Are the NBA playoffs still a two-team race?

Sterling Sellers, Journalist

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The 2017-2018 regular season turned out much differently than most imagined. Most people ( including myself ) saw no reason to think that the championship duopoly consisting of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers would be threatened.
Of course, the playoffs haven’t even started yet, so we could very well see these two teams meet in the Finals for a record FOURTH year in a row. However, these usual powerhouses looked more vulnerable this season than they had in the previous three years.
The Warriors have encountered the biggest obstacle not named Lebron James during their historic four year run: Injuries. Stephen Curry, two-time MVP and arguably the Warriors’ best player, has been hampered by the ankle and knee injuries that held him back early in his career. He was limited to just 51 games this year, and won’t return until the latter stages of the playoffs, given the Warriors make it that far.
The Cleveland Cavaliers hurt their championship chances before the season even started by trading their second best player, Kyrie Irving, to the Celtics for a 5’9” walking hip injury by the name of Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas was gone after only a handful of games for the Cavs, eventually being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for some much needed role players. But the Cavaliers have one thing that no other team can claim: Lebron James.
Four-time MVP Lebron James has just finished his 15th NBA regular season. Fifteen seasons usually beckons for the decline of even the most distinguished careers, but King James has had perhaps his most well-rounded season to date; all while playing in each of the 82 regular season games for the first time in his illustrious career.
However, Lebron is surrounded by a less talented group of players than in his previous seven seasons; each of which featured Lebron’s team in the Finals.
So which teams are most likely to reach the Finals if not these two? The Houston Rockets have emerged as the biggest threat in the West this year. Head Coach Mike D’Antoni has used his star studded backcourt, consisting of Chris Paul and likely MVP James Harden, to turn the Rockets into one of the most offensively efficient teams in the history of basketball.
The Rockets took two out of the three games against the Warriors this season, and if the Warriors aren’t at peak health they could be due for an early playoff exit.
The Eastern conference is a different story. While the Cavaliers have had a relatively simple path to the Finals over the past three years, this year looked to be less straightforward. The Boston Celtics looked to be in prime position to dethrone Cleveland, but injuries to star guards Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving will all but ensure an early playoff exit.
The task of beating the Cavs to the Conference Title now primarily rests with the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers. The Raptors have somehow clinched the best record in the East in a sneaky fashion; beating out the hobbled Celtics for the number one seed.
Toronto still has more doubters than believers though, with many referencing their previous, rather disappointing playoff runs. A humbling loss to the Cavs near the end of the season has also contributed to the Raptors’ criticism.
The 76ers only have one problem: they’re extremely young and inexperienced. The sixers, led by young stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, managed a better record than Lebron’s Cavaliers over the course of the regular season. But many cite the lack of playoff experience as a major factor in their potential progression.
Philadelphia will also be missing the services of Embiid for at least the first game of their playoff journey. But if Embiid can stay on the court, watch for the 76ers to defy their inexperience and challenge in the East.
The shift in championship contention may be a welcome sight to many basketball fans, which is understandable considering the fashion in which the playoffs had become a mere warmup for the Warriors and Cavs before the Finals. However, if it is the beginning of the end for the duopoly, fans should reflect on these two incredible teams with a sense of appreciation; no matter how frustrating it may have been to see them dominate.
The playoffs begin on Saturday, April 14th, when the Warriors take on the spurs at 2:00 P.M. CST.

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