The NBA playoffs start this weekend, and there’s no shortage of story lines worth following. Here’s a list of 10 to get you started:
1. THE WARRIORS
We begin with the reigning champions, the favorites to capture back-to-back titles. Golden State set the NBA record with a 73-9 regular season, and the Warriors’ reward to open the playoffs is a rematch of last season’s Western Conference finals against the Houston Rockets. It’s a matchup of the game’s two best scorers this season – Stephen Curry and James Harden. The Warriors are 12-1 in their last 13 against the Rockets and Curry has sizzled in those games, shooting 54 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range.
2. THE SPURS
This was the first season in NBA history where two teams won at least 80 percent of their games. Meet the other one. San Antonio went 67-15 – tying for the seventh-best record in the history of the league – and finished six games behind the Warriors in the Western Conference. If there’s a franchise that would enjoy having such a year somehow stay off the radar, it’s the Spurs. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich managed his players’ minutes to perfection again, with no one averaging more than 33 per night. Anything less than a Warriors-Spurs Western Conference finals would seem disappointing.
3. TIM DUNCAN
He merits his own mention for this reason: Duncan has a chance to play in more postseason victories than anyone in the history of the NBA. He’s been in 151 so far in his legendary career with the Spurs. Only Derek Fisher (161), Robert Horry (155) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (154) have played in more wins at this time of year.
4. LEBRON JAMES
In 10 previous trips to the playoffs, James has reached at least the second round all 10 times. His teams (Cleveland, then Miami, then Cleveland again) are a staggering 40-7 in first-round games, and James is on a personal 13-game winning streak in those opening matchups. James just finds ways to lift his game in the playoffs, playing huge minutes. And consider this one: Among players in this postseason, no one has more assists in their playoff career than James.
This is a logical pick to be the most intriguing first-round series, for plenty of reasons. For starters, both teams finished with 48-34 records and come from the same division, though Miami’s 48-34 worked out to a No. 3 seed and Charlotte’s 48-34 got the Hornets the No. 6 seed. But since the All-Star break, these have been two of the five hottest teams in the NBA. Charlotte was 21-8 since the break, third-best in the league behind Golden State (25-5) and San Antonio (22-7). The Heat are 19-10 in that span, behind only the Warriors, Spurs, Hornets and Toronto (21-9).
6. THE DURANT WATCH
This season has been one long countdown to Kevin Durant Watch 2016, otherwise known as what the Oklahoma City star will do this summer when free agency arrives. Durant has gotten the questions plenty of times this season, and when – or if, more accurately – the Thunder fall behind in a postseason series it’s a safe bet speculation will ramp up quickly about how what’s going on in these playoffs will influence the decision he makes in July. This will be especially true if the Thunder, the No. 3 seed out West, get into early trouble.
7. RAPTORS’ DROUGHT
This has been the best regular season in Toronto history, a 56-26 mark that got the Raptors the No. 2 seed in the East. But this season’s real goal for the Raptors has been finally getting some playoff success. Toronto was swept out of the first round last year, has lost its last five opening-round series and has reached the East semifinals once – in 2001. It’s not exactly an easy draw for Toronto, which gets Indiana in the first round. The Pacers have won their last three opening-round series.
8. CLOSE GAMES
Makes sense, given that the best teams tend to make for better matchups. Last year, 59 percent of the playoff games were decided by no more than 10 points. Having said that, there were only two Game 7’s last year, and the Los Angeles Clippers were in both – they beat San Antonio in the first round, and lost to Houston in the second round.
9. ROOKIE STRUGGLES
It’s hard enough for rookies to get through the rigors of an 82-game regular season as it is, which might explain why it hasn’t exactly been common of late for a first-year guy to put up big postseason numbers. Only two players in the last five postseasons – Harrison Barnes and Kawhi Leonard – have capped their rookie years with 100 points or more in the playoffs. And no rookie has come up with 200 points in a postseason since Miami’s Dwyane Wade had 234 back in 2004.
10. AWARDS TIME
Here’s a tip: When the NBA schedules a “major announcement” with one of its teams over the next few weeks, odds are someone from that team is about to pick up a big award. Stephen Curry is expected to be the MVP for the second straight year, perhaps unanimously. Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns also seems like a lock for rookie of the year honors. But a number of the races – coach of the year in particular – figure to be wide open. Awards are revealed periodically throughout the postseason.