Warriors in front, but contenders loom behind!

Favourites have been known to falter in the post-season in the past and this will inspire the challengers as the business end of the NBA season — the playoffs — beckons.

Stephen Curry shoulders the shooting function for the Golden State Warriors, the defending champion.   -  AFP

Competitive sport thrives on uncertainty and the possibility of the unknown or the unexpected. Repetition and certainty take away a key element of spectator sport — suspense. With the Golden State Warriors winning three of the last four titles and fielding a squad that includes five starters who have been named All-Stars in the NBA, one would expect the team to win the championship again this year.

Sharpshooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have rounded into form and look as menacing as ever. Forward Kevin Durant seems to be cruising in the regular season and prepared for a strong stretch in the post-season. His front court partner Draymond Green has been his dangerous self and still reads plays faster than opponents as he sets up his colleagues on offence and thwarts them on defence. Centre DeMarcus Cousins has recovered well from his Achilles heel injury and is now a force to reckon with, at least on offence, offering a sturdy presence on the paint. As things stand, the Warriors do not have any weaknesses — even though the bench anchored by veteran Andre Iguodala seems a bit shallow.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ leading scorer, defender, and playmaker is the 6ft 11in “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is now the leading candidate to the win the Most Valuable Player award.   -  AP

 

But basketball at the highest level in the NBA is a highly competitive sport. And there are some contenders who could give the Warriors a run for their money if their records at the end of three-fourths of the regular season are considered. Some of them are in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, but surprisingly, unlike the previous years, the Eastern Conference has finally thrown up genuine contenders that are not headlined by the presence of LeBron James.

In the East, the strongest contenders are the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors. Coach Mike Budenholzer (‘coach Bud’) who took over the reins of the Bucks squad this year has completely refashioned the offence and made the team a much stronger defensive unit. The Bucks’ leading scorer, defender and playmaker is the “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 6ft 11in tall and uber-atheltic Antetokoumnpo has been unguardable in the paint as he uses his quick feet, length and athleticism to penetrate the lanes and score at will near the basket. His above average ball handling and passing have been honed by coach Bud to facilitate a three-point dominant offence.

The 7-footer Brook Lopez, forward Nikola Mirotic, wings Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon and point guard Eric Bledsoe offer a strong three-point shooting ability, as they wait at the perimeter to utilise the drive-and-kick manoeuvres of Antetokounmpo. The “Greek Freak” is now the leading candidate to the win the Most Valuable Player award as he has inspired his team to a league leading 48-15 record. Only the Houston Rockets’ machine-like scorer James Harden and the all-round forward Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder come close as contenders for the award.

The other team in the East that threatens to offer a strong counter to the Warriors’ threat is the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors had the best regular season record last year, but fell short in the post-season yet again to a LeBron James-led team in the Cleveland Cavaliers. With James moving to the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, the East has become much more open for a new finalist to emerge and the Raptors are again in contention.

Denver Nuggets’ forward-center Nikola Jokic (No. 15) has also played like a Most Valuable Player candidate, harnessing his unique game to help his team stay close to the Warriors in the standings.   -  AFP

 

With the addition in the off-season of two-way maestro Kawhi Leonard and the mid-season acquisition of center Marc Gasol, the Raptors offer a strong two-way squad. Point guard Kyle Lowry, Leonard, shooting guard Danny Green, and Gasol and the NBA’s most improved player this season, Pascal Siakam, are above-average players on both defence and offence. Leonard is a top-five player with an outstanding mid-range game coupled with three-point shooting ability and is known to turn up his intensity on defence when needed. The Raptors also have a versatile and strong bench unit and they could stretch the Warriors in the postseason if they manage to overcome the Bucks. The currently fourth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers have a starting unit — guards Ben Simmons, J. J. Redick, forwards Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris and center Joel Embiid — that is nearly as strong as the Warriors’ on paper but they have had little time to gel together as a unit. In the West, the Warriors’ strongest adversary is likely to be the Denver Nuggets — a team that narrowly missed the playoffs last season. This year, the team’s forward-center Nikola Jokic has also played like a Most Valuable Player candidate, harnessing his unique game to help his team stay close to the Warriors in the standings — as of March 4, the Nuggets record was 42-20, just a game and a half below the Warriors’ 44-19. Jokic has a passing ability that is miles ahead of any other centre in the game. He positions himself on the top of the key in the half-court offence, lets the guards dance around him and uses his height, positional sense and vision to either kick-start the possession or end it by passing to a cutter near the bucket. He also has a stout post game besides a decent three-point shooting ability to keep defences guessing.

Jokic’s defence has also been better this year and the Nuggets have benefited from the Paul Millsap-Jokic front court pairing. Guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris have also improved in the past year adding to a stout offence that is ranked third in the league. Coach Mike Malone has also been helped by the continuity in this team, which has improved its defence significantly from the previous season.

The Nuggets apart, the rest of the Western teams in playoff contention, such as the Thunder, Blazers, Rockets (which have regressed a bit, especially on defence compared to the previous season) and the Jazz have the ability to make a noise in the post-season. But each of them seems to suffer from flaws that render them talent-wise inferior to the Warriors.

In the tighter postseason contests, the team with the better talent always wins and in that respect, the loaded teams in the East — the Bucks and the Raptors — are best placed to challenge the Warriors. Favourites have been known to falter in the post-season in the past and this will inspire these challengers as the business end of the NBA season — the playoffs — beckons.