NBA playoffs: Ranking the challengers to the Golden State Warriors
Can any team stop the Golden State Warriors?
The reigning champions are the favourites to claim the NBA title for a third straight year. Considering they added DeMarcus Cousins to a roster that already included four All-Stars, it is not hard to see why.
But the start of the playoffs is a time for positive thinking, not pessimism. Of the 15 others still left standing at the regular season, some have higher hopes than others.
Here, we look at the leading contenders to dethrone the Warriors, ranking them in order of who may have the best chance of success against Steve Kerr's roster.
1. HOUSTON ROCKETS
Season record: 53-29
Season record against the Warriors: 3-1
The Rockets top these rankings despite being the fourth seed in the West. However, it should not be forgotten that a year ago they pushed the Warriors to a seven-game series in the Conference Finals, with an injury to Chris Paul hampering their attempt to end Golden State's reign.
This season they have won three of their four meetings with the reigning NBA champions, having turned around a poor start - they were 11-14 early in December - thanks mainly to James Harden, who made the step-back three-pointer an art form as he took his game to a new level.
Coach Mike D'Antoni has Houston launching from long range at an astonishing rate - they had a record 27 attempts in a win over the Phoenix Suns this month - but their playoff hopes will revolve around Harden. They can only hope his usage level in the regular season does not catch up with the MVP candidate down the stretch.
Postseason practice. pic.twitter.com/BMjXYF5Etz— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) April 12, 2019
2. TORONTO RAPTORS
Season record: 58-24
Season record against the Warriors: 2-0
Toronto made drastic changes with the aim of altering their playoff fortunes. They suffered at the hands of LeBron James in recent years, including being swept a year ago by his Cleveland Cavaliers in the East semi-finals, but that is a problem they do not have to worry about in 2019 (enjoy watching on, LeBron!).
General manager Masai Ujiri appointed a new coach – Nick Nurse – and acquired a different leading man – Kawhi Leonard – with the aim of exorcising some of the postseason ghosts that haunt the Canadian franchise and their fans. Pascal Siakam's emergence, making him the leading contender to be named the league's most improved player, should help.
Leonard has won a title previously with the San Antonio Spurs and is in a select group who can genuinely have a chance when going toe to toe with Kevin Durant. It could be one and done for Kawhi (he has a player option for next year), though, so Ujiri has pushed all his chips into the centre of the table in the hope his hand is strong enough to hit the jackpot.
3. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Record against the Warriors: 1-1
The Bucks posted the best record in the NBA. They have Giannis Antetokounmpo, a ridiculously gifted 24-year-old (Twenty. Four. Good luck for the next decade, rest of the NBA) who is battling Harden to be crowned the league's MVP.
Yet while Antetokounmpo's continued rise to superstardom has helped take the franchise from seventh to first in the Eastern Conference, the appointment of coach Mike Budenholzer has also been crucial. His version of the Bucks have averaged more points and more attempts from beyond the arc than any other team – and that includes the shot-happy Warriors.
Milwaukee failed to clear the first hurdle in the postseason last year, losing in seven to the Boston Celtics, but have greater depth this time around. They will need other contributors too, as opposing teams will focus on finding ways to stop, or at least slow down, the explosive Antetokounmpo.
4. BOSTON CELTICS
Season record: 49-33
Season record against the Warriors: 1-1
Will the real Celtics show up in the playoffs? Boston were tipped to top the East yet finished fourth after a see-saw campaign that saw plenty of indifferent performances and far too much talk from their players in the media.
Still, underestimate them at your peril. In Kyrie Irving they have a proven performer at this stage of a campaign, someone who helped the Cleveland Cavaliers rally from 3-1 down to beat the Warriors in 2016, plus a supporting cast that allows coach Brad Stevens to adapt to both opposing teams and a hot hand.
Marcus Smart's injury leaves them minus a key defensive cog in the early rounds, but the combative guard should be back if Boston makes it all the way to the NBA Finals. For the Celtics, it is all about the destination, rather than the uncomfortable journey they have been on in recent months.
"Can’t Wait" pic.twitter.com/TPx3yTCQER— Boston Celtics (@celtics) April 12, 2019
5. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Season record: 51-31
Season secord against the Warriors: 1-1
'The Process' paid off for the 76ers. They drafted Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons but raised the expectation levels this season by trading for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, giving them a strong starting five when you add in JJ Reddick.
However, there are still concerns - particularly when it comes to facing Golden State. Simmons' shooting, or lack of – he had just six three-point attempts in the regular season, making none of them – is something the Warriors do not have to worry about, allowing them to focus elsewhere, potentially Embiid (who has injury issues to deal with at the start of the playoffs).
The moves to add Butler and Harris have left the bench a little thin. Still, before they can contemplate about going up against the Warriors, they must work their way out of the East.
6. DENVER NUGGETS
Season record: 54-28
Season record against the Warriors: 1-3
Denver defeated Golden State in their first meeting back in October but lost the remaining three regular season games, with the Warriors overtaking the early pacesetters to finish top of the West.
Worryingly for the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic combined for 43 points in those three defeats. The gifted center is a focal point for Mike Malone's team, taking plenty of the playmaking responsibilities away from whichever combination of guards are out on the court alongside him.
Yet this is uncharted territory for Jokic and his colleagues. The Nuggets excelled in the regular season, but the playoffs are different. Paul Millsap's experience will help a young roster, and they are also aided by not having to worry about the Warriors until the Conference Finals. Can they make it that far, though?