- With the NBA regular season finally over, let's dive into the postseason and check in on the six biggest storylines.
The NBA regular season is finally over, so let’s immediately look ahead to the playoffs. The defending champion Cavaliers look vulnerable, while the most talented team in the league, the Warriors, are finally hitting their stride. Elsewhere, Houston hopes to shoot its way to the top, the Celtics are looking to make the leap, and the Spurs are playing their usual brand of elite basketball.
While most people are expecting the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers come June, here are six other storylines to keep your eye on as the postseason unfolds.
The Cavaliers’ Defense
Cleveland needs to significantly improve its defense to repeat as champions. The Cavs’ defensive efficiency is in the bottom third of the league, and no team outside the top 10 in that category has won a title since the 2001 Lakers. Cleveland’s toughest championship competition—the Spurs and Warriors—have the top two defenses in the NBA.
Tyronn Lue has promised the Cavs will unveil some new defensive schemes during the playoffs, but that may not be enough to mask the deficiencies of some of the older players on the roster. Cleveland’s best bet at a championship defense—and a championship in general—is LeBron James, who has proven he can shut down opposing wings in big moments.
The Rockets’ Shooting
The Rockets and Warriors have the top four three-point shooters in the league by volume this season. Will Houston be able to keep pace in the postseason? Last year, the Warriors shot better from three in the playoffs compared to the regular season. Houston, meanwhile, cratered, shooting under 27% from the outside while losing to Golden State in five games in the first round.
The volatility of three-point shooting could be the best chance any team—particularly Houston, which shoots the most threes per game—has at upsetting the Warriors. If Mike D’Antoni can help James Harden, Eric Gordon and the rest of his team maintain their regular season pace, they may have a shot.
Kyle Lowry’s Return
By real plus-minus, Kyle Lowry was far and away the best point guard in the East this year.
Lowry is Toronto’s best offensive player, but the Raptors played significantly better defense in the 21 games he missed with a wrist injury. Maintaining the defensive focus they had when Lowry was out could end up being the key to a Raptors Finals run.
In addition to Lowry, the Raptors are still working in deadline additions P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka. If Dwane Casey is willing to try out some funky lineups during the playoffs, Toronto could surprise some teams in the East, especially with much of the focus on the Celtics and Cavs.
The Jazz’s Gordon Hayward is having a career year offensively, helping lead Utah to the fourth-best net rating in the NBA. A potential second-round series between the Warriors and Jazz would be a great showcase for Hayward, who could be a free agent this summer. Rudy Gobert has probably been Utah’s best player, but Hayward is their lone shot creator. His usage should increase a bit in the postseason.
And while Isaiah Thomas has been Boston’s fourth quarter hero, Boston’s impending playoff run will be his first chance to prove he’s a true postseason performer. The Celtics will need big scoring nights from Thomas, as the team struggles for large stretches offensively without him on the court. Thomas will also have to juice up his scoring to account for his subpar defense. Expect lots of points.
The Death Lineup
The return of Kevin Durant late in the season also meant the return of the Warriors’ dreaded small-ball lineup. The five-man group of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala obliterated opponents during the regular season. That lineup didn’t reach the heights of last year’s small group, however. With Harrison Barnes in place of Durant, Golden State had an absurd net rating of 47.0 last season.
If Steve Kerr shortens his rotations, the Durant-led death lineup should get plenty of time on the court to gel during the Warriors’ playoff run. If that lineup starts firing on all cylinders, the Dubs will be nearly impossible to beat.
Tony Parker’s Struggles
San Antonio has been better with Tony Parker off the court this season, particularly when he’s replaced by Patty Mills. Parker, a former Finals MVP, will be asked to match up with a gauntlet of talented point guards—starting with Mike Conley—if the Spurs hope to make the Finals. Mills has brought consistent shooting from three and energetic defense in place of Parker, and he’s the more athletic of the two players at this point in their careers.
The Spurs will also have to figure out their big man rotation. Pau Gasol and David Lee each gave Gregg Popovich valuable minutes during the regular season, but counting on them to hold up defensively in a seven-game series could be a dicey proposition.