'It appears the student has become the teacher.'
The regular season came down to the very last day as several matchups hung in the balance, but at long last, the playoff picture has come into focus.
With the nearby scent of postseason basketball wafting over like freshly-popped, buttery popcorn, now is the time to begin your total Round 1 handbook.
The Los Angeles Lakers narrowly avoided missing the playoffs completely, salvaging one of the more disappointing seasons in league history by somehow nabbing the seventh seed in Game 82. Had things gone differently, a ninth-place finish might have caused the team to be dismantled.
Such is the drama of the NBA playoffs. It's merely a starting point for the better teams but stamping your ticket to the postseason is easier said than done.
For the most part, the rich have gotten richer, as each one of last year's conference semifinalists look like good bets to return there (well, except the Boston Celtics), but beware the fallacy of the predetermined outcome.
First things come first, and getting past the measly conference quarterfinals is just Phase No. 1 in a grueling slog to claim the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Here's everything you need to know about Round 1—what to watch for, key matchups, big question marks and statistics that spell disaster.
Complete predictions have been included too, so please direct all furious objections to the comments section below.
No. 8 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 1 Miami Heat
Regular Season: Miami Heat 3-1
The Miami Heat are the superior team. That is not disputed. But while LeBron James has been steeling himself for a title defense, Dwyane Wade has been experiencing "discomfort" in his knee (per Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald, via Twitter).
His absence would cause great discomfort for Heat fans, but Miami still has plenty to throw at the Bucks.
It's been another middling season for Milwaukee, even causing Coach Scott Skiles to quit.
Though they've narrowly avoided the lottery for two straight seasons, they are stacked with top talent.
Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings can score in bunches, though their effectiveness varies wildly. They're also a couple of kleptomaniacs, combining to average just shy of 3.7 steals per game.
Essentially the only way that the Bucks can beat Miami involves Ellis and Jennings averaging at least 60 points per game. That's just part of keeping up with LeBron and Co.
Jennings was bothered by an Achilles injury lately (per NBA.com), so that could potentially shorten their backcourt.
J.J. Redick came to Milwaukee at the trade deadline and is capable of providing tremendous production off the bench, but his shot has deserted him somewhat since relocating to the cheesy backdrop of Wisconsin (40.3 percent shooting in his final 27 games, a 4.7 percent decrease).
The linchpin for the Bucks will be square in the middle, their heart, their core—Larry Sanders. He's in the running for both Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player (the Associated Press agrees), and he finished second in blocks per game.
His stellar defense is the only thing separating the Bucks from a sound thrashing by the Heat's Big Three. His shot-blocking presence will be a key deterrent and his near double-double averages (9.8 PPG, 9.5 RPG) are the gravy on top. Sanders has dealt with some back pain lately, but he'll have to fight through it.
Ersan Ilyasova has been Milwaukee's version of Kenneth Faried, and if you don't believe me, check the player efficiency ratings. The young man out of Turkey has a PER just barely below the Manimal's, and he's even two spots ahead of Josh Smith who's had a very nice season himself.
And for all of that, the Bucks just don't have what it takes to match up against Miami.
LeBron would have to play with both hands tied around his back.
Prediction: Heat in four
No. 7 Boston Celtics vs. No. 2 New York Knicks
Regular Season: New York Knicks 3-1
I'm not going to include any links to the Urban Dictionary or even reference a certain breakfast cereal supposedly mentioned by Kevin Garnett. This rivalry is hot enough.
Though the usual bitterness between the cities has been replaced by solidarity in recent days, each team's resolve to win remains steadfast, and besting a long-standing rival always makes victory that much sweeter.
This would be a really great series if Rajon Rondo was not injured.
Then again, if that were the case, Boston would probably have a better playoff seed. Ultimately, the Celtics roster is hopelessly hamstrung after injuries beset the team all season long.
So the C's will rely on their Big Two, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Though all Knicks fans know better than to count those two out, sore ankles caused both vets to miss recent games (per the team's Twitter).
The Knicks, meanwhile, boast the league's scoring champion for the first time in 28 years and only the second time in their history.
Congratulations are due to Carmelo Anthony, and the achievement comes courtesy of a truly incredible April (36.9 points on 53.8 shooting, including 46.7 percent from downtown). And in case you think he was shirking his other duties, he averaged 9.9 boards in those eight games.
The big concern for the Knicks is the depth in their frontcourt.
Tyson Chandler is dealing with a bulging disc, and the laundry list of other injured big men is somewhat dizzying. Still, the Celtics are not a team blessed with imposing length, so New York's health won't be enough to tip the scales.
Boston's defense has been admirable, and that will be enough to extend the series, but the Knicks offense has become a juggernaut since St. Patrick's Day.
Unless Raymond Felton goes missing in action and J.R. Smith plays like the version of himself from last year's playoffs, the C's are bound for a swift exit.
Prediction: Knicks in six
No. 6 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 3 Indiana Pacers
Regular Season: Even 2-2
The Pacers drew their ideal matchup in the Atlanta Hawks—because the Chicago Bulls present a bad matchup for them.
Indiana plays at a slow rate, boasts a fantastic defense and rebounds very well (per ESPN's advanced stats).
The sometimes vexing Josh Smith has turned in another excellent all-around season (17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals), and Al Horford's play at center has been All-NBA caliber.
Jeff Teague posted 14.6 points and 7.2 assists for his finest season as a pro and Kyle Korver is a pure sadist from three-point range. The Hawks even have a Reggie Evans of their own in Ivan Johnson.
The Hawks are a talented team that doesn't get much publicity, but they showed their toughness in a gritty loss to Boston in the first round last year.
Against Atlanta, Indiana can exploit their matchup advantages in the frontcourt. The Hawks finished the season 23rd in rebounding while the Pacers were the league's best.
David West and Paul George have become forces in the frontcourt; their combined 34-plus points per game average means Boozer and Deng won't be able to manage the middle on either end of the floor. And George Hill is better than any guard on the Hawks playoff roster.
And of course the long arms of Roy Hibbert will be protecting the rim, NBA Jam style.
Prediction: Pacers in five
No. 5 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 4 Brooklyn Nets
Regular Season: Chicago Bulls 3-1
The Nets would have been better off facing the Atlanta Hawks, but instead they draw the Chicago Bulls, who just might rough them up and leave them in a heap.
Reggie Evans can't win a street fight all by himself.
The Nets have been good in fits and starts this season and they are loaded with talent and depth, but they can't match up in the frontcourt with Chicago.
Brook Lopez is putting the finishing touches on a spectacular season, but he lacks the physicality inside to challenge Chicago's bigs.
Meanwhile, Deron Williams has been racing to beef up his numbers against diminished competition down the stretch. Though D-Will's April has brought showers of gaudy stats, his play has been far from rock solid this season.
The most significant issue for the Bulls is the health of Joakim Noah. Though he played in Monday's game, his participation was limited again due to plantar fasciitis.
Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng have both enjoyed great seasons, but Noah makes that duo much more dynamic and helps cause copious headaches for opponents.
The Bulls sport a patchwork backcourt lacking in elite scoring threats, so they play roulette every night and hope someone gets hot. That is a bleak offensive game plan, but it's enough to get past Brooklyn.
Joe Johnson will be eager to prove himself and live down the "No Show Joe" nickname that hounded him in Atlanta. And for that reason, he'll be pressing too hard and will shoot worse than 40 percent from the field (as he's done for two of the last three postseasons).
Chicago has rolled with the punches all season, and their resiliency will help net the upset.
Prediction: Bulls in six
No. 8 Houston Rockets vs. No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder
Regular Season: Oklahoma City Thunder 3-1
The Thunder weren't sure who they would face in the playoffs until every last game had been played, but it doesn't matter much for their berth in the second round.
Houston poses an intriguing matchup, as they play at the fastest pace in the league (measured by possessions per game). Unfortunately for them, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are like an Olympic relay team in transition, except they can do the high jump and the long jump too.
James Harden's play will obviously be key for the Rockets, but the supporting cast must all play great to get past the length and athleticism of OKC.
Jeremy Lin has never played in a postseason game, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to playoff pressure.
Omer Asik anchors Houston's frontcourt, but their forwards all play like long-range specialist swingmen. And that's actually just the type of game that Serge Ibaka has developed this year in Oklahoma City.
While the Rockets can put up points in bunches, their middling defense will doom them against the defending Western Conference champs.
The Thunder boast the league's third most efficient defense (points per 100 possessions) while Houston ranks 16th.
While the Rockets should avoid a sweep, it'll take one of their three-point barrages at home to snag even one victory.
Prediction: Thunder in five
No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 2 San Antonio Spurs
Regular Season: San Antonio Spurs 3-1
While the Spurs may be somewhat diminished by this point in the season, the Lakers have been decimated.
They are fortunate to even be in the postseason as they are so sorely lacking in depth.
The Lakers have the 18th ranked defense measured by points per 100 possessions and they struggle mightily in transition. Don't buy propaganda about the slow, aging Spurs, as San Antonio plays at the sixth quickest pace in the league.
The Spurs also enjoy a tremendous home-court advantage, going 35-5 at AT&T Center, so good luck stealing a road win.
Dwight Howard would have to put up 30 points and 15 rebounds every game for the Lakers to have a shot at this series. And Paul Gasol would have to invent a time machine to go back and kidnap himself from 2010.
Howard is a great defender, but battling Tim Duncan can evoke nightmares for everyone.
Tony Parker's health remains a huge question mark after a DNP on Monday followed his 1-of-10 performance on Sunday, and Manu Ginobili has been a poor facsimile of his former self.
Nevertheless, the Spurs are far better up and down their roster, and Mike D'Antoni doesn't stand a chance against the championship pedigree of Gregg Popovich.
The Lakers will be lucky to steal even one win at Staples Center.
Prediction: Spurs in five
No. 6 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 3 Denver Nuggets
Regular Season: Denver Nuggets 3-1
You can forget about winning any games against the Nuggets in the Pepsi Center's thin air—they are 38-3 there this season. While the Golden State Warriors enjoy playing in the Bay Area, they lost 10 more home games than the Nugs this season.
Though Denver is without Danilo Gallinari, leading scorer Ty Lawson has returned just in time for the postseason. He recently told Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post that his heel is "100 percent."
For the Warriors, their offense begins and ends with the amazing shooting of Stephen Curry, who eclipsed Ray Allen's single-season record for three-pointers in the team's 82nd game.
He keys the rest of the team, and they will need to whole crew to fight off the surprising Nuggets.
David Lee has been a double-double machine and Jarrett Jack vaulted himself into the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year. But Denver has a defensive neutralizer in Andre Iguodala, who just might turn out to be one of the most crucial acquisitions from last offseason.
This is an incredibly even matchup of middling defenses and potent offenses, but since Denver is blessed with enough depth and athleticism to run with the Warriors they have the clear advantage. Add that to their dominance in Colorado and the outlook is bleak for GSW.
While the Nuggets are bereft of superstars and will struggle to make it out of the second round, they have more than enough to get by Golden State.
Prediction: Nuggets in five
No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies
Regular Season: LA Clippers 3-1
The Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies battled for home-court advantage until the final day of the regular season. The Clips were assured of a top-four seed by virtue of winning their division, but they clinched the extra home game by narrowly beating the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday.
Both sported identical winning percentages at home (32-9) and on the road (24-17), so home-court advantage will play a vital role.
Last year, the Clips and Grizz treated fans to a rollicking first-round battle that thrilled from the start. LA 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 is hungry for revenge and packs a ferocious defense, allowing fewer than 90 points per game, the only team in the league to do so.
Marc Gasol has played like an All-NBA center and the team has even shaken off the loss of Rudy Gay. Mike Conley must play efficient ball to give Memphis a good shot at victory.
But this is a bad matchup for the Grizz. They rank 18th in the league in offensive efficiency and lack the firepower to hang with the fourth-ranked Clippers.
LA has the depth to fight almost anyone in the frontcourt, and no one on Memphis comes anywhere close to Chris Paul's excellence, let alone a spark plug like Jamal Crawford.
Lob City will take the series in yet another thriller, setting up a rollicking matchup for years to come.
Prediction: Clippers in seven
Note: several sentences have been taken from my April 7 article, Round-by-Round Predictions for the 2013 NBA Playoffs.