Biggest Remaining Questions on Brink of 2013 NBA Playoffs
The spirited two-team race between the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz for the Western Conference's eighth seed will dominate the headlines over the closing days of the 2012-13 NBA regular season.
And so it should.
Frankly, it's one of the only things left to be decided before season's end.
Fifteen of the 16 playoff spots have already been claimed. Carmelo Anthony's first scoring title of his career seems a mere formality at this point. Ditto for LeBron James' fourth MVP award in the last five seasons and Damian Lillard's Rookie of the Year honors.
But the certainty of the regular-season narratives hasn't shortened the laundry list of questions looming on the basketball horizon. If anything, it's only shifted them to the forefront of the hoops world.
What Should We Expect from the Mamba-Less Lakers?
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The Lakers-Jazz playoff battle will come down to the last night of the regular season.
Utah will head east for a road clash with the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, while L.A. will host the Houston Rockets later on that night. Determining which club faces the tougher matchup won't be clear until Tuesday night.
Currently, the Grizzlies will host an opening-round series despite being locked into the fifth seed.
Even without Kobe Bryant (torn Achilles), though, it's hard to see the Lakers giving back the eighth seed that they fought so hard to claim.
L.A.'s lofty expectations heading into the year were built around its collection of superstars. While it's since been sliced in half, it could be bolstered by Steve Nash's return, which could come as soon as Wednesday (via Matt Moore of CBSSports.com).
With Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard still manning the middle, the Lakers haven't lost their intimidating size. Nash is a smart enough player to take full advantage of Gasol and Howard's talents regardless of how far he might have to stray from Mike D'Antoni's game plan.
Are the Battered and Bruised Boston Celtics Still a Playoff Threat?
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Despite their less-than-impressive record (41-39), the Boston Celtics are highly regarded as a dark-horse threat lurking at the back end of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Whether that's a credit to the team's past successes or observations based on the current club will become readily apparent early in its first-round series with the New York Knicks.
The two clubs couldn't be headed in more opposite directions. The Celtics have lost 10 of their last 15 games. New York, meanwhile, has lost 10 games over the past two months.
But there are some similarities here, namely the way both clubs have felt the devastating effects of a rash of injuries.
The Celtics lost Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger for the year earlier this season, and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have been sporadic participants in April. The Knicks have lost nearly their entire frontcourt.
But in order for the Celtics to realize their upset potential, they may be relying on a relative newcomer to the storied organization.
Jeff Green's averages are far from overwhelming: 12.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 27.9 minutes per game. But he's shown enough superstar flashes (20.0 points on 50.7 percent and 5.7 rebounds over his last 15 games) to build his claim as the player capable of carrying this franchise heading forward.
Will Postseason Play Silence the High-Powered Offenses of the West?
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If uptempo offense is your preferred style, then the Western Conference playoffs will be right up your alley.
Assuming the Lakers maintain their grip on the final postseason berth, then seven of the eight participants will be among the NBA's top nine scoring offenses (via ESPN.com). The prodding, defensive-minded Memphis Grizzlies are the only exception, ranking 26th.
Even with so many fast-paced teams waging war, though, there's no guarantee that these gaudy scoring numbers will carry over. A best-of-seven series places more importance on individual possessions, so the games may slow down earlier in the contests.
The front-runners out West may appear to have a lot in common with the lower seeds. But the numbers are a bit deceiving.
Some teams (San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder) have the athletes to play at a frenetic place but the talent to orchestrate offense in the half court. Others (Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets) struggle to maintain offensive efficiency when they can't get out and run.
The strength of any upset bids will lie in these clubs' ability to manufacture big enough margins to withstand the late-game charges that the superior seeds will bring.
Which Team Looks Primed for a 1st-Round Upset?
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The Los Angeles Clippers have assured themselves of a top-four seed, their first Pacific Division title and the most wins in franchise history. Still, analysts abound have questioned this team's ability to translate any of that into postseason success, largely due to the team's inability to manufacture offense in the post.
But I'm not going to pile on the Clippers here. For one, there's still a possibility they open the playoffs on the road, so it'd be tough to call that an upset. And they also won the season series with the Grizzlies, 3-1.
The fanbase that should be on full alert is that of the Indiana Pacers.
Since March 6, this is essentially a .500 ballclub (11-9). Indiana's vaunted defense has been one of its biggest failures of late, surrendering 101.7 per game over its last seven despite facing some lackluster offensive clubs like the Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns.
Oh, and Indiana's possible first-round opponent, the Chicago Bulls, just returned an All-Star (Joakim Noah) and a valuable reserve (Taj Gibson) to their rotation.
Can the Nuggets Win Outside of Denver?
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The Denver Nuggets are the best home team in the NBA.
They have lost just three of their 40 games inside the Pepsi Center this season and haven't suffered a home defeat since Jan. 18. The three games they have lost inside the friendly confines have been decided by a total of 13 points.
This is why Denver's 112-111 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night held such great importance. With the victory, the third-seeded Nuggets guaranteed themselves home-court advantage for their opening-round series.
But if the Nuggets hope to cash in on their championship aspirations, they won't be able to just feast on teams gasping for some of the thin Rocky Mountain air.
Denver won just 19 of its 41 road games this season, the worst such record of any of the West's top five playoff teams.
Just How Good Is Carmelo Anthony?
In a sense, this is exactly what Carmelo Anthony wanted all along.
Not only is he shining bright for the New York Knicks, but he's been tasked with returning this franchise to relevance by any means necessary.
That means shooting as often as he sees fit, no doubt a crutch in his all-but-locked-up scoring title. Or having more control over his team than any other player, evidenced by his league-leading 32.2 percent usage rate (via ESPN.com).
Then again, even he couldn't have imagined it quite like this.
His embrace of the offensive post was a logical progression, at least after LeBron James laid the groundwork for today's talented wings to follow.
But 'Melo at center? Clearly that was outside of Mike Woodson's original game plan, but he and his star player have been forced to consider everything due to an injury-depleted Knicks frontcourt.
Anthony might be getting some interior help come playoff time. Rasheed Wallace returned to action on Monday for the first time in four months. Kenyon Martin and Tyson Chandler were held out of the game, but both are expected to be ready for the postseason.
But no player has a bigger say in the fate of his franchise than the one who has enjoyed the league's largest role all season.
Are We Headed for a Finals Rematch?
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Save for a Milwaukee Bucks-Miami Heat pairing, the first-round matchups are tantalizing across the board.
But is it more style than substance? Is there any chance that either conference produces a challenger capable of knocking off either of last season's finalists?
Surely the Oklahoma City Thunder face a more grueling road back to the championship series. The West features a full complement of playoff-caliber clubs, including two different teams that won their season series with the Thunder (Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies).
The East can't match the quantity of its counterpart, but it does have some quality clubs to throw at the defending champs.
The Bulls and Pacers have the requisite size to exploit Miami's undersized interior. The Knicks have given the Heat fits with their depth of scorers.
But it's hard to imagine either the Thunder or the Heat faltering in their postseason climbs.
Anything can happen, but this will take nothing short of four best-case scenarios in a seven-game set.