The Golden State Warriors plow into the playoffs with a record 73 wins under their belt and championship rings already on their fingers.
Their domination of the league this season, coupled with the perception that San Antonio and Cleveland are the only real challengers to the Warriors’ throne, has cast a feeling of inevitability on this year’s NBA playoffs, which begin Saturday.
“I just can’t think of a scenario in professional basketball, at least one that I’ve lived through, in which a team that is this dominant and this complete on both ends of the floor doesn’t end up doing what it has set out to do,” NBATV analyst Brent Barry said this week.
The league has long fought a perception that the postseason is too predictable, that the best teams always win. Casual fans point to the incredible drama in the win-or-go-home NCAA tournament as the ideal model and lament the perceived lack of upsets in the NBA with its seven-game playoff series that favor the most talented teams.
But a closer look at recent history reveals plenty of surprises along the way. Last year’s playoffs were chalky, with the top two seeds in each conference advancing to the conference finals and the top-seeded Warriors beating the Cavaliers — seeded second in the East — in the Finals.
Before that, the sixth-seeded Nets beat No. 3 Toronto in the Eastern quarterfinals, fifth-seeded Memphis made a run to the Western Conference finals in 2013 and a No. 8 seed has beaten a No. 1 seed in 2012, 2011 and 2007.
LeBron James needs no convincing.
His top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers lost to No. 3 Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals in 2009 and No. 4 Boston in 2010, the infamous series that preceded James’ exodus to Miami.
“The regular season doesn’t mean anything at this point,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said Friday. “We have two months to play our best basketball and compete and get it done.”
So where will the drama come from this time around? Here are some spots to watch:
LEBRON VS. STAN: The last person James likely wanted to see in the first round was Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who has the Pistons back in the playoffs in his second season as coach. Van Gundy also has final say in the front office and has constructed a team similar to the Magic squad that stunned James’ Cavs in 2009. James has reached another gear in the month leading up to the playoffs, but the top-seeded Cavs did go through some rough patches this season and chemistry continues to be an issue.
CARLISLE’S WIZARDRY: Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is one of the very best in the game, a master tactician who is never afraid to throw out wonky lineups that can befuddle his opponents. He somehow got a Mavericks team full of flaws to the sixth seed in the West, where they open the playoffs against No. 3 Oklahoma City and rookie coach Billy Donovan. Carlisle has J.J. Barea looking like the slippery water bug that helped the Mavericks capture the championship in 2011 as a No. 3 seed.
BIG-GAME DAME: The fifth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the biggest surprises in the league this season, turning the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge to San Antonio into an exciting young team built around point guard Damian Lillard, who has quickly carved a reputation as one of the league’s best clutch players. They face the fourth-seeded Clippers and Chris Paul, who has suffered many frustrating playoff setbacks in his brilliant career, in the quarterfinals.
GRIT AND GRIND: Almost no one gives the injury-plagued Grizzlies a chance against No. 2 San Antonio, which won 67 games this season. But coach Dave Joerger, Tony Allen and Matt Barnes will put up a fight and might make the Spurs work a little harder than anyone expects.
HEAT IS ON: The playoffs get their fair share of upsets and surprises in the first round, but they are rarer as the rounds progress. Sitting at No. 3 in the East, the Miami Heat may be best positioned to make a deep run, with a potential matchup against the second-seeded Raptors, who only have one playoff series victory in franchise history, looming in the semifinals. And how fun would an Eastern Conference finals between James and the Cavs and Dwyane Wade and the Heat be?