The Hawks have the best record in the league and the Warriors have been dominant, but are they really the favorites to meet in the Finals? Flanns & Zillz run through the contenders and pretenders.
FLANNERY: We've had almost no movement atop the conference standings since the Hawks decided they were going to start Ka-Kawing everyone in sight. Golden State has obviously been the best in the West from the beginning of the season.
So why do I think neither team is a clear-cut favorite to get to the Finals? Am I just bored with the process, or are there real doubts here?
ZILLER: The doubts for the Hawks in the East center on LeBron James. When he's playing as well as he has, his team is a favorite in any competition. The good news for Atlanta is that Cleveland will likely be the No. 2 or 3 seed, which means they won't meet until the East finals. If not for LeBron, the Hawks would be the favorites to me. They are really solid, well-coached and have continued to execute even without much pressure. They don't look bored yet, which is what appears to happen with some great teams.
There can be no true favorite in the West because the task is too epic. When you might face Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook IN THE FIRST ROUND, how can you expect to be heavily favored for anything? The Warriors have looked the best by no small margin, but three rounds of tests is just brutal.
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FLANNERY: Beyond the LeBron factor, which is obviously huge, I do worry about whether the Hawks will be able to play their game in the playoffs when teams have more time to prep and the game slows down. Who is the guy they can point to when things are really tight on the road and say: take us home?
That said, there aren't that many teams that can deal with Atlanta in any sphere. I wouldn't be thrilled about playing Chicago under any circumstances, even if their injury list is a mile long. (For that matter, I'd rather avoid Indiana too.)
ZILLER: How poetic would it be if the Pacers gave Atlanta a first-round scare this season?
FLANNERY: I mean, I think they could.
ZILLER: The thing about Cleveland is that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are completely untested in the wars of spring. Everyone in Atlanta, Toronto, Washington and Chicago has playoff experience. We know it's a different game in many ways and we just don't have a clear expectation for those two stars.
FLANNERY: Good points. You're right. I'm still going with Cleveland if they're all healthy.
So, the West is terrifying, but there is nothing scarier than getting OKC in the first round. It's not fair, man.
ZILLER: The interesting problem in the West is that we have very high-achieving teams who have won one or zero playoff series (Warriors, Rockets, Blazers) and the somewhat underwhelming (relatively speaking) teams who have seen tons of postseasons (Clippers, Spurs, Mavericks, Thunder). And then we have Memphis.
Speaking of which, I think the Grizzlies really have a shot to take the trophy. I can see them beating any foe -- I mean, I can actually visualize it. I don't trust Golden State against a healthy L.A. as much as I do Memphis. I don't trust Houston against Golden State as much as I do Memphis. I don't trust Portland against the Warriors or Clippers. I have trust issues with all these teams except the Grizzlies.
FLANNERY: I really want to take Memphis. I feel like this is finally the year for them, and as you say, it's all matchups. I love how the Western bracket is shaping up for the Grizz. Let Golden State and OKC take care of one or the other and stay far away from the Clippers and/or Portland. (The Blazers are my dark horse, by the way.) It's right there for them unless San Antonio gets its act together.
ZILLER: By that same token, my only trust issues with the Thunder have to do with Russell Westbrook's snakebitten health and Kevin Durant's feet.
FLANNERY: Right there with you, but I'm feeling lucky. Cleveland-OKC in the Finals with the Thunder winning in six. Russell gets redemption. KD finds true happiness. Tell me I'm wrong.
ZILLER: You're wrong. The Thunder are probably going to have to beat the Warriors and two of the Grizzlies, Rockets, Blazers and Clippers ... if they hold off the Pelicans! I'm going Memphis as my bet, with Golden State in the next slot. OKC might be my third choice in the West if only for the romantic notions of it.
In the East I'm staying with Cleveland. LeBron is too much.
FLANNERY: I probably am, but at least this proves my original point: there are no clear-cut favorites.
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