Will the Chosen One be crowned King again?
The NBA postseason must be near, because a number of teams have been resting their starters and citing an assortment of nagging injuries as the reason.
Therefore, it's time to prognosticate months into the future and reveal to you the 2013 NBA champion...not yet, keep reading.
Unquestionably, the excitement of the playoffs comes somewhat at the expense of the regular season's final month.
For a team like the Atlanta Hawks, this amounts to trading the risk of a lower playoff seed for a well-rested star.
If the season ended on Sunday morning, these would be the first-round matchups:
- No. 1 Miami Heat vs. No. 8 Milwaukee Bucks
- No. 2 New York Knicks vs. No. 7 Boston Celtics
- No. 3 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 6 Atlanta Hawks
- No. 4 Brooklyn Nets vs. No. 5 Chicago Bulls
- No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 L.A. Lakers
- No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 7 Houston Rockets
- No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors
- No. 4 L.A. Clippers vs. No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies
But there's more than enough left in the regular season to keep fans speculating about matchups until the final day.
Some teams have as many as seven games remaining while others have just four more chances to improve their standing.
With so few games left, the playoff picture won't change very much over the next week-and-a-half, but some key alterations still lie on the horizon.
First, let's examine what changes will occur to the playoff brackets, then we'll find out which unfortunates are bound for a first-round flameout and who will seize the Larry O'Brien trophy.
At the top, OKC will nip the Spurs for best in the West. Gregg Popovich's hamstrung crew barely survived against a ragtag lineup of Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night. Over their last five games, they play on the road against the Nuggets, Lakers and Warriors.
The Thunder's toughest test after Sunday comes against Golden State, and actually playing their starters should give them the advantage down the stretch.
Speaking of the Lakers, their playoff hopes could very well be dashed by the Jazz, who are only half a game back. Both teams have a gauntlet to run in the last five games (the Warriors, Spurs and Rockets for L.A., versus the Warriors, Thunder and Grizzlies for Utah).
Somehow, Kobe Bryant will find a way.
The real snafu in the West lies in the third through fifth seeds. The Nuggets, Grizz and Clippers are separated by just 2.5 games, but the order is unlikely to change. Even though Denver lost Danilo Gallinari to a torn ACL and is still without Ty Lawson, it will retain the third seed.
The Nuggets hung 132 points on Houston Saturday night and have until Wednesday's game against San Antonio to rest up. The final four games offer no significant challengers.
As for the Clippers and Grizz, they are in the confusing scenario where the division winner is guaranteed a top-four seed, but the No. 5 team would have home-court advantage. Even if the Clips can leapfrog Memphis, the teams would still face each other in Round 1.
Finally, a tough final stretch against playoff teams will doom the Warriors to seventh place. The Rockets will soar past them thanks to two games against the Phoenix Suns and a home date with the Sacramento Kings.
The East is a clearer picture. All eight playoff entrants have been determined, and Miami sits atop a very tall throne. While there's still room for movement, things will remain more or less the same.
The Knicks have been the hottest team in the NBA over the last three weeks, while Indiana has dropped its last two games by a total of 41 points. New York will hang onto second place, but the Pacers play the Nets, Knicks and Celtics in three straight games, which will keep things interesting.
The Nets will not be able to make up their 3.5-game deficit on the Pacers, but Chicago could surge past them if they're not careful. The Bulls have a game in hand, but nipping Brooklyn would only change home-court advantage in the matchup, which hasn't been significant this season for either team.
Atlanta is nestled directly between the Bulls and Celtics but is three games behind Chicago in the loss column with four left to play.
Boston has lost seven of its last 10 and would be in danger of falling to eighth if the Bucks weren't playing equally poor basketball of late.
In sum, there will be no changes to the Eastern playoff bracket as it currently stands.
No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 8 L.A. Lakers
Prediction: Thunder in five
"So long, and thanks for all the fish." That's what the Thunder will be saying to Mike D'Antoni's not-so-merry band of superstars after five games of this series.
The Lakers managed to win one of their four meetings with OKC during the regular season, but their lack of depth and shaky defense will send Kobe Bryant packing. Vino will still salvage one win and avoid an ignominious sweep.
No. 2 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 7 Golden State Warriors
Prediction: Spurs in four
The Warriors have been fun to watch all season, and Stephen Curry will get a great opportunity to showcase his skills on national TV. Unfortunately, he'll only have four games in which to do that, because the Spurs will have their brooms out in the first round.
The only thing that carried Golden State to its win over the Spurs on Feb. 22 was the debut of the preposterous, skin-tight jerseys with miniature sleeves paired with oversized pinstriped shorts. Obviously San Antonio was rendered senseless by the fashion abomination that night, but it won't happen again.
No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Houston Rockets
Prediction: Nuggets in six
The official scorer might have to use a graphing calculator for the stats in this series. The NBA could cross-market this matchup to NASCAR fans.
On Saturday, the two teams combined for a total of 246 points, which would be a good month for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Though the Nuggets are without Danilo Gallinari, leading scorer Ty Lawson is expected back for the postseason. Denver is blessed with enough depth and athleticism to run with Houston, and it has a vastly superior frontcourt when it comes to defending and rebounding.
Ultimately, home-court advantage for the Nuggets will leave Houston gasping for air and defeated by a superior team, but watch out for the Rockets next year because they're right on the cusp.
No. 4 L.A. Clippers vs. No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies
Prediction: Clippers in six
As John Fogerty once sang, it's like deja vu all over again.
Last year, the Clips and Grizz treated fans to a rollicking first-round battle that thrilled from the start. L.A. trailed by 27 points in Game 1 before storming back and seizing a 1-0 lead. Then the Grizz forced Game 7 after trailing 3-1, but they fell to Lob City in the end.
Memphis will be hungry for revenge and brings a ferocious defense with it. The Grizz are the only team in the league allowing fewer than 90 points per game, and they stunned the Clippers at Staples Center on March 13.
But this is a bad matchup for Memphis. L.A. has the depth to fight it in the frontcourt, and the Grizz have no one who can come anywhere close to Chris Paul's excellence, let alone a spark plug like Jamal Crawford.
No. 1 Miami Heat vs. No. 8 Milwaukee Bucks
Prediction: Heat in four
I don't think I really need to explain this one.
No. 2 New York Knicks vs. No. 7 Boston Celtics
Prediction: Knicks in six
New York won the last three games of the season against Boston, and the Celtics are limping into the postseason.
Rajon Rondo's absence has finally started taking its toll, but the C's still present a tough match for the Knicks. New York can be irritated by physical teams, and the Celtics are precisely that.
No. 3 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 6 Atlanta Hawks
Prediction: Pacers in five
Though the Pacers have stumbled recently and still struggle to score for prolonged periods, their suffocating defense goes a long way, especially in the playoffs.
The Hawks has been good in fits and starts this season, but they've been stricken by injuries again, losing Lou Williams and Zaza Pachulia for the season. Atlanta might be able to hang with Indy at full strength, but this is not its year.
No. 4 Brooklyn Nets vs. No. 5 Chicago Bulls
Prediction: Bulls in six
Brooklyn is capable of playing excellent ball on any given night but has been inconsistent recently, going just 7-6.
The Nets dropped three of four to Chicago during the season, and their max-contract backcourt can't surpass the Bulls' domineering play up front.
Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer have driven Chicago in the absence of Derrick Rose. And that trio will drive the Bulls into the second round.
No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 4 L.A. Clippers
Prediction: Thunder in five
The Clippers have ascended the league's power rankings and established themselves as an elite team. Chris Paul has played like the best point guard since Magic Johnson, and Blake Griffin has improved his offensive game.
Even though the Clips sport one of the league's deepest benches, they can't quite duplicate the overwhelming quality of Oklahoma City's front line.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook cause nightmares for all but the best defenses in the NBA. While the Clippers rank a respectable ninth in defensive efficiency (per ESPN), OKC offers too much for Lob City to handle.
Even Serge Ibaka can knock down a long-range jumper this season.
No. 2 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 3 Denver Nuggets
Prediction: Spurs in six
The Spurs are a much better team than the Nuggets, but a funny thing happens when you travel to Denver. Altitude sickness envelops you like a poncho; a flight of stairs seems like a five-mile run.
Fittingly, San Antonio won both home games against the Nuggets this season, but Denver prevailed in the Pepsi Center's thin air. The Nuggets are a frankly ridiculous 35-3 at home, which seems downright unfair.
The Nuggets boast excellent talents in Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee, but the only way they get past the second round is for the Spurs' Big Three to become suddenly hobbled.
LeBron James pictured just prior to "The Foul" by Taj Gibson.
No. 1 Miami Heat vs. No. 5 Chicago Bulls
Prediction: Heat in five
This would really be a great matchup if Derrick Rose was 100 percent, but he's not. Therefore, you can mark this down as an ugly, scrappy street fight that will really anger Miami.
Following their 101-97 beating from the Bulls on Mar. 27, LeBron James spoke out about two hard fouls he had absorbed, getting tackled by Kirk Hinrich and swatted around the neck by Taj Gibson. In a measured assessment, James claimed "those are not basketball plays" (per Michael Wallace of ESPN.com).
LeBron was not as measured when he retaliated after Gibson's foul by body-checking Carlos Boozer and drawing a flagrant. These two teams have bad blood brewing, and it should make for a vintage playoff series straight from the early '90s.
But now the tables are turned, and Miami has the vastly superior talent. The Bulls backcourt can't hope to keep up, so Chicagoans will have to bank on Rose next season.
No. 2 New York Knicks vs. No. 3 Indiana Pacers
Prediction: Knicks in seven
There is one guarantee in this series: Reggie Miller is not walking through that door. At least not in uniform, anyway.
This projects as a classic matchup of good offense against good defense. Per 100 possessions, the Knicks score the third-most points in the league while the Pacers allow the fewest (per ESPN). Both teams play at a snail's pace, averaging in the bottom half-dozen for possessions per game.
This series boils down to player matchups and their will to win more than a clash of strategies.
There are two conditions for a New York victory: Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith continue playing near the level they've achieved during the team's winning streak, and both Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin are healthy enough to log significant minutes and contribute.
If the Knicks bring that stellar scoring and punishing physicality, Indy can't hope to overcome them.
The recent dip in Paul George's production is also a troubling trend. He's scored just 10 points on 3-of-19 shooting in the Pacers' two consecutive losses. Indy's great D can't make up for its mediocre offense.
No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 2 San Antonio Spurs
Prediction: Thunder in six
This is the clash of the titans that we've waited for all season. In a stacked Western Conference, the Thunder and Spurs distinguished themselves above all others.
A rematch of last year's conference finals would be another great battle of old school and new school. After Game 2 in 2012, the Spurs looked absolutely unstoppable. Of course, OKC romped to four straight victories and the conference title.
This season, the teams split their four games with the home team winning each one. But even though they're pretty evenly matched, the Thunder's youth and athleticism will overcome the aging Spurs.
While Tim Duncan still plays like the best power forward of all time and Tony Parker flashed his MVP-caliber skills for stretches of the season, Manu Ginobili is in a steady decline. He'll still score 10 points, but he's no longer the dynamo he had been.
It will be a close series, but put your money squarely on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
No. 1 Miami Heat vs. No. 2 New York Knicks
Prediction: Heat in five
The Knicks would be so overjoyed to be back in the conference finals that they might not even remember there are more games left to play. For a franchise that hasn't won a playoff series since 2000, getting this far would be an achievement.
That being said, Miami is a buzzsaw. Unless the Heat are so beat up from the series with Chicago, New York will not get past them in a playoff series.
As great as some of the players in the NBA have been this season, LeBron James has played on a completely different level. He's not posting Michael Jordan numbers; he's posting Oscar Robertson numbers.
James is averaging 26.9 points, 8.1 boards and 7.2 assists. And he's shooting an unreal 56.2 percent from the field.
It's true that Carmelo Anthony has played well against LeBron in recent games, and you could certainly have Iman Shumpert guard Dwyane Wade, at least for 20 minutes or so. Miami will still abuse the Knicks in transition.
There's practically no way to beat a guy who's built like a linebacker and can dish double-digit assists. Combine that with the Heat's proficient D, and it's curtains for the Knicks.
No. 1. Miami Heat vs. No. 1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Prediction: Thunder in seven
This was my prediction before the season began, and I'm sticking to it.
It's a rematch that's written in the stars. Oklahoma City return a year wiser and a year more belligerent about the beatdown that Miami handed it in the 2012 finals.
What the Thunder have lost in James Harden, they've gained in Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka's perimeter jumper. The depth in OKC's frontcourt continues to pose a huge matchup problem for Miami's undersized lineup.
Nevertheless, Miami won both contests against the Thunder this season. Kevin Durant dropped 73 points while Russell Westbrook scored 47 in those games, but the supporting cast couldn't match their efforts. Meanwhile, LeBron James flirted with a triple-double both times.
That's why OKC needs to focus on getting stops instead of outscoring the Heat. It's their superior defense that will overcome Miami.
Of course, both teams can score, as they have the two most efficient offenses in the league. But it's easy to forget that the Thunder's D allows the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (via ESPN).
They must frustrate LeBron with physical play and force the ball to his teammates. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will do their damage too, but the key is containing it to survivable proportions. Beyond them, Miami lacks bench scoring, so taking advantage when its starters sit is critical.
The Thunder also enjoy a significant dominance over Miami on the boards. While OKC corrals the sixth-most rebounds per game, Miami is dead last. If you look to rebounding differential, OKC is fifth and Miami 24th.
This rematch will be so good, it might require roman numerals. And just like Rocky II, the underdog wins.