Heading into the final day of the 2012-13 NBA regular season, no fewer than eight playoff spots were still up for grabs. But now that the dust has settled and every postseason berth is set in stone, it's time to look ahead to the first round of playoff action.
Intriguing matchups abound, as the injury-riddled New York Knicks take on their Atlantic Division nemesis, the Boston Celtics. Anyone familiar with the history of those two teams knows that Paul Pierce is more than happy to see the Orange and Blue in his future.
Plus, the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors are set to do battle in a high-octane (and occasionally high-altitude) track meet. That one could be decided by the health of a certain beastly power forward.
And, of course, the Los Angeles Lakers somehow managed to secure the No. 7 seed and a date with the San Antonio Spurs with their overtime victory over the Houston Rockets Wednesday night—a series that could be decided by the Spurs' faltering health.
The playoffs are upon us, folks. Here's one thing to keep an eye on in every first-round series.
For a while there, it was fun to pretend that the Milwaukee Bucks might be a frisky first-round opponent for the Miami Heat. Miami needed overtime to defeat the Bucks on Nov. 21, and a few weeks later, Milwaukee actually beat the Heat by 19 points.
But Miami easily took the next two meetings and has transformed itself into a juggernaut over the season's final three months. At the same time, the Bucks have stumbled to the finish, losing seven of their last 10 to finish with an uninspiring record of 38-44.
It's nothing new to say that the Heat should beat everyone they play this postseason, but that's where just about any objective analysis should end up.
Miami is going to beat the Bucks, and it should be a fairly tidy affair, as one of the Heat's greatest offensive assets perfectly nullifies the Bucks' lone defensive strength.
Chris Bosh is a remarkable mid-range shooter, and that's not a qualified statement. He shoots 52 percent from 16-23 feet—the best mark in the league for players averaging at least 25 minutes per game.
The Bucks rely heavily on the elite rim protection of their big men to compensate for an inefficient offense and an otherwise porous defense. John Henson and Samuel Dalembert are both long, rangy defenders who deter plenty of drivers in the paint. And Larry Sanders is probably the league's best shot-changer on D.
Really, there are a hundred reasons why the Heat are going to easily dispatch the Bucks. Miami has the three best players in the series, after all. But the strategic mismatch created by Bosh's spectacular shooting is one of the biggest.
Paul Pierce loves to play against the New York Knicks.
He has averaged 21.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game on 46 percent shooting in four games against the Knicks this year. Last season, he averaged 35.7 points, and the year before that, he hit New York for 26 per contest.
The Celtics, thanks to their playoff experience and a gritty defensive style that counts for so much more in the postseason, are no ordinary seventh seed. Pierce's history of excellent play against New York just adds to the likelihood that this series will be a highly competitive one.
Add the Knicks' new injury concerns (Pablo Prigioni sprained his ankle, per Alan Hahn of MSG, and Iman Shumpert asked out of New York's final game after apparently tweaking his knee, per NBA.com) to their older ones (Tyson Chandler's neck, Amar'e Stoudemire's knee, Kenyon Martin's ankle and Marcus Camby's foot), and the Knicks are hardly hitting the postseason in prime health.
If Pierce enjoys his typical success against New York and the Celtics get enough minutes out of Kevin Garnett, an upset could be in the making.
The Atlanta Hawks have played the Indiana Pacers pretty well this season, earning a 2-2 split in the season series and out-rebounding the larger Pacers by a slim margin.
Indy has outperformed the Hawks by about four points per 100 possessions this season, and that is probably an accurate reflection of the Pacers' overall superiority.
Here's something to watch for: Keep an eye on how many uncontested jumpers the Pacers allow Josh Smith to take.
Anyone who has watched the Hawks this season knows Smith is one of the league's very worst shooters off the dribble, with a frustrating penchant for ill-advised heaves from the outside. You can usually see the shot coming long before Smith ultimately lets it fly.
The Pacers' overall defense is spectacular, ranking first in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions. One of the defining characteristics of that highly efficient defense is its concession of mid-range jumpers—especially to poor shooters like Smith.
Built on the principle that shots in the lane and corners should be curtailed at all costs, the Pacers happily give up long twos to most of their opponents.
If Smith can't see that his perimeter shots are playing right into the Pacers' defensive game plan, the Hawks may find themselves on the wrong side of a sweep.
The Brooklyn Nets are sometimes erroneously pegged as a good defensive team, probably because their agonizingly slow pace (only the New Orleans Hornets use fewer possessions per game) distorts the picture of what has, overall, been a slightly below-average defense this season.
The Chicago Bulls, on the other hand, are a legitimately excellent defensive club. Tom Thibodeau's revolutionary style has spawned copycats throughout the league. Now every team overloads the strong side, keeps its defenders in the lane well beyond the allowed three seconds, and forces pick-and-rolls to the baseline.
Chicago would be a tough matchup for any team, but because the Nets play some of the least inventive, most isolation-heavy offense in the NBA, they're going to be in for an especially difficult series.
Chicago (and most of the other good defensive teams in the NBA) force quick, decisive ball movement from the strong side to the weak side. In fact, crisp passing from side to side is one of the only ways to get the Bulls out of their precise rotations.
Unfortunately, the Nets don't do that. For evidence of how little effective ball movement the Nets produce, witness their 16.2 assist rate. That number ranks 25th in the league and proves the team's reliance on isolation scoring.
Deron Williams has been much better in transition of late, and perhaps Joe Johnson will find his shot as a weak-side floor-stretcher. But if the Nets think they're going to beat the Bulls with one-on-one basketball, they've got another thing coming.
A minor upset here shouldn't be so surprising, however. After all, the Bulls took three of the four contests against the Nets this year.
The numbers are going to matter when the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets square off in their first-round series. For what it's worth, Houston has lost two out of three, largely because the supremely athletic Thunder have shown that they can play the up-and-down game even better than the Rockets can.
In the three games this year, OKC has amassed a gaudy offensive rating of 113.2 against Houston. But the number won't matter quite as much as the subplots that could make this series such an emotional battle.
James Harden has plenty to prove to his old team, and even if there's no actual animosity between the league's newest (and hirsute) superstar and his old squad, you have to believe that he'll be motivated to play at his absolute best against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Look for Harden to better his season average of 29.3 points against the Thunder.
Whether his personal motivation is enough to do more than avoid a sweep for Houston remains to be seen. But a massive, emotionally driven performance from its best player is the only hope Houston has of making this series interesting.
It's a little surreal that the Los Angeles Lakers are not only in the postseason, but also have somehow managed to end up in the seventh spot out West.
After struggling through a coaching change, poor chemistry, awful defense, injures, injuries and more injuries, the Lakers have made it. And ironically, it's the San Antonio Spurs' health that figures to be as big of a determinant in this series as anything.
Tony Parker has finished the year with a whimper, as his play has clearly suffered from his late-season ankle injury and an ongoing series of leg problems. His April averages of 13.6 points and 6.8 assists on 39 percent shooting don't inspire the same borderline-MVP type of talk his overall statistics generated.
And Manu Ginobili is only just now returning from a hamstring injury that has left him looking like a shell of his former self.
Pau Gasol's season-ending triple-double showed that he's playing his best ball of the season, and Dwight Howard is once again the dominant inside force he used to be. The Lakers are going to be hurting without Kobe Bryant (and possibly Steve Nash), but they've got a pair of stars to rely on.
If Parker and Ginobili aren't themselves, that leaves Tim Duncan to shoulder the load alone. San Antonio's system and role players have both proven effective, but stars win postseason series—and the Lakers might have more healthy ones than the Spurs.
There are plenty of things that could swing the series between the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets.
Home-court advantage will be massive, as the Nuggets are virtually unbeatable at home. Plus, Denver's ability (or inability) to get the ball out of Stephen Curry's hands on offense will also be hugely important.
But perhaps the biggest key to the series is the health of Kenneth Faried.
Denver's power forward, who went down with an ankle injury during the Nuggets' win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, is precisely the kind of player that gives the Warriors fits. His relentless activity on the boards and nonstop motor in transition have been instrumental in Denver's three wins over the Warriors this season.
Warriors forward David Lee isn't much of a defender and has a nasty habit of losing track of his block-out assignment when going for rebounds. Faried has taken advantage of some of Lee's lapses to punish the Dubs on the glass this year.
Over four games, the Manimal has hurt the Warriors to the tune of 11.5 points and 11.3 rebounds, including 4.5 pulls on the offensive glass per game.
If Faried is healthy enough to play like himself, his energy could swing the series. If he's hobbled, Denver's other injuries, particularly the season-ender for Danilo Gallinari and the nagging foot troubles of Ty Lawson, might be enough for the No. 6-seeded Warriors to pull off the upset.
The Clippers amassed a 3-1 record against the Memphis Grizzlies this season by doing what few other clubs have managed to do: score at an efficient rate.
Everyone knows Memphis boasts a killer defense, anchored by the total paint control of Marc Gasol and supported by the dogged perimeter work of Tony Allen and Mike Conley. On the year, only the Pacers have allowed fewer points per possession than the Grizzlies.
Yet the Clippers have found a way to score 106 points per 100 possessions against Memphis this year, a figure bettered by just three other teams in the league.
It shouldn't be surprising that Chris Paul has had plenty to do with L.A.'s success, as he has amassed averages of 16.3 points and 8.7 assists per game despite a wretchedly slow pace in each of the meetings between the clubs this season.
Plus, the Clippers have unusual athleticism in the frontcourt, which gives them something of an advantage in the rare transition opportunities Memphis allows.
The Grizzlies are a sneaky threat to win the Western Conference, but they simply haven't had the same kind of success in stopping the Clippers offense that they have against some of the other elite teams in the West.
If Los Angeles shows in Game 1 that their regular-season scoring prowess against the stingy Grizzlies is for real, Memphis is going to struggle.