When the 2018-19 NBA season began, life held certain steadfast truths.
Phone calls from “Unavailable” on caller ID were for donations or worse, solar panels. Side effects for TV medicines were worse than the ailment they were designed to relieve (we’ll take scaly elbows over “death in some cases”).
Most of all, the Warriors and Cavaliers were destined to wage a fourth straight NBA Finals war.
Don’t discount it, but the chances have diminished vastly. LeBron James and Cleveland may emerge from the East, despite a talented, focused Raptors team. But the Warriors must navigate the Houston minefield out West. The Rockets rearmed with Chris Paul and hope James Harden’s past playoff flops are, well, past.
The Cavs were given up for dead. Defensively, they stunk all year, but retooled at the trade deadline with talented — although inexperienced — additions. But they have LeBron. And he alone can punch a team’s Finals ticket.
“We’ve got a chance. We’re one of 16 teams that have a chance to win a championship,” James said. “That’s all you can ask for.”
Actually, we would ask for LeBron on our team. Then nothing is impossible. As one scout said: “All you have to do is go 4-3 every week. Round 1, Round 2, Round 3. Go 4-3, go to the Finals. What the Cavs have against them is they don’t have home-court [advantage].”
The postseason starts Saturday so here are some storylines that could lead to Cavaliers-Warriors IV — or Raptors-Rockets I:
OK Houston, we’re impressed with 65 wins. But does it work in the playoffs?
The Rockets will learn if analytics work against the same team in a seven-game series where it becomes a possession game, not a pickup game. They start with the Timberwolves and coach Tom Thibodeau who likely has plotted every possession. Houston swept Minnesota during the season en route to that franchise-best record.
Pairing James Harden and Chris Paul worked famously as Houston was second in scoring. But Harden must exorcise playoff demons. He gave a poor effort in a West semifinals-ending Game 6 last season and turned Oklahoma City’s Big Three into a Big Two against Miami in the 2012 Finals.
The Rockets lost defender Luc Mbah a Moute (shoulder), but hope to overwhelm with the scoring of Harden, Paul, Eric Gordon and Clint Capela.
At least they have their health. Well, some do.
Health became a major storyline for 2017-18 when, five minutes into the season, the Celtics lost Gordon Hayward. Other A-list stars infirmary-bound for various postseason times include Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and Joel Embiid.
Golden State needs to survive the first round without Curry. The Warriors face the Spurs, whose situation with Kawhi Leonard (quad) is as easy to explain as the workings of the Large Hadron Collider (or LHC in nerd-speak).
Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler returned after missing 17 games (the Timberwolves were 8-9) following meniscus surgery. But some guys went down for the season, including the Pelicans’ DeMarcus Cousins (Achilles) and the Thunder’s Andre Roberson (knee).
Oh, what a surprise. LeBron could get to the Finals.
It is a huge if, but if LeBron James can will these Cavaliers to the Finals, it would be his ninth trip to the title round overall, eighth straight, fifth in Cleveland and fourth consecutive with this group — granted a remade group. But as the No. 4 seed, the Cavs would lack home-court advantage after the first round unless upsets prevail. Can Cleveland do it?
“It depends on which Cavs team shows up. We have the ability to be very dynamic,” James said.
James never has lost a first-round series. The Pacers will be tough — LeBron has had some trouble at Indiana — but not enough to prevent the inevitable. The Cavs remain defensive nightmares, ranking 26th in points allowed.
Whoa, the Spurs are 60-1 to win it all?
The downside signs are everywhere for the Spurs, one of the great dynasties in sports. They are a seventh seed. They won 14 road games — one more than the Nets. Leonard may or may not make a postseason appearance. LaMarcus Aldridge was amazing, but the Spurs simply do not have enough talent.
Using 24 different starting lineups, San Antonio won 47 games, a testament to an extraordinary job by Gregg Popovich. Most coaches would have been hard-pressed getting the Spurs to the playoffs. They get Golden State in Round 1.
Take heart, Knicks fans. Suckage precedes success, just ask the 76ers.
Right before training camp, 76ers president of basketball ops Bryan Colangelo addressed a blistering schedule start.
“The start is bad, but the finish is pretty good. As long as we don’t dig too deep a hole,” Colangelo said hopefully.
There was a big hole — the Sixers started 15-19. But the finish contained an NBA best-ever 16-0 close. Optimists hope the Sixers, with 6-foot-10 matchup nightmare Ben Simmons, can be the 2018 version of the 2002 Nets, rising from a next-to-last division finish one year to the Finals the next.
The Sixers need Embiid at full strength. They face a tough, system-driven Miami team in the first round, but the Sixers’ confidence has exploded. There is good veteran presence in J.J. Redick and two shooters Atlanta gave away, Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli. The Sixers went 20-3 after signing them.
Don’t forget the Warriors.
Through injuries especially, the Warriors got to experience honest-to-goodness adversity in 2017-18. They don’t seem bummed.
“I have no worries about this team,” All-Star Klay Thompson said. “We’re ready to prove people wrong.”
The Warriors are missing a major component in the opening round with Curry recovering from a left-knee sprain. But they still field Kevin Durant, Thompson, Draymond Green and the offense that led the NBA in scoring, field-goal percentage and 3-point shooting. They’ll get past the Spurs, losing a couple of games, but then if Curry is back healthy, they are legitimate — but would not have home court in a potential conference Finals with Houston.
Legend says big men once mattered.
Sometimes TV sports documentaries refer to a time in the NBA when dinosaurs roamed the court. There were creatures named Wilt and Russell, Hakeem and Patrick, Shaq and Kareem, to name a few.
The NBA is perimeter-driven. Shoot 3-pointers by the dozens or become extinct. But could 2018 be the year a CENTER carries a team to a series victory?
But the potential is there. Minnesota has a superb big in Karl-Anthony Towns (20.3 ppg, 12.3 rpg). The Sixers know they need Embiid (22.9 ppg) if they are to do anything. New Orleans rode the strength of Anthony Davis (28.1 ppg, 11.1 rpg), who trailed only Harden in scoring. Davis starts against Portland and its terrific Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum backcourt, but the Trail Blazers also have center Jusuf Nurkic (14.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg).
There are dark horses, but one will exit quickly.
Three teams qualify as dark horses, though one, Philadelphia, is the hottest team on the planet. The other two meet in the first round — the West 4-5 matchup of the Thunder and Jazz — so somebody’s shelf life won’t exceed seven games.
The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook became the first player ever to average a triple-double a second time. With Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, if all three get hot, the Thunder can beat anybody.
They face a great story in Utah. From late January, the Jazz’s record was a ridiculous 29-6. They’ve got a good point guard in Ricky Rubio, a dominant inside player in Rudy Gobert and a terrific star rookie in Donovan Mitchell. They have depth and great coaching in Quin Snyder. The Jazz and Spurs allowed the fewest points (99.8). But the season’s last day could haunt the Jazz. They fell from a 3 seed to a 5.
Hey Raptors: the elephant in the room is just 6-foot-8, 250-pound LeBron.
LeBron James is in Toronto’s head. Everything the Raptors did in recent years was to get past LeBron. They brought in defenders all designed to stop him in the playoffs. If you missed it, LeBron has been to the past seven Finals.
“Everybody makes it, ‘Toronto flames out in the playoffs.’ Well, guess who we flamed out against the last couple years — 23 and Cleveland,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said.
This year, the Raptors played younger guys more to provide depth. They rested starters — DeMar DeRozan ranked 25th in the league in minutes, Kyle Lowry was 49th. All that was done hoping to get past LeBron. This year, they might.
First, they must beat Washington. They should. The Wizards, with John Wall and Bradley Beal, have two All-Stars in the backcourt. So does Toronto. The Wizards have playoff experience. So does Toronto. But Toronto has better depth.
Brother, can you spare a crutch?
The Celtics built properly. They fleeced the Nets in 2013 for a line of first-rounders. They dealt the first pick last year, got the third pick and took the guy they really wanted, Jayson Tatum. They signed Hayward, traded for Irving, have one of the best young coaching minds, Brad Stevens. But …
There’s always a but.
They did not stay healthy. Hayward played five minutes before his season catastrophically ended with an ankle injury. Irving underwent two knee surgeries and is done for the playoffs. Marcus Smart is out until late April after thumb surgery. Reserve big Daniel Theis was lost to knee surgery. So they’re as healthy as an Ebola ward.
The Celtics still defend — third best in scoring defense — and should have enough to snuff Milwaukee and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who lacks necessary support, in the first round.