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NBA playoffs enter round 2 with no clear favorite

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Eight teams are left in the NBA playoffs. The Milwaukee Bucks had the best regular season record, but they were knocked out in the first round. That opens up the Eastern Conference. And tonight out west, LeBron James and the Lakers begin a series with the reigning champion Golden State Warriors. Joining us to talk about that game and Round 2 is Mike Vorkunov. He's an NBA reporter for The Athletic.

Mike, Round 1 - chock full of upsets. I mean, what was the regular season for?

MIKE VORKUNOV: That's a question a lot of people are asking right now because it has not been predictive of the playoffs so far. And that's, you know, been an issue for the NBA for so long that the regular season wasn't worth watching sometimes. And if you didn't tune in during the regular season, you probably didn't miss anything with the playoffs so far.

MARTÍNEZ: I mentioned how the Bucks had the best regular season record. It was the Miami Heat that beat them. And then they took Game 1 over the Knicks on the road in New York. Mike, they're the lowest seeded team left. So are the Heat the slipper-wearing Cinderella team of the playoffs?

VORKUNOV: I guess maybe it depends how sprained and large Jimmy Butler's ankle is with that slipper on. He's going to be the determining factor for them depending on how far they can go. He sprained his ankle in Game 1, and their hopes are riding on him.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, one game that's sure to get a lot of eyes is the battle of Steph Curry and the Warriors against LeBron James and the Lakers. That's tonight. What can we expect in that series?

VORKUNOV: A little bit of, you know, mid-2010s nostalgia maybe, a lot of star power.

MARTÍNEZ: That was a great era, Mike.

VORKUNOV: (Laughter) It was. It was great. Everyone loved it. The NBA loved it. But, you know, these are two teams that - the Golden State Warriors have the sixth best record in the Western Conference, and they're going to have home court advantage in that series 'cause the Lakers are the seven seed, becoming one of the first teams ever to go through the play-in and then win their first round series. They kind of refurbished their team mid-season at the trade deadline and have really made a run since. And I'm sure you and everyone else saw Steph Curry drop 50 points in the Game 7 win over the Kings. So it's going to be great.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, what I kind of love about this matchup, the Lakers and the Warriors, is that both of those teams - they ushered out and swept away these two young trash-talking teams. Dillon Brooks of the Grizzlies called LeBron James old out loud, and some thought even though Warriors are the reigning champs that they were also getting old. So I kind of like that the old guys kind of ruled in this series.

VORKUNOV: Yeah. You know, they were standing up for the old guard, as you said. Steph Curry's 34. LeBron's 38. But they just seem to be ageless to some degree.

And a lot of people, especially in the middle of the year, thought this was going to be the year that was finally it for the Lakers and for LeBron. They'd missed the playoffs. They'd have to do something. And the Warriors obviously struggled all season with their on- and off-court problems. And yet here they are, playing again, one more time, and one of them is going to get to the Western Conference Finals.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned their ages. I mean, considering that, is this, for either one or both, their last stand, possibly?

VORKUNOV: It's probably more likely for LeBron than for Steph Curry, 'cause he is 38.

MARTÍNEZ: How dare you, Mike? How dare you?

VORKUNOV: (Laughter) I know. Now I'll have all the LeBron fans coming at me. But considering his age, kind of the uncertainty of the Lakers, you know, who knows? But really, I think the thing that we've learned about both is that you can't write them off despite their ages. They're just too good.

MARTÍNEZ: One more thing, Mike. I mean, the playing field does seem to be more level this season. What does it say about the league?

VORKUNOV: Well, I think that's what we're all going to try to find out, whether this was an anomalous year with parity almost a league wide or if this is the way that the NBA is trending now with changes in the CBA and just the talent, just the way it's been spread across the league.

MARTÍNEZ: Mike Vorkunov is an NBA reporter for The Athletic. Mike, thanks.

VORKUNOV: Thank you.

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