The 2013 NBA playoffs are shaping up to be a postseason to remember.
The Miami Heat should have little trouble advancing through their half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, but no shortage of juicy matchups await them in the conference finals.
The Western Conference playoffs should be sheer entertainment, though. Every single first-round series will be must-see TV, despite Kobe Bryant's torn Achilles all but ending the Los Angeles Lakers' chances of playing first-round spoiler to the San Antonio Spurs.
While it's not exactly a bold prediction to place the Heat in their third straight NBA Finals, there's no way to be certain who will emerge from the minefield that is the Western Conference playoff bracket.
That won't stop me from trying. Here's one man's best series-by-series guess as to who will take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy this June.
If the first-round series between the Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks turns into anything other than a postseason tune-up for Miami, it'll be the biggest playoff upset in years.
Before beating the Oklahoma City Thunder backups in the final game of the season, the Bucks hadn't won a road game since a two-point win over the Sacramento Kings all the way back on March 10. They lost by 10 points to the Charlotte Bobcats in an away game on April 13, a perfect summary of a five-game span in which they managed to lose four straight road games.
The Heat, meanwhile, ripped off the second-longest winning streak (27 games) in the history of the league earlier this season. So there's that.
Between Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and Larry Sanders, Milwaukee has the talent to potentially steal one game at home from the Heat in this first-round playoff matchup.
That's about it, though. The Heat's quest to defend their championship will only hit a minor speed bump in this first-round series against the Bucks.
Prediction: 4-0 Miami Heat
As battered and bruised as the Boston Celtics look to be heading into the 2013 playoffs, betting against them in the Kevin Garnett era usually leaves you with egg on your face.
The prideful Celtics won't go down in the postseason without a fight, which should have their first-round opponent, the New York Knicks, somewhat on edge.
If Rajon Rondo hadn't torn his ACL back in January, the Celtics would have a half-decent chance at pulling off the upset over the higher-seeded Knicks. The combination of Jeff Green and Paul Pierce has the potential to slow down Carmelo Anthony, and Avery Bradley should be glued to J.R. Smith like flypaper for the entire series.
Without Rondo, though, the Celtics may simply lack the firepower to keep up with New York's affinity for bombing away from deep. The Knicks averaged 28.9 three-point attempts per game this season, tied with this year's Houston Rockets for the most in NBA history.
The combination of Rondo and Bradley could have thwarted Smith, Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd. Expect New York to advance, but not before withstanding a tough challenge from the never-say-die Celtics.
Prediction: 4-2 New York Knicks
The Atlanta Hawks went into full-on tank mode in the final two games of the regular season to slide past the Chicago Bulls for the No. 6 seed.
One can only assume the logic behind that move was to avoid a potential second-round series with the defending champion Miami Heat. That said, the Hawks would have stood a far better chance of upsetting the Brooklyn Nets in a 4-5 matchup than beating the Indiana Pacers in this 3-6 series.
The Pacers tout the most stifling defense in the league, giving up only 99.8 points per 100 possessions. For a Hawks team with a below-average offense (they're 18th in the league in offensive efficiency), it's difficult to imagine how they'll keep up with Indiana in this series.
The teams did split the season series 2-2, but the Hawks' two wins over Indiana both came before Lou Williams went down with a season-ending knee injury in early January. Without Lou Will, the Hawks' lack of backcourt depth could end up being a deciding factor in this first-round series.
There's an even more pressing concern for Atlanta, though: Can anyone stop Paul George from going into superstar mode? Barring a miracle, the Hawks' late-season tank job won't do them any favors in the 2013 playoffs.
Prediction: 4-1 Indiana Pacers
Before the start of the 2012-13 season, Brooklyn Nets majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov made it clear that he was eyeing a berth in the conference finals this year.
With the Miami Heat likely lurking in the conference semifinals for whichever team survives this first-round matchup, Prokhorov may need to lower the bar a bit.
The Nets can't be thrilled that the Bulls crept up to the No. 5 seed on the final day of the season, even if Derrick Rose doesn't return for the postseason. Chicago has struggled to score in Rose's absence, but their typical defensive intensity remains, as they rank sixth in the league in defensive rating.
Both teams ranked near the bottom of the league in pace—the Bulls averaged 89.3 possessions per 48 minutes (27th), while the Nets averaged 88.8 (28th)—which puts more pressure on Brooklyn to capitalize on each and every possession in this series.
Assuming Rose stays sidelined, the resurgent Deron Williams should end up being the deciding factor here. The Bulls simply don't have the backcourt depth to counteract the Williams-Joe Johnson duo over the course of a seven-game series, but don't be surprised to see the Bulls turn this into a knock-down, drag-out slugfest regardless.
Prediction: 4-3 Brooklyn Nets
Let the Battle of the Beard begin.
The Houston Rockets fell to the No. 8 seed on the final night of the regular season after losing to the Los Angeles Lakers, setting up a narrative-rich matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the 2013 playoffs.
James Harden gets the chance to make the Thunder look like buffoons for trading him away only days before the start of the 2012-13 season. He's proven time and again this season that he's worth every dollar of the max contract that Oklahoma City refused to bestow upon him, but now he gets the ultimate chance at revenge against his former team.
Beyond the Harden-centric storylines, this series features two of league's most entertaining offenses. Both the Rockets and Thunder finished with offensive ratings in the top six of the NBA, which means there should be no shortage of scoring here.
The Rockets defense, especially in transition, should prove to be their undoing against the more talented Thunder. Expect Russell Westbrook, in particular, to have his way against Jeremy Lin and the Rockets.
Prediction: 4-1 Oklahoma City Thunder
The Los Angeles Lakers went into the final day of the 2012-13 regular season unsure if they'd even qualify for the playoffs. They ended the night not only in the playoffs but having stolen the No. 7 seed from the Houston Rockets.
That victory set up a showdown with the San Antonio Spurs, something that Magic Johnson claimed the Spurs were desperately trying to avoid in the final few weeks of the season.
The series loses some of its luster now that Kobe Bryant will be sidelined with a torn Achilles tendon, but the head-to-head matchup between Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan will be worth the price of admission alone.
If the Lakers have any hope of pulling off the upset over the Spurs, it'll come down to the play of their bigs. With Steve Nash still battling a balky hamstring and Steve Blake being Steve Blake, Tony Parker should have little problem asserting his will against the Lakers point guards.
The Lakers rallied for two impressive wins after Kobe went down for the season, including a 91-86 victory on April 14 against these very same Spurs. But they'll need to fortify their transition defense to have any chance in this one.
Prediction: 4-1 San Antonio Spurs
This matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors could easily end up being the most DVR-friendly first-round series in the 2013 playoffs.
Both teams love to run. The Nuggets and Warriors ranked second and fourth in the league in terms of pace, respectively, with the Nuggets averaging 95.0 possessions per 48 minutes and the Warriors averaging 94.5.
The Nuggets and Warriors both finished just above the league average in terms of defensive rating, which should make this series a fast-paced, high-scoring affair. The big question for Golden State will be how it plays when traveling to Denver, where the Nuggets posted a 38-3 record this season.
In a strange scheduling quirk, three of the four regular-season matchups between the two teams occurred before the calendar flipped to December. The Nuggets hold the 3-1 series edge over the Warriors, but Danilo Gallinari's torn ACL adds an entirely new dimension to this series.
Between Gallinari's ACL, Ty Lawson's partially torn plantar fascia in his right foot and Kenneth Faried spraining his ankle in the final week of the season, injuries have flared up at the exact wrong time of the season for the Nuggets.
Add Stephen Curry's record-breaking three-point shooting to that mix, and the Warriors seem poised for the upset in a series that should go the distance.
Prediction: 4-3 Golden State Warriors
In the 2012 playoffs, the Los Angeles Clippers prevailed over the Memphis Grizzlies in a hard-fought seven-game first-round series.
This year's matchup between the two squads projects to be no less entertaining.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin just led the Clippers to the greatest season in franchise history, complete with the team's first-ever 50-win season and first division championship. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, overcame the midseason trade of Rudy Gay to only grow more comfortable with the ground-and-pound identity that propelled them to upset the San Antonio Spurs in the 2011 playoffs.
After the Grizzlies came back from a 3-1 deficit in their first-round series against Los Angeles in the 2012 playoffs, the Clippers proved that they were capable of going into Memphis and stealing a Game 7 on the road. They'll have no such concern in 2013, having locked up home-court advantage over Memphis on the final day of the regular season.
Much like last season's matchup, this series is a coin flip. When in doubt, go with the best point guard in the world in a close one.
Prediction: 4-3 Los Angeles Clippers
The Miami Heat's cakewalk through the Eastern Conference playoffs should continue in this second-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets.
The Heat blew out the Nets in each of their three matchups this season, giving Brooklyn little reason to feel optimistic heading into this series. The closest the Nets came to toppling the Heat was a 102-89 loss back on Dec. 1, a game in which the Heat held Brooklyn to only 30 second-half points.
Granted, all three of the Heat-Nets games this season came before the All-Star break, so Miami hasn't faced off against the new and improved Deron Williams yet. If Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade and/or Norris Cole can't slow D-Will down, this series could become at least mildly interesting.
The Nets aren't strong enough defensively to topple Miami, however. They tout a below-league-average defensive rating, allowing 106.2 points per 100 possessions (17th overall).
Mix the Nets' porous defense with the Heat's high-powered offense—Miami ranks second in the league in offensive rating, averaging 112.3 points per 100 possessions—and you've got the makings of a blowout.
Williams should be able to turn this into a gentleman's sweep, but nothing more.
Prediction: 4-1 Miami Heat
The second-round series between the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers may end up being the most difficult Eastern Conference playoff matchup to project.
You can make a reasonable case as to why each team will advance to meet the Miami Heat in the conference finals, albeit for entirely different reasons.
The Knicks, who tied with this year's Rockets in attempting more three-point field goals per game this season than any team in NBA history (28.9), will live and die by the three in the postseason. By sticking Carmelo Anthony at the 4, the Knicks have been running the four-out, one-in system that helped the Orlando Magic advance to the 2009 NBA Finals.
The Pacers' strength, on the other hand, comes on the defensive side of the ball. Indiana touts the stingiest defense of any team this season, allowing only 99.8 points per 100 possessions, and it limited opponents in the regular season to shooting a league-worst 32.6 percent from three-point range.
This series should effectively boil down to a battle of the long ball. If the Knicks can crack the Pacers' three-point defense, they'll be heading to the conference finals; if not, they're headed home earlier than they'd like for the summer.
In the end, I'm guessing that the Pacers' rough-and-tumble style of physical defense will wear on the Knicks as the series progresses, setting the stage for the East's first playoff upset. However this series turns out, it has "instant classic" written all over it.
Prediction: 4-3 Indiana Pacers
Back at the February trade deadline, the Los Angeles Clippers opted against shaking things up and making any major moves.
Assuming the Clippers make it past the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round to face off against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference semifinals, that decision will likely come back to bite them.
Had the Clippers consummated the oft-rumored deal that would have sent Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan to the Boston Celtics for Kevin Garnett, they'd stand a far better chance in a series with the Thunder. As it stands, none of the Los Angeles big men shoot free throws well enough to be relied upon in late-game situations, which could spell doom when the Clippers face off against two of the best scorers in the league.
Chris Paul won't let the Clippers go down easy, though. He's defensively sound enough to be a nuisance for Russell Westbrook, reducing the odds of a Thunder sweep.
The Clippers aren't pushovers by any means, having ranked fourth in the league in offensive rating (110.6 points per 100 possessions) and eighth in defensive rating (only allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions). The Thunder topped them in both, however, finishing with the league's most efficient offense (112.5 points per 100 possessions) and fourth-most efficient defense (102.5 points per 100 possessions).
With Garnett anchoring their defense, the Clippers might have had a puncher's chance at pulling off the upset over the top-seeded Thunder. Without Garnett, the Clippers will likely be too reliant upon CP3 consistently lifting the team during crunch time to beat the Thunder in a seven-game series.
Prediction: 4-2 Oklahoma City Thunder
The Golden State Warriors' chances of upsetting the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals come down to the health of oft-injured center Andrew Bogut.
Bogut missed 50 games this season due to a litany of ankle and back injuries, robbing the Warriors of their top defensive interior presence. Rookie Festus Ezeli performed admirably in Bogut's absence, but he'll be no match for Tim Duncan if Bogut can't stay on the court.
The Warriors do have two elite shooters in Stephen Curry, who broke Ray Allen's single-season record of made three-point field goals this season, and Klay Thompson. Either player could single-handedly swing at least a game or two in a playoff series if they get hot.
Curry swished seven threes en route to 35 points against the short-handed Spurs on April 15, for example, but the Spurs only lost that game by 10 points despite sitting Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard.
Suffice it to say, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Leonard will all be suiting up come playoff time, barring injury. Considering the Dubs dropped both contests against the Spurs in San Antonio this season, it's worth wondering whether they can turn those fortunes around in the playoffs.
As long as Parker and Ginobili don't get too banged up in the first round, the Spurs should be heavy favorites to advance to the conference finals.
Prediction: 4-1 San Antonio Spurs
After upsetting the New York Knicks in the second round, the Indiana Pacers would get their much-awaited rematch with the Miami Heat in the conference finals. They should be careful what they wish for, though.
The Pacers had the Heat on the ropes in the second round of the 2012 playoffs, having gone up 2-1 in the series as Dwyane Wade self-destructed on the sideline during Game 3 in Indiana. But cooler heads prevailed in Game 4, allowing the duo of Wade and LeBron James to help the Heat reel off three straight victories and send the Pacers home for the summer.
Both squads only grew stronger since the 2012 playoffs, which could make for an epic conference finals series in 2013. The Pacers tout the league's toughest defense, while Miami only further perfected its "flying death machine" of an offense this season.
The Heat voiced complaints about the Chicago Bulls' physicality in late March, which must have been music to the ears of the defensively rugged Pacers. In theory, Indiana possesses the personnel that could cause Miami to struggle in a seven-game series.
So long as the 7'2" Roy Hibbert continues his post-All-Star break excellence, he could give Heat players fits when they attempt to drive to the basket. The combination of Paul George and David West could temporarily stymie James, and the Lance Stephenson-George Hill combination could limit Wade, too.
In the end, Danny Granger's injury-related absence may be the death knell for the Pacers in a conference finals matchup against Miami. If the Pacers offense can't consistently produce against a tough Heat defense, they'll be faced with some playoff déjà vu from last season.
Prediction: 4-2 Miami Heat
The Western Conference playoff bracket is filled with landmines left and right, but it's only fair for the basketball gods to bestow a rematch of the 2012 Western Conference finals upon us in 2013.
The Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs clearly established themselves as the conference's two top teams this season. After dodging bullets in the first two rounds, both teams should pick up in the conference finals right where they left off last year.
There's just one problem for the Thunder: They don't have James Harden anymore. With 30 seconds left in Game 5 last year, the bearded one drilled a backbreaking three-pointer that crushed the Spurs' spirits and propelled the Thunder to their third straight victory in the series.
Without Harden's ball-handling proficiency and ability to create his own shot off the dribble, more offensive responsibility will fall upon Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in this year's series. Both players posted career seasons in Harden's absence, but there's no telling how they'll respond once the pressure ratchets up in the playoffs.
This series, more than anything, depends upon the health of the Spurs. If Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan all make it to the conference finals in one piece, there's a good chance they'll be favored to win, despite being the lower-seeded team. If one of the Spurs' Big Three gets sidelined for multiple games, the air will get immediately sapped from the Spurs' chances of advancing.
I'm guessing that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich plays his stars as conservatively as possible in the first two rounds, with one eye on this potential conference finals matchup. With Duncan playing like he's 26, the Spurs may well be too much to overcome this season for the Harden-less Thunder.
Prediction: 4-2 San Antonio Spurs
It'd be difficult to deny the existence of the basketball gods if the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs end up battling for the 2013 NBA championship.
In both Heat-Spurs matchups this season, one of the teams decided to rest its bevy of stars (San Antonio in November, Miami in March), much to the chagrin of NBA fans nationwide. While both games still ended up being nail-biters, there's no replacing a Big Three showdown between LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh against Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan.
Suffice it to say, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich won't save anything in the tank during the Finals. The James-Wade-Bosh and Parker-Ginobili-Duncan trios will all play at least 30-35 minutes per game for as long as the series drags out.
Seeing as both teams never faced off at full strength this season, it's difficult to project how a seven-game series between the two will play out. Assuming both teams enter the Finals at relatively full strength, this matchup should be a work of basketball art no matter who wins.
The Spurs and Heat each rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating this season. An unforeseen injury could always change the complexion of either team, but Spoelstra and Popovich are both innovative enough to adapt under fire.
In the end, I'm banking on the hyper-efficiency of the Heat's Big Three being the deciding factor in this series.
Prediction: 4-2 Miami Heat