Old vs. New in West, Stars vs. Systems in East NBA Playoffs

After claiming the title in last year’s NBA finals, there were few that foresaw the Golden State Warrior’s continued improvements – a.k.a. Stephen Curry’s step from superstar to transcendental player. Curry has led the team to one of the most winning regular seasons in league history, at 66-7 as of March 28, and there is little standing in the way of the team catching up to the ’95-’96 Chicago Bulls all-time best regular season record of 72-10.

For such a historically successful team, high expectations for their postseason campaign ring strong and frequently, and despite notable competition, the Warriors have made a habit of meeting and exceeding expectations over these past two seasons. Curry has led the way averaging 30 points a game while orchestrating the offense along with Draymond Green, who has Curry’s equivalent of Scottie Pippen. Beyond the generationally talented superstar and the still-budding star, the Warriors boast a team with stunning depth with Andre Iguodala, last season’s NBA Finals MVP, coming off of the bench, and Curry’s fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson gunning from the wing.

“I believe that the Warriors will win the NBA finals this year,” State College of Florida second-year Jac Durr said. “I think Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are a trio of stars that can’t be stopped if healthy.”

Golden State’s historic season has not stood as the only campaign worthy of historical significance, however, with the San Antonio Spurs once again challenging for the top spot in the Western Conference. The aging core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli are still the heart and soul of the team, captaining it in their reduced – but still essential – roles. The team’s true offensive power comes from Gregg Popovich’s battle-tested system and two of the brightest young stars of the modern era, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Leonard provides what might be the best defensive cover in the entire league while still producing consistent and extremely efficient scoring, while Aldridge cleans up the glass and provides the star-quality offensive presence that he once led the Trailblazers with.

The two teams make up the top tier of NBA title contenders, and are expected to battle it out in the West before confronting the unlucky East representative who will have to face them. Despite the Eastern Conference regaining some of its strength, at least relative to recent years, there are only two true championship contenders in the East – the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors. The Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics have made a case for their inclusion in contending-status, but neither of the teams has the star-power to truly represent an imposing force capable of competing against teams like the Warriors, Spurs or Cavaliers.

The Toronto Raptors, who just barely garner recognition of contending-status, have been backing the Cavaliers as a strong number two in the conference. With the new-and-improved Kyle Lowry playing what might be considered MVP-caliber basketball on any other given year, and DeMar DeRozan breaking through in his contract’s final year, the Raptors have won 49 games as of Mar. 28, and only trail LeBron’s Cavaliers by two and a half games in the East. They have a top-5 offensive rating in the game, and have been toeing the top-10 territory in defensive rating all season. When the Raptors are firing on all cylinders, they are one of the more dangerous teams in the league, but even their impressive formidableness might not be enough to topple LeBron’s vice-grip on the Eastern Conference.

Speaking of LeBron, this is just about the time for him to rediscover his postseason drive and start cranking his Cavaliers into true contending status. While Cleveland has not exactly had a smooth season, enduring endless player drama – even beyond David Platt’s firing and Tyronn Lue’s not-so-perfect handling of the passed torch – and having yet to find truly impressive chemistry among the team’s three stars. If this season’s finals play out the same way as last season’s, it might be time to question whether or not Cleveland’s combination of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love is a winning one. Regardless of whether or not the team can or will win the championship, they have the talent to smother opposing teams on offense, and the drive to make a serious push for the title. By this point, it just has to be expected for LeBron to put the team on his shoulders and carry them as far as he can possibly take them, and in the East he has shown for years now that he can take his team almost singlehandedly into the finals.

“I think that the Warriors, Cavs, and Spurs all have good chances to win the finals this year,” Durr said. “I’m looking forward to seeing players like Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs, and I think that each player gives their team a realistic opportunity of winning the NBA Finals.”

Golden State and San Antonio make up the top tier of playoff contenders in the NBA, and the Cavaliers come right behind, a contending team bolstered by their position at the top of the East. A repeat of last year’s Warriors/Cavaliers matchup is incredibly possible, but the match up will most likely have one, if not two of these teams competing for the title. The Association has had a fairly top-heavy season when it comes to success, but for good reason: the top teams in the league are some of what might be the top teams of all time. Regardless, there are several teams looking to demonstrate their own strength in the playoffs.

Despite believing that the Spurs will win the NBA Finals this postseason, SCF second-year Matthew Lansdowne is one of the many who would like to see the Oklahoma City Thunder finally win it all. The team, which got swept by the then-LeBron-led Miami Heat in the 2012 Finals, has since dealt with injuries to the 2013 NBA MVP Kevin Durant and a severe lack of depth behind Durant and Westbrook – who has, in the wake of Durant’s persistent injuries, become the best player on the team. The two are perhaps the most talented duo the league has to offer, but the team that surrounds them is lacking, as it has for years now. Serge Ibaka is a great defensive presence for the team, but does not provide the firepower the Thunder need out of a true third-best player, and Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters and Steven Adams are what’s left of OKC’s significant contributors – none of whom can elevate the team to elite contender status.

“They have two of the premier players in the league, who more than deserve a championship,” SCF second-year Matthew Lansdowne said. “I’d like to see them win together before the chance of Kevin Durant leaving.”

It might indeed be the final year for the Thunder to win with Kevin Durant, as his contract is up after the season ends. As the Spurs and the Warriors have been spoken of as two of the biggest threats to sign him in free agency, this might be OKC’s final opportunity to show Durant that he does not need to leave to contend for a championship.

Whether or not teams like the Thunder or the Raptors can make a run in the NBA playoffs, all eyes will be on the Warriors to cap off their historic season, on the Spurs to capture one last title before Duncan, Parker and Ginobli ride off into their trophy-filled sunset, and on the LeBron’s Cavaliers, to see whether or not he has only come home to the same mess as before. Expectations will be high for these teams, but the bigger they are, the harder they fall. The question is, which ones will fall, and which team will rise to the top.

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