It only looks like parity.
Consider it an April tradition: The franchise that goes into the Eastern Conference playoffs as the No. 1 seed changes annually. Toronto is on the brink of clinching the top spot in the East this season — which would make the Raptors the seventh franchise in seven years to do so, following Chicago, Miami, Indiana, Atlanta, Cleveland and Boston.
It’s an unprecedented run of top-seed diversity for the NBA, at least since the league started seeding by conference in 1973.
Of course, those top seeds usually find out that finishing ahead of LeBron James in April is much easier than ousting him in May.
“Listen, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m a 6 seed, or a 3 seed, or a 2 seed, or an 8 seed,” James said. “If I come into your building for a Game 1, it will be very challenging.”
So make no mistake, the East still goes through James.
He is trying to reach the NBA Finals for the eighth consecutive season. James’ teams are 24-2 in East series as the higher seed, 6-2 in East series as the lower seed. And while the Raptors will be the favorites on the brackets, there will be a certain amount of skepticism until someone knocks James off his perch atop the conference.
“What he does in a playoff series is very unique,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said.
It’s been almost predetermined for the last few years, regardless of who’s seeded where, that James’ team would be the one winning the East.
But this year, it might not be so simple.
The Raptors went into Friday with a magic number of one — one Toronto win or one Boston loss, and the road for anyone to win the Eastern Conference title will go through Canada. But while the Raptors haven’t exactly been sprinting across the finish line there have been some teams hitting their best stride, namely Cleveland and Philadelphia.
And when the East bracket is set, the Raptors know plenty of pundits won’t be penciling them in for a trip to the NBA Finals, even with the knowledge that Kyrie Irving — who has had some incredible playoff moments with James and Cleveland in recent years — won’t be playing for Boston in these playoffs because of knee surgery.
“We really just have to maintain focus on ourselves and not worry about who says this, that, what happens,” Toronto guard Kyle Lowry said. “All we can do is focus on our team, our organization and the things that we do. We don’t really care to be talked about. We just go out there and have to prove what we need to prove.”
Thing is, in the East this year and with all due respect to the way James has been playing of late — so well, he has said he would vote for himself as the league MVP — it’s hard to envision any team being fearful of any other.
With the exception of Milwaukee, which was swept 3-0 by Miami, every team in the East has beaten every other playoff team in their conference at least once during this regular season. The Cavaliers went into Friday with a 15-9 record against the other East playoff-bound clubs; the 76ers were 9-16 entering Friday against the other East qualifiers.
Everyone else falls somewhere in the middle.
“Eastern Conference basketball,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said, “it’s the height of competition.”
The West seems much easier to forecast.
Houston has separated itself from everyone, and Golden State — which has been decimated by injuries, but is hopeful of having Stephen Curry back by the second round — is probably still going to be thought of by many as no worse than a co-favorite to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive time.
The East probably has more teams capable of reaching The Finals.
But beating James four times is not going to be easy for any of them, regardless of home-court advantage.
“Toronto’s having a heck of a year, (so is) Boston and everything they’re doing with a lot of injuries themselves, and I think some of the teams in the middle and back of the pack are interesting,” Budenholzer said. “But until somebody beats whatever team LeBron’s playing for, it always feels like the team that he’s playing for is the team to beat in the East.”
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