ANTONIO GONZALEZ, AP Basketball Writer
Let the championship chase begin.
New Orleans and Brooklyn are in. Indiana and Oklahoma City are out. And while San Antonio slipped to sixth in the loaded Western Conference, the defending champions are looking awfully dangerous again.
Forget the 82-game grind of the past six months. There are no more back-to-back sets, no more uneven schedules, no more excuses.
The playoff brackets are set. Everybody’s on equal ground. It’s time to crown a champion.
“It’s like a new beginning,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It feels like the first game of the season. You’re excited. There’s a renewed energy and a sense of urgency.”
It took the final night of the regular season — with more than half the games on the closing docket loaded with intrigue — to clear up the cluttered playoff picture.
Stephen Curry and the top-seeded Warriors will face Anthony Davis and the Pelicans in a best-of-seven series starting Saturday after New Orleans snapped San Antonio’s 11-game winning streak Wednesday night. That ran Russell Westbrook — who sealed the NBA scoring title — and the depleted Thunder out of the postseason and into the draft lottery.
“A month-and-a-half ago, nobody thought we would be in this position,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “So many people counted us out … We got here.”
In the East, the Nets nudged their way in by outlasting Orlando and getting a boost with Memphis’ win over a Pacers team that watched Paul George get helped off the floor again, this time with just a sore left calf, the team said.
Atlanta, the top seed in the East, opens against Brooklyn. LeBron James and the Cavaliers begin with Boston. Chicago meets Milwaukee, and Toronto takes on Washington.
In the wild, wacky West, a logjam between second and sixth is finally sorted out.
— No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers will face the Spurs.
— No. 2 Houston hooks up with seventh-seeded Dallas
— No. 5 Memphis meets No. 4 Portland, which won the Northwest Division to finish with a higher seed but will start on the road because of the Grizzlies’ better record.
At this point, seeds are just number anyway.
“If you get in, it’s a whole new season,” Nets forward Joe Johnson said. “Everybody is 0-0 and then you wipe your hands clean and then you give it another go.”
Indeed, the Warriors (67-15) whipped the competition in the regular season, setting a franchise record for wins. Kerr could be NBA Coach of the Year and Curry might be MVP, but only the team that wins 16 more games gets to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy as confetti falls from the rafters.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” said Curry, whose Warriors clinched home-court advantage throughout the playoffs a couple weeks ago. “Everything we’ve gone through to this point will hopefully prepare us for this journey.”
A few familiar faces won’t be part of these playoffs.
Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony are among those who will be watching after getting injured or coming up short with their teams — or both.
The Knicks missed out on the best chance to land the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery; the Timberwolves (16-66) won that honor with the league’s worst record.
The Lakers (21-61), who started in Minnesota in 1948, lost more games than any team in their storied history. And after four straight trips — and two titles — to the NBA Finals with James leading the way, the undermanned Miami Heat are home already.
James found his way home to Northeast Ohio last summer.
The four-time MVP will try again to end the longest title drought for any North American city with three professional sports franchises. Cleveland hasn’t won a championship since the Browns beat the Baltimore Colts for the 1964 NFL title, but there’s renewed hope that James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love can do what previous Cavs teams couldn’t.
“We’ve been playing the right way — win, lose or draw — we’ve played the right way,” James said. “We’ve stuck to our system and I think it’s built some great habits for us.”
Now it’s time to put them to use.
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP
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