A User's Guide to What to Care About in This Year's NBA Playoffs
Haven't been keeping up with pro hoops this year? Let's run down each of the playoff matchups and some of the big storylines going into Saturday's games.
March Madness is behind us, the baseball season is just starting up, and whatever's going in the National Hockey League, U.S. television doesn't care to know about it. But tomorrow we enter the eight most glorious weeks of the sports calendar: the NBA playoffs. Haven't been keeping up with pro hoops and its great GIFs this year? Let's run down each of the playoff matchups and some of the big storylines going into Saturday's games.
Eastern Conference: Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Atlanta Hawks (8)
After pushing eventual champs Miami to seven games in last year's Eastern finals, Indiana entered this season hotter than anyone, shutting down team after team with the league's stingiest defense. Big man Roy Hibbert seemed a lock candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, youngster Lance Stephenson (picked 40th in the draft in 2010) was shedding his "immature" label and racking up points, and centerpiece Paul George finally made the leap from "hyped young star" to "superstar." Then it all fell apart. Cracks began to form in the (still-vaunted) defense, and Indiana's offense fell off a cliff, followed by typical worrying signs of implosion—Hibbert calling out his teammates as "selfish," George popping up on TMZ for two separate scandal rumors (a catfishing AND a pregnant stripper).
Despite their recent struggles, the Pacers managed to hold on to the one-seed and will face the Hawks, who scraped an 8th seed despite a losing record because the Eastern Conference sucks that hard. The Hawks also started the season looking good, but lost their best player (Al Horford) to injury and kinda gave up the ghost; they might cause a little trouble for Indiana, but the Pacers should cruise to a much-tougher second round matchup with the Bulls or Wizards. If they can't even stomp the sad Hawks, then people will really start to push the panic button.
Miami Heat (2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7)
The Miami story is the same as it ever was, just with a few more cracks starting to show. LeBron James is still basically the undisputed king of the NBA, but he probably won't win the MVP trophy this year because his incredible stat line plateaued while Kevin Durant took over the whole Western Conference for months at a time. His second-fiddle superstars, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, still look great, but Wade missed 28 games this season to rest his weary knees. Still, the Heat are the defending champions, and they found a new gear to win the title in 2012 and 2013. They will be the favorite for every series at least until the Finals themselves.
Poor Charlotte just enjoyed just its second winning season in its ten-year existence (next year, they will be renamed the Hornets, harkening back to the glory days of Muggsy Bogues, Alonzo Mourning ,and Larry Johnson), anchored by tough defense and the monstrous inside presence of big man Al Jefferson. Their reward is a first-round playoff series with the defending champs. It's a Cinderella story that will almost certainly be swept aside before it barely had a chance to get started.
Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)
You read that right: the East's third-best team this year was the Toronto Raptors, who made the (possibly unintentionally) brilliant move of trading their on-paper superstar Rudy Gay to Sacramento for supposed detritus. This was the ultimate case of addition by subtraction: Gay's barrage of questionable shots was spread out evenly among this young, feisty team, and they sprinted to the top of the standings. Toronto has looked great ever since, but they have little playoff experience and are running into the surging Brooklyn Nets, who boast a creaky roster of scary veterans like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Joe Johnson who tend to turn things up right about now. The Nets started slow, lost their best scorer (Brook Lopez) to injury, started playing small-ball (putting the 6'7" Pierce at power forward) and never looked back. This is the first-round series where most NBA experts are predicting a seeding upset. Can Toronto continue to defy expectations?
Chicago Bulls (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)
The Bulls are a team of gritty zombie warriors. Their season began with star point guard Derrick Rose once again falling to devastating injury. Then management traded All-Star Luol Deng to Cleveland, seemingly throwing in the towel on the season. Instead, bullet-headed drill sergeant coach Tom Thibodeau and versatile seven-footer Joakim Noah somehow willed a team of offensively-challenged role players to a 48-win season. Their reward in the first round is the Wizards, who are led by zippy point guard John Wall (coming into his own as an NBA superstar). Chicago is hyped as the team everyone should be scared of because they make you earn every point of every win. Can the faster, younger, but worse-coached Wizards can run through this brick wall to the second round?
Western Conference: San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (8)
A clash of old titans, with last year's Western champion Spurs (who lost to Miami in a seven-game thriller) going up against the somewhat resurgent Mavs, led by 2011 title-winner Dirk Nowitzki. The Spurs, led by bulletproof mastermind coach Gregg Popovich, look about as good as ever, with vets Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan leading a complete, balanced squad that won 62 games despite serious injury spells this year. Dirk did just as well to wrestle his team to an 8th seed in the packed West, but his supporting players are much more limited, and he'll need to go truly nuts to fend off San Antonio.
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)
The Thunder have really just been one story all year: Kevin Durant. A superstar since entering the league in 2007, Durant put up MVP numbers this year, winning the scoring title, improving his defense, dropping so many 40-point games it almost became yawningly routine. The team has barely suffered despite two injuries to star point guard Russell Westbrook, but his playoff knee injury last year helped the gritty, defensive Grizzlies knock the Thunder out last year. The Grizzlies, who weathered their own injury crises to close out the season strong, are as intimidating as ever (led by the bear-like big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph), but Durant and company will be looking for revenge this year.
Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
The Clippers, on the ascent since trading for Chris Paul in 2011, improved everywhere this year—they have a great, proven playoff coach in Doc Rivers, a monster season from dunk machine Blake Griffin (who really showed off what a complete player he has become) and improved defense from big man DeAndre Jordan. They caught a lucky break in the Warriors, who just learned that their defensive anchor Andrew Bogut will likely miss the whole postseason due to a cracked rib. But Golden State's star Steph Curry can still catch fire and score 50 points easy anytime, and over their four games this season it became apparent that the Warriors really get under the Clippers' skin. Anticipate shoving matches and cries of "hold me back!" galore.
Houston Rockets (4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (5)
This season marked the first year of the Rockets' new superstar tandem: guard James Harden (picked up in a blockbuster trade with Oklahoma City last year) and center Dwight Howard (scooped away from the Lakers in free agency). Things worked out pretty well and the Rockets continued to rain three-pointers down on everyone, although they remain firmly on the outside looking in at the West's elite teams. Their matchup with the Blazers is perceived as soft—the equally trigger-happy three-pointer team from Portland surprised everyone with dominant play through the first half of the season, then came down to earth as their porous defense caught up with them. Still, stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are fearless offensive weapons who will play as hard as they can, and Portland's notoriously vibrant fanbase hasn't been in the playoffs in three years. This should be a fun one.