By BRIAN MAHONEY, AP Basketball Writer
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. The 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.
Some other things to watch in the first round:
FANTASTIC FORWARDS: James and Paul George have had tremendous battles in the both the regular season and postseason. The most recent may have been the best, as James finished with 41 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists to George’s 43 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in Cleveland’s 135-100 double-overtime victory on April 2 . The Pacers haven’t lost since, winning their final five to surge into the No. 7 seed.
TOO CLOSE TO CALL? The Clippers and Jazz both finished 51-31, with Los Angeles winning the season series 3-1 to earn the tiebreaker and home-court advantage. Should Los Angeles not win the series — and maybe at least one after it — count on more questions about whether it’s time to break up the core of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
BOSTON BEST? The Celtics are a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2008, when they won their last NBA title. But that was a ready-to-win powerhouse with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. This team is in some ways still in its building stage, perhaps ahead of schedule for where even the franchise expected, and has to show it’s ready to take the leap after not winning a playoff series since 2012.
RAPTORS READY? Toronto reached the East finals last season in its best season ever and loaded up for another run, fortifying the frontcourt with trades for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. Knocked off by the Cavs last season, they would get Cleveland one round sooner this time if both advance. But to face King James, the Raptors have to stop the Greek Freak, and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo will be a handful .
FAMILIAR FOES: San Antonio and Memphis will meet for an NBA-high fourth time since 2011, when the Grizzlies upset the top-seeded Spurs. San Antonio has won the last two, including a first-round sweep last season. This meeting features brothers Pau and Marc Gasol going against each other.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.
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