Rockets flying high into playoffs


The Houston Rockets are one of four NBA teams have made their case to win it all in 2018

By Cory Smith - csmith@mtairynews.com



“The Warriors are a superteam and they’re going to win the next five championships!” “The East doesn’t have any talent other than LeBron.” “James Harden and Chris Paul? There’s just no way they can work together.”

There were more than enough detractors of the National Basketball Association heading into the 2017-2018 season. Fans thought that despite a number of major off-season moves, we were in store for Cleveland-Golden State Part IV.

But a lot has happened since the NBA season began on October 17. Instead of concluding with yet another Cavs-Warriors blowout, history could be made in the 2018 NBA playoffs.

Here’s a look at the top candidates to take home the gold in June and why they will/won’t do so.

Golden State Warriors

Why they’ll win the Championship:

The defending champs were poised to return to the Finals for the fourth year in a row when they kept their all-star filled starting lineup intact while also adding key role players. Vegas Insider gives the Warriors a league-best 5/4 odds to win the ‘ship.

The Dubs have secured the second seed in the West despite an abundance of injuries. Potential first-round match-ups include New Orleans, Minnesota, and Utah. Golden State is a combined 6-3 against these teams, with games against the Pelicans and Jazz to come in the next two weeks.

Golden State leads the league in points per game (113.9), field goals per game (42.9), and 3-point percentage (39.3).

Why they won’t win the Championship:

Injuries.

The Warriors are still the team to beat in the West, but take away one or two starters and it’s a whole new ball game.

Coach Steve Kerr has already announced Steph Curry will miss at least the first round with an MCL injury. Patrick McCaw, a second-year player from UNLV, recently suffered a lumbar spine contusion with no estimate on his recovery.

Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson have all missed time due to injury this season.

A wounded Dubs team may escape the first round, but a second round series with Portland or San Antonio is a much taller task.

Houston Rockets

Why they’ll win the Championship:

Houston has already secured the top seed in the West for the first time in franchise history. At 62-15, the Rockets are six games ahead of the second-seed Warriors and seven games ahead of East’s top team, Toronto.

James Harden has all but been handed the MVP trophy. Harden is averaging a league-best 30.6 ppg and has the fourth-best efficiency rating in the NBA. Chris Paul isn’t too far behind with 18.6 ppg and the 13th best PER.

The Rockets lead the league in 3-pointers per game (15.4), and are second in both ppg (113.1) and free throws made per game (20.0).

Why they won’t win the Championship:

Remember the last time Chris Paul, James Harden, or Clint Capela played in the NBA finals? Well, you shouldn’t.

Harden has been known to disappear in big playoff games. That may have changed but I’m not buying it.

After the first round, Houston will likely face OKC or San Antonio. After all that, they’ll have the, “privilege,” of playing the Warriors in the conference finals.

Just a reminder, the Warriors have only lost one seven-game series since the 2014-2015 season.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Why they’ll win the Championship:

If you’ve watched ESPN at all in the past six months or so, you will have seen that LeBron is playing out of his mind for someone in his 15th season.

The King hasn’t missed a game all season and averages 27.4 ppg, 9.1 apg, and 8.7 rpg. Oh, by the way, he leads the league in minutes…in his 15th season.

The post-trade deadline Cavs may be just 13-8, but this is a team built for the playoffs. Much like Golden State, beating Cleveland four times in two weeks doesn’t happen often.

Who in the East is going to stop them save maybe Toronto or Boston? And if the Celtics are without Kyrie Irving, the Cavs can get their passports ready.

Why they won’t win the Championship:

LeBron has been through a number of teammates trying to build a squad to rival Golden State. Simply put, he still hasn’t got there yet.

For one thing, the Cavaliers can’t play defense. The team has the third worst defensive rating in the league, is 23rd in rebounding,

The team’s depth is not as strong as years previous, and if you look at the box scores it’s not easy to find a category leader not named L. James.

Even if the Cavs make it through the East once again, match-ups with Houston or Golden State don’t bode well for The King.

Toronto Raptors

Why they’ll win the Championship:

Toronto will likely end up as the top seed in the East. The Raptors sit two games ahead of Boston and nearly nine ahead of Philadelphia.

Team basketball at its finest, the Raptors boast two all-stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, a compatible front court of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, and possibly the best bench in the league.

The Raptors have avoided the injury bug for the most part, with nine players participating in at least 68 games this season. The focal point of the offense, DeRozan, averages 23.4 ppg and 5.2 apg and has played in 75 games this season.

Two of the biggest differences with this Toronto team are defense and depth. The team has the sixth-best defensive rating in the league, a much improved stat from seasons past.

In terms of depth, players such as Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, and Jakob Poeltl have lightened the load on DeRozan and Lowry. The bench is one of the main reasons the team has the second-largest margin of victory (7.80) in the league.

Wrap all that up with a Coach of the Year candidate in Dwane Casey and Toronto might just have its first championship.

Why they won’t win the Championship:

Because they’re Toronto. Haven’t we been here before?

Experience once again is the cruel mistress that curses an NBA team. Even when the Raptors made it to the ECF in 2016, they were obliterated by Cleveland. That marked the only time in franchise history the team was even close to contending for a title.

The 2017-2018 season is the fifth straight season the Raptors have won at least 48 games. How has that translated to playoff success? Two first-round exits, a second-round sweep, and a conference final clobbering at LeBron’s hand.

At least they’re the best basketball team in Canada?

The Houston Rockets are one of four NBA teams have made their case to win it all in 2018

By Cory Smith

csmith@mtairynews.com

Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith

Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith

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