The NBA playoffs are nearing with just days remaining in the regular season, but most of the 16 teams that will be participating have yet to completely solidify their positions.
With all the talent that will occupy pro basketball's exciting postseason, there are plenty of intriguing prospective series that have the makings of an epic, seven-game affair to create riveting drama even in the opening round.
Below is a list of key dates on the forthcoming NBA schedule, as well as a breakdown of the best clashes to open the postseason, based on the standings entering Tuesday evening.
Playoffs Start: April 20
Conference Semifinals: May 7
Conference Finals: May 22
NBA Finals: June 6
Most Exciting Round 1 Series
(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics
This should be a classic knockdown, drag-out tangle with two physical, tough-minded, defensive teams. The Celtics have had to weather the loss of star point guard Rajon Rondo to an ACL injury and will definitely miss him in their bid to get out of the opening round against one of the East's best teams.
Having said that, this veteran Boston bunch will go down swinging with cornerstones in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce leading the way.
Jason Terry's comments that were posted on the team's official Twitter page reflect the mindset that the Celtics have:
This is recently uncharted territory for the Knicks, whose first Atlantic Division crown since 1994 has them in the rare role of favorite in an opening playoff series. That magnifies the pressure and heightens expectations.
Carmelo Anthony leads the league in scoring, but he's not nearly the same player when facing this opponent. In four games against the Celtics this season, Anthony is shooting just 35 percent—nearly 10 points lower than his typical average from the floor.
Ball movement is a bit of a problem in the Big Apple, though, as New York ranks last in the NBA in assists per game. With Anthony frequently preferring isolation scenarios, the Knicks can tend to stall in the half-court game.
It is New York's series to lose, but the seed disparity and lack of standout personnel that Boston sports shouldn't be confused for how great of a showdown this has the potential to be.
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Houston Rockets
A lot can still happen with the Rockets, since they can ascend to as high as the sixth seed or even fall to the No. 8 slot with a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday evening.
However, let's assume that Houston will take care of business against a Lakers team without Kobe Bryant and hold onto this spot. That would pit a methodical, veteran squad in San Antonio against the fast-paced, high-octane Rockets offense.
These two teams have played each other four times in 2012-13, with the Spurs coming out on top in the first three encounters. However, Gregg Popovich will have his work cut out for him in these playoffs due to inconsistency down the stretch, and the fact that the Rockets won the last game, 96-95.
Injuries at various junctures to Tony Parker and stud sixth man Manu Ginobili have this team in a more precarious position than usual. Ginobili hasn't played since March but should be back for the beginning of the playoffs, according to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:
The Houston backcourt of Jeremy Lin and James Harden is extremely dangerous, and the matchup between talented youngsters in Chandler Parsons and San Antonio swingman Kawhi Leonard would be among the best underrated storylines of Round 1.
Experience may ultimately guide the Spurs to victory against the NBA's youngest team, but no one on the Rockets is going to fear the big stage.
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies
Lob City is rolling right now in the midst of a five-game winning streak and should be excited to play the same team it beat in last year's postseason.
Thus, there is a serious vengeance factor for the Grizzlies if this rematch holds up, especially since they blew a 27-point lead in Game 1 of last year's series at home and wound up bowing out early.
There isn't a dull one-on-one battle across the board between these squads.
Clippers superstar Chris Paul will square off with lightning-fast PG Mike Conley Jr., and the frontcourt battle pitting the Grizzlies' Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol against Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan should also make for some serious physicality in the low post.
Lockdown perimeter defender Tony Allen will also be checking Jamal Crawford frequently, and that will be an exciting tangle to view.
One of the underrated staples that Vinny Del Negro has instilled in L.A. is a defensive identity, as the Clippers rank fourth in the league in points per game allowed.
But Memphis is the top defensive squad in the NBA in terms of that statistic and has experienced a lot of improvement from its bench thanks to Jerryd Bayless picking up the scoring slack.
Los Angeles has the benefit of a much deeper second unit, though, and that should be enough to get the Clippers through to the semifinals. Even though the Clippers hold a 3-1 season series advantage, though, it will take six or seven games in the playoffs to get it done.