With the 2013 NBA playoffs in full swing, the world prepares for the contenders to separate from the pretenders.
While some teams have looked impressive during their opening games, others have failed to play at the level expected of them.
As we work our way through the first round of play, we can't help but ask: what would be the most appealing conference semifinal matchups?
In the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat are taking on the Milwaukee Bucks, the New York Knicks are facing the Boston Celtics, the Indiana Pacers are hosting the Atlanta Hawks and the Brooklyn Nets are being challenged by the Chicago Bulls.
Only four of those teams will survive the first round.
Out West, the Oklahoma City Thunder are going up against the Houston Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs are facing their rival Los Angeles Lakers, the Denver Nuggets are hosting the Golden State Warriors in an offensive clash and the Los Angeles Clippers are taking on the Memphis Grizzlies.
So who would advance if we were creating the most appealing conference semifinals?
(1) Miami Heat versus (4) Brooklyn Nets
In terms of rivalry, you could make the case that the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat are destined to square off in the conference semifinals. The Bulls ended Miami's 27-game winning streak and the two teams split the season series.
With that being said, the Bulls' chances of upsetting the Heat would be rather weak if Derrick Rose does not return.
Should the Heat draw the Brooklyn Nets, however, they'd be in legitimate danger of facing an early upset. Not only have the Nets just recently become healthy, but they're built in the manner necessary to take down Miami.
They own significant positional advantages at point guard and center, and match up well at every other spot.
Deron Williams has finally rediscovered his form and Brook Lopez is coming off of a season in which he led all centers in scoring, PER, Estimated Wins Added and Value Added. To counter the rest of the pack, the Nets have All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson and defensive specialist Gerald Wallace on the perimeter.
Matched up against the worst rebounding team in the NBA, Brooklyn also puts forth rebounding monsters Reggie Evans, Andray Blatche and Kris Humphries.
The Heat may be the favored team in any series, but no team matches up with Miami quite like Brooklyn. For that reason, we could be in store for anything between a competitive six-game series and an upset in seven.
That's true appeal.
(2) New York Knicks versus (3) Indiana Pacers
The Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks are quality teams that have the firepower necessary to advance past the first round. With that being said, there is no need for second thought when it comes to which series would be the most appealing.
The New York Knicks' three-point mastery and the Indiana Pacers' defensive prowess are destined to cross paths.
The Knicks and Pacers fought for the second seed in the Eastern Conference throughout the duration of the 2012-13 NBA regular season. Both teams looked to stake their claim as the second-best in the East and each have dreams of upsetting the Miami Heat.
Did I mention that they were fierce rivals during the 1990s?
We wouldn't see Reggie Miller put up the "choke" symbol to Spike Lee, but there's no question that this series would be tense. After the Knicks would have hypothetically defeated the Celtics, they'd move right on to another rival they'd love to eliminate.
As for the Pacers, there would be nothing quite as sweet as taking down their rival Knicks en route to their first conference finals appearance since 2004.
It just so happens that the Knicks and Pacers split their regular-season series in 2012-13 by a count of 2-2. Both teams held down their home court in impressive fashion, thus creating the potential for a seven-game series come the playoffs.
How much more intriguing does it get?
(1) Oklahoma City Thunder versus (4) Los Angeles Clippers
The Oklahoma City Thunder are the clear-cut favorites to emerge from the Western Conference and make their second consecutive NBA Finals appearance. The Los Angeles Clippers are rising favorites whose depth and star power has something thinking that this could be their year.
The Thunder won all three of their regular-season battles, with one game going to overtime, another being decided by four points and a third coming down to the fourth quarter with Chris Paul sidelined by an injury.
In case you aren't understanding what I'm getting at, these teams match up well and play each other at a high level. While the Memphis Grizzlies may be the better defensive team, the Clippers are elite in multiple categories on both ends of the floor.
With CP3 leading the show, it's quite likely that the Clippers take a few games if they come down to the wire.
Paul and Russell Westbrook are both All-Stars running the point and Caron Butler has a history of playing Kevin Durant well. Blake Griffin and Serge Ibaka, meanwhile, are two of the premier power forwards in the NBA.
With the Clippers possessing elite depth and the Thunder owning one of the best trios in basketball, this is the type of series that could go either way.
(2) San Antonio Spurs versus (3) Denver Nuggets
The San Antonio Spurs may not be the youngest team in the NBA, but they remain among the ranks of the elite. The Denver Nuggets, meanwhile, are a team that experienced regular-season success but has yet to take the leap to the top tier of teams.
Making it to the Western Conference Finals would be a great way to achieve such.
The Spurs may be older than the Nuggets, but there is no question that they can run with them for 48 minutes. Tony Parker is one of the best floor generals in the NBA, Manu Ginobili is a postseason star and Kawhi Leonard is beginning to hit his stride.
With Tim Duncan down low and an abundance of three-point shooters, the Spurs can run or slow it down—can the Nuggets keep pace?
That may be an odd question to hear, but the league's top-ranked scoring defense must prepare for a team that's seen it all. The Spurs have the same core as they did while winning three of their past four titles.
In that time, they've faced everyone from Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers to Steve Nash and the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns—don't think Denver will take them by surprise.
In that same breath, the Nuggets are led by a legendary head coach and now possess an elite defender in Andre Iguodala. This sets the stage for them to step up and unseat the Spurs as the class of the Western Conference.
This is a series we've wanted to see all season long.
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