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Saturday Sports: NBA Playoffs Begin


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer, and time for sports.


WERTHEIMER: The NBA playoffs begin today. The Indiana Pacers are playing in game one against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Round one is at Quicken Loans Arena this afternoon. And in hockey, the playoffs are already underway. So let's turn to NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, hi.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Linda. How are you?

WERTHEIMER: Well, moderate to good. Cleveland has had a rocky regular season, right?

GOLDMAN: You're better than Cleveland. The Cavaliers were great, actually. The first couple of months, they looked very much like the defending champions that they are. Since the All-Star break in February, though, their record is 12 and 15. They slipped to the second seed in the Eastern Conference. And most worrisome, their defense has been crummy. There's an important metric called defensive efficiency. And the Cavs ranked 22nd out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency, so that sure thing.

Cleveland versus Golden State match up in the finals has looked a tad shaky. But remember a few important things - Cleveland's conference, the East, isn't that strong. It's going to be hard for any team including the number one seed Boston to beat the Cavs four times in the series. And they have LeBron James. He's the best basketball player on the planet. And in the postseason, he ratchets that up. He's taken his teams to six straight NBA finals. He definitely thinks he can get there for a seventh.

WERTHEIMER: So do you think it's going to be a problem for Cleveland that they will not have a home court advantage?

GOLDMAN: Maybe, we'll see. I mean, playing on your home court traditionally helps teams win but not as much now as it has in the past. Tom Haberstroh of ESPN wrote a story in 2015 that's been cited a lot. And the article shows statistically how home court advantage has dwindled due to several factors, including the rise of three-point shooting.

Essentially, this is the theory. Referees are influenced by a home crowd. They call more fouls on visiting teams. When a team is playing inside near the basket, more fouls are called, meaning more fouls against the visitor, thus, giving the advantage to the home team. But when the game is played far out at the three-point line, fewer fouls called, less influenced by the referees and, thus, not as great an advantage for the home team.

I should note that Cleveland was second in the league this season at taking and making three-point shots. So according to this theory, this might help the Cavs now that they don't have home court advantage throughout the entire playoffs.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we've obviously heard a lot about Cleveland and the Golden State Warriors, but there are some other teams, some other players?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Yeah, 14 others and lots of other good players. You know, must-see first round series, Linda, Houston versus Oklahoma City. Houston is led by guard James Harden, Oklahoma City by guard Russell Westbrook. One of those guys will win this year's MVP award. They've both been phenomenal.

The juicy matchup to watch in that series is when Houston's Patrick Beverley guards Westbrook. Patrick Beverley is a dogged and annoying defender. And he was guarding Westbrook a few years back when Westbrook injured a knee, and Beverley is despised in Oklahoma City because of that.

A few other teams - the Washington Wizards won their division for the first time in 38 years. They have one of the best, best backcourts in the NBA with guards John Wall and Bradley Beal. And the expectations by you and other Washingtonians are very high.

And then Milwaukee playing Toronto in the first round. Milwaukee won 20 of its last 30 regular season games. The Bucks have this fascinating player in Giannis Antetokounmpo. He's a 6' 11" point guard who led his team in every possible statistical category. He's nicknamed The Greek Freak. And he's worth watching, and he might just dominate this league in a few years.

WERTHEIMER: Now, while we're talking about Washington stars, what about the Washington Caps?

GOLDMAN: They look like a nervous team right now. The Caps had the best regular season record in the NHL and are considered serious contenders to win their first Stanley Cup trophy. They lead their series against Toronto 1-0. But they looked shaky in game one. They played tight. They appear to be feeling the weight of expectations. And Cav's fans are hoping the team can settle down, forget the past playoff failures - and there are many - and play the way they played this regular season.

WERTHEIMER: Speaking to us from Portland, Ore., NPR's Tom Goldman. Thank you very much for being with us.

GOLDMAN: Thank you, Linda.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.