- The Warriors and Cavaliers are favored to meet in the NBA Finals for a third straight year, but there's a host of challengers looking to crash the party. We break down the field.
While both teams still have issues to sort out, the Cavaliers and Warriors remain heavy favorites to reach the NBA Finals for a third straight year, setting up a trilogy the likes of which the league has never seen.
But don't pencil in Warriors-Cavs III just yet. Behind the two star–studded squads is a host of challengers looking to crash the party.
The Cavs are locked in a fierce battle with the Celtics for the top spot in the East as the NBA season winds down, while the reinforced Wizards and Raptors lurk behind as potential playoff obstacles as well. In the West, Kevin Durant remains sidelined, leaving the Warriors potentially vulnerable to juggernauts like the Spurs and Rockets.
Outside of Cleveland and Golden State, which NBA team is most likely to emerge from this year's playoff gauntlet and reach the Finals? We asked our NBA experts.
Pretty realistic: San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio’s hopes of sneaking past the Warriors begin with the premise that no other Western Conference team is better set to slow both Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry at the same time. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are smart, relentless defenders—the kind capable of putting Golden State’s finest in uncomfortable positions and subtly prompting the remaining Warriors to beat them. That can be a dangerous game when the other Warriors in question include Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but this is the lot of a Western Conference spoiler. What matters is that the Spurs could plausibly control important dimensions of the game: the three-point line (where San Antonio ranks as one of the best in the league in both containment and percentage allowed) and the passing lanes (where Curry, when under pressure, can get a little sloppy) that enable Golden State’s viciously efficient offense. Apply the clamps there and a winning formula begins to materialize.
Keeping up their own scoring to match won’t be easy, but the Spurs orchestrate well enough to target the Warriors’ switches, exploit mismatches, and clean up the offensive glass against any over-help. A size dynamic that nearly felled Golden State in last year’s Western Conference Finals still applies. Golden State can be bullied a bit—enough, perhaps, to control the margin and dictate terms against the most terrifying lineups in the league. — Rob Mahoney
A definite possibility: Boston Celtics
In case you haven't bothered to notice, the Celtics—nope, not the —are in first place in the Eastern Conference. That usually portends well for the postseason, and with Cleveland floundering a bit and Boston staked to a half-game lead, that home–court advantage may just wind up meaning something this time around. First and foremost, the Celtics need to hang onto a top–two seed to guarantee avoiding LeBron until the conference finals (which seems doable). They’ll have to go through the rival Wizards or the Raptors, both of which present tricky matchups. But the C’s have the personnel to sneak-attack the rest of the conference and make everyone who was mad about their lack of deadline activity recant.
To start, the Celtics need Isaiah Thomas to be his best self at all times. Teams will game plan harder for him in the playoffs (like we saw last year), and he’s going to take a beating in the paint. Thomas can be a defensive sieve with his size and strength disadvantages, so he needs to break even with the type of offensive output he’s fully capable of providing. Boston has willing, savvy defenders in Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder that’ll let them mix and match in critical minutes, and continuous contributions from those guys and rookie Jaylen Brown would really push the envelope. Al Horford’s been at his best this month, which is a great sign. Boston’s weakness, however, remains on the interior, where they’ll have to rebound adequately and find ways to protect the rim when it counts. If they can cover for these weaknesses, they should be able to ride it out to the conference finals at a minimum. It’s hard to be off the wall confident about winning four games against Toronto or Washington, but it’s certainly doable.
When you put the Celtics up against the Cavs, hypothetically, they have enough quality rotation guys to compete. Cleveland will want to go small, and Boston will have the guys to match them on defense without giving up a ton on the other end. It’ll fall on the shoulders of Thomas to create offense and prevent things from stagnating. With just enough luck, nothing’s too far out of the question for these guys. — Jeremy Woo
Hey, it could happen: Houston Rockets
The Rockets don’t have a particularly easy path to the Finals. James Harden and Co. would have to topple both the Spurs AND the Warriors to make it to the championship round, which is obviously a tall task. But here’s why it could happen!
If James Harden really is the MVP of the NBA, or the co-MVP, or one of two players having the best season, that has to mean something at some point, right? In a potential second-round matchup against the Spurs, Harden has a chance to be the best player on the court. That's in no way a knock on Kawhi Leonard, but Harden has been a consistent force on offense this year in ways we've never seen before. Is it crazy to think Harden could raise his game one more level to sink the Spurs?
The Warriors won’t be an easy out, but if there's one team that can shoot with Golden State, it's Houston. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are No. 1 and No. 2 in three-pointers made this season, but Harden and Eric Gordon are right behind them at three and four, with Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza also in the top 11. If the Rockets can get super hot from outside (and the Dubs go a little cold), the volatility of three-point shooting could be enough to make it a series.
Also slightly helping my argument: Houston has wins over San Antonio and Golden State on the road this season. And Mike D'Antoni deserves this! Long live "Seven Seconds or Less." Go Rockets. — Rohan Nadkarni
A bit of a reach: Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are no strangers to sniffing the Finals. After trailing the Cavs 2-0 in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, Toronto evened things north of the border, winning its next two contests. DeMar DeRozan shook and shimmied his way to over 30 points in both games, and Kyle Lowry’s 35-point eruption in Game Four knotted the series at two.
Unfortunately, that eruption also woke up the Cavaliers, who went on to win 4–2, and left the Raptors short of the Finals once again. But as the playoffs approach, Toronto will soon get another chance to supplant LeBron and Co. atop the Eastern Conference.
Lowry and DeRozan still hold the keys for Toronto and rightly so. Both are wonderful scorers and creators off the dribble, capable of taking over games at any time. But despite the presence of the two All-Stars, the Raptors’ best chance to dethrone the Cavs comes from their improved frontcourt.
Raptors GM Masai Ujuri added a pair of standout defenders before the deadline, acquiring both Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. Ibaka will provide enhanced rim protection without sacrificing offensive competence—unlike the jettisoned Bismack Biyombo—and Tucker will take on the defensive assignment of guarding James. If Toronto can crash the boards and make James look mortal, their standout guards can secure the series.
That said, I wouldn't bet the house on it. Games 5 and 6 of last year’s conference finals were a shredding, as Cleveland dispatched the Raptors with two blowout victories. As long as James and Kyrie Irving are healthy, Toronto faces an uphill battle against the champs. — Michael Shapiro
This would be stunning: Washington Wizards
The Wizards might not be likely to make the Finals, but the argument for Washington making a dark–horse run is pretty clear: The team’s starters are really, really good. Scott Brooks’ starting lineup ranks No. 5 in the league in net rating among five-man groups with at least 300 minutes played. And that’s no fluke—they’ve logged 1,265 minutes as a unit, good for most in the league by a mile.
So in the playoffs, when rotations are shortened, Brooks will be rolling out one of the best starting groups in the league and playing them even more minutes. Washington also has the offensive firepower to win any given game. Otto Porter has slumped a bit since the All-Star break, but he still ranks No. 3 in three-point percentage. Bradley Beal is turning in a breakout season, and is one of just three players in the league averaging at least 23 points per game on 40% three-point shooting. And trade deadline acquisition Bojan Bogdonovic has given Washington’s bench a desperately-needed jolt, averaging nearly 15 points in a Wizards uniform.
The East still goes through the reigning champs, but the Wizards have played the Cavaliers shockingly well this season. Cleveland won the season series 2–1, but Washington took the most recent matchup, and one of those Cavs wins was only possible thanks to a wild three-pointer from LeBron to send the game to overtime. The Wizards know they can play with the East’s elite—we'll find out if they can beat them in a seven-game series. — Alex Hampl
The darkest of dark horses: Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers? They’ve never been great candidates for “breakthrough” or “spoiler.” They’re great for other things: Bad benches, blown leads and playoff disappointment, but it’s hard to be the plucky breakthrough candidate when your team is reviled by opposing teams and officials alike. If Draymond Green kicked every Clippers player in the nuts, fans would cheer until he tried to hurt Jamal Crawford. The Clippers are used to crashing their own title hopes—see: Game 6 of the 2015 Western Conference semifinals against Houston—not crashing others. This is despite the fact the Clippers have one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, one of the game’s great young forwards, and a center whose grown from a late second-round pick into one of the game’s best big men.
And yet, the Clippers don’t have a chance to make the NBA Finals unless J.J. Redick is totally healthy once the playoffs begin and Doc Rivers can get reasonable production from his bench. Austin Rivers has emerged as a necessary piece to their success—his defense is outstanding and his decision-making has improved since his younger days—and Marreese Speights lets them stretch the offense a bit. Even Raymond Felton has given the Clippers valuable minutes this season, but the post depth is bad and the Clippers haven't had a valuable rookie since Griffin in 2010. Doc Rivers hasn’t been able to cultivate any depth since he’s controlled the roster, and it’s bound to burn the Clips again.
The upside? When the Clippers coalesce, they’re a fast and frightening unit that can keep pace with the Warriors. They can win two playoff series if the bench plays to the best of its abilities. But given the dreadful playoff history and recent struggles, it’s hard to see them crash the NBA Finals... but it's not impossible! — Gabriel Baumgaertner