For the Golden State Warriors, it’s a drive for five, as in five championships in nine years. It’s a similar thought for LeBron James, as the NBA’s all-time points leader is set to resume his quest for a fifth ring.
And for a bunch of other teams, just one ring would satisfy.
The NBA playoffs start Saturday, with Milwaukee as the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference and holder of home-court advantage throughout the postseason, and Denver as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the first time.
“Every year, I mean, it’s tough,” said James, who helped the Los Angeles Lakers get back to the playoffs despite a topsy-turvy year marred by injuries and slumps. “There’s too many great teams, too many great players. Every year is tough. No matter if you’re the 1 seed or the 8 seed, every single year is tough.”
The defending champion Warriors open on the road, albeit not far from home, as they take on Sacramento — one of the feel-good stories in the NBA this season, back in the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Kings first-year coach Mike Brown was part of the Warriors’ staff under Steve Kerr for years, and brought that championship culture to Sacramento.
They’ve been talking playoffs all year. But Brown knows that words only go so far.
“At the end of the day, the best teacher is going to be the actually going through it and seeing how you hold up to things that come your way, especially the adversity,” Brown said.
The Warriors know what that means. They opened the season with a ring ceremony, and that was about the last thing that went according to plan. They didn’t get over the .500 mark for good until late February.
But if there’s another title, the Warriors know all the struggles will be forgotten.
“When you’re coming off a championship and lacing ’em back up, you’re celebrating what you accomplished,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “But every time you step foot on the floor and practice and get ready for the games and everything that we’ve been through this year, it’s all about the goal at the end of the year of having an opportunity to go chase another one.”
Some of the top playoff hopefuls had less-rocky paths to the playoffs. Milwaukee — champions two years ago, with much of the same core now — was at or near the top of the East all season. In some order, the East 1-2-3 has been the Bucks, defending East champion Boston and title-starved Philadelphia since mid-January.
The Bucks dealt with injuries, the Celtics dealt with a preseason coaching change, and neither was derailed. A title for Boston would be the franchise’s 18th, breaking a tie with the Lakers for the most in NBA history. And the Celtics have not forgotten the pain of losing last year's finals.
“We’ve essentially been waiting for this moment, getting to the playoffs,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “The group is locked in, the group is focused, everybody’s back healthy, so we’re just preparing the right way. ... Now, it’s here. We’re all excited and ready for the moment.”
The moment — and the ring — are all that matters. Just ask Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“This is what we need,” he shouted to Bucks fans earlier this month, pointing to his ring finger. “We need a second one.”
Some need a first.
Chris Paul still doesn’t have a ring, even though he and the Phoenix Suns led the Bucks 2-0 in the finals two years ago. So now, he and Devin Booker have Kevin Durant — a two-time champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist — alongside them to try and win it all. The Suns drew Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers in Round 1.
“We're ready to go,” Booker said.
Denver — a No. 1 seed, a team that moved into first in the West a few days before Christmas and stayed there the rest of the way — has a two-time (and possibly soon-to-be three-time) MVP in Nikola Jokic, and has the best regular-season record in the West over the last five years.
And yet, few believe; FanDuel Sportsbook has Denver tied for the third-best odds to win the West and the fifth-best odds to win the NBA title.
“The pressure, that I have, is pressure I put on myself,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “You’re never going to be able to put any pressure on me. This is my job, this is my livelihood, I love my job and we as an organization put pressure on ourselves to win a championship. That’s what motivates us."
James knows that motivation. He’s been running off it for most of his 20-year career.
“That’s the only reason I play still, is to try to put myself in a position to make championship runs and give teammates that never been a part of a championship run something they haven’t experienced before,” James said. “It has not changed for me, I would say, since about 2006, ’7. That’s just been my mindset every year: How can I make a championship run?”
He knows the way. So do the Warriors.
One step at a time, Curry insists. Game 1’s of Round 1 are Saturday and Sunday. Titles will not be won nor lost this weekend. It’s a marathon, as was the regular season when a slew of teams got off to slow starts — the Lakers were 2-10, the Warriors were 3-7, the 76ers were 0-3, the Kings 0-4, Brooklyn 1-5 — and made the playoffs anyway.
Lock in, as Curry says. It’s ring time.
“It’s extremely hard to do what we’ve done,” Curry said, “and what we’re going to try to do.”
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