speed to stay on the floor when the Warriors go small. How much would Quin Snyder play Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors together, and how much would he go with four, or even five, wings on the floor at the same time? The Jazz are a deep team that can play any number of styles in a series, and they will have some tough roster decisions to make in the near future. How they fare against the Warriors would tell them a lot about how they should proceed.
Clippers vs. Anyone
The Clippers are the wild card out West. Prior to all the injuries, they could’ve been seen as the biggest foil to the Warriors. Now, they’ve become an old cliché: the team no one wants to see in the first round. Without Griffin for at least the next week or two and Paul for the next two months, they could conceivably slip all the way to the no. 7 seed, setting up a bloodbath with either the Rockets or the Spurs in what would be a rematch of one of their playoff series from 2015. The Clippers have been around long enough that they have a history with almost every other elite team out West.
It feels like we say this could be the end of the Clippers every year, but this time might actually be different. Paul, Griffin, and J.J. Redick could all be free agents in the offseason, and who knows how they would respond to yet another playoff collapse. Of course, it doesn’t have to end that way. The Clippers have star power, continuity, depth, and the ability to play elite offense and elite defense. And for the first time in the Lob City era, they will be the underdogs. Maybe playing without the weight of expectations is what they needed all along.
Celtics vs. Wizards
The first round of the East playoffs could set a record for the number of games played on NBA TV. Raptors vs. Pacers and Hornets vs. Heat both went seven games last season, and who remembers anything about those series now? There’s a lot of mediocrity between the no. 4 and no. 10 seeds out East, and there aren’t many compelling matchups to look forward to. If we don’t get great basketball, we could at least get some legitimate bad blood, and that could happen in Celtics vs. Wizards, who almost got into a brawl at the end of their game on January 11.
If you squint hard enough, you can see a good team hiding somewhere in Washington, even with an abysmal bench and the second-fewest road wins in the league. Their starting five has a net rating of plus-11, one of the best marks in the league, and Scott Brooks can ride them a lot longer in the playoffs. They would present a tough matchup for Isaiah Thomas, who, at 5-foot-9, would have to guard any one of John Wall, Bradley Beal, or Otto Porter. The story lines in a Wall vs. Thomas matchup write themselves, as a former no. 1 overall pick plays in the shadow of a former no. 60 overall pick. Even if the Celtics advance, the Wizards would extract a pound of flesh from them — if not metaphorically, then literally.