By MICHAEL PATANE
After another exhausting 82-game season, the NBA playoffs are finally here.
With the first round set to begin on Sunday, here are the four burning questions facing the teams' players and fans as we approach the opening tip.
Here are four burning questions ahead of the playoffs:
All season the Warriors have been the favourites for the title, and thus far, their mission to add another trophy to the cabinet appears on track.
They cruised to the number one seed in the Western Conference, racking up wins with ease as the teams beneath them had to squabble for the remaining playoff spots.
The combination of perennial All-Stars Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, coupled with the return of power-forward DeMarcus Cousins saw the Warriors rank second for points (117.7 per game) and first for assists (29.4 per game).
Importantly for the Warriors, this might be their last chance to claim another title with this group of players. Thompson, Durant and Cousins will all be free agents come July, with expectations that the latter two will both be elsewhere next year.
Durant has been the difference-maker for this team since joining them two years ago. He won both finals MVPs and will be eying off a third as he looks to firmly stake his claim as the best player in the league.
Everything but the title might look like a massive failure for the Warriors, who’ll never have a better opportunity than this to claim another championship.
For the second year running, the Rockets have emerged as the No.1 contender to knock over the Warriors in the playoffs, having hit form since the All-Star break in February. They won 20 of their past 25 matches.
Houston came so close to knocking over Golden State in last year’s Western Conference Finals, pushing them to a deciding game seven, where they led by 11 points at half-time.
This year, they’ve beaten the Warriors in three of their four regular season meetings, including both matches at the Oracle Arena in Oakland.
James Harden has continued his MVP form from last season, averaging a league-high 36.2 points per game, while Chris Paul’s aggressiveness has consistently troubled the Warriors in recent match-ups.
However, the question arises about whether they can they get the job done when it matters most.
Both Harden and Paul are chasing a maiden NBA championship. With the latter turning 34 in May, their opportunities to win one as a duo are rapidly running out.
With the shadow of LeBron James no longer towering over the Eastern Conference, a non Lebron-led team will reach the finals for the first time in eight years.
The Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the league, having accumulated 60 wins for the year, led by the unstoppable Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s playing at an MVP level, averaging 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds per game.
The Toronto Raptors, with the addition of Kawhi Leonard, may finally have the top-end talent required to win it all.
Kawhi is widely regarded as the best two-way player in the game, and he knows what it takes to win, having claimed a title with San Antonio in 2014.
He could be the one to give the Raptors the edge to get over their recent playoff struggles. They’ve come up short the past five years.
Philadelphia have the imposing combination of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler. However, a lack of playoff experience and composure late in games may thwart the 76ers chances of stringing together multiple playoff victories.
Finally, there are the Boston Celtics, who despite failing to connect on the court this season, remain a threat. The Celtics have the most talented roster in the East, with names like Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward sure to see this team contend.
The Boston Celtics haven’t been on the same page all season long.
Constant speculation surrounding megastar Kyrie Irving’s free agent status has been a messy subplot for this team. His apparent lack of commitment to Boston appears to harm the team’s chemistry.
Statistics show that they win more when he doesn’t play, having gone 11 and 2 without him this season.
If the Celtics are to succeed, they need to forget about the upcoming off-season and focus on the present by allowing Irving to bring his ball-handling skills and late game clutch shooting to the fore.
Additionally, the Celtics arguably have the best tactician, Brad Stevens, calling the plays from the sidelines.
If the team is able to solve the problems they are facing soon, they pose as the biggest playoff wildcard.