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Teams Eye Larry O’Brien Trophy with Playoffs Underway

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Billy Sakmann, Sports Editor

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The first round of the NBA playoffs are underway, and though there are some favorites, the race for a championship is much more open and exciting than in recent years. Four teams have a great chance to win the NBA Finals, and there a couple dark horses that could make some noise and advance under the right circumstances. (Note that all statistics and series records will be based only through Sunday’s games.)

 

Of the four teams primed to potentially win it all, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the only true contender in the East. Despite an apathetic run in the final month of the regular season, LeBron James and the Cavaliers bounced back for an impressive 4-0 sweep of the Indiana Pacers. They advance to the second round, to play the winner of the series between the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors. Potential matchups in the conference finals include the Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, and Atlanta Hawks. Boston holds the conference’s top seed, but the Celtics were blown out in their last meeting with the Cavaliers. Should the eighth seeded Chicago Bulls make a run to the conference finals, the matchup could be interesting with Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, and Jimmy Butler attempting to end James’ historic run.

 

At the end of the day, the Cavaliers are the overwhelming favorite to win the East. James has been on a tear for six straight postseasons, reaching the NBA Finals each time. Barring an injury or an improbable upset, the Cavaliers should return to the championship series for the third straight year. For this reason they are among the likeliest teams to win, as they have the least competition to get to the Finals.

 

As for their potential opponent, three teams stand out in the West. The Vegas odds have the same matchup as the last two seasons: the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Golden State Warriors. This would be a historic third matchup in a row, and would potentially be one of the best series in NBA history. With each team winning a championship over the other in the past two years, the stakes would be insanely high to see which team can win two of three. The Warriors made a big splash this offseason, signing superstar Kevin Durant. Winning 67 games, Golden State just completed the best three year stretch in the regular season in NBA history. The Warriors are the odds-on favorites to win the title this year, but if anything they may face trouble getting there. Currently, the Warriors are up 3-0 against the Portland Trailblazers, with a second round matchup coming against either the Los Angeles Clippers or Utah Jazz. The real trouble wouldn’t come until the conference finals.

 

The two teams that stand to challenge the Warriors most in the West are the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. The consistently good Spurs haven’t been to the Finals since they went in back to back years against the Miami Heat. They are looking to go back one more time with Tony Parker, and with Kawhi Leonard’s rise to superstardom, they have a great shot. At time of writing, the Spurs are actually struggling to dispatch the 7th-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, with the series tied 2-2. The home team has won every game in the series, so the Spurs should still advance, even if it takes longer than expected. The Spurs have blown out the Warriors by 29 and 22 points this season, with the Warriors winning once by 12. Should the Spurs and Warriors meet in the conference finals, Steph Curry and company will have to fight for their lives to reach the NBA Finals once more.

 

If not the Spurs, look out for the Houston Rockets. The 3rd-seeded Rockets also hold the third best record in the NBA, behind MVP candidate James Harden and a stronger supporting cast than the team has seen in recent years. Despite Russell Westbrook’s best heroics, the Rockets are up 3-1 on the Oklahoma City Thunder and are expected to advance to play the Grizzlies or Spurs. Assuming it’s the Spurs, the series should be a high octane one, with the two of the best teams in the NBA vying for a spot in the conference finals. The teams have met three times during the regular season, and each came down to the wire. The Spurs won all three games, but two of them were decided by a mere two points, and the other by six. If the Rockets can beat the Spurs and Warriors in back to back rounds, they will likely become the new favorite to win it all.

 

Of course, if the teams with better records always won sports wouldn’t be fun. There are a few dark horse teams that could challenge the status quo. The Chicago Bulls looked like the perfect cinderella team, up 2-0 on the Boston Celtics, but have fallen down to Earth with the series tied 2-2. The winner of the series has a chance to make some noise in these playoffs and likely advance to the conference finals. Many aren’t out counting the John Wall and Washington Wizards to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, and some even think they could dethrone King James and the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers took two of three from Washington in the regular season.

 

Finally, in the West lies a potentially surprising team without a true superstar: the Utah Jazz. Gordon Hayward typically leads the charge for the Jazz, but he fell ill with food poisoning for game four against the Clippers. Despite this, the return of Rudy Gobert and the late game heroics of 36-year old Joe Johnson allowed the Jazz to tie the series at two games apiece. The Jazz are primed to put up a fight in this series, especially with the Clippers losing Blake Griffin for the season. Should the Jazz advance, they would be “rewarded” with a second round matchup against Golden State. Obviously it would be tough to advance further, but don’t count out the 51 win Jazz squad just yet.
There’s loads of excitement and storylines surrounding these NBA playoffs. Will LeBron James advance to a historic seventh straight Finals? Will the Warriors be champions once again, giving Durant his first ring? Can the Spurs, Rockets, or another team knock off one of these heavy weights before they reach the Finals? It will certainly be interesting to watch as the NBA’s second season continues to unfold.

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Teams Eye Larry O’Brien Trophy with Playoffs Underway