Is it too early to start talking about NBA play-off contenders? Probably, but we’re going to do it anyway. April 15th may seem a long way off right now, but it will come up fast, and as the league starts up again after the All-Star break, all of the leading contenders will be gearing up for a final play-off push. Which teams are looking good for a play-off spot?
The Cavs stopped the Raptors in the play-offs in 2016 and did it again last year, sweeping Toronto 4-0 in the Conference semi-finals. This time around though, it could be very different. The Raptors are a much-improved team, revamped in style and personnel. They now have a dangerous, free-flowing offense and a formidably deep roster, and have taken advantage of the weaknesses at the Cavs and the Celtics to open up a lead in the East.
NBA fans are wary of assuming that Toronto have drawn level with the likes of the Cavs and the Warriors in the battle for the championship, and if you check out the live odds online as the league returns to action, you’ll find the Raptors still trailing those two sides in terms of favoritism. However, if the Raptors can close out the East and land the number one spot, they will be a live contender. They are one of only two teams – the other being Golden State – to rank in the top five for offense and defense, and their 133-99 thrashing of the Cavs in January was a statement of intent. Watch out for the Raptors this year.
The Cavs endured a miserable spell going into 2018, beginning with a 99-92 loss at Golden State, and this run of bad form led to a major overhaul of the roster at the early February trade deadline. They sent out six players and brought in four, and the response was immediate. Victories in Boston and Oklahoma City were significant and signaled that the Cavs were gearing up for their annual Finals push. Four wins in a row going into the break closed the gap on the struggling Celtics, and LeBron James and friends will be pushing hard to overhaul the Raptors and grab the number one seed in the East.
The Celtics didn’t make too many changes at the trade deadline, though Greg Monroe will be a solid back-up to Al Horford. They can also expect the return of Marcus Smart to improve a deteriorating defensive record and help them remain in the top three in the East. Whether they can hold off the Cavs remains to be seen, but they should have enough to resist any late push from the Wizards or the Pacers and finish with the third seed at the very least. Beyond that, a serious Finals push will depend on further improvement from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and maybe even the return of Gordon Hayward, though they won’t be rushing him back before he’s ready.
The Rockets have been setting the pace in the West, and going into the break they had a half-game advantage over the Warriors. In James Harden, they have the NBA’s top scorer, and they have the best record against Conference rivals, including two wins out of three against the Warriors. Harden and Chris Paul have once again been leading the way, and the rockets added to their bench strength at the trade deadline, bringing in veterans Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright. If they opt to rest Harden towards the end of the regular season, they may slip behind the Warriors, but a top-two seed is assured.
Despite Houston’s pacesetting, the West remains all about Golden State. The reigning champions are keeping pace with the Rockets, with Kevin Durant leading the way, and are showing enough consistency to keep things ticking over as they head to the play-offs. As mentioned earlier, they are in the top five for offensive and defensive ratings and have only once suffered consecutive losses this season. With the Rockets likely to contemplate resting James Harden in the closing weeks, the Warriors could yet pick up the number one seed again.
We’ve become used to the play-offs being all about the Cavs and the Warriors, but this time around, they face serious challenges from Houston and Toronto. With five or six teams having serious Finals chances, the 2018 play-offs are shaping up to be one of the most exciting editions in years, and they can’t come soon enough!