By BRIAN MAHONEY
Russell Westbrook against James Harden is a sensational start to the NBA postseason. Golden State against Cleveland no longer looks like the certain finish.
The playoffs open this weekend, highlighted by a must-see matchup in the first round between record-setting guards who are former teammates and now leading MVP candidates.
They swapped spectacular highlights during the regular season: Westbrook averaging a triple-double in carrying Oklahoma City after Kevin Durant’s departure; Harden leading the league in assists for a high-octane Houston offense that shattered the NBA record for 3-pointers.
“As great of a season as LeBron (James) and Kawhi (Leonard) have had, the two main guys on the card, the main draw, have been James Harden and Russell Westbrook,” Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Reggie Miller said. “And to have both of those guys go at one another in the first round — former teammates, great friends, the two leading scorers in the Association — from our side … this is a dream matchup to sit and have a chance to watch.”
Now one of them will be gone by May.
Super stats give way to tremendous teams in the playoffs, and the Warriors look the part after going 67-15 in their first season with Durant, now healthy after a late-season injury.
The question mark is the Cavaliers, the defending champions who were just 10-14 after February, yielding the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to Boston while James sat out the final two games during their late-season slide.
The Warriors and Cavs were overwhelming favorites to meet again after splitting the last two NBA Finals, though Cleveland’s struggles have thrown that into doubt — outside of Cleveland, anyway.
“I’m not going into the playoffs thinking that,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “I’m going into it thinking we can win.”
The answers start arriving Saturday, when the two-month chase for 16 wins begins.
The Cavaliers open against No. 7 Indiana, while No. 3 Toronto hosts No. 6 Milwaukee. In the West, it’s seventh-seeded Memphis at No. 2 San Antonio, and the No. 4 Clippers against the No. 5 Utah Jazz.
On Sunday, the Warriors open against Portland, before the third-seeded Rockets and No. 6 Thunder play the other Game 1 in the West. Thee East openers are Boston against Chicago, and No. 4 Washington against fifth-seeded Atlanta.
Just five years ago, Westbrook, Harden and Durant were young guns on an Oklahoma City team that lost to Miami in the NBA Finals. All three may have been worthy MVP winners this season had Durant not hurt his knee in late February.
He’s back now, with perhaps his best chance yet to win something better than a second MVP award: a first championship.
“Playing against the best players in the world, at the biggest stage, that’s the goal for every player,” Durant said. (AP)