By BRIAN MAHONEY
AP Basketball Writer
Maybe this is the year.
Maybe the Golden State Warriors, opening the postseason without Stephen Curry or any momentum, won’t be the best of the West, where there’s a Houston team that can run and gun as well as they do.
Maybe the Cleveland Cavaliers, starting from the middle of the pack in the East, just have too big a hill to climb, even with LeBron James carrying them.
Or perhaps none of that matters, and the NBA is headed toward Round 4 of its reigning rivalry.
The postseason opens Saturday and it’s far from a guarantee it ends with a record fourth straight NBA Finals matchup between the Warriors and Cavaliers. Neither was the best team in its conference during the regular season — the Cavaliers were only No. 4 in the East — and it’s not hard to envision a Houston to Toronto trip replacing what’s become an annual Oakland, California, to Cleveland itinerary.
Then again, the Warriors could be as dangerous as ever once Curry returns from a knee injury that could have him back for the second round. James has played in the last seven NBA Finals, so nobody knows how to get to the finish line better, no matter from where he starts.
And the other top contenders have to overcome their history of disappointments. Houston’s Mike D’Antoni and James Harden have never won, and Chris Paul hasn’t even gotten out of the second round. The Raptors had their best regular season ever, but they were last seen in the postseason getting stomped in four straight by James and the Cavs last year in the second round.
Golden State faces No. 7 San Antonio on Saturday in the postseason opener, followed by the top-seeded Raptors and No. 8 Washington Wizards in the East. Sixth-seeded Miami and No. 3 Philadelphia are then followed by Portland-New Orleans in the other 3-6 matchup.
On Sunday, it’s No. 7 Milwaukee at No. 2 Boston, and the Cavs hosting the No. 5 Indiana Pacers in the East, followed by No. 5 Utah at No. 4 Oklahoma City. The Rockets wrap up opening weekend against No. 8 Minnesota, ending the NBA’s longest playoff drought with its first playoff appearance since 2004.
A look at some things to watch in the first round:
Curry’s injury is the only one that remains, but the Warriors at one point down the stretch were also without Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, too. Even the champions couldn’t overcome that, dropping six of their final 10 games, but they start against a San Antonio team whose injury problems are every bit as bad, assuming Kawhi Leonard doesn’t return after missing almost the entire season.
Philadelphia is the hottest team in the postseason, winning its final 16 games to finish 52-30. But the 76ers are led by postseason newcomers in Joel Embiid and rookie Ben Simmons — and Embiid is still recovering from a broken orbital bone and concussion as the postseason begins — and will have to overcome their inexperience and a rugged Miami team.
It was an up-and-down regular season for Oklahoma City, which acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to play with Russell Westbrook but finished well back of Houston and Golden State. But the Thunder might be one of those teams better built for the postseason, and they got an easier road when they won three straight to grab home-court advantage against a Utah team that would have had it before a season-ending loss at Portland.
There’s no more Kyrie Irving and there was only Gordon Hayward for a few minutes all season, so the Celtics are being overlooked despite their No. 2 seed in the East. But there’s plenty of young (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown) and veteran (Al Horford, Marcus Morris) talent on a 55-game winner that features one of the league’s best coaches in Brad Stevens.
As good as Toronto is, it seems futile picking against James and the firepower around him to get to the NBA Finals. But the Cavaliers don’t defend well enough and can be picked apart by top offenses, so go with the West champion to win the title, particularly if it’s Golden State or Houston.
Take it from another champion.
“I like Houston and Golden State, pending their health, as being my top two favorites,” five-time winner Kobe Bryant said during a conference call to promote his new basketball analysis show “Detail” that will run on ESPN during the postseason.