Russell Westbrook had mixed feelings after his Houston Rockets debut ended in defeat to the Toronto Raptors in Tokyo.

Lining up alongside James Harden for the first time since the two former NBA MVPs were reunited with his offseason trade, Westbrook scored 13 points, adding six assists, two rebounds and a steal in a 21-minute outing.

Harden impressed with a game-high 34 points, but the Rockets went down 134-129 in Tuesday's preseason game. The two teams will do it all again in Japan's capital on Thursday.

"It wasn't bad - unfortunately we didn't win and that's the main goal," Westbrook said. 

"But it was good to get on the floor for the first time, get up and down, try to find a rhythm. We've got a lot of work to do, including myself getting in better shape and game condition, so we'll get it together.

"I'd love to play here for the Olympics, I think its an unbelievable place to be. I love Tokyo, the fans here and the atmosphere. 

"But our main focus now is on the season and finishing the season like we want to with the championship trophy."

Harden's 27-minute performance, in which he connected with 4-of-7 three-pointers, came as he continues to stress the importance of intensity in the Rockets' preseason games.

"We've been doing an unbelievable job in practice of pushing ourselves," said Harden, who had scored 37 against the Los Angeles Clippers last time out.

"Even in these preseason games we are trying to push it past our limits. That way, when the season starts in a few weeks, we'll be ready.

"I'm still working on my conditioning. I know for myself and Russ, who was excited for his first game out there, conditioning isn't where we want it to be, so that's what these games are for. 

"We are focusing on our team and getting better - we have a great opportunity ahead of us and we're focused every single day. We're glad to see Russ out there on the basketball court."

Of the Tokyo crowd, Harden added: "It was amazing. They got an opportunity to see what NBA basketball is about, what Rockets basketball is about. They brought the energy.

"They were excited from the beginning of the game. They made us want to go out there and put on a show, so hopefully it can be that same kind of atmosphere on Thursday."

Pascal Siakam had 24 points for the Raptors, who were playing their first preseason game.

Kyle Lowry has agreed a one-year, $31million contract extension with the Toronto Raptors. 

The All-Star guard's agent, Mark Bartelstein, revealed that an extra 12 months has been added to a deal which still has one year left and is worth $33.3million.

Lowry's extension will keep him off the free agent market next year.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri, general manager Bobby Webster and Lowry's agents at Priority Sports have been trying to work out an extension for months. 

Bartelstein said the way Toronto handled the situation and the importance the organisation placed on Lowry made a huge impact.

"We are so appreciative of how Masai and Bobby handled every aspect of this negotiation," Bartelstein told ESPN.

"Once again, they displayed how they look after their players in a first-class manner, especially someone like Kyle who they recognise has such a legacy with the franchise."

Lowry, 34, has said that he wants to finish his career with Toronto and that he was not looking forward to hitting the free agency market.

Now that the Raptors are coming off their NBA title-winning season, the team is eager to build up its roster with Lowry as a key centerpiece.

Lowry becomes the first player older than 33 to get an extension that includes a first-year salary-cap hit north of $30 million. However, he is still eligible to be traded this upcoming season.

Since Lowry joined the Raptors in 2012, he has been part of five All-Star teams. He is entering his 15th season in the league and eighth with Toronto, which makes him the longest-tenured player on the roster.

During the Raptors' postseason run, Lowry averaged 15.0 points per game with 6.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds in 37.5 minutes of play.

Kawhi Leonard feels "way better" heading into the new NBA season than he did ahead of a 2018-19 campaign that ended in glory with the Toronto Raptors.

Leonard led the Raptors to their first championship last term but spent much of the year still dealing with a quadriceps injury he had suffered prior to his trade from the San Antonio Spurs.

The forward played just 60 games in the regular season before establishing himself as the league's standout performer in the playoffs and leading Toronto to Finals glory.

Leonard subsequently left and signed for the Los Angeles Clippers, along with Paul George, and is optimistic he can have a big impact immediately in California.

"It's different this season," he said at the Clippers' media day. "Last year, I was going in with an injury that I was dealing with the year before.

"It still was lingering, and we knew that I'd have to be healthy going throughout the season and making it into the playoffs.

"But this year I'm pretty good, feeling way better than I was at the start of last season."

Leonard was asked what he learned from championship-winning teams at the Spurs and the Raptors and referred to the need to stay healthy, which led to Toronto managing his minutes.

"For me, it's everybody being of high character; the sacrifice, wanting to win, determination, knowledge," he said. "All that together, just being on the floor, going out there as one unit, all trying to accomplish that ultimate goal.

"I think that's what drives a championship team, and you just figure out the bumps in the road on the way there. It's all a journey and not get ahead of yourself and not skipping any steps.

"That's what I think the process is on those two teams. But you also have to stay healthy, as well, and you have to be present."

Should he come through the season unscathed, Leonard would like to play for the United States at the Tokyo Olympics next year, yet he insists his focus is first on the Clippers.

"Right now, yeah, I do want to play [for Team USA]," he said. "But I'm taking it one step at a time. Right now, it's [about] getting the Clippers to the Finals."

Jeremy Lin won the NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors in June but will spend next season with the Beijing Ducks.

Lin joined the Raptors after being waived by the Atlanta Hawks in February, adding backcourt depth behind Kyle Lowry and Danny Green.

He became the first Asian-American player in league history to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy, but he struggled in 23 regular-season games with Toronto and has found a new home in China.

"Thanks to the NBA and everyone who's supported me the last 9 years! Will always cherish being able to rep Asians at the NBA level. Excited for the next step with the Beijing Ducks. Excited to make more history," Lin wrote on Twitter. 

The guard remained unsigned when free agency began and last month described how he felt like he hit a new level of "rock bottom" after receiving little interest from teams in the NBA.

He said: "In English, there's a saying, and it says, 'once you've hit rock bottom, the only way is up.'

"Rock bottom just seems to keep getting more and more rock bottom for me. So free agency has been tough, because I feel like in some ways the NBA's kind of given up on me."

Lin, who turned 31 last week, played nine seasons in the NBA for eight different teams, never spending more than two years with one franchise.

Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry will not be competing for the United States at the upcoming FIBA World Cup in China.

Raptors guard Lowry announced his withdrawal from Team USA on Monday, citing health reasons.

Lowry had surgery on his right thumb in July following Toronto's NBA triumph over the Golden State Warriors. He reportedly made the trip to training camp despite having a fear the injury would not allow him to play.

He was a member of the 2016 gold-medal team and still hopes to represent USA at the 2020 Olympics.

"This is a status update message regarding the 2019 FIBA World Cup," he wrote, in part, in a note posted on Instagram.

"I was hoping [to] be cleared and ready for the tournament but I was not cleared for full basketball activities...

"At the end of the day I believe the men that are playing will be great and will win the gold for our country."

Lowry was one of the 17 finalists to make the roster for the tournament, which will run from August 31 to September 15.

The news of Lowry's departure comes just a day after Marvin Bagley III also withdrew. There are now 15 players for the 12 open roster spots.

USA head coach Gregg Popovich has had to deal with the dwindling numbers.

"All I care about is who's here," Popovich said at the first day of training camp last week. "I've got a fine group of guys and we're going to get the best possible team we can.

"This is the most satisfying form of putting a bunch of guys together and them have empathy and love for each other to form the kind of team they're going to have to beat some really good European teams."

Lowry is the latest in a long list of players — including Bradley Beal, James Harden, Anthony Davis, CJ McCollum, Eric Gordon, Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell and Bagley — who pulled their name out of consideration for the World Cup.

Kyle Lowry wants to stay with the Toronto Raptors for the long haul despite Kawhi Leonard opting to leave during free agency.

NBA Finals MVP Leonard departed the championship-winning Raptors for the Los Angeles Clippers, where he will team up with six-time All-Star Paul George.

Danny Green left Toronto for a contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, but Lowry, who is set to become a free agent in 2020, is not intending to follow them through the exit door.

"I want to be there – I would love to do a long extension, but we'll see what happens," Lowry said. "But we'll have that discussion when the time is right."

Lowry understood why Leonard chose the Clippers, but he retains faith in the quality of the Raptors' roster.

"[Leonard leaving] wasn't a surprise," Lowry added. "I'm always happy for guys, especially a guy that helped do something fantastic and something great. He's an unbelievable friend of mine and is a good guy.

"He made a decision to go home and he is happy with that and I am happy for him. Truly. I am genuinely happy for him. It gives him a chance to be around his family and friends. You've got to respect the guy and be happy for him.

"We are champions. No matter what. [It will] never be taken away from us. Ever. Ever, ever. Ever, ever.

"We're still going to be able to run it back. We're the champions and we're trying to defend our title. I'm confident with our team."

Kawhi Leonard said he was "very close" to signing for either the Los Angeles Lakers or Toronto Raptors before joining the Los Angeles Clippers.

Leonard swapped Toronto for the Clippers via free agency after leading the Raptors to their first NBA championship in 2018-19.

A return to the Raptors or a move to the Lakers to team up with LeBron James had been mooted for Leonard, who eventually opted for the Clippers after they acquired Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Asked how close he was to joining either the Raptors or the Lakers, Leonard told ESPN: "I was very close. Real close.

"When [the Clippers] presented the opportunity of playing with Paul [George], it was easy, it was a yes. I said let's get it going."

Leonard entered free agency coming off one of the best postseason runs ever with the Raptors.

He averaged 30.5 points in the playoffs, was named the Finals MVP and helped the team avoid elimination by knocking down a crazy bouncing buzzer-beater against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

All-Star Leonard said Clippers head coach Doc Rivers played a role in his decision to join the franchise.

"I grew up a Clippers fan," Leonard said during his introductory news conference on Wednesday. "I loved the Clippers as a kid. With Doc [Rivers] being a championship head coach, that is something I wanted, an experienced coach. And the front office is very transparent with me. They want to win. It's an opportunity for us to build our own [thing] and make history."

George, meanwhile, reportedly asked Oklahoma City to move him to the Clippers, who ended up landing him in exchange for guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, forward Danilo Gallinari, five future first-round selections and two pick swaps.

"This [wasn't something] that came out of the blue," George told ESPN. "We were all on the same page. The initial plan was to give it another year, see what we could do, and I did that. We played another year and it felt like we were just stagnant. Next thing was, let's move forward with other plans.

"Again, it was mutual amongst everybody. [The] Thunder got amazing packages out of it ... And we all thought it was a win across the board, we all thought it was the best moment to pull the plug."

The NBA summer league is winding down, as the preliminary round of games ends on Thursday.

Only the top eight seeds will advance to a single-elimination tournament set to begin on July 13, so quite a few prospects will have to wait until the preseason begins in October to return to the court.

Some players have surpassed expectations in July while others have not. Success in the summer league does not necessarily translate to the regular season, but let's take a look at who is hot and who is not so far.

 

Hot

Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

Herro's criticism ahead of the 2019 NBA draft was based on his poor defense and lack of efficiency, despite his reputation as a sharpshooter. The summer league has allowed him to showcase that he has more to offer than shooting, though.

The 6-5 guard initiated the Heat's offense early and often and helped lead the team to a 3-1 record in the preliminary round. He showcased his playmaking ability out of pick-and-roll sets and has averaged 19.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.5 steals.

Herro probably is not close to becoming a primary option for the Heat, especially since Miami already have Goran Dragic, Jimmy Butler and Justise Winslow on board. But Herro's versatility is a good sign.

Lonnie Walker IV, San Antonio Spurs

Walker had his rookie season derailed by a meniscus tear, but he appears like he is poised to have a great sophomore campaign.

The 6-5 guard entered Thursday tied for first in the summer league in points per game (30.0) and he has been ridiculously efficient. Walker shot 58 per cent from the field in his two appearances.

His team went 2-2, so it is not likely he will play again in the tournament.

The Spurs will have some serious battles in their 2019-20 backcourt, as Walker will compete with the likes of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and DeMar DeRozan for time after playing in just 17 regular season games last season.

Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors

The Raptors have found yet another diamond in the rough.

Boucher, 26, has played in 29 regular season games and is routinely dominating the summer league by averaging 22.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest. Toronto have the NBA's reigning Most Improved Player in Pascal Siakam, and Boucher could be up next. 

The 6-10 big man is fresh off a season in which he was crowned MVP and Defensive Player of the Year of the G-League, playing for Toronto 905. He won his second straight NBA title with the Raptors in 2018-19, as he played for the Golden State Warriors in 2017-18.

The departure of Kawhi Leonard could clear space for him to break into Toronto's rotation.

Not

RJ Barrett, New York Knicks

New York were initially favoured to win the summer league championship but went an underwhelming 1-3.

Barrett, the third overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, averaged 14.0 points and 8.8 rebounds but shot 30 per cent from the field with genuine rotation players around him.

The Knicks could be in a lot of trouble if his shooting struggles linger.

Nassir Little, Portland Trail Blazers

Many felt Portland got a steal when they selected Little with the 25th pick in 2019 but he definitely has some work to do.

The 6-7 wing has tallied 22 minutes per contest through three games. He is averaging 4.3 points and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 33 per cent from the field. 

Little has shown flashes of his athleticism and is still figuring out how to fit in offensively.

Dean Wade, Cleveland Cavaliers

Wade went undrafted after four years at Kansas State, so there were not lofty expectations for him.

However, the Cavaliers have not received much from him in the 27 minutes he has averaged through three games.

The 6-10 forward is averaging 5.7 points and 5.7 rebounds but is only shooting 26 per cent from the field. That is a big drop off for a player who was the first option in college and hovered around 50 per cent shooting.

The balance of power continues to shift in the NBA, as Kawhi Leonard's decision to join the Los Angeles Clippers makes the league a lot more interesting.

At the beginning of 2018-19, many seemed to believe the road to the NBA Finals ran through the Boston Celtics. Then the Milwaukee Bucks posted the best record in the league just a year removed from finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference. 

But it was the Toronto Raptors who dethroned the
Golden State Warriors in the end, and now they will have a new look without their superstar. Plenty of other teams are hungry for glory and now is the perfect time to strike.

Here are three teams that could now take over the Eastern Conference:

 

Milwaukee Bucks

The Eastern Conference is now wide open, but the Bucks are ahead of the pack. After all, they retained two All-Stars — one being reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Milwaukee underwent a serious transformation under Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer last season. Antetokounmpo has put up historically strong numbers in the paint, but the Bucks were also among the league leaders in three-point attempts.

Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez will likely be constants, but it remains to be seen how the chemistry will be after losing Malcolm Brogdon.

Milwaukee simply have the centrepiece every other team wish they had in Antetokounmpo, so there is no reason to count them out just yet.

Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers may have lost an All-Star-calibre player in Jimmy Butler this offseason, but they will be just fine.

Philadelphia were one circus buzzer-beater away from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals last season and are bringing back plenty of talent in 2019-20. The 76ers flipped Butler to the Miami Heat in exchange for Josh Richardson and lured Al Horford away from the Celtics, giving them what might be the best defensive line-up in basketball.

Small Ball? Philadelphia have never heard of it, as the shortest wingspan on their current roster is 6-10. 

The 76ers' starting group will likely feature Richardson, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. And then there is second-year guard Zhaire Smith, who was voted the most athletic player in the 2018 NBA Draft by his peers but missed most of last season due to an unfortunate allergic reaction.

Philadelphia have size, playmaking, strong defense and four players that could get legitimate All-Star consideration in the coming season. Embiid's questionable health could be a facto but getting a versatile big like Horford that can fill in if he goes down will definitely keep the 76ers in contender conversations.

Brooklyn Nets

Even if Kevin Durant cannot play until 2020, the Nets should be better this season. They lost D'Angelo Russell to the Warriors, but Kyrie Irving can be a considerable upgrade if the pieces come together just right.

Both Russell and Irving are high-usage guards, but Irving is more efficient and poses the kind of threat that makes every player on the opposing team watch him when the ball is in his hands. 

Brooklyn added veterans in DeAndre Jordan and Garrett Temple that should pair nicely with returning pieces like Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris, who was one of the most prolific three-point shooters in 2018-19 — converting 47.4 per cent from beyond the arc.

But the wild card is Caris LeVert, who arguably was the Nets' best player before a leg injury sidelined him last November. The 24-year-old guard was establishing himself as Brooklyn's go-to guy and now he has had a whole offseason to recover after showing flashes of his potential in the 2018-19 playoffs.

Adding Durant to a group like this could prove to be lethal and would certainly make the Nets a force to be reckoned with.

The Toronto Raptors sent "nothing but good wishes" to Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green after they agreed moves away from the NBA champions in free agency.

Both stars played key roles in the Raptors' 2018-19 success, with Leonard the NBA Finals MVP, but the two will move on ahead of next season.

Leonard is set to sign a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers, while Green is going to the same city with the Lakers.

The Raptors acknowledged the two big departures in a series of Twitter posts on Saturday, including a statement from president Masai Ujiri.

"We are very thankful for the year Kawhi and Danny played with us here in Toronto," he wrote. "And I know the city and the entire country of Canada are grateful for everything they did to help us win our first NBA Championship.

"On behalf of the Raptors, I say a very heartfelt thank you to Kawhi and to Danny, and we send them and their families nothing but good wishes.

"As an organisation, the Raptors will focus on the future and continue our pursuit of a second championship."

Leonard is yet to discuss his move, but Green posted a video message on social media.

"I had a fun time in the city of Toronto, love the organisation," he said. "Thank you, guys. Thank you to my team-mates. Thank you to the fans. Always have a great place in my heart. Never forget obviously the historic run we had."

Kawhi Leonard shook up the NBA with his decision to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency just a few weeks after leading the Toronto Raptors to their first title.

While the Raptors remained confident Leonard would re-sign with them and continue to build a legacy, the star ultimately chose to return to his hometown of Los Angeles and pair up with Paul George. 

Leonard's decision made a huge impact on the league as a whole, but how will it affect the Raptors, the city of Toronto and the East?

 

No outrage for Toronto, just disappointment 

After waiting until late on Friday night - or the early hours of Saturday for the East Coast - Leonard finally made his free agency decision. Much to Toronto's disappointment, he decided to move on after just one season with the Raptors. 

Some may question whether this taints his legacy in a city where he made such a significant impact in such a short time, becoming an icon throughout Canada, but the overall consensus and initial reaction in Toronto is that it will not.

Yes, the Raptors would have loved to have Leonard back. But no, there will not be outrage. 

It will be a hard goodbye, but there should not be hard feelings.

 

Raptors likely will stay the course and develop

The Raptors had a couple options entering free agency: stay the course with their young talent or to make drastic changes in preparation of losing Leonard. So what are they going to do without the NBA Finals MVP?

It is likely they go for the first option and keep building around their young core. Toronto might try to add two or three mid-level players to fill the void because there are no clear stars left.

The Raptors have done a good job drafting in recent years so it makes sense to keep investing in the talent they already have. A player like Pascal Siakam could have to step up and be a consistent playmaker, and let us not forget about OG Anunoby, who was sidelined for much of the playoffs. 

There is no way to replace a player like Leonard, but the Raptors will stay in the mix if Siakam and Anunoby step up.

 

The East is wide open again

The story in 2018 was about how wide open the East would be without LeBron James, who left the Cleveland Cavaliers to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency. It is the same story this year. 

The Raptors surprised everyone by beating the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals and they would likely have been among the favourites to win the championship again with Leonard still on board.

Now, it is anyone's title to win as the West continues to build. 

The Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship for the first time in their history after defeating the Golden State Warriors 114-110.

Toronto made history at Oracle Arena, where the Raptors sealed a 4-2 series victory over the two-time reigning champions in the NBA Finals on Thursday.

With less than 10 seconds remaining, the Warriors trailed 111-110 and had one chance to take the lead. But after a missed shot and a loose ball, Draymond Green picked up the ball and tried to call timeout.

The problem is the Warriors did not have a timeout, which gave the Raptors a free throw and possession in the Bay Area.

Kawhi Leonard made the free throw and the game was over. He also made two more free throws after the technical foul to extend the lead a touch more as the Raptors made history.

Fred VanVleet scored 22 points off the bench and made big shot after big shot down the stretch to lead the Raptors to an unforgettable win on the road.

But as inspiring as VanVleet's performance was and the crazy end to the game, the undeniable story on the night was what happened to Klay Thompson.

The Warriors' five-time All-Star – who scored 30 points – suffered a knee injury in the third quarter that saw him leave the arena on crutches.

It was a heartbreaking moment for a team that have had to deal with injury after injury in the playoffs. Kevin Durant ruptured his Achilles in Game 5 of the Finals, Kevon Looney fractured his collarbone and DeMarcus Cousins tore his quad during the playoffs.

Thompson had also already dealt with a hamstring injury in the Finals as Golden State's three-peat hopes were ended.

DeMarcus Cousins will be fit to feature for the Golden State Warriors against the Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

The Warriors' star centre was a doubt for the series opener, having injured his quad in the first round of the playoffs.

But Cousins has now been passed fit, with coach Steve Kerr telling reporters that the 28-year-old will be available, though it is not clear if he will start.

When asked if he had a plan for how Cousins will be used, Kerr replied: "I do but I'm not going to tell you."

Cousins has not played since April 16, when he fell chasing a loose ball in Game 2 of his team's opening-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Having signed a one-year deal with the Warriors in July, Cousins had missed the team's first 45 games as he continued his recovery from a torn Achilles. 

Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Warriors and the Raptors will take place on Thursday in Toronto.

Can any team stop the Golden State Warriors?

The reigning champions are the favourites to claim the NBA title for a third straight year. Considering they added DeMarcus Cousins to a roster that already included four All-Stars, it is not hard to see why.

But the start of the playoffs is a time for positive thinking, not pessimism. Of the 15 others still left standing at the regular season, some have higher hopes than others.

Here, we look at the leading contenders to dethrone the Warriors, ranking them in order of who may have the best chance of success against Steve Kerr's roster.

 

1. HOUSTON ROCKETS 
 
Season record: 53-29
 
Season record against the Warriors: 3-1 

The Rockets top these rankings despite being the fourth seed in the West. However, it should not be forgotten that a year ago they pushed the Warriors to a seven-game series in the Conference Finals, with an injury to Chris Paul hampering their attempt to end Golden State's reign. 

This season they have won three of their four meetings with the reigning NBA champions, having turned around a poor start - they were 11-14 early in December - thanks mainly to James Harden, who made the step-back three-pointer an art form as he took his game to a new level.  

Coach Mike D'Antoni has Houston launching from long range at an astonishing rate - they had a record 27 attempts in a win over the Phoenix Suns this month - but their playoff hopes will revolve around Harden. They can only hope his usage level in the regular season does not catch up with the MVP candidate down the stretch. 


2. TORONTO RAPTORS 

Season record: 58-24

Season record against the Warriors: 2-0 

Toronto made drastic changes with the aim of altering their playoff fortunes. They suffered at the hands of LeBron James in recent years, including being swept a year ago by his Cleveland Cavaliers in the East semi-finals, but that is a problem they do not have to worry about in 2019 (enjoy watching on, LeBron!). 

General manager Masai Ujiri appointed a new coach – Nick Nurse – and acquired a different leading man – Kawhi Leonard – with the aim of exorcising some of the postseason ghosts that haunt the Canadian franchise and their fans. Pascal Siakam's emergence, making him the leading contender to be named the league's most improved player, should help.

Leonard has won a title previously with the San Antonio Spurs and is in a select group who can genuinely have a chance when going toe to toe with Kevin Durant. It could be one and done for Kawhi (he has a player option for next year), though, so Ujiri has pushed all his chips into the centre of the table in the hope his hand is strong enough to hit the jackpot.

 

3. MILWAUKEE BUCKS 

Record: 60-22

Record against the Warriors: 1-1 

The Bucks posted the best record in the NBA. They have Giannis Antetokounmpo, a ridiculously gifted 24-year-old (Twenty. Four. Good luck for the next decade, rest of the NBA) who is battling Harden to be crowned the league's MVP. 

Yet while Antetokounmpo's continued rise to superstardom has helped take the franchise from seventh to first in the Eastern Conference, the appointment of coach Mike Budenholzer has also been crucial. His version of the Bucks have averaged more points and more attempts from beyond the arc than any other team – and that includes the shot-happy Warriors. 

Milwaukee failed to clear the first hurdle in the postseason last year, losing in seven to the Boston Celtics, but have greater depth this time around. They will need other contributors too, as opposing teams will focus on finding ways to stop, or at least slow down, the explosive Antetokounmpo. 

 

4. BOSTON CELTICS 

Season record: 49-33

Season record against the Warriors: 1-1

Will the real Celtics show up in the playoffs? Boston were tipped to top the East yet finished fourth after a see-saw campaign that saw plenty of indifferent performances and far too much talk from their players in the media. 

Still, underestimate them at your peril. In Kyrie Irving they have a proven performer at this stage of a campaign, someone who helped the Cleveland Cavaliers rally from 3-1 down to beat the Warriors in 2016, plus a supporting cast that allows coach Brad Stevens to adapt to both opposing teams and a hot hand. 

Marcus Smart's injury leaves them minus a key defensive cog in the early rounds, but the combative guard should be back if Boston makes it all the way to the NBA Finals. For the Celtics, it is all about the destination, rather than the uncomfortable journey they have been on in recent months. 

 

5. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS 

Season record: 51-31

Season secord against the Warriors: 1-1 

'The Process' paid off for the 76ers. They drafted Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons but raised the expectation levels this season by trading for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, giving them a strong starting five when you add in JJ Reddick. 

However, there are still concerns - particularly when it comes to facing Golden State. Simmons' shooting, or lack of – he had just six three-point attempts in the regular season, making none of them – is something the Warriors do not have to worry about, allowing them to focus elsewhere, potentially Embiid (who has injury issues to deal with at the start of the playoffs). 

The moves to add Butler and Harris have left the bench a little thin. Still, before they can contemplate about going up against the Warriors, they must work their way out of the East. 

 

6. DENVER NUGGETS 

Season record: 54-28

Season record against the Warriors: 1-3 

Denver defeated Golden State in their first meeting back in October but lost the remaining three regular season games, with the Warriors overtaking the early pacesetters to finish top of the West. 

Worryingly for the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic combined for 43 points in those three defeats. The gifted center is a focal point for Mike Malone's team, taking plenty of the playmaking responsibilities away from whichever combination of guards are out on the court alongside him. 

Yet this is uncharted territory for Jokic and his colleagues. The Nuggets excelled in the regular season, but the playoffs are different. Paul Millsap's experience will help a young roster, and they are also aided by not having to worry about the Warriors until the Conference Finals. Can they make it that far, though?

The San Antonio Spurs have completed a trade to send disgruntled superstar Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors. 

© 2018 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.