Stempak: Star players will need to shine in playoffs
R.J. Stempak | Monday, April 4, 2016
The NBA playoffs are drawing near, and the two teams that are dominating headlines are the ones that are predictable and consistent. The San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors are the teams that get all the attention because they have put together two of the best regular-season performances in the history of the sport.
So, if these two teams are guaranteed to win, why even talk about the other teams? Well, first of all, San Antonio and Golden State are in the same conference, so one of these super teams will end its season without a Finals appearance. Secondly, basketball — more so than any other team sport — is star driven, as one player can single-handedly win a game for his team.
There are only two teams in the league that have the star power on their roster to even have a chance to win a series against either the Spurs or Warriors. These two teams are the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, who both have been inconsistent this season despite their star-studded rosters.
The Thunder have arguably two of the top five players in the entire league, and they have been playing together since being drafted. Russell Westbrook is a triple-double machine who, when he plays under control, is an unstoppable offensive force. Kevin Durant has returned to form, as he is currently riding a streak of 61 consecutive games of scoring at least 20 points. The Thunder have beaten the Spurs twice this season and have also played the Warriors tightly. On the other end of the spectrum, they have lost to bad Brooklyn and Sacramento teams by double digits and barely squeaked out a win this past week against a Clippers team who rested four starters.
If Oklahoma City can find consistency — which they have shown signs of while winning nine of their last 10 games — they have a chance to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. Unfortunately, to do so they would have to beat both Golden State and San Antonio in a best-of-seven series. That would mean they would have to win at least one game in their opponent’s arena. At home this season, the Warriors and Spurs are a combined 75-1, so beating both of them in their arenas is essentially impossible for Oklahoma City, which is why the Cavaliers have a better chance to take down the giants.
Calling any team with LeBron James an underdog is ludicrous. But during this season, the dominance of the super teams out west has done just that, as they have dwarfed the Cavaliers. Off-the-court drama between LeBron and his coach, his teammates, his ex-teammates and basically anyone LeBron comes in contact with has leaked onto the court and inhibited progress and cohesion for the Cavs. Their rocky season has had its share of highs and lows, including two wins over the Thunder, a double-digit win over the Spurs, a 34-point loss to the Warriors and a nine-point loss to those lowly Nets.
Despite all of the extracurricular adversity, the Cavaliers have a ceiling in the same range as the Spurs or Warriors simply because they have LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on their roster. Even though they are having trouble working together at times towards the end of their second season with each other, there is hope because everyone turns up their focus and effort in the playoffs. When LeBron decides to focus, his team wins, which is why he on track to earn his sixth straight NBA Finals appearance this season.
So in June, an educated viewer should expect nothing but another Warriors or Spurs title. They are both great basketball teams who will increase their already astronomically-high level of play once the postseason starts. But do not be surprised if Oklahoma City or Cleveland gives them a run for their money because the star players matter the most in playoff basketball.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.