Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The NBA playoffs are finally here. And as LeBron James says, ‘it’s a sprint now’

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There’s a 64-win team in Boston that ran away with the league’s best record. The defending champions in Denver, a group that won 57 games. A fearless young bunch in Oklahoma City, whose No. 1 seed was no fluke. A trio of Villanova alums in New York, who turned the Knicks into a real contender.

And, once again, there’s LeBron James, too.

The NBA playoffs are about to begin with the Celtics and Nuggets the heavy favorites — at least according to BetMGM Sportsbook — to collide in the Finals, and no shortage of teams have realistic belief that they can win the whole thing as well. After a seven-month ramp-up through training camp, a preseason, the regular season, the inaugural NBA Cup and then a play-in tournament, the league finally wakes up on Saturday with 16 teams left in the chase for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

“Come Saturday, there are 15 other teams that want what we have,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “We have the world championship trophy and everybody’s trying to take it from us.”

Let the games begin. The Nuggets — with most of last season’s core back this year, including probable NBA MVP Nikola Jokic — are trying to become the eighth franchise to win back-to-back titles. They’ll open that quest against the Lakers and James, who is seeking a fifth title and has never hidden that this is, by far, the time of year that matters most to him.

“There ain’t no more pace,” said the 39-year-old James, the league’s oldest active player and all-time scoring leader who is seeking a fifth NBA title. “Pace yourself for what? Now it’s the sprint. It’s a sprint now. We already went through the marathon.”

Round 1 begins Saturday with four games: Orlando at Cleveland, Phoenix at Minnesota, Philadelphia at New York and the Los Angeles Lakers at Denver. On Sunday, four more Game 1s await: Miami at Boston in a rematch of the last two East finals, Dallas at the Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana at Milwaukee and New Orleans at Oklahoma City.

The Thunder won 22 games three seasons ago, then 24 games the year after that. Those days are long gone already: 40 wins last season showed the potential, and 57 wins this season — with no full-time starter over age 25 — suggest that OKC’s time may be now.

“It means a little more, how we got here, for sure,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder guard who is a legit MVP candidate after averaging 30.1 points this season. “But at the end of the day, it’s home-court advantage, I guess, until the Finals. And that’s always a plus when your home court is like ours.”

They are young, they might be brash, and they certainly are fun. Thunder guard Jalen Williams was asked why he wasn’t wearing his division title T-shirt when the Thunder clinched the No. 1 seed: “This leather jacket cost a lot,” he said, drawing laughs.

The Thunder weren’t expected to be in this position; they were given 100-1 odds to win the NBA title when the season started. Boston is a very different story; much was expected from the Celtics, and they delivered.

All Boston did this season was put up the fifth-best record in franchise history, which is a big deal for any team and an even bigger deal when a team is as storied as the Celtics franchise. Of the four Boston teams that had better regular season records, three went on to win NBA titles.

“You can’t even expect that you’re going to be a 64-win team,” Celtics President Brad Stevens said. “That’s a really hard threshold to meet no matter how good you are, no matter how well organized you are from a coaching standpoint, how many options you have from a playing standpoint. That’s just a hard thing to do.”

There is no apparent weakness with the Celtics, who finished the season ranked No. 1 in offensive rating, No. 2 in points per game, No. 3 in defensive rating and No. 5 in points allowed per game. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis all finished averaging at least 20 points per game; only two other Celtics teams had three 20-point scorers in a season. And they added Jrue Holiday — a U.S. Olympian this summer, just like Tatum — in the offseason to help anchor a defense built for this time of year.

“Everybody has that right mindset,” Celtics guard Derrick White said. “We’re looking forward to this.”

The Knicks lost Julius Randle and have somehow kept climbing, led by its Villanova trio — MVP candidate Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo. They get a showdown first-round series against Joel Embiid and the 76ers, a team that was vying for probably a top-2 seed before Embiid got hurt and missed much of the year.

“We just focus on getting better, every single day,” Brunson said.

There are some new faces in the playoffs: The Thunder, Indiana — the highest scoring team in the league this season — and Orlando are all playing at this time of year for the first time since 2020. Indiana faces a Milwaukee team that will open without star Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Magic take on a Cleveland team that hasn’t won a playoff series without James in uniform since 1993.

“We’re going to enjoy this,” Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said, “because they deserve to.”

Odds are, it’ll be either Boston, Oklahoma City, Denver, New York, Milwaukee or Minnesota winning the title. Since 1984, 39 of the 40 NBA champions have entered the playoffs seeded 1, 2 or 3 in their conference.

That said, it’s been an unpredictable year. And the playoffs inevitably bring surprises.

“The reality is we’re going to have to play well on Sunday,” Stevens said. “And beyond.”

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA

Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press

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