The NBA regular season ended with a bang. Kobe Bryant finished his career with a 60-point performance, Stephen Curry set an NBA record with 402 3-pointers in a season, and the Golden State Warriors earned a spot in history with 73 wins.
Now it’s time for the real games to begin. The playoffs are here. The lineup:
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (8) Detroit Pistons
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Indiana Pacers
(3) Miami Heat vs. (6) Charlotte Hornets
(4) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Boston Celtics
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Houston Rockets
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies
(3) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (6) Dallas Mavericks
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers
— NBA (@NBA) April 14, 2016
The playoffs start up Saturday with a slate of four games. The Warriors, the season-long favorites to win back-to-back championships, will be facing a familiar opponent in the Houston Rockets after the teams dueled in the Western Conference Finals last season.
And while the Warriors are certainly the odds-on favorites on the postseason, that pressure may end up taking a psychic toll on Curry and company. At stake: the opportunity to cement their place as one of the best—if not THE best—NBA teams of all time after winning 73 games in the regular season. Sure, they're stacked with talent. But one does not simply break the single-season wins record set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls without inviting intense scrutiny and drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan’s legendary squad.
If the Warriors end up losing in the finals—or if they are eliminated earlier—some in the basketball world might (unfairly) discount what the team accomplished during the regular season. But winning two championships in a row? That would make Golden State one of the all-time best teams in sports, not just basketball.
Can the Warriors do it against a strong crop of Western Conference teams? They've done pretty well so far:
The @warriors were 21-2 (.913) vs top-10 teams this season (the best win percentage for one season in NBA history)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 14, 2016
In the other corner of the Western Conference: The San Antonio Spurs, easily the second-best team in the league this season and arguably the biggest threat to Golden State's repeat title hopes. The Spurs won 67 games—going an astonishing 40-1 at home—and allowed the fewest points per game in the league. San Antonio might be the only team good enough to slow down the dynamic offense of Curry and the Warriors.
If you're looking for a dark horse in the West, keep a weather eye on the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder missed last season's playoffs after Kevin Durant's injury, but KD has returned to All-Star form in 2015-16. And if it's any extra motivation, the Thunder know Durant might leave as a free agent this offseason. Add in Russell Westbrook, who has been an MVP candidate after recording 18 triple-doubles this season, and the Thunder might give somebody trouble if they can get past the Mavs.
And the stage is set for the NBA Playoffs... pic.twitter.com/quDtKFnuhj
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 14, 2016
It's a simpler storyline in the Eastern Conference, where the main question is whether the Cleveland Cavaliers can get back to the finals with a healthy roster. Losing both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in the playoffs sunk Cleveland's hopes last season, leaving LeBron James to battle the Warriors single-handedly in the finals. If Kyrie, Kevin, and the King—not a blues trio—can escape the East bracket healthy, the Cavs have a chance to make some noise.
So will the Warriors go back-to-back? Las Vegas thinks so—Golden State comes in as the overall favorites to win the title. Things get started for the defending champs against the Rockets at 3:30 p.m Eastern / 12:30 p.m. Pacific on Saturday with TV coverage from ABC.