The Celtics and the Wizards snuck in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal on us on Sunday -- or, as it'll surely be known forever in Boston, "The Tooth Game" -- but otherwise, we are at a clear pivot point in the NBA Playoffs. The first round is over, there are eight teams left, and all these series will have played their first game by Tuesday night.
The strange thing about this year's playoffs, and something about which the NBA itself should be strutting around with justified pride, is that there are no real actively unlikable teams left. Think of all those old playoff teams you couldn't wait to cheer against. The Bad Boy Pistons. The Kobe-Shaq Lakers. The LeBron-Wade Heat. Just about every Celtics team. The old Jail Blazers. (Though as the years go along, I find the arguments for the Jail Blazers more compelling.) Some of those were good for the league -- villains matter; we all want someone to cheer against -- but many just led to a general sense of malaise, with the bad guys winning, often in ugly, dreary, dissatisfying ways.
But the NBA is booming right now, and it's an excellent sign that the two teams considered most likely to reach the Finals, the same two who made it last year, are both not only the two most compelling stories in the sport right now but also more likable than we are used to our typical overwhelming favorites being. No matter who wins the NBA title this year, we'll have a champion we can get excited about. This is going to be a blast no matter what.
Which means, as we put together our NBA Conference Semifinals Playoff Rootability Rankings, I remind you that there are no losers here. Each of these team is likable in their own way. But if you are otherwise unaffiliated, here's a guide to whom to get behind.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers
The case for: LeBron James is the best player we will see in our lifetimes, and you want to see that guy win as many championships as possible. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are potential Hall of Famers in their own right. J.R. Smith remains entertaining. Deron Williams is having his late-career ring-chasing moment; how amazing it would be to see him get a title before Chris Paul. The city of Cleveland still deserves it, even after last year's title.
The case against: They just won a title. That's the biggest one, the most important one. This has been an unusually drifting Cavaliers team, one that plays uniquely terrible defense for a title contender. Is Williams the sort of player you're actively cheering for to get a mercenary ring?
7. Golden State Warriors
The case for: They are the definitive team of our time, the one that took the principles of a changing game and applied them in a championship, dominant fashion: They represent everything that the game has become, in ways both good and bad. Stephen Curry is never truly going to go full heel, and besides, it's more fun to watch your five-year-old try to be Steph Curry than LeBron James anyway. This team remains so, so fun to watch, and they even have, somehow, an incredibly likable coach -- one with a social conscience, no less -- who is trying to overcome a serious injury. Kevin Durant is probably already among the best 5-10 players to ever play who hasn't won a ring.
The case against: Draymond Green. If they win the title, it'll feel like the superteam, rather than the free-flowing spacing offense, will end up being the epitaph for this era. Again: Draymond Green. If Steve Kerr doesn't make it back, it'll look strange seeing Mike Brown celebrate a title. They're abandoning Oakland and are run by the sort of Silicon Valley Ayn Randians who think they have everything figured out. The thing with the cranes.
6. San Antonio Spurs
The case for: The greatest coach of our time could pull off his greatest achievement yet by winning a title the year after his superstar player retires. Kawhi Leonard would finally receive the recognition he deserves for being perhaps the best two-way player in the game. Admit it, you want to see Manu Ginobili hit one more game-winner in the playoffs. Coach Pop will give the best Craig Sager shoutout when he accepts the Larry O'Brien trophy.
The case against: How many Spurs players can the most casual NBA fan name? Do they say Tony Parker before Kawhi Leonard? They've already won five championships: How thrilled can you be for the to win another? If they win this year, in 15 years, you will totally forget that they did, or at least what year it happened. The practice of benching all your stars for nationally televised game will become the dominating strategy of the game.
5. Utah Jazz
The case for: This is a young, exciting team led by Gordon Hayward, who looks like an entirely different human being whatsoever since he came in the league. Utah is a dedicated fanbase that loves this particular team. They just took out the Clippers, thus (almost certainly) finally ending that successful but uniquely unlikable era of Clippers basketball. Joe Johnson is sure to make some sort of amazing last-second shot that will make you hit your head on the roof of your house. Of all the Western Conference teams left, they're the one that has never won a title.
The case against: It does feel a little bit early for them to be making any sort of championship run, doesn't it? Do we really want a championship team to have a hired gun like Johnson taking all the last shots? Let's make sure Hayward stays in town before we start getting too invested in this team. The Warriors are going to crush them, so maybe you shouldn't work yourself up too much for a team that's about to get stomped.
4. Washington Wizards
The case for: This is a team that has had its false starts and slipups, but this year finally put it together to be near the team they were supposed to be all along. John Wall is the superstar we were waiting for. Bradley Beal is fun to cheer for, even though his mom has no chill. Washington sports fans have gone through so much that maybe we should let them have this.
The case against: This team feels a little lacking at this point, missing one or two elements that would either take them more seriously as a title contender but not so overachieving that you can get behind them as an underdog. If the Wizards make a deep run, politicians will start showing up at their games, and nope.
3. Toronto Raptors
The case for: One of the more underappreciated and deeply loyal fanbases in the sport. A veteran team that has played together a long time and is running out of time to finally break through. They have enough history with the Cavaliers, the team they're playing, that a win over them would feel earned rather than a fluke. Kyle Lowry is the sort of consistent, unflashy but spectacular player that we all claim to be cheering for. A Raptors title would make The Starters happy.
The case against: This team feels a little of the past, playing a deep-two, not-all-that-efficient game is more 1990s than 2010s. The Raptors remains the silliest name in all of North American professional sports. They just won a whole series, but admit it: Every game you watched that series, you were just looking at Giannis.
2. Boston Celtics
The case for: A young, exciting, deep team that plays together perfectly for its brilliant coach who seems to represent the future of what NBA coaching can be. Isaiah Thomas was a deeply sympathetic, enjoyable player before his tragic past two weeks and is essentially a public cause at this point. (They're even out there knocking out his teeth!) They've constructed their team in an intelligent, patient way, and that's the sort of wisdom you want to see rewarded in the NBA.
The case against: Well … it's a Boston sports team. I'm not sure what much more reason you need. Frankly, if they weren't a Boston team -- specifically, the Boston Celtics, the most successful Boston sports team of them all -- they would probably be No. 1.
1. Houston Rockets
The case for: Daryl Morey and the Rockets spent years getting mocked for their strategies and analytical bent … and then, just when we all had written them off, it all culminated in a fantastic season, essentially out of nowhere. Mike D'Antoni survived jobs with the Lakers (Kobe and Dwight!) and the Knicks (Carmelo and Lin!) and has finally found the place he fits. James Harden won't win the MVP this year, but he probably deserved to. This team is a 3-pointer-raining blast to watch.
The case against: Patrick Beverley. Will the Rockets be able to repeat this success, or are they just catching a little run here?
And perhaps the real reason: Deep down … we all want to see the Warriors and Cavaliers go at it one more time. It's all right to admit it.