NBA playoffs finally wide open for once

Column

By Paul Newberry

AP Sports Columnist

Hey, here’s something we haven’t heard before.

The NBA playoffs are wide open.

At perhaps no other time in the league’s history have so many teams gone into the postseason with a real shot at hoisting the trophy at the end of this two-month grind.

From the top seeds in Houston and Toronto, to the old stalwarts in Golden State and Cleveland, to the brash up-and-comers in Philadelphia and Minnesota, there are potential storylines galore and no real way to predict how it all may shake out.

“We’ve got a chance,” said LeBron James, who will be seeking his eighth straight trip to the finals. “That’s all you can ask for.”

For pretty much the NBA’s entire history, there’s been little reason to tune in for the playoffs until they got to the finals. No wonder Charles Barkley became so enamored with the NHL version of the postseason — that’s a sport that actually doles out some real drama once the regular season is over.

The NBA?

Yawn.

Over the last four decades, a top-seeded team has claimed 28 championships. All but one of the remaining titles went to teams seeded second or third going into the postseason — and even several of those were clearly the best team (see: the 2012 Miami Heat with their Big Three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; the 2001 and 2002 Los Angeles Lakers featuring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal; the 1993 Chicago Bulls claiming their third straight title led by Michael Jordan).

Looking a little deeper over that same 40-year span, and you’ll find only five teams lower than a No. 3 seed that lost in the finals. Such dominance by a handful of dynasties and superteams has largely rendered the early rounds of the playoffs a moot point, a mere coronation on the way to the inevitable matchup at the end.

This year, it makes sense to tune in right from the start.

At the risk of getting things totally wrong, here’s a few predictions for these most uncertain of playoffs:

Rockets’ tough road

Houston posted the league’s best record (65-17), and it’s hard to bet against a team that has James Harden. But the Rockets are facing a tough opening-round series against Minnesota, which broke a 14-year playoff drought with a dramatic overtime victory on the final day of the regular season . If the Timberwolves can ride that momentum — and it’s entirely possible, with Jimmy Butler coming back from a knee injury — they could make things real interesting. The Rockets will be without a valuable rotation player, Luc Mbah a Moute , who sustained a shoulder injury this week in a meaningless game. Assuming they get past Minnesota, the Rockets could be derailed in the second round by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

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