For fans of the Premier League, this year has seen one of the most exciting title races in years. But if you can tear yourself away from Leicester’s logic defying tilt at the title for a moment, you might want to take a look at another Championship campaign gearing up across the pond. Next week sees the start of the most spectacular show in world basketball, the NBA play-offs. Admittedly, basketball isn’t the most popular sport in the UK, with most British people’s knowledge of the game restricted to watching Space Jam and a handful of half heartedly organised PE lessons. However, at it’s best, the NBA showcases some of the most engaging characters, impressive athleticism and entertaining narratives that sport can offer. Plus with games being shown on British TV and social media able to keep you updated at all times, following the playoffs has never been easier. For the uninitiated, this guide will provide a quick run down of what to look out for.
How it works
The NBA is divided by region into two conferences, Eastern and Western. The top eight teams in both Conferences play each other in three knockout rounds to decide the two Conference champions. The winner of the East then faces the winner of the West for the NBA title.
Playoff games aren’t decided in a one off game or a home and away leg. Instead, the two teams play a series of games until one has won four matches. So the most a series can go on for is seven games (4-3) and the least is four (4-0, called a sweep).
Essentially this years playoffs come down to one question, can any team work out how to beat the Golden State Warriors? To describe the Warriors as merely reigning champions and heavy favourites to retain the title doesn’t come close to describing how good they are. They aren’t just the best team in the league at the moment, they’re one of the greatest teams in NBA history. To put it in perspective, the Warriors just broke the best regular season record ever set by Michael Jordan’s famed 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team. Victory on Thursday against the Memphis Grizzlies saw Golden State surpass the Bulls’ record and made the Warriors officially the most successful regular season team of all time.
The lynch pin of Golden State’s success has been their star player and last year’s (and almost certainly this year’s) Most Valuable Player, Steph Curry. Showing an almost inhuman ability to sink shots from seemingly anywhere on court, Curry has staked an increasingly credible claim to being the best player in the world today. To get an idea of what they hype’s all about, take a look at this. and this. and also this. 6 foot 3, slightly built and coming into the league from a relative minnow of a college (Davidson), Curry has become a nightmare to opposing teams. No one has yet been able to discover a consistent way of shutting Curry down and unless someone does quickly, the odds strongly suggest he will lead his team to back to back titles.
The Warriors are no one man team however. Whereas last year the Warriors faced the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that seemed to have been dragged into the finals by the will of one man, LeBron James, Golden State have an array of offensive threats beside Curry. In Klay Thompson, the Warriors have another of the league’s best shooters of the ball.
If Curry and Thompson provide the class, the Warriors outspoken power forward Draymond Green provides the grit. One of the most noticeable leaders on the court for the Warriors, Green has become one of the most highly valued players in the whole NBA with an unstoppable work rate and boundless desire to win. In a team mostly filled with relatively quiet and lower profile characters, Green presents a brasher and more defiantly confident image to the media. His trash talking antics have made him somewhat of a pantomime villain to rival fans. But to much of Golden States support he is regarded as the heart and soul of the team.
Of course, despite their achievements over the gruelling 82 game NBA schedule, the Warriors still have to navigate the playoffs before they can bring the championship back to Oakland. Despite their invincible aura, the Warriors have actually lost 9 games this season. Just in April alone in fact, they’ve already lost twice, first to the Boston Celtics, a promising team but not one expected to be title challengers, and then the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves. Some suggest these losses show the season is starting to take a toll on the Warriors and they’re in danger of burn out. If so, there are a few candidates ready and willing to take advantage and put a anti-climactic end to the Warriors campaign.
The NBA is divided into two leagues, the Eastern and Western conferences. The Western is generally regarded as the stronger of the two and this is were the Warriors and there most threatening rivals, the San Antonio Spurs, have qualified fro. The Spurs’ closest football comparison is probably Ferguson-era Man United. They’re perennial playoff fixtures, last missing the post season in 1997. They’re led by the cantankerous but highly respected, future hall of fame coach, Gregg Popovich. “Pop” as he’s affectionately known is notorious for his dislike of interviews and generally handles all media obligations with an air of amused disdain. Under his leadership, the Spurs have one five championships, most recently in 2014. Although some of their stars are ageing (the legendary Tim Duncan is now 39), there are no signs that they are in decline. Additionally, in Kawhi Leonard, they have a player who in another, Steph Curry-less year might have been leading candidate for MVP. With a fantastic season of their own (65 wins, 15 losses), the Spurs have already beaten the Warriors three times and will be confident they can pull off an upset.
The East may be seen as weaker, but it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that a team from the West will win. The team that finished top of the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers, possess one player that makes them impossible to write off; LeBron James. Though he has been somewhat overshadowed this year by Curry, James is considered an all time great. He is a two time champion, and has won the award for best player in the league (MVP) four times. Last season he almost single handedly at times took the injury plagued Cavaliers to the NBA finals and pushed the Warriors for six games before they were finally beaten. This time, however, the Cavaliers are in better shape and have a number of key players who can help share the burden. Kyrie Irving is an all star player and one of the most energetic offensive threats in the league. The enigmatic but inconsistent J.R. Smith is, when on form, an elite three point shooter.
The Cavaliers have struggled with stability this year. First, they sacked their manager, David Blatt, despite having the best record in the East. Then they appointed Tyronn Lue to his first head coaching role. However, with this upheaval behind them the Cavaliers will be out for revenge after last year’s disappointment in the finals. LeBron James is a hometown hero in Cleveland and has repeatedly stated he wants to bring a first ever title back for the team. Cleveland sports fans are famously long suffering (no professional team in any sport from the city has won a title since 1964) and they will be looking to James to end the drought.
The Cavaliers aren’t the only Eastern team with title pretensions though. The Toronto Raptors finished second in the conference just a few games behind Cleveland. Not traditionally a basketball stronghold, the Raptors have excelled this year with a talented young team. However, the playoffs have often proved disappointing for Toronto. In their last five appearances they have not made it through the first round. This time though they are highly favoured to make it at least as far as the Conference finals. If they can make it over that hurdle, they may have a chance of winning their first championship since forming in 1995. Backed by some of the League’s most vocal fans drawn from the “great white north,” including Drake and a man in a red dinosaur costume, the Raptors are looking to prove there’s more to Canadian sports than hockey.
The dark horses
Aside from the Spurs and Warriors, the West is also home to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, possess two of the biggest stars in the league. The Thunder are frequently accused of under performing and rumours abound that Durant will soon leave Oklahoma. Despite this, OKC were still able to finish third in a tough conference and while their two best players remain fit they are capable of beating anyone on their day. A relatively new team, being founded in 2008 when the Seattle Supersonics moved to Oklahoma, the Thunder have already appeared in the finals once in 2012.
In the East, a legendary team that has spent the past few years rebuilding will be hoping to cause a shock. The Boston Celtics are the NBA’s most successful team with 17 titles. Since their last title in 2008 however, the Celtics have struggled to find their way back to the final stages of the playoffs. Their rebuilding period seems to have yielded rewards quicker than expected however as the team heads into the knock out stages this year. Boston’s stock rose considerably after they unexpectedly ended the Warriors 54 game home winning streak. Going to Oakland and winning at an arena which had not witnessed a defeat in over a year will boost the Celtics’ confidence that they can beat any team in the East. The Celtics star is their diminutive point guard, Isaiah Thomas. In a league were being six foot is considered noticeably short, the five foot nine Thomas was able to make the all star team thanks to his prodigious ball handling skills and ability to score. It may be too early for the Celtics’ title aspirations but they may well cause some upsets in the East.
Player to watch: Lebron James
Title odds: 4/1
Player to watch: DeMar DeRozan
Title odds: 33/1
Player to watch: Dwayne Wade
Title odds: 40/1
Player to watch: Paul Millsap/Jeff Teague
Title odds: 66/1
Player to watch: Isaiah Thomas
Title odds: 66/1
Player to watch: Kemba Walker/Jeremy Lin
Title odds: 100/1
Player to watch: Paul George
Title odds: 125/1
Player to watch: Reggie Jackson
Title odds: 200/1
Golden State Warriors
Player to watch: Steph Curry
Title odds: 8/13
San Antonio Spurs
Player to watch: Kawhi Leonard
Title odds: 7/2
Oklahoma City Thunder
Player to watch: Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook
Title odds: 16/1
Los Angeles Clippers
Player to watch: Blake Griffin/Chris Paul
Title odds: 33/1
Portland Trail Blazers
Player to watch: Damian Lillard
Title odds: 100/1
Player to watch: Dirk Nowitzki
Title odds: 250/1
Player to watch: Marc Gasol
Title odds: 250/1
Player to watch: James Harden
Title odds: 250/1
(All times British Summer Time)
Saturday 16 April
17:30 Toronto Raptors v Indiana Pacers
20:30 Golden State Warriors v Houston Rockets
Sunday 17 April
00:00 Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics
02:30 Oklahoma City Thunder v Dallas Mavericks
20:00 Cleveland Cavaliers v Detroit Pistons
22:30 Miami Heat v Charlotte Hornets
Monday 18 April
01:00 San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies
03:30 Los Angeles Clippers v Portland Trail Blazers