With less than three weeks until the 2013 NBA playoffs, it's time to take a sneak peek at the biggest storylines of the upcoming postseason.
More than a couple established superstars are fighting for their first championship, as they try to unseat Miami Heat star LeBron James from the throne.
There are also going to be some young ballers looking to make an impact. How will Stephen Curry, James Harden and Paul George influence the title hunt?
Most importantly, a number of magnificent matchups are brewing, and we can hardly wait to watch them. The postseason will deliver compelling showdowns from the first round all the way to the finals.
It's never too early for an NBA playoff primer.
In the second round of the 2012 playoffs, the Indiana Pacers gave the Miami Heat a scare but lost in a taxing six-game series.
This spring, Frank Vogel's crew is even more dangerous. The emergence of Swiss army knife Paul George and a league-leading defense have carried the franchise to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.
If anyone can slow down the Big Three and change the tempo of play, it's Indiana.
However, we can't get ahead of ourselves. Just because the Pacers improved doesn't necessarily mean they'll come closer to toppling the Heat. When healthy, Miami is practically unstoppable, reminiscent of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers or the 1996 Chicago Bulls.
Regardless of the outcome, this matchup would be intense from opening tip to final horn.
It's been a tumultuous, stressful season for the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans. They still haven't secured the No. 8 seed in the West, and they have an uphill climb for the rest of the regular season.
If they sneak into the last playoff spot, do they have a fighting chance against a top seed like the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder?
The limiting factor influencing their upset chances is their defense. Los Angeles surrenders 101.5 points per game, fifth worst in the NBA. Will their rotations be crisp enough to contain the Spurs? Do they have an answer for Kevin Durant?
D'Antoni's crew can make some noise in the first round, but its defense must improve exponentially in order to advance.
If the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder take care of business in the early rounds, they could collide in an electrifying rematch of the 2012 Western Conference finals.
Will the Spurs stay healthy enough to get revenge?
Will the Thunder be weaker in a seven-game series without James Harden?
Who will win the battle of Tony Parker vs. Russell Westbrook?
This is just a fraction of the questions surrounding this exciting matchup.
The Los Angeles Clippers would put on a show, as would the Denver Nuggets. But ultimately, the Spurs-Thunder showdown would provide the best basketball and most compelling theater.
Mike Woodson has done a spectacular job leading the New York Knicks after a crazy offseason.
The club dominated the first month of the 2012-13 campaign, and it's held its ground since then. Each player knows his role and executes it efficiently every night.
In addition to a well-oiled unit and a balanced roster, the Knickerbockers feature some heroes capable of lifting the team in tight games.
Carmelo Anthony is still one of the top three scorers in the NBA, and sidekick J.R. Smith is lethal off the bench. Most importantly, they're sharing the rock and getting their points within the team's system and ball movement.
Does that translate to a conference finals or NBA finals trip?
In 2012-13, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have taken the Los Angeles Clippers franchise to places it's never been.
That's not saying much, considering the scarcity of accomplishments in the organization's past.
Win streaks and regular-season win totals are nice, but Vinny Del Negro's bunch would rather get out of the second round and compete for a Western Conference title.
Last year, the squad barely survived the first round and was subsequently mopped up by the San Antonio Spurs. This year, the Clippers would like to use their balanced attack and deep bench to reach the NBA Finals.
Clippers fans can talk all they want about supremacy over the Lakers, but until they win in the playoffs, it's empty crowing.
Less than a year ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were vying for the title on the strength of a trio that included James Harden.
With Harden, the Thunder were able to relentlessly attack opponents with at least two superstars on the floor together.
Without him, they're still an elite unit, but they don't have the playmaking depth that he supplied. It makes them slightly more vulnerable against clubs like the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs.
Meanwhile, Harden has blossomed with the Houston Rockets as a top-tier performer and has led the youngest squad in the NBA to a winning record.
If the season ended today, the bearded one would square off against his old team in the first round. That's an electric way to start the postseason.
The storyline here is simple: Stephen Curry can flat-out shoot, and we can't wait to see him compete under the bright lights of the playoffs.
Mark Jackson's Golden State Warriors are fortunate to have one of the most brilliant young stars on their side. Curry's silky-smooth repertoire of moves and flawless jumper have captivated the association this season, as he's become the ultimate combo guard.
Although he has David Lee, Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut and Jarrett Jack supporting him, he possesses the superstar power and playmaking potential to disrupt a first-round opponent.
Dubs fans hope he brings his 46 percent three-point shooting to the postseason so Golden State can upend the Denver Nuggets or Los Angeles Clippers.
Chicago Bulls megastar Derrick Rose has extended his ACL rehab further than most of us expected.
At this point, no one is 100 percent sure whether he'll return for the playoffs. He could potentially get shut down for the remainder of the season. The cautious approach is a good one, but a playoff appearance would be a major emotional lift for the team and city.
Back in autumn, we were anticipating a February return. Now we're mere weeks away from the postseason, and he doesn't seem to be totally prepared to come back any time soon.
Tom Thibodeau's No. 6-seeded club could certainly use the boost in production and morale that Rose would supply.
But if there's anything we've learned from this prolonged rehab, it's that Rose isn't afraid to wait until he's absolutely ready.
Although the 2012 NBA Finals turned out to be a relatively one-sided affair, most of America would gladly welcome a rematch in 2013.
The Oklahoma City Thunder would get a chance for sweet revenge en route to their first title. In addition, basketball fans would be treated to round two of the LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant clash, a war between the two best ballers on the planet.
Another major aspect to this storyline is Russell Westbrook's development. Would his growth as a decision-maker and leader be enough to outmatch the star power of LeBron and Dwyane Wade?
A lot of dominoes have to fall properly for this matchup to come to fruition, but if it does, it's going to be can't-miss television.
There are a handful of NBA stars still searching for their first NBA title. Headlining the group are Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul.
Now that LeBron is a champ and has shed the "best ringless player" label, the basketball world will wait anxiously to see if Durant can climb the mountain.
He's still young, so there isn't Karl Malone-type pressure. Nevertheless, hoops fans are expecting greatness.
'Melo and CP3 are veterans who have achieved everything but a championship, so the 2013 playoffs are an opportunity to seal their legacies. Both players are experiencing unprecedented team success, but the Heat, Spurs and Thunder will make for a difficult title quest.
Other playoff stars seeking their first rings include Deron Williams, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, James Harden and Josh Smith. Who will come out on top?
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