This is the time of year that reputations and championships are made. The playoffs begin Saturday with San Antonio the top seed in the West and Indiana in the East. Two-time defending champion Miami looks for the NBA’s first three-peat since Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers (1999-2002). The star power is immense, including LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard. Let’s play ball.
1. San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. 8. Dallas Mavericks (49-33)
Spurs won season series 4-0
How they got there: The Spurs won the Southwest Division by eight games, went a league-best 30-11 on the road, and extended their NBA record of consecutive 50-win seasons to 15. They were the only team to top 60 wins and they did it in a familiar fashion. Veteran stars Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili averaged fewer than 30 minutes a game while 20-somethings Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and Tiago Splitter made valuable contributions. The Mavericks brought in nine new players this season. Dirk Nowitzki continues to be the No. 1 scoring option, but newcomer Monta Ellis has been a consistent contributor and provides an attack mode that had been missing.
Key to the series: The Mavericks must get the tempo at their pace, attack the defensive backboards, keep turnovers to a minimum, and make transition defense a priority. Samuel Dalembert needs to stay out of foul trouble or else the Mavericks’ interior defense will suffer. For the Spurs, if they continue doing what earned them the league’s best record, they’ll need to find room for a fifth NBA title. Parker needs to push the ball and penetrate. Green, Mills and Belinelli need to nail 3s. Ginobili and Duncan need to stay efficient. But most important, they all need to avoid injuries.
Prediction: Spurs in 6
2. Oklahoma City (59-23) vs. 7. Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)
Thunder won season series 3-1
How they got there: Oklahoma City won the Northwest Division despite a 4-4 closing run and having superstar point guard Russell Westbrook for only 46 games due to three knee surgeries since last April. The Thunder racked up the second-best record in the NBA because Kevin Durant took his performance to a higher level, perhaps an MVP level. In Westbrook’s absence, Durant began a string of 41 consecutive games scoring at least 25 points. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, were 13-17 on New Year’s Day before getting in gear. They beat Dallas on the season’s final night to reach 50 wins and climb a rung on the playoff ladder. They ended the season with six straight wins and haven’t lost at home since Feb. 5.
Key to the series: Remember the tortoise and the hare? In this case, the tortoise (the Grizzlies) wants to slow the pace, make it a half-court game and make the game as mundane as possible. The frontline of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is a load. Mike Conley does a solid job running the Grizzlies’ offense. The Thunder likes a jack rabbit pace and will push the ball up the floor. Westbrook, at times, has issues directing the offense. Translation: He should feed Durant the ball as much as possible. Big men Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Steve Adams are all keys.
Prediction: Thunder in 6
3. L.A. Clippers (57-25) vs. 6. Golden St. Warriors (51-31)
Season series tied 2-2
How they got there: Under first-year coach Doc Rivers, the Clippers captured the Pacific Division title and also set a franchise record for wins in a season. The Clippers led the league in scoring with a gaudy 107.9 points per game, had the third-best record in the NBA, and were second in point differential at plus-7.0. The Warriors, meanwhile, treat the basketball like a hot potato. Their offensive foundation is built around the 3-point line. The Warriors are tied for fourth in the NBA in 3-point shooting (38 percent), are 10th in scoring (104.3), and seventh in assists (23.3).
Key to the series: Both teams like to run on offense, but neither seems preoccupied with defense.In this series, a little defense might be the defense. Clippers forward Blake Griffin (team-high 24.1 points per game) is a showman and center DeAndre Jordan can step up and play defense. Jordan led the NBA in rebounds (13.6) and was third in blocks (2.48). Chris Paul averaged 19.1 points and led the league in assists (10.7 per game) and steals (2.48 per game). For the Warriors, center Andrew Bogut has a fractured rib and is out indefinitely. Stephen Curry averaged 24 points and 8.5 assists and might be the game’s best pure shooter. Klay Thompson, David Lee and Andre Iguodala have the ability to take over games.
Prediction: Clippers in 6
4. Houston Rockets (54-28) vs. 5. Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)
Rockets won season series 3-1
How they got there: With All-Stars James Harden and Dwight Howard leading the way, the Rockets finished second in the Southwest Division. Harden is fifth in the NBA in scoring (25.4 points), while Howard averages 18.3 points and 12.2 rebounds and is already paying dividends on the four-year, $88 million free-agent contract he signed last summer. The Blazers are the fifth-seed because they were 1-3 head-to-head against Houston. Portland came out of the gate blazing, 31-9 following a win in Dallas on Jan. 18. But since, the Blazers were a pedestrian 23-19, although All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard continued to stand out.
Key to the series: That huge tug of war in the middle between Howard and Robin Lopez should be fascinating to watch. Howard wants to reclaim his title as the game’s best center, while Lopez set a Blazers team record with 326 offensive rebounds and is no pushover. Both teams possess clutch shooters in James Harden and Chandler Parsons for the Rockets, and Aldridge, Lillard, Mo Williams and Nicolas Batum for the Blazers. The Rockets will benefit from the fact that embattled center Omer Asik, who thought he should have started ahead of Howard, has played well. In just 20.2 minutes per game, Asik averaged 5.8 points and 7.9 rebounds.
Prediction: Rockets in 7
1. Indiana Pacers (56-26) vs. 8. Atlanta Hawks (38-44)
Season series tied 2-2
How they got there: Probably never in NBA history has a team stumbled so poorly down the stretch as the Pacers did this season - going 6-9 since March 18 - yet still managed to earn the East’s top seed. But that also speaks to how well Indiana played earlier in the season. On March 2, the Pacers had won five in a row and were cruising with an NBA-best 46-13 record. But then some internal virus soured the locker room, and the Pacers limped home. The Hawks also faltered badly. Atlanta was 25-21 on Feb.1, then suffered losing streaks of eight and six (twice) before closing the season with wins in six of their final eight games to edge the New York Knicks by a game for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Key to the series: Although the Hawks are the only team in the playoffs with a losing record, they were 2-2 against the Pacers. That includes a 107-88 Pacers’ embarrassment in Indianapolis on April 6, a game Atlanta led by 30 just four minutes into the second quarter. Atlanta needs to be aggressive offensively because the lower the score, the more effective the Pacers become. The Hawks must keep the ball in the hands of Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver as much as possible. Pacers center Roy Hibbert had some horrendous games down the stretch, so he needs to re-discover his game. Pacers forward Paul George was too erratic late in the season and must return to his All-Star form.
Prediction: Pacers in 6
2. Miami Heat (54-28) vs. 7. Charlotte Bobcats (43-39)
Heat won season series 4-0
How they got there: If the Heat three-peat as NBA champs, they might have to pull another Houdini act like they did to beat San Antonio in last year’s Finals. The Heat seemed fatigued in too many games, even though they won their division by the largest margin in either conference. As usual, LeBron James carried a heavy load. The four-time league MVP averaged 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists while averaging nearly 38 minutes a game. Injuries limited Dwyane Wade (19 points per game) to just 54 games. After their 43-14 start, Miami finished the season going 11-14 in their final 25 games. The Bobcats know they must execute on both ends of the floor in order to get positive results.
Key to the series: Short of suiting up owner Michael Jordan, the only chance the Bobcats have of winning this series is to turn it into a nasty, physical, in-your-face affair. That could get the Heat off their game. Al Jefferson (21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds) and Kemba Walker (17.7 points, 6.1 assists) must lead the Charlotte charge, and Josh McRoberts needs to raise his game a level or two. Miami feasts on converting turnovers into quick transition baskets. Charlotte should funnel the ball out of James’ hands and make the injury-proneWade beat them. The Heat were 4-0 against Charlotte this season. But the Bobcats only lost by a point Dec. 1 in Miami, and 104-96 in overtime on Jan. 18 in Charlotte.
Prediction: Heat in 5
3. Toronto Raptors (48-34) vs. 6. Brooklyn Nets (44-38)
Season series tied 2-2
How they got there: Dwane Casey has a strong case for coach of the year honors after reversing last season’s 34-48 mark and winning the Atlantic Division, just the second division title for the franchise in its 19-year history. Casey won the division behind guys with little name recognition - Grevis Vasquez, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas - but plenty of athleticism. The Raptors were defensive juggernauts, allowing just 98 points per game. Brooklyn’s first-year coach Jason Kidd looked on shaky ground when the Nets started 5-14. But the veteran bunch worked out the kinks and came together to win 34 of its final 51 games, including stretches of 10 wins in 11 games and 11 wins in 13.
Key to the series: Raptors first-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, who leads the team with a 22.7 scoring average, has to play like he’s a 10-time All-Star. Otherwise, higher-seeded Toronto won’t have a chance at winning any games in this series. Point guard Kyle Lowry (17.9 points, 7.4 assists) has to keep the tempo fast and the Raptors’ role players must not wilt under the heat of their first playoff spotlight. The Nets are considered a long shot to reach the NBA Finals. But they have veterans who have been in the Finals in off-season acquisitions Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. They won an NBA title with Boston in 2008. Point guard Deron Williams must show why the Nets gave him a $100 million contract in the summer of 2012.
Prediction: Nets in 6
4. Chicago Bulls (48-34) vs. 5. Washington Wizards (44-38)
Wizards won season series 2-1
How they got there: Former league MVP Derrick Rose played just 10 games before a knee injury ended his season again. Joakim Noah, who had four triple-doubles this season, averaged 12.6 points and 11.3 rebounds. The Bulls mainly were successful because of their defense. Chicago was last in the NBA in scoring (93.7 points) but they were first in fewest points allowed (91.8). The Bulls ended the season by going 10-3 in their final 13 games, while the Wizards won six of their last eight games. The Wizards, in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, are led by point guard John Wall, who averaged 19.3 points, 8.8 assists and 1.82 steals per game. Washington has won one playoff series since 1983.
Key to the series: Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich must complement the rugged type of play Noah gives the Bulls, whose physical style was the key to their success. In addition to getting superb play from Wall at the point, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat and Nene need to be at their optimal best in order for Washington to have a chance at upending the Bulls. Since the Wizards don’t have a lot of playoff experience, they need to play like the playoff pressure doesn’t bother them. In short, they need to go out and hit the Bulls first and let them know this is going to be a long series.
Prediction: Bulls in 7