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NBA playoffs 2018: Who are title contenders?

Story highlights

  • Golden State has won two of the last three championships, all against Cleveland
  • Houston has the top seed in the Western Conference

(CNN)A year ago heading into the NBA playoffs, fans were preparing for Cavs-Warriors III in the NBA Finals, which ended with Golden State winning its second title in three years over Cleveland.

This season, though, Cavs-Warriors IV is not a guarantee.
The playoffs have clear-cut championship contenders -- both from the Western Conference -- and teams from the Eastern Conference that are in the hunt.

    Leading contenders

    Houston Rockets
    Could MVP candidate James Harden, left, and Chris Paul of the Rockets dethrone the Warriors?
    Any lingering questions if stars James Harden and Chris Paul would play well together have been answered. It's a resounding yes, they do.
    James Harden and his amazing beard.
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    When Paul -- who was acquired by Houston from the Los Angeles Clippers in the offseason -- and Harden are both in the lineup, the Rockets have dominated, and they appear to be on a collision course with Golden State in the Western Conference finals.
    Chris Paul gives back to communities across the US.
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    There's already one item in the Rockets' favor: They have home-court advantage for the Western Conference playoffs by earning the top seed.
    The prevailing view for most of this season had been that the Warriors can win a seven-game series on the road if necessary. However ...
    Golden State Warriors
    Warriors forward Kevin Durant missed time late in the regular season with a rib injury.
    ... While the Warriors' lineup is packed full of stars, there is reason to worry: injuries. Stephen Curry has had ankle and knee problems, and head coach Steve Kerr has said he's ruling him out of the first round.
    Additionally, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala all have missed games because of varying maladies.
    The Warriors undoubtedly are a favorite to reach the NBA Finals, which would make it the fourth consecutive season. But their run is in jeopardy.
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    In the hunt

    Toronto Raptors
    DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors are aiming for their first trip to the NBA Finals.
    The Raptors are having their finest season in franchise history and could be the team to beat in the East. They've also been healthy, with the core of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas and the young guys supporting them meshing well.
    Historically, Toronto has underperformed in the playoffs. The one time the Raptors reached the Eastern Conference finals, in 2016, they got blown out by the Cavaliers. Provided it doesn't regress to old playoff form, Toronto is poised for a breakthrough.
    Cleveland Cavaliers
    LeBron James is after his eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.
    It of course helps when you have arguably the NBA's best player, LeBron James, who is looking to return to the NBA Finals for the eighth consecutive year (and ninth overall). But it's been an unsteady year for Cleveland.
    The question is how the Cavaliers will respond in the playoffs after a roller coaster regular season. They can score, but their defense hasn't been good. How will they hold up against playoff teams?
    Just four players remain from Cleveland's title team from 2016: James, Kevin Love, JR Smith and Tristan Thompson. Within this season, the roster has had an overhaul, trading several players, including Dwyane Wade, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert.

    Fading

    Boston Celtics
    Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving (left knee) is out for the playoffs.
    The Celtics' season looked doomed from the opening minutes when Gordon Hayward suffered a gruesome fracture dislocation of his left ankle. Turns out that was far from accurate, as evidenced by their 16-game win streak early in the season.
    But what looked like a promising playoff run has all but faded.
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    Star player Kyrie Irving, acquired in a blockbuster trade from Cleveland last summer, is out for the postseason because of surgery in his previously surgically repaired left knee. Following a mid-March procedure to remove a tension wire that had been implanted in the knee at the same time as two screws, a bacterial infection was discovered at the site of the hardware.
    With Irving unavailable, the Celtics are no longer seen as a contender.