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In an Unforgettable N.B.A. Season, the Playoffs Could Serve as Prologue

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The N.B.A. season unofficially began with a superstar’s trade demand before the superstar in question (Jimmy Butler) and his team at the time (Minnesota) had even convened for training camp.

Seven months and more than 1,200 games later, Magic Johnson upstaged the retirements of two legends — Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade — in unbecoming fashion by abruptly walking away from Jeanie Buss, LeBron James and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers through a chaotic hour of unscheduled interviews with the news media.

And there were countless dramas and controversies between those bookends, from the Houston Rockets’ poor start and near-instant divorce from Carmelo Anthony ... to the sad disintegration of the New Orleans Pelicans’ season after Anthony Davis’s trade demand … to the Lakers’ injury-driven collapse that ultimately prevented King James from reaching the postseason for the first time in 14 years.

Regular season? Hardly. From Butler’s trade request to Friday’s announcement from the Lakers that they were parting ways with Coach Luke Walton, it was an exhausting ride. Yet we’ve finally arrived where we wanted to be all along: Saturday’s start of the playoffs.

The overriding question now, as we step off that roller coaster and onto another, remains Golden State-centric for the fourth successive spring:

Can anyone out there beat the Warriors four times in a seven-game series?

My answer remains a firm no. But what will make this postseason unlike any other, beyond LeBron’s absence, is the array of ancillary questions sure to sprout about the futures of the Warriors and many of the teams chasing them.

Only 80 days away, remember, is the July 1 start of a free-agent frenzy that is bound to be strongly influenced by playoff results. The principals: Golden State’s Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins; Boston’s Kyrie Irving; Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard; Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris and Butler; Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton; Charlotte’s Kemba Walker; and Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic.

Just to name 10 past, present and future All-Stars.

“I think this summer is going to be the most pivotal time in N.B.A. history,” said Charles Barkley, Turner Sports’ Hall of Fame analyst. “It’s going to dictate the next five years.”

Any chance the Raptors have of persuading Leonard to stay in Canada, after months of noise suggesting that the Los Angeles Clippers are the front-runners to sign him, would seem to depend on a run to the N.B.A. finals. The Raptors are indeed my pick to get there by winning the post-LeBron East, but the high stakes involved, along with Toronto’s tortured playoff history, will weigh heavily on this team despite its potential as a defensive juggernaut.

The pressure is even more tangible in Philadelphia thanks to the 76ers’ all-in trades for Harris and Butler. Those two, along with the sharpshooting J J Redick, are all free agents-to-be. It’s a lot for Sixers Coach Brett Brown to manage, especially when his best player, Joel Embiid, may not be available for the start of Philadelphia’s first-round series with the Nets because of a knee issue that has lingered since the All-Star Game. Whispers about Brown’s job security, as a result, are starting to circulate.

Uncertainty likewise smothers the Celtics, who failed to even win 50 games and openly grappled with chemistry issues after finding the reintegration of Irving and Gordon Hayward, the former All-Star swingman, far more complicated than anyone — Boston officials included — expected. Fears of a two-round injury absence for the rugged guard Marcus Smart don’t help, with the looming specter of Irving’s free agency and a possible trade pursuit of Davis adding to the tension.

Milwaukee, meanwhile, has the statistical profile of a team that should be heavily favored to represent the East in the finals and potentially take down the Warriors — except for the fact that the next playoff series won by the otherworldly Giannis Antetokounmpo will be his first. The Bucks are the only team in the league that ranked in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency, but I confess to being one of those old-school pundits hung up on their lack of big-game experience.

Denver is the West’s answer to Milwaukee and proof as a No. 2 seed that there were some uplifting tales to celebrate amid all of the transactional chaos and personality conflicts that tend to dominate the league’s slice of the social media universe. But the Nuggets’ own inexperience didn’t just steer me away from naming them as the Warriors’ top threat in the conference — it makes them vulnerable in Round 1 against San Antonio.

It’s Houston, then, which stands as the team most capable of derailing the Warriors’ bid for a three-peat. Houston’s problem is that a costly slip to the No. 4 seed in the West dropped it into Golden State’s half of the playoff bracket. The Rockets now must face the Utah Jazz in a first-round matchup featuring the hottest (Houston went 20-5) and third-hottest (Utah went 18-7) teams since the All-Star break.

For all the talk that the Rockets may benefit from a rematch with the Warriors in the conference semifinals rather than the West finals, when James Harden and Chris Paul are theoretically fresher, it may actually be Golden State that benefits the most from watching Houston and Utah beating each other up so early.

The Warriors won’t refuse the help, either, because their veterans and coaches would undoubtedly argue that their regular-season grind is longer than anyone’s after four consecutive trips to the championship round. Ceaseless speculation about Durant’s potential free-agent defection to the Knicks or the Nets — yes, I’m indeed warning you now not to sleep on Brooklyn — has only added to Coach Steve Kerr’s daily challenge to keep his team focused.

Another warning: Don’t forget that the Warriors tend to find that focus quickly once the calendar flips to the postseason. So many of their last 82 games were billed as uncharacteristically joyless, but Golden State is 32-6 in the playoffs since adding Durant.

As long as Stephen Curry’s ankle scare earlier this week scare proves as minor as it appeared, bank on the Warriors to become the first team in 52 seasons — out of the 744 teams to reach the playoffs in that time — to make a fifth straight finals appearance. And then snag title No. 4 to cement themselves as indisputably dynastic.


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