NBA playoffs 2018: Why this will be the most interesting postseason in years
The NBA playoffs begin on Saturday and it could prove to be one of the most interesting postseasons in recent memory.
Defending champions the Golden State Warriors swept all before them in the Western Conference last season, before dropping just one game as they regained the title from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals.
It is hard to see them having it all their own way in the West again this time around, while the Cavs are by no means certs themselves having endured a campaign of turmoil as the Philadelphia 76ers made huge strides.
With so much going on, we break down why you cannot afford to miss this year's NBA playoffs.
Nine of this season's 14 best records came from the Western Conference. The last of those belongs to the 46-36 Denver Nuggets, who missed out on a place in the playoffs after an overtime loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves in a shoot-out for the eighth seed.
The Miami Heat, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Washington Wizards all got out of the East despite a worse record than the Nuggets, highlighting the depth in a stacked Western Conference.
Semi-final spots are wholly realistic possibilities for the Utah Jazz, led by Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell and skyscraper center Rudy Gobert, and the Anthony Davis-powered New Orleans Pelicans.
You cannot help but feel that whoever emerges from the Conference Finals – the favourites to do so being the Houston Rockets, owners of the best record in the regular season at 65-17 and the stunning James Harden-Chris Paul backcourt, and the Warriors – will claim the title.
Houston traded for Paul in the offseason to improve their chances of overthrowing the Warriors' superteam, with Rockets general manager Daryl Morey referring to the NBA as a "weapons race".
Golden State are lagging behind as they head into the first round of the postseason with one of the most devastating arms in their arsenal still out of commission.
In their last 16 matches without two-time MVP Stephen Curry, who has been sidelined by a medial collateral ligament sprain, the Warriors won just six. It is far from championship form, although Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green also spent time out during that dismal stretch.
Steve Kerr will not be willing to rush the return of Curry, who initially contradicted his coach's assessment of how long his MCL sprain would keep him out, as he will want him to hit the ground running and get the offense firing again.
With such uncertainty over Curry's fitness, a return to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year does not look quite as certain for the Warriors as it did at the start of the campaign.
Players in their 15th year tend to be winding down their careers, but a 33-year-old LeBron James is somehow stepping his up further.
James averaged 27.5 points, his most since the last season of his first stint in Cleveland in 2009-10, a career-best 9.1 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game – the latter matching the benchmark he set last term.
He remains on the most athletic players in the league, but, perhaps with an eye cast on prolonging his stay in the NBA, he has enhanced the three-point threat he poses, attempting more shots from beyond the arc this season than he ever has.
Stand off to try to defend against a trademark drive to the rim and he is adept at pulling up and shooting a three, get tight and he will blow past you for an easy two.
All this despite the Cavs enduring a torrid regular season, with a roster overhaul at the trade deadline and head coach Tyronn Lue's health forcing him to hand over duties to assistant Larry Drew for nine games. But Lue is back on the bench and anything looks possible with James on the floor.
April 13, 2016: The Sixers finish the season with a 10-72 record, the worst in the NBA and the franchise's fewest wins in 43 years.
April 11, 2018: The Sixers finish the season with a 52-30 record, the fifth best in the NBA and the franchise's most victories since 2001, after an unprecedented 16th straight win locked in the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
What a difference two years can make.
With Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons and All-Star center Joel Embiid finally fit and firing together, Philadelphia fans' trust in The Process is reaping rewards.
The form team heading into the postseason, the Sixers cannot be taken lightly. The recent additions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova have supplied depth in perimeter shooting, while number one draft pick Markelle Fultz is finding form at just the right time, having become the youngest player to record a triple-double in the NBA this week.
Add in the playoff experience of JJ Redick and Amir Johnson and, with last year's top seeds the Boston Celtics without superstar point guard Kyrie Irving, Brett Brown's team look well equipped to pull off further shocks.
— NBA (@NBA) April 12, 2018
straight wins for the @sixers to finish the season!
Philly defeats the @bucks 130-95 and secures the East's 3rd seed heading into the #NBAPlayoffs!
Fultz: 13 PTS, 10 AST, 10 REB
Justin Anderson: 25 PTS
Dario Saric: 24 PTS#HereTheyCome pic.twitter.com/RcuDBcYguA