NBA Playoffs 2017 storylines: Durant chases first title, LeBron chases Jordan

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The 2017 NBA playoffs are finally here. 

This has been the most explosive scoring season since the 1980s. We’ve seen three of the best offenses in history. We’ve seen the best MVP race, maybe in the history of the league. We’ve seen five 50-point triple-doubles. We’ve seen records for 3-pointers, offensive efficiency, scoring with a triple-double, most triple-doubles in a season, and the list goes on and on. 

Now,
Kevin Durant
chases the No.1 spot he has been after for six years,
LeBron James
goes for ring No.4, the
Golden State Warriors
go for redemption, the
Houston Rockets
go to shock the world, the
San Antonio Spurs
try to … well, be the Spurs, the
Toronto Raptors
look to cement themselves as a powerhouse, the
Boston Celtics
want to shut up the haters, the
Washington Wizards
think this is their year, the
Los Angeles Clippers
want to rewrite their history, and
Russell Westbrook
is coming to burn everything down. 

Here are five awesome storylines about the NBA playoffs. 

1. MOST VALUABLE SHOWDOWNS: The NBA is better than any other league at creating direct conflict between star entities. You will never see superstar quarterbacks on the field at the same time doing what they do, but in basketball, you’re going to get
James Harden
and Russell Westbrook staring one another down from the opening tip. Think of the likely matchups we’re going to get in these playoffs:

Harden vs. Westbrook


Kawhi Leonard
vs. Harden or Westbrook


Stephen Curry
vs.
Chris Paul

KD vs.
Blake Griffin

KD/Curry vs. Kawhi or Harden

LeBron vs.
Paul George

LeBron/Kyrie Irving vs. John Wall/Bradley Beal


Isaiah Thomas
vs. Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan

LeBron vs. Isaiah or Lowry/DeRozan

We are going to get several of those matchups. The talent in this league is out of this world right now. And they’re all going head to head in these playoffs, when so many of them are having career seasons. 

The headliner, of course, starts in the first round with Westbrook vs. Harden in the 3-6 Thunder-Rockets matchup. Here’s what their regular season looked like:

Westbrook outscored Harden in all four matchups, Harden had more assists in three of the four games. The Rockets went 3-1, with a point differential of 15 across four games. That’s pretty close. Did I mention that the Rockets have the worst fourth quarter net points per 100 possessions rating of any playoff team?

All of this leads to a fascinating showdown starting Sunday in Houston. The Rockets are the better team, have won more games, have homecourt advantage, have better weapons. But the
Oklahoma City Thunder
are a team of troublemakers who throw open the saloon door and proceed to wreck the place. And if they can muck up the game and drag this thing inside of a few possessions inside of five minutes? 

Westbrook can close. 

That’s the looming specter in this series. Westbrook has been a monster all season, but never more so than in the clutch. When these two MVPs collide in the first round, it’s going to come down to Harden’s conduction of Houston’s beautiful symphony vs. Westbrook, leading a punk rock band, smashing his guitar into everything. Don’t stand too close to the speakers. This one could get loud. 

2. THE DURANT DOCTRINE: Here’s a question. If Durant is the best player for the Warriors, and the Warriors coast to the Finals and win it, is Durant then the No.1 player in the NBA? For years Durant has said he’s tired of being No. 2. He was so close last year. One more win, one just average
Klay Thompson
performance in Game 6 instead of a molten lava eruption, and he might have gotten there, as the best player on his team. 

But he didn’t. So he went to their team. 

Durant is the best player on the Warriors, even if at times in his absence, it’s seemed like the best version of the Warriors — or at least the most fun — was the one where Stephen Curry was just chucking up Stephen Curry things. But despite Durant being the best player, it’s not his team. Not yet, anyway. Much like the 2011
Miami Heat
were still
Dwyane Wade
‘s, this team is still Curry’s. And if they win the title, which they absolutely should by any objective projection, Durant will be the best player on a title team.

Does that make him the best player on the planet? What if he doesn’t face LeBron? What if James outplays him, but doesn’t have enough help? If Durant is the best player on the No.1 team with the title, does he get to finally say he’s the best player in the league? 

Durant’s gambit chose on-court, objective success over heroic status with worse odds of achieving a title. Every champion, in the aftermath of victory, has said something to the effect of “no one can take this away from me.” That’s a fascinating tangent, in showing how players view their careers and lives as professional athletes. If Durant wins, no matter the reaction to his decision, no one can take that away from him. But will it feel genuine and real and fulfilling? It will to him. But to the rest of us watching his story play out, there’s still a question of what this season will feel like in the end, as the Warriors have been great, awesome, incredible, awe-inspiring … but never inspiring or magical like they were last season. That contrast means there’s much to determine about what Durant’s decision means for the future. 

3. KING FOR A FOURTH: LeBron is dragging his team, which looks broken and flawed, once again into a position to compete for a championship. Do you realize if the Cavs win the East, James will have been in eight of the last 11 Finals, seven straight? Seven straight trips to the NBA Finals. And yet, a loss to the Warriors will in some ways show how much of an outlier last year was. It was magical and unforgettable, but also the product of a heaping dose of circumstance. No one can ever deny what James accomplished in pulling his team back from being down 3-1, but no one can deny how unlikely that comeback was, either. 

If the
Cleveland Cavaliers
lose, James will be 3-5 in the Finals, 1-2 vs. the Spurs, and 1-2 vs. the Warriors. Does that sting his legacy a little bit, after rising to what was the unquestioned high mark last year? 

Can LeBron James capture his fourth title? 
USATSI

And if James can’t drag this Cavs team to a title, what comes next? Is
Kevin Love
dealt? How much longer will James be patient with
Kyrie Irving
, who continues to be a great scorer and little else? What about the front office that he has rightly supported, but also been frustrated with about their inattention to the team’s needs, particularly defensively? 

Then again, what if he does pull it off? What if the Cavaliers win back-to-back titles, and James goes to 4-4 in the Finals, having won four of the last six NBA championships? He goes past the 3-time champions, leaving him one shy of
Kobe Bryant
, at age 32. And it would punish every analyst and fan who said that the Cavs’ regular-season malaise would catch them. 

James has played so many minutes this season, with no break. Is there a stopping point? Every man has a breaking point, and if James gets there, what does that mean for his stranglehold on the title of best player in the league? James faces an impossible situation, against a tougher East with a worse team and the Warriors looming, and yet no one wants to count him out. 

He’s LeBron. 

4. THE LAST RIDES: Memphis’ great gambit to reinvent the team failed and they’re back to throwing rocks at tanks. The Clippers have been just good enough to be in the spotlight for how they haven’t been good enough. The Raptors have had an inspiring team that got rocked in the first round twice, then one of the least impressive playoff runs in recent history (apologies to the 2015
Atlanta Hawks
). The Celtics have outperformed expectations for three years without ever looking like a real threat, and more like a team that could be one if they ever made the trade they’ve refused so often. Paul George’s emotional “check engine light” with the
Indiana Pacers
is always blinking these days. The
Chicago Bulls

This summer brings decisions teams will have to make on
Tony Parker
, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick,
Gordon Hayward
,
George Hill
,
Steven Adams
,
JaMychal Green
,
Tony Allen
,
Zach Randolph
,
Jimmy Butler
(trade talks), George (same),
Kyle Lowry
and the Celtics’ top pick in the lottery. (Plus Isaiah Thomas,
Avery Bradley
and
Marcus Smart
all expire in 2018.) There’s a lot riding on these games. 

You just don’t know what the future is going to hold, and what happens over the next two months will influence way more than we might think. Does Durant leave the Thunder if they beat the Warriors in Game 6? If Kevin Love struggles again, does LeBron start talking more and more to the disgruntled and pushed-out friend of his,
Carmelo Anthony
? Will the Clippers want to bring the band back together if they get torn apart by the Warriors or will their frustration lead them elsewhere, ending with Doc Rivers heading to Orlando? 

The regular season forces you to decipher complex truths born out over six months of play. The playoffs present you with hard truths, good or bad, and those reflections could change the landscape of the NBA in huge ways this summer. 

5. OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: How many legendary moments have been made in the playoffs? How many unforgettable series that permanently etch themselves on how we look back on players’ careers?
Giannis Antetokounmpo
is in the playoffs, and the kind of player no one knows what to do with. Westbrook has nothing to lose. Leonard has taken one step forward every season of his still-very-young career. 

Durant can silence the “haters” as he calls them. 

Mike D’Antoni can breathe redemption into the story of his playoff career and get the validation he deserves for how he changed the game. 

The Clippers can finally be that best version of themselves, and put the ghosts back in the graveyard where they belong. 

George can show he’s still one of the very best. 

Jimmy Butler can prove he can carry a team anywhere. 

Thomas can show size does not matter, and the Celtics can prove heart and teamwork can trump talent. 

The Raptors can cement themselves as a powerhouse. 

Memphis can redeem the good name Grit-Grind. 

Wall can finally, finally shine the way his play has for years. 


Damian Lillard
can add more heroics to his career highlight reel. 


Dwight Howard
can clear his name. 

The Warriors can put their failures to rest. 

And LeBron can tighten his grip on that ghost he’s been chasing. 

Opportunity knocks in these playoffs. 

Who will answer? 



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