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2018 NBA playoffs: Six storylines to watch, starring LeBron's next move and leaps of faith

The 2018 NBA playoffs start this Saturday! Here’s the full Round 1 schedule for all eight matchups. We started our postseason preview by looking at some of the X-factors we think could determine how things shake out in the Western Conference and Eastern Conference brackets.

Next up: a look at a half-dozen storylines to keep track of as the postseason unfolds, starting with …

Should we really believe in the Rockets and Raptors?

It’s the $64,000 question, right?

Houston’s been the class of the Western Conference for virtually the entire season. Toronto seized control of the East from Boston just before Valentine’s Day and, a brief late-March swoon aside, never let it go. They’re two of just four teams to finish among the league’s 10 top in points scored and allowed per possession, historically a strong signifier of overall team quality. (For what it’s worth, they’re actually both top-six on both sides.)

They’re deep, capable of playing big or small depending on the matchup, with the athletes and finishers to get out on the break, and the facilitators and shot-makers to unlock opponents in the half-court. They’ve got All-Star scorers and playmakers, and dynamic people’s-champ glue guys who extend leads and ice wins. Plus, the Cavs and Warriors continue to play starting lineup roulette as they deal with injuries, Cleveland can’t reliably stop anybody, and Golden State won’t have a fully operational Stephen Curry until Round 2 at the earliest.

And yet!

The Raptors and Rockets are the top seeds in their respective conferences … and yet they’re not the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. (Getty)

The weight of Toronto’s history of Game 1 immolations, and of getting outshined by LeBron James when everyone’s watching, mean that no matter how much the Raptors believe in themselves, the rest of us are all just one stretch of cold DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry shooting away from starting to see ghosts. Similarly, as freewheeling as the Rockets looked from October through April, the baggage they carry — of James Harden’s past postseason struggles, capped by last May’s Game 6 meltdown; of Chris Paul’s closing seconds of Game 5 in OKC, of Game 6 in 2015 and everything that came after — opens the door to doubt.

The only way either team can close it is to win. Convincingly, if possible, but if Houston and Toronto come face to face with their respective dragons, the style doesn’t matter nearly as much as the slaying. This is the best chance these Rockets and Raptors have had of winning the whole thing; they are good enough, top to bottom, if things break their way. And if they can make things break their way in May, just once, they’ll put to bed the annual questions about their legitimacy, secure their place in the NBA firmament … and reduce the blood pressure of two highly keyed-up fanbases to a frankly incalculable degree. — Dan Devine

Related: Does everything still run through Cleveland and Golden State?

They may not be the No. 1 seeds, but they’re the favorites to win their respective conferences, at least as far as Vegas is concerned. Are you betting against LeBron and Golden State’s four horsemen meeting in the Finals for a fourth straight season? Good luck with that.

Are you really willing to get against watching this matchup come June? (Getty)

James has won the East seven years running, and while it’s clear his supporting cast is as shallow as it’s been since he led Boobie Gibson and company to the Finals in 2007, he’s also curb-stomped the competition this decade. The dude hasn’t lost a first-round game in 21 tries, hasn’t lost in the second round since 2015 and hasn’t been pushed beyond a fifth game in the conference finals in five years. Even if Kyrie Irving’s exit and the upheaval of a midseason roster overhaul closed the gap, the best player in the world is still standing on the other side of that bridge.

There are real concerns about the Cavaliers. They’re the NBA’s worst defensive team, if you don’t count the G-League roster in Phoenix, and they’re planning on rolling a frontcourt of Kevin Love and Jeff Green in the playoffs. So, if you’re expecting a flip to be switched on that end, beyond increased LeBron effort masking everybody’s inefficiencies, don’t. They are dialing up the offense to overdrive.

Of course, there are also real concerns about the untested 76ers, wounded Celtics and refurbished Raptors, whom the Cavs dismissed twice in the past few weeks. And when everybody’s got question marks looming overhead, I know who I’m betting on.

We wonder about the Warriors, too. Curry will sit out the first round with a bum left knee. Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are all dinged up, as is Andre Iguodala. That this team didn’t win 60 games is emblematic of the struggle that is chasing a fourth straight Finals appearance after three straight 100-game seasons, even for a juggernaut stamped with the dynasty label before they get there. Paul’s arrival with reinforcements inched Houston closer, and the unease about a Golden State team that will be entering the playoffs playing .500 ball for more than a month makes it feel like the Rockets are right there.

Then, you remember that when Golden State’s four All-Stars are on the floor together, they’re outscoring opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions in fourth gear — far better than any grouping Houston regularly rolls out. And while the Rockets were 2-1 in their season series, the Warriors’ famed death lineup played all of zero minutes against them. Golden State is holding its ace. We’re all wondering whether they will have a full house, but I’m not calling their bluff. — Ben Rohrbach

Everybody is injured

To a degree, injuries impact every NBA postseason. What if Kyrie hadn’t fractured his kneecap in the 2015 Finals? What if Steph never sprained an MCL prior to the 2016 playoffs? What if Kawhi Leonard didn’t limp off the floor in the 2017 Western Conference finals? It just seems like this year’s postseason will be impacted by injuries more than any other in recent history, and somehow all three aforementioned superstars headline the list of infirmed.

With Kyrie Irving (left), the Celtics looked like a possible conference finalist. Now that he’s out for the season, Boston’s on upset watch. (AP)

After spraining his right MCL in April 2016 and missing six of Golden State’s first eight playoff games that year, Curry sprained the left one last month, and he’s expected to miss at least the first round this time. The two-time MVP was never right during the Warriors’ run two years ago, and we know how that ended. Everything they do revolves around the spacing he provides. With him, they’re favorites once again, regardless of seed; without him, they’re vulnerable.

The Spurs will make their 21st consecutive playoff appearance, despite Leonard missing all but nine games to a mysterious right quadriceps injury that reportedly has him at odds with his habitually stable franchise. It seems unlikely the two-time All-NBA forward and Defensive Player of the Year will return this season, improbable that he will be the same game-changing, two-way wing if he does come back, and impossible that the Spurs contend without him fully healthy.

You might think injury issues for those two West mainstays further open the door for Houston, which enters the playoffs with a No. 1 seed and two rested future Hall of Fame guards. But they too were dealt a blow, albeit a less devastating one, when Luc Mbah a Moute dislocated his shoulder on Tuesday. Houston can only hope his injury doesn’t derail a defense that improved from subpar a year ago to borderline elite with him on the roster this season.

Nobody is shedding a tear for the Rockets, especially not the Pelicans, who lost All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins for the season to a ruptured Achilles tendon in January. Every team is dealing with something, including the Thunder, who have been trying to plug a defensive hole ever since lockdown wing Andre Roberson tore his patellar tendon midway through the season.

On the other side of the bracket, Boston’s season was sandwiched by season-ending injuries to Gordon Hayward (ankle) and Irving (knee). In between, a 16-game win streak propelled them to the No. 2 seed, and bottom-of-the-barrel conference contenders soon lined up to feast on the wounded Celtics in the first round. They’re also missing reserve big man Daniel Theis for the remainder of the season and backup guard Marcus Smart for most of the first round, leaving coach Brad Stevens to fend off the wolves with half his rotation. These are dire days for a team once considered East favorites.

The last All-Star still sidelined is Joel Embiid, the centerpiece of the upstart 76ers. He’s been outfitted for a mask but deemed doubtful for the start of the playoffs. Philadelphia, winners of 16 straight, is a trendy pick to emerge from the East with so many questions atop the conference, but it’ll need a healthy Embiid paired with Rookie of the Year favorite Ben Simmons — not to mention a leap from both in their first playoff appearances — if they hope to prove people right.

The health concerns for other would-be threats on either side of the bracket revolve around how close to 100 percent their embattled stars will be after returning from injury. There are Jimmy Butler’s knee in Minnesota, Kevin Love’s hand in Cleveland, John Wall’s knee in Washington, Damian Lillard’s ankle in Portland and Jabari Parker’s knee in Milwaukee. All have shown signs of thriving life, but the playoffs are a different animal waiting to pounce on the walking wounded. — BR

Does LeBron’s future in Cleveland depend on another deep run?

The short answer: Yes. Probably. I think. Maybe. Most likely.

We know LeBron owns a player option for the 2018-19 season. We know he will decline it and become a free agent. We know he’s publicly said he will not entertain the idea of leaving Cleveland until after the season. And we know privately he’s left a trail of breadcrumbs suggesting he’s been planning his exit.

The long answer has more to do with what LeBron wants out of the rest of his career. And what LeBron wants more than anything, as a former player put it to me earlier this season, is power. Which means he will fully enjoy this summer, when his decision will leave the NBA hanging in the balance for two weeks in July, as it did in 2010 and 2014. The only thing standing between LeBron and immortal power are championship rings, a hurdle in his quest for the Greatest of All Time moniker he even acknowledged when he conceded he’s chasing “the ghost in Chicago.”

Cleveland is home, but he’s delivered on his championship promise there, and the Cavs no longer represent the best chance to catch that ghost. They’re cap-strapped and talent-impaired. Outside of a playoff run beyond our wildest imaginations convincing him he can contend with this roster for years to come, it’s hard to imagine a guy known for thinking three steps ahead of everyone else not seeing the play unraveling, clear as day, before all our eyes. The Lakers, playing in a town in which LeBron owns two homes, have a brighter future. Philadelphia’s even brighter. Houston, too. And they’re all putting up billboards begging him to come. Just the way he likes it.

So, maybe the playoffs have no bearing on Decision 3.0. Maybe he already has one foot out the door. Maybe that’s why Kyrie wanted out, why LeBron has openly feuded with ownership, why he’s questioned the front office, why he’s shaded teammates. Maybe he’s already gone. — BR

Is it conference finals or bust for Paul George in Oklahoma City?

If we take George at his word, the outcome of Oklahoma City’s season means everything in his free-agent decision.

“If we get a killer season in Oklahoma, we make the conference finals or upset the Warriors or do something crazy, I’d be dumb to want to leave that,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins last July.

George doubled down on that sentiment in January, just when the Thunder were beginning to find themselves as the starry contender we all imagined … and just before Roberson suffered a season-ending knee injury, leaving them searching again.

How much will Oklahoma City’s postseason performance factor into Paul George’s offseason decision-making?

What George considers a killer season is a question only he can answer. Plus, the conference finals, an upset of the Warriors or something crazy are all still on the table in a West that seems uncertain to say the least, even if Carmelo Anthony’s downward career turn has lowered the Thunder’s ceiling. All the while, though, George has held a torch for Los Angeles, if not fanned the flames of a homecoming affair, conceding that his love for the Lakers led to his departure from Indiana in June and renewing that vow when they were fined for tampering in January.

So, George “would be stupid to walk away from” a contender in OKC, but would love to go home to L.A. He’s told us as much twice in the last year — before the season and midway through it. He’s been nothing if not honest. It’s almost as if we should take him at his word. Which means there’s a whole lot riding on something crazy happening for the Thunder. — BR

The NBA’s next generation is ready for its close-up

Sure, this year’s list of Finals favorites is chock full of old standbys, established MVP candidates and All-NBA types. But each conference also features an infusion of new blood that promises to add some joy, spice and intrigue to the postseason, and it’s going to be cool to get to watch some newcomers get their first crack at playoff glory.

There are the 76ers, the fruit of Sam Hinkie’s much-derided Process now bursting into full bloom and dropping jaws every time 21-year-old Ben Simmons bulldozes his way to the rim, 24-year-old Joel Embiid makes you wonder how it’s physically possible for a Sentinel to Dream Shake, 24-year-old Dario Saric powers a city with the amplitude of a post-nifty-play fist pump, and 19-year-old Markelle Fultz brushes a little bit more salt off his name with a move (or a triple-double) that reminds you why he was last June’s No. 1 pick.

Ben Simmons has given a lot of defenders the same look Kevin Love’s sporting here during his rookie season with the 76ers. (AP)

There’s the Celtics, currently cooling themselves in the shade of the vultures circling overhead, but still set to host a playoff series and turn the crisis of a postseason without Irving or Hayward into an opportunity to give impressive rookie Jayson Tatum, a 20-year-old with a 10-year vet’s poise and polish, the chance to see just what kind of havoc he can wreak. Ditto for Jaylen Brown, who made his postseason debut last year, but who has continued to grow to fill the space left by Hayward, developing into one of the NBA’s most interesting players and most compelling wings at just 21 years old.

There’s the electric Donovan Mitchell, who may or may not be the Rookie of the Year — it might depend on how you define the word — but who’s inarguably the game-breaking guard who’s provided the offensive spark for the Utah Jazz’s improbable rise to the middle of the Western bracket, and who’ll now get to strut his stuff for a national audience that might not be clocking too many League Pass tip-offs in Salt Lake City. And, for that matter, there’s his backcourt partner, Ricky Rubio, a comparative graybeard at 27 but still quite young at heart, who’s getting his first taste of the playoffs after a half-dozen years of toiling through cold Minnesota winters.

It feels downright wrong that one of Rubio’s long-time cohorts on the Best/Most Fun/Most Notable Players Never to Make the Playoffs list, the Pelicans’ Cousins, won’t get to suit up this spring. We’ll have to take solace in Jabari getting to make his first appearance for the Bucks after consecutive season-ending ACL tears, and keep hope alive that Boogie’s postseason dream will only be deferred one year, too. This year’s Wolves will join Rubio and Parker there, giving former No. 1 picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins the chance to rise to the high expectations of Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and the rest of a crew that won’t just be satisfied with breaking a 13-year postseason drought.

How long any of these bright young things will assert their will in the postseason remains to be seen, but that so many of them are here at all, and flexing as they enter, is pretty damn cool. The NBA’s blessed with an embarrassment of under-25 riches as the moment, featuring a bumper crop of ballplayers with their sights set on making their presence felt sooner rather than later. Starting Saturday, they get their chance to take the reins right bleepin’ now. — DD

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