2018 N.B.A. Playoff Preview: As the Playoffs Begin, the N.B.A.’s Biggest Stars are Going Ring Hunting

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For fans and pundits interested in keeping Michael Jordan firmly entrenched as the N.B.A.’s greatest modern player over LeBron James, the math is very simple: 6 > 3.

It seems no discussion of those players can avoid the 6 > 3 equation, in which they have decided that Jordan’s 6-0 record in the finals trumps James’s 3-5 record, and that there is no room for any other context or nuance. (The N.B.A. must have missed this memo when they made a silhouette of Jerry West — who was 1-8 in career finals appearances — the league’s logo.)

It is the fascination with championships, and the rings that come with them, that has a 16-team playoff season — the first round of which begins on Saturday — boiling down for many to what it would mean for the various players involved to walk away with the diamond-encrusted validation that comes with a finals triumph.

If Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors win, does that cement them as a dynasty? If they don’t win, does it invalidate the hyperbole about them that’s been thrown around the last three years? What would a fourth ring mean for James? How would it change things for Chris Paul of the Houston Rockets if he finally won a championship in his 13th year in the league?

Kevin McHale, a Hall of Famer who teamed with Larry Bird and Robert Parish on the Boston Celtics for three championship runs, thinks there is definitely merit to those discussions when trying to sort out the best of the best, but that the players in the thick of it would be wise to try to tune out the discussion.

“It’s hard to play if you’re thinking about ‘What’s my legacy going to be?’ as opposed to ‘We’re down 2, with 2 minutes to go, we’ve got to get a stop,’” he said. “There’s a process you go through and it’s next play, next game, next everything. That’s what the most successful people do.”

Kobe Bryant, who was known for a singular focus on winning as he collected five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers — it’s no coincidence that his new show on the ESPN+ platform is called Details — understands the drawbacks of focusing too much on hardware, but he said the players know what they are getting into.

“Individually you have great players who haven’t had the great fortune of winning championships,” he said, “but by and large I don’t think it’s unfair to put that pressure on winning championships because that is the name of the game: to win championships.”

Bryant also said it was natural for the debates about championships to turn into debates about the star players, simply because of the way an N.B.A. game is structured. “It’s different than most other team sports because an individual can really inspire, challenge, lead, make big plays, get big stops, to be able to lead a team to victory,” he said.

McHale, who will be analyzing games for TNT during the playoffs, was quick to point out that the ring math for Jordan and LeBron should also include Bill Russell’s 11 championships, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s six, among others. That being said, he offered what he believes is a more useful solution in which we focus less on a raw number of championships and more on how much a player or team dominated in his own era, since that is the only thing a player can actually control.

McHale’s strategy could pertain especially to Curry and James in the coming months, and it is one that would allow for a celebration of all the players who have truly dominated an era, like Russell, Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar. It is not as tidy of an equation as 6 > 3, but it is one that keeps the emphasis on winning, while allowing for the fact that there are plenty of other factors — injuries, teammates, etc. — that heavily influence a star’s ability to win.


Western Conference

No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves

Game 1: Sunday, 9 p.m., TNT

Season head-to-head: Rockets led 4-0

To accurately judge the Timberwolves (47-35) would require more understanding of the state of Jimmy Butler’s knee than even the All-Star swingman himself could likely muster. With him, Minnesota is one of the three best teams in the Western Conference and could theoretically make this a series. Without him, despite the presence of Karl-Anthony Towns, they are pedestrian — as evidenced by the fact that Butler’s extended injury absence nearly resulted in Minnesota not making the playoffs.

There is not nearly as much ambiguity for the Rockets (65-17). Houston reinvented itself in the off-season to become a machine of isolation following the acquisition of Chris Paul, and it made them absolutely devastating.

With the most efficient offense in basketball and the sixth-most efficient defense, the idea that they are a true challenger to Golden State might be unfounded. Instead they are possibly the front-runner that the Warriors, despite all their recent success, are chasing. Pick: Rockets


No. 2 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs

Game 1: Saturday, 3 p.m., ABC

Season head-to-head: Warriors led 3-1

Much will be made of how you cannot judge the Warriors (58-24) until Stephen Curry gets back onto the court. But trying to blame all of Golden State’s regression on Curry’s absence is probably too generous.

Kevin Durant has been feuding with officials and fans, Draymond Green has seemed more vulnerable on defense, and the team that was deemed just last year by Jeff Van Gundy to be capable of winning as many as eight championships is now something of an underdog in these playoffs.

The Spurs (47-35) can relate to the quick fall from grace, as they kept their 21-year playoff streak going but are a shell of themselves without Kawhi Leonard, who appeared in just nine games this season.

While neither Curry nor Leonard is expected to play in this series, Durant should be capable of leading the Warriors past the Spurs. If he isn’t, then at least there will be some clarity as to which former M.V.P. is Golden State’s most important player. Pick: Warriors


No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans

Game 1: Saturday, 10:30 p.m., ESPN

Season head-to-head: Tied 2-2

The Trail Blazers (49-33) have a tendency to get written off as a team with two outrageously talented guards — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum — and not much else. But the two elite scorers alone cannot really take all the credit for Portland having had the eighth-most efficient defense in the N.B.A. this season.

Part of that was a full season from Jusuf Nurkic, the 23-year-old Bosnian center who shores up the inside for the Blazers, but there is plenty of depth behind the team’s three most prominent players, and their earning the No. 3 seed in the West was a direct result.

The Pelicans (48-34) were just one game behind the Blazers in the standings, but they serve as one of the great what-ifs in the N.B.A. this season, as they enter the playoffs without DeMarcus Cousins, who tore his Achilles’ tendon on Jan. 26. It is hard to see how Portland could have stopped the combination of Anthony Davis and Cousins over the course of a seven-game series, but with no Cousins, the balance shifts heavily in Portland’s favor. Pick: Trail Blazers


No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz

Game 1: Sunday, 6:30 p.m., TNT

Season head-to-head: Thunder led 3-1

Once you finish rolling your eyes at the ongoing beef between Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons about who should be rookie of the year, you can focus on what a tremendous story the Jazz (48-34) have been.

Utah lost Gordon Hayward in free agency and somehow came back younger, faster and just as good. Rudy Gobert continues to be the most intimidating defensive presence in the N.B.A., Mitchell can seemingly score at will, and Ricky Rubio, who was jettisoned in Minnesota’s revamping, finally found a place where his unusual skills can thrive.

The Thunder (48-34) have plenty of star power after adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony alongside Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams, but Oklahoma City was wildly inconsistent, and Anthony, at this point in his career, is more of a name than a player. Should the Thunder falter, it could open the door to George leaving via free agency. Pick: Jazz


Eastern Conference

No. 1 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 8 Washington Wizards

Game 1: Saturday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN

Season head-to-head: Tied, 2-2

Winning the first game could be the key to everything. The Raptors (59-23) seem to have left behind the second-half collapses of the team’s past and appear to be the most consistently formidable team in the East, but when you are a franchise that has not won Game 1 of a playoff series since the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2001, getting over that hump could mean the difference between a nice long run and another early exit.

The Wizards (43-39) are certainly capable of putting up a challenge, especially with the lack of back-to-backs in the postseason meaning John Wall no longer has to take games off, but the Raptors played a consistently spectacular brand of basketball all season. And with Toronto’s core of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas getting help from the likes of Fred VanVleet (who is nursing a shoulder injury) and Jakob Poeltl, it is a team that should not be taken lightly. Pick: Raptors


No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 7 Milwaukee Bucks

Game 1: Sunday, 1 p.m., TNT

Season head-to-head: Tied 2-2

Injuries can be a brutal thing. The Celtics (55-27) somehow overcame losing Gordon Hayward just minutes into the first game of the regular season and became the dominant team of the Eastern Conference for much of the year — only to have Kyrie Irving end up sidelined with an injury of his own that left the team badly in need of a dominant scorer.

Boston is still a deep and talented team, especially with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum representing a bright future, but the Celtics were built around Hayward and Irving as scorers, and without them they are vulnerable.

The Bucks (44-38) did not have the breakout season that was predicted by many, but they have Giannis Antetokounmpo, a player so special that the thought of him taking over a first-round playoff series almost single-handedly is not out of the realm of possibility. Pick: Bucks


No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 6 Miami Heat

Game 1: Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN

Season head-to-head: Tied 2-2

Joel Embiid’s injured face feels good enough for him to joke about it, but the injury is serious enough that he had to have a custom mask made in order for him to return in time for the playoffs. Provided the mask does not hamper the dominant young center’s game, the 76ers (52-30) are potentially the scariest team in the Eastern Conference.

They have Ben Simmons, one of two favorites for rookie of the year who has dubbed himself the Fresh Prince to LeBron James’s King James. They have a solid core of useful players like J.J. Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Saric, and they have a huge wild-card in Markelle Fultz, who has not been the shooter the team thought it was drafting but has proved to be valuable in other ways.

The real show, though, online and on the court, is Embiid, who may miss Game 1, but has been pushing to be cleared to play.

The Heat (44-38) got a terrific season out of Goran Dragic (who is slowed some by a knee injury), and in Hassan Whiteside they have one of the few centers who can’t be physically bullied by Embiid. But the talent scale tips heavily in Philadelphia’s favor. Pick: 76ers


No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers

Game 1: Sunday, 3:30 p.m., ABC

Season head-to-head: Pacers led 3-1

At this point in his career, we just have to believe LeBron James when he says the Cavaliers (50-32) can find a higher gear and succeed in the playoffs. Nothing during the regular season indicated the team was anything more than one of the greatest players ever and a collection of inferior sidekicks, but James heartily signed off on the midseason moves to restructure the roster. And if he believes they can succeed, it is hard to argue with him — you don’t get to seven consecutive N.B.A. Finals without knowing what it takes to win.

The emergence of Playoff LeBron would be terrible news for the Pacers (48-34), a ridiculously fun, young team that turned a rebuilding project into something special. Victor Oladipo blossomed, Myles Turner looked like a star in the making, and Lance Stephenson did many things that would be surprising from any player other than Lance Stephenson. That would be enough to beat Regular Season LeBron, but not Playoff LeBron. Pick: Cavaliers


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