Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry
The opening round is now officially set with the 2013 NBA playoffs scheduled to begin on Sunday.
In breaking down each series, the individual matchups that will prove critical in determining the outcome were identified.
What will need to happen for each team to advance into the second round was also highlighted, along with a prediction for each series.
While I don't expect many upsets in the opening round, I do expect a number of thoroughly entertaining series throughout the league.
Regular-Season Records: Miami Heat (66-16), Milwaukee Bucks (38-44)
Key matchup: Milwaukee Bucks Defense vs. LeBron James
The Heat will win if: At least two members of the Big Three are healthy enough to play throughout the series.
Prediction: Heat, 4-0
The Miami Heat will sweep this series in four games and it won't ever be close.
LeBron James and company will continue to do things like throw the ball off the backboard to themselves and dunk their way into the second round with ease and relaxation.
Regular-Season Records: Brooklyn Nets (49-33), Chicago Bulls (45-37)
Season Series: Chicago Bulls 3-1
Stars to watch: Brook Lopez (BKN), Deron Williams (BKN), Joe Johnson (BKN), Joakim Noah (CHI), Luol Deng (CHI), Carlos Boozer (CHI)
Key matchup: Joakim Noah vs. Brook Lopez
The Nets will win if: They can win the rebounding battle at both ends of the floor.
The Bulls will win if: They are able to dominate the paint.
Prediction: Bulls, 4-2
Ultimately, the health of Joakim Noah in this series will be critical for the Chicago Bulls to advance.
Assuming Noah is able to play, however, I expect the Bulls to win this series in six games.
With the help of Boozer and Deng up front, Noah should be able to neutralize Brook Lopez at the point of attack. This will go a long way to winning the battle for paint supremacy on both ends of the floor throughout the series.
Regular-Season Records: Indiana Pacers (49-32), Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
Season Series: 2-2
Stars to watch: Paul George (IND), David West (IND), Al Horford (ATL), Josh Smith (ATL)
Key matchup: Atlanta Hawks Defense vs. Paul George
The Pacers will win if: They play their brand of basketball defensively throughout the series.
The Hawks will win if: Paul George is able to be shut down offensively.
Prediction: Pacers, 4-2
In what could be Josh Smith's last run in an Atlanta Hawks uniform, I expect the Hawks to play inspired enough at home to steal two games from the Indiana Pacers in this series.
Fueled by Paul George, however—along with a dedication to the defensive end of the floor—the Pacers will eventually advance to the second round.
In order for the Hawks to pull this upset they would need to take George completely out of the series while receiving consistent efforts offensively from Al Horford and Smith.
While I don't doubt the latter as much, I also don't expect anyone on the Atlanta side to be shutting down George any time soon.
Regular Season Records: New York Knicks (54-28), Boston Celtics (41-40)
Key matchup: Carmelo Anthony vs. Paul Pierce
The Knicks will win if: Offense continues to be efficiently run through Carmelo Anthony.
The Celtics will win if: Paul Pierce averages 30-plus points throughout the series in a legendary performance.
Prediction: Knicks, 4-1
On the strength of a huge month to close out the season, Carmelo Anthony won the NBA's scoring title at 28.7 points in 2012-13.
As long as the Knicks continue to run their offense through Anthony in this series, they will eliminate the short-handed Celtics in five games.
If Rajon Rondo were available, this would be a completely different matchup. Unfortunately, he is still sidelined, though, and teammates Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett can only do so much.
Regular-Season Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22), Houston Rockets (45-37)
Season Series: Thunder 2-1
Stars to watch: Kevin Durant (OKC), Russell Westbrook (OKC), James Harden (HOU)
Key matchup: Russell Westbrook vs. Jeremy Lin
The Thunder will win if: Westbrook imposes his will at the point of attack.
The Rockets will win if: they can somehow slow down Durant and Westbrook throughout series.
Prediction: Thunder, 4-1
James Harden will be able to score on his former teammates throughout this series.
The primary issue for the Houston Rockets will come on the defensive end, however, where they will be charged with slowing down the NBA's highest scoring duo in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
If Westbrook is able to get into the paint at will, while creating for himself and others, this series will be over before it's ever remotely in doubt.
Regular-Season Records: Los Angeles Clippers (56-26), Memphis Grizzlies (56-26)
Season Series: Clippers 3-1
Stars to watch: Chris Paul (LAC), Blake Griffin (LAC), Jamal Crawford (LAC), Zach Randolph (MEM), Marc Gasol (MEM)
Key matchup: Blake Griffin vs. Zach Randolph
The Clippers will win if: Their second unit provides the decisive advantage they've demonstrated throughout the regular season.
The Grizzlies will win if: Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol prove to be overwhelmingly dominant inside.
Prediction: Clippers, 4-3
According to Hoopsstats.com, the Clippers bench averaged 40.1 points during the 2012-13 campaign as compared to only 27.6 from the Grizzlies reserves.
As they did when Jamal Crawford came off the bench to score 29 during an opening night 101-92 win, expect the Grizzlies to struggle with the Clippers depth.
Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will combine to make this a highly competitive series, but in the end, Chris Paul will eventually lead his team into the second round.
Regular-Season Records: Denver Nuggets (57-25), Golden State Warriors (47-35)
Season Series: Denver Nuggets 3-1
Stars to watch: Ty Lawson (DEN), Andre Iguodala (DEN), Kenneth Faried (DEN), Stephen Curry (GSW), David Lee (GSW)
Key matchup: Ty Lawson vs. Stephen Curry
The Nuggets will win if: They dictate tempo on the defensive end of the floor.
The Warrriors will win if: Stephen Curry goes out of his mind shooting the basketball.
Prediction: Nuggets, 4-2
The Denver Nuggets' offensive attack begins on the defensive end of the floor more than any other team in the 2013 playoffs.
Like they did in the video above, the Nuggets are best when forcing turnovers that leads to transition points at the other end of the floor.
Stephen Curry will generate enough offense for his Golden State Warriors to win two games in this series, but he won't have enough help to move his team past the Nuggets in the opening round.
Regular-Season Records: San Antonio Spurs (58-24), Los Angeles Lakers (45-37)
Season Series: Spurs 2-1
Stars to watch: Tony Parker (SAN), Tim Duncan (SAN), Dwight Howard (LAL)
Key matchup: Tim Duncan vs. Dwight Howard
The Spurs will win if: they limit the Lakers offensively outside of Howard.
The Lakers will win if: Dwight Howard completely dominants the series at both ends of the floor.
Prediction: Spurs, 4-2
The Los Angeles Lakers struggled collectively throughout the 2012-13 campaign because Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard never had the opportunity to properly blend their games together.
Now that Bryant is injured, Howard will be able to revert back to his natural instincts on the basketball court. He will no longer wonder where he fits at times alongside Bryant, being able to now simply attack at both ends of the floor.
This will make Howard more effective individually throughout the series, but certainly not enough for Los Angeles to overcome the loss of Bryant and spring the upset.
Tony Parker and Tim Duncan will eventually lead their team to the second round, but not before a closer series than most expect.