LeBron James' iron grip on Eastern Conference and other talking points for the first round of the NBA playoffs

Jay Asser 21:20 14/04/2018
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LeBron James hasn't lost a game in the first round of the playoffs since 2012.

The NBA’s second season is under way and set to provide us with plenty to talk about over the next two months.

From the Golden State Warriors’ quest to repeat and stamp their claim as a dynasty, to James Harden and Chris Paul attempting to change the narrative on their postseason failures and lead the Houston Rockets, to LeBron James’ potential final stand with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the playoffs are chock-full of storylines.

Here are the main talking points from the four series that get started on Sunday.

Another formality for LeBron?

As much as his own team changes, as well as the situations around him in the rest of the East, LeBron remains LeBron – which is to say he has a lot of history on his side.

James has reached seven straight Finals – a staggering number – and during that span, the East has served as little more than fodder for him.

So while the Indiana Pacers, Cleveland’s first-round opponents, enter the match-up with a better point differential and net rating, consider this: LeBron hasn’t lost a first-round series in his career. In fact, he hasn’t even dropped a single game since 2012.

These Cavaliers, however, are probably the weakest team James has played on since his first go-around with the franchise and even though the Pacers don’t figure to dethrone him, Cleveland will have their hands full in potential clashes with Toronto and/or Philadelphia later on.

Not having Kyrie Irving around anymore to help shoulder the load can’t be understated. LeBron just wrapped up his first regular season in which he played all 82 games, doing it at the age of 33, and even though he’s a physical marvel, the mileage may be exacerbated if he has to do literally everything in these playoffs.

It’s never been wise to bet against him, but this will be James’ biggest challenge in some time.

Breaking barriers

James Harden will likely win the MVP this season and Chris Paul is a Hall of Fame point guard. And yet for many, both of the Houston Rockets’ stars will be judged on what they accomplish in the playoffs, where past shortcomings have somewhat damaged their reputations.

Paul has somehow never reached the conference finals, while Harden has had his own postseason meltdowns, including last year’s disastrous finish in Game 6 of the second round against San Antonio.

If they’re going to change the narrative that they’re not primetime playoff performers, this will have to be the year. They won’t be overly criticised for falling victim to Golden State down the road, but Houston have to at least reach the conference finals and put up a fight after the dominant campaign they’ve put together.

Before that, they’ll have to take care of business against Minnesota in the first round and whoever they see in round two, but the Rockets have no excuses for falling short of expectations.


George’s future

LeBron James isn’t the only star whose future could be decided by what happens in these playoffs, as the Oklahoma City Thunder are under a lot of pressure to win to retain Paul George.

It’s impossible to say how well the Thunder need to do for George to re-sign this summer, but losing in the first round to the Utah Jazz certainly won’t help. And unfortunately for Oklahoma City, they appear to be under the most threat of any higher seed of being upset early on, with their opening match-up arguably the closest of all the series.

The Thunder’s ceiling is undoubtedly high as they showed at times this season that they can beat the league’s elite. However, they also had Jekyll and Hyde moments when they played well below their talent level, making it hard to discern just which team will show up on any given night.


How far can Boston go?

For probably every other team, losing your two stars to injury would be a death knell. The Celtics, however, have somehow managed to remain competitive even as body after body has hit the floor.

It speaks to their coaching, depth and ability to constantly defy expectations that they’re still favoured in the first round against Milwaukee, who will have the best player on the floor in Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it seems inevitable that the magic will run out at some point.

Boston have nothing to lose this season and they’ll certainly play like it, making them a dangerous underdog, regardless of the talent missing.


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