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Submitted by Jim Feist on Wednesday, April 12, 2017 at 12:00 AM

by Jim Feist
It's been a long haul, this NBA regular season, but the playoffs are just around the corner. So who wins the NBA title?  We all know the favorites don't waltz to the NBA Finals.  Last year eventual champion Cleveland won its first 10 playoff games, but that’s not the norm. Golden State, the defending champ, had that record-setting regular season, then started 9-5 straight up in the playoffs, even falling behind Oklahoma City 3-games-to-1.  
   Three years ago San Antonio had to go 7 games with Dallas in the first round, then six with Oklahoma City. Four years ago Miami needed to go seven games with Indiana to get there, then had to pull off a miracle in Game 6 to stun the Spurs. Five years ago San Antonio was a No. 1 seed and up 2-0 on the young Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. Then, Oklahoma City won 5 in a row to take a 1-0 lead in the Finals. Then, Miami won 4 in a row to shell-shock young OKC.
  It takes teamwork and effort, lots of effort, to hoist the crown at the end of a long season. Cleveland exemplified teamwork a year ago on the way to winning the title and the Spurs have done is multiple times. The West has won 12 of the last 18 NBA titles. This week, it's the best of the East.

Cavaliers: The defending champs excelled much of the season, but hit a rough patch down the stretch after losing Kevin Love, but his return hasn’t stabilized things. The biggest concern has been serious defensive lapses, ranking in the Bottom 12 in points allowed and in the middle of the pack in field goal shooting defense. Those are flaws that could be exposed in the postseason.   
  Still, any team is a threat with 32-year old Lebron James (26 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 8.7 apg) and 25-year old Kyrie Irving (25 ppg), a dynamic one-two offensive punch.  28-year old Kevin Love (19 ppg, 10 rpg) is still a force and the Cavs have very good role players like Tristan Thompson.  Have to give the nod to the champs in the East until someone can dethrone them before the Finals.
Celtics: General Manager Danny Ainge has already built one championship team in Boston (2008) and another that went to Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. He has been patiently building another strong team that does a lot of things well. Guard Isaiah Thomas (29 ppg) is a sparkplug that runs the uptempo attack, but they also play good defense for Coach Brad Stevens, #14 in points allowed, #10 in field goal defense.
  The Celtics are also second in the NBA in Golden State in three-point defense. It’s a guard-oriented lineup behind Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart, while newcomer Al Horford (14 ppg, 7 rpg) added some much-needed physical frontcourt muscle.  They’ve also held their own against the Cavs, losing by 6 on the road and winning at home (103-99).

Bulls: If this team from the Windy City could ever get healthy…Even banged up they’ve been a force in the East.  The offense has improved from a year ago with the additions of Pau Gasol and 6-10 rookie Nikola Mirotic, but the heart and soul of this team remains defense and rebounding.  Joakim Noah anchors the physical frontcourt and the defense is one again Top 10 in field goal shooting allowed, a necessity in April. That defense helps on the road: The Bulls are 20-8 under the total on the road against a team with a winning home record.

Raptors: Toronto is a fascinating team, hoping to get guard Kyle Lowry back for the playoffs. They’ve weathered his injury to stay in the thick of the East with great balance, Top 10 in points scored and allowed. 27-year old DeMar Rozan (27 ppg) has shouldered the offensive load while 6-10 Serge Ibaka has added defensive prowess under the glass despite missing much of the season.

Wizards: Young Washington is a tough matchup with a deadly offense, led by lightening-quick John Wall and sharp-shooting Bradley Beal. They can be a tough matchup for teams that lack quality backcourt defense. However, Washington has several weak areas that can’t be overlooked come playoff time: Youth, a below-average defense, and they struggled on the road. That last point can’t be overlooked for a team that is not the No. 1 seed.


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