REAL BATTLE BEGINS Warriors biggest rivals? Injuries and boredom

The Golden State Warriors have themselves as their stiffest competitor come playoff time.

The Golden State Warriors followed up their second consecutive NBA title — and third in four years — by adding DeMarcus Cousins, the four-time All-Star. It became commonplace to declare that they had ruined the league by removing any suspense to the season. A starting lineup of five All-Stars, two of which are former recipients of the Most Valuable Player Award, was just too much.

There was palace intrigue, however. Kevin Durant and Draymond Green feuded in public, Cousins was routinely exposed on defense, Klay Thompson had a rough start and Stephen Curry’s shot seemed to fail him before he began wearing contacts on the court — in a scary acknowledgment that he had struggled with his vision for years even as he established himself as the deadliest 3-point shooter in NBA history.

The drama — which many on the team have said is actually less than they dealt with last season — led to long stretches in which the Warriors seemed positively pedestrian. Perhaps most relevant to these playoffs, it led to them feuding with officials, and Durant and Green topping the NBA in technical fouls.

It has widely been assumed that this will be Durant’s last season in Golden State. The quirks of the salary cap mean Cousins is almost assuredly gone as well. Shaun Livingston is likely to retire, Andre Iguodala can’t outrun time forever, Green’s long-term status is tenuous and Thompson is about to be a free agent. This could indeed be the last run of the Warriors dynasty.

Despite all of that ado, there is no reason to believe the Warriors can’t flip the switch and march to the finals, just like they did last year. The only potential obstacles seem to be a significant injury — the team has said an ankle injury to Curry is not serious, but that situation should be monitored — or a boredom with domination so deep that they loaf their way to a shocking upset.

With Cousins and Durant likely hoping to add a ring on their way out the door, focus shouldn’t be a problem. But first they will have to get there.

A preview of all eight first-round series shows there is plenty to watch and enjoy, even if Golden State is still “ruining” everything — and ends up the champion once again.

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WESTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers (48-34) were the NBA’s most surprising team all season. The Lob City years may have been defined by a top-heavy roster of stars, but this group was far more anonymous and its talent stretched further along the bench. Led for most of the season by Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari and the bench duo of Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams — who this season became the NBA’s career leader in points off the bench — they coasted along, winning game after game in which they were counted out.

Even the Clippers’ management did not seem to believe in them, trading Harris and Boban Marjanovic to Philadelphia in February. The collapse that everyone predicted never happened, and the Clippers easily held off Sacramento for the West’s final playoff spot.

But this series is where the fun story ends. An overachieving team can be exhilarating to watch, and there were matchups where the Clippers might have surprised someone. But no matter how bored the Warriors (57-25) seemed this season, a loss in this series would overtake the 2007 We Believe Warriors’ upset of the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks as the most shocking first-round loss in recent history. Golden State is just too deep and too talented for the plucky Clippers to stand a chance.

Pick: Warriors in 4.

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No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs

Don’t let their record fool you — the Nuggets (54-28) are broken, and it doesn’t take much to find the date of the fracture: Jan. 15. That day, Denver, which came into the game brimming with confidence as the No. 1 team in the West, got pulverized by the Warriors. The Nuggets allowed a record 51 first-quarter points and lost, 142-111.

The Nuggets went 25-14 the rest of the way — not all that different from the 29-13 record they had going into the game — but any notion that they had emerged as a true contender was officially scuttled. Two more losses to Golden State helped drive that point home, as did a 5-6 record over the final 11 games. The Nuggets barely held onto the No. 2 seed, nearly losing it to Houston on the final day of the season.

An optimist would point out that Denver keeping the No. 2 seed means it is uniquely positioned for a trip to the conference finals, as its win Wednesday kept the Nuggets away from Golden State for the first two rounds. If the Nuggets can get past the Spurs (48-34), they would draw the winner of Portland-Oklahoma City.

Nikola Jokic is a truly special player, and will get a chance to shine on a national stage at some point, but even if the Nuggets are more talented than San Antonio, it is hard to believe that coach Gregg Popovich can’t come up with a way to exploit Denver’s weaknesses and advance in what could be one of the more closely matched series.

Pick: Spurs in 6.

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No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder

Watching the video of the brutal leg injury sustained by Jusuf Nurkic last month is not recommended, but understanding its effect is fairly important in these playoffs. Nurkic, the Bosnian center, was in the middle of a career-defining season but will now miss the playoffs. He helped transform the Trail Blazers (53-29), from a team known for its transcendent guard combo — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum — into a team that seemed dangerous against any opponent in the West besides Golden State.

Enes Kanter, who signed with the team in February after being bought out by the Knicks, can replace a fair amount of Nurkic’s offense and rebounding, but the defensive drop-off could hardly be more extreme.

With Nurkic, the Blazers likely would have been heavy favorites against the Thunder (49-33), but as it stands, they seem outmatched by the combination of Paul George, Steven Adams and Russell Westbrook.

Pick: Thunder in 6.

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No. 4 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz

Sometimes you can win by losing. The Rockets (53-29) went into the season’s final day with a shot at the No. 2 seed in the West, but Denver’s win left Houston at No. 4. The beauty of that, should the Rockets survive a first-round matchup against Rudy Gobert and the Jazz (50-32), is that it would set them up for a faceoff against Golden State in the second round, with James Harden as fresh as possible and with a far better chance of Chris Paul being healthy.

But first Houston will have to deal with Utah, a team that gets elite defense from Gobert — the team was the second-most efficient defense in the NBA, allowing 105.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Reference — and enough offense from Donovan Mitchell to stay competitive.

Pick: Rockets in 5.

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Can Giannis Antetokounmpo carry the Bucks all the way to the finals? Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Detroit Pistons

The Bucks (60-22) were supposed to be good. But they weren’t supposed to be this good. The season began with debates about which team in the East would step into the vacuum created by LeBron James’ departure to the Western Conference: Boston, Philadelphia or Toronto. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

The stories about the team, and the immediate vicinity of the basket, were dominated by Giannis Antetokounmpo, the favorite to be named MVP over Harden, but Milwaukee was not a one-man show. Khris Middleton was an All-Star, Eric Bledsoe seemed content to be a third option, and Brook Lopez, the lumbering 7-footer, continued his reinvention into perhaps the NBA’s least likely 3-point specialist — and one of its most effective perimeter defenders.

A tear in the plantar fascia of Malcolm Brogdon’s right foot has the Bucks at slightly less than full strength for the first round, but the Pistons (41-41) barely qualified for the playoffs, and other than a fairly special season from Blake Griffin they offer little reason for any team to be afraid.

Pick: Bucks in 4.

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No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Orlando Magic

The Raptors (58-24) were not expected to keep up with Boston or Philadelphia — even by this writer’s predictions — but they managed to jell around Kawhi Leonard faster than many predicted. Leonard’s health issues, while not entirely a thing of the past, did not stop Toronto from easily winning the most difficult division in the NBA.

That Toronto is a heavy favorite is a bummer for the Magic (42-40), a team that emerged from years of being atrocious and put on a good show nearly every night. The leap to All-Star by Nikola Vucevic was inspiring, and the athleticism on the roster can lead to some truly sensational highlights. Yes, the Raptors should win, and it’s entirely possible that they will sweep, but Orlando is one of the few teams that could get away with an attitude of just being happy to be there.

 Pick: Raptors in 5.

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No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets

The 76ers (51-31) likely have the most talented starting five outside of Golden State. Joel Embiid is a system unto himself — he’d prefer to be called a Process; Ben Simmons can do anything except shoot 3-pointers; and Jimmy Butler is not your friend, but he is a terrific all-around player. That the Sixers can complement those three with a pair of dead-eyed shooters like Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick almost seems greedy.

The price, it seems, is depth and cohesiveness: The starting five has managed just 161.1 minutes on the court together over 10 games. While Boban Marjanovic is a lot of fun coming off the bench — provided you’re not the one guarding him — there isn’t a lot else to speak about among the Sixers’ reserves.

The Nets (42-40), meanwhile, have depth in spades. D’Angelo Russell took the leap to All-Star-level this season; Spencer Dinwiddie is one of the league’s top sixth men; Jarrett Allen is a slender but formidable brick wall in front of the basket; and you never know when Caris LeVert and Joe Harris will dominate. Coach Kenny Atkinson managed to have 13 players average more than 17 minutes a game this season by mixing and matching his lineups (and by dealing with injuries).

The 76ers are rightfully the favorite. At any given point in a game they could claim to have the five most talented players on the court — with the possible exception of Russell over Redick and/or Harris. But a significant injury to any one of Philadelphia’s stars — always a concern with this team’s injury history — could be a death knell.

Pick: 76ers in 5.

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No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers

What to make of the Celtics? The team made a run to the conference finals last season with a spark but without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward, and then after getting them back from injury this year, they were flat for much of the season. It’s not that they didn’t end up with good numbers — they were a top-10 team in offensive and defensive efficiency — but they didn’t scare anyone because of their inconsistency.

If Boston thinks it can loaf its way through this series, however, it will be sadly mistaken. The Pacers (48-34) survived losing their best player, Victor Oladipo, to a season-ending knee injury and finished with the same record they had last year while showing small improvement in their efficiency on both ends of the court.

Boston is so talented that it has to be the favorite, but this is the series with the widest range of possibilities.

Pick: Celtics in 6.