(Reuters) - The Golden State Warriors enjoyed a dream season as they raced to the best mark in the NBA but their lack of playoff experience leaves them with much to prove heading into the post-season.
Under first-year coach Steve Kerr the high-octane Warriors compiled a franchise-best 67 wins with an exhilarating brand of play that stole the spotlight.
But Golden State’s style leaves no guarantee that they will achieve championship substance amidst a sea of contenders for the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.
LeBron James has restored the Cleveland Cavaliers to playoff relevancy after his return home sparked a roster upgrade that has turned the previously tough-luck franchise into Eastern Conference favorites.
However, the Cavaliers must answer some questions of their own as they make their first postseason appearance since James famously left Cleveland for Miami in 2010.
Young standouts Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will get their first taste of the playoffs, as will first-year coach James Blatt, and Cleveland is still building with a roster that was revamped at mid-season.
The defending champion San Antonio Spurs enter the playoffs perhaps under the radar, speaking to the depth of competition in the strong Western Conference, but they are deadlier than ever.
After an uneven start to the campaign, the Spurs finished the regular season winning 21 of their last 25 games yet still start the post-season as the West’s sixth seed on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday.
Kawhi Leonard, 23, has emerged as possibly the key cog for San Antonio, relieving pressure from their tested trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
The Houston Rockets are now a legitimate force behind MVP candidate James Harden. A late-season surge lifted Houston to the West’s No. 2 seed and they will open the playoffs at home on Saturday against the Dallas Mavericks.
Dwight Howard missed the majority of the regular season with injuries, but is back in a Houston lineup looking to reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The Clippers have yet to advance past the second round with their All-Star core of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and that task will not get any easier by facing off with the Spurs.
The Warriors earned a first-round matchup with New Orleans who reached their first post-season since 2011 behind up-and-coming star Anthony Davis.
Warriors guard Stephen Curry is the front-runner to win the MVP, and his freewheeling and long-distance shooting epitomizes a Golden State team that could also sweep Defensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year awards.
Golden State aside, the Atlanta Hawks were the NBA’s feel-good story as they won the Eastern Conference’s top seed with a team-first approach.
A 19-game win streak at mid-season helped propel the Hawks to their first division, and regular season conference titles since 1994.
Atlanta did post four All-Stars but their lack of a true superstar leaves their legitimacy somewhat in doubt. They will host the Brooklyn Nets beginning on Sunday.
The hopes of the Chicago Bulls will once again rest on the wobbly knees of oft-injured guard Derrick Rose.
Rose, who won the regular season MVP award in 2011 before a rash of injuries derailed his progress, has been in and out of the lineup this season but has returned to the court in time for the post-season.
Behind key addition Pau Gasol and their typically scrappy play, the third-seeded Bulls begin against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday and face the uncertainty that looms over many of the NBA’s top contenders.
The NBA playoffs will conclude in June.
Reporting by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue