NBA Playoffs Preview: Five Things to Keep an Eye on in the Postseason

Updated | The NBA regular season is in the history books and the playoffs have arrived, bringing with them a number of questions that will be answered between now and June.

Will the duel between Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals have a fourth instalment? How far can The Process go and is this the year James Harden finally wins a ring?

Newsweek has picked out five things to look forward to over the next two months.

Is this the Rockets’ year?

Optimism is at an all-time high in Houston after the Rockets swept aside everything in their path en route to winning 60 games for the first time in their history.

Houston has been on fire offensively—it averages 112.7 points per game this year, second only to the Golden State Warriors—and it has also been very solid defensively, with only seven teams conceding less points per game.

GettyImages-900315396 James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena on December 29, 2017 in Washington. The Rockets go into the playoffs with their best ever record. Rob Carr/Getty Images

Yet, the Rockets might not be the favorite to represent the Western Conference in the finals. It has been nine years since Mike D’Antoni coached a team to a win in the post-season, and MVP favorite James Harden—who averages 30.6 points and 8.7 assists per game this season—is 2-8 against the Warriors in the playoffs over the last three seasons.

There is a feeling Houston is over-reliant on three pointers—no other team has sunk more threes than the Rockets, but 12 other teams had a better percentage from behind the arc—which could prove crucial in the expected showdown against Golden State in the conference final.

LeBron to rule the East again

The Cleveland Cavaliers have endured a rollercoaster season but still managed to equal last year’s record. However, while 51 wins were enough to clinch the second spot in the Eastern Conference in 2017, this year the Cavs are the number four seed, the first time they have been outside the East’s top two since 2014.

Yet betting against LeBron James in the playoffs would be foolish, particularly considering he has produced the best season of his career, averaging 27.7 points, 9.2 assists and 8.7 rebounds per game.

The Cavs might not be as exciting as Philadelphia and Toronto but in LeBron they have the ultimate clutch player and even though he has played all 82 regular season games for the first time in his career, don’t expect tiredness to be a factor in what could be his final playoffs run with the Cavs.

Curry’s absence won’t stop Golden State

The Warriors and the Spurs meet in the playoffs for the second consecutive season after Golden State swept San Antonio in the Western Conference finals last year.

The defending champions will almost certainly be without the injured Stephen Curry for the duration of the series, with the two-time NBA MVP struggling with a knee injury.

Curry missed 16 out of the last 17 games of the season and the Warriors went 6-10 without him, but any hopes the Spurs might have of causing an upset will be tempered by Kawhi Leonard’s absence.

The MVP of the 2014 NBA finals has not played since January due to a lingering injury and without him the Spurs struggled against the Warriors in last year’s conference final.

Golden State might have recorded its worst regular season in four years but they have still won 58 games and stopping them will take some doing.

What next for The Process?

The Process is finally delivering the expected results and the 76ers are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. The Sixers are great fun to watch and in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz they have the most exciting core of young players in the league. However, the former is nursing an orbital fracture around his left eye and might miss the playoffs’ opener.

The Sixers have won all seven games without Embiid as part of a 15-game winning streak but desperately need him back if they are to go deep in the post-season and it will be intriguing to see how such a young group of players cope with the red-hot environment of the playoffs.

Arguably, the Sixers have nothing to lose in this post-season, which could give them a lift. Conversely, they wouldn't be the first exciting young team to be taught a harsh lesson by the playoffs.

GettyImages-942814302 LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers hugs Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers after the game at the Wells Fargo Center on April 6, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The duo could meet again in the playoffs. Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Toronto needs its stars to fire

The Raptors have been one of the surprises of the season, clinching their first ever Eastern Conference title on the back of an offense built on quick ball movement and the deepest bench in the league. However, Toronto enters the post-season with a few question marks hanging over its head, in particular the inconsistency that has plagued DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry in the playoffs.

Last year, the former went from averaging 27.3 points and 3.9 assists per game in the regular season to 22.4 points and 3.4 assist in the playoffs, while the latter’s production fell from 16.1 points and 6.9 assists per game in the regular season to 15.7 and 5.9 assists in the post-season.

The Raptors have lost the first game of a playoff series in all seven series they have played since the duo joined forces in Canada in 2012, and they need both their stars to fire on all cylinders if they are to make it to the finals.

This article was updated to reflect results on the final day of the season.

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