Preemptively fearing March Madness withdrawal? The 2014 NBA playoffs should sustain your basketball high throughout June.
Unlike last year's injury-ravaged postseason, this year's iteration is shaping up to be one for the ages. A seemingly preordained Eastern Conference finals matchup no longer appears to be a sure thing, while the Western Conference bracket will be as unpredictable as the 2014 NCAA tournament.
Just like this year's March Madness, at least six teams appear to be legitimate NBA championship contenders, with others looming on the fringes. While chalk largely reigned supreme in the 2013 postseason, this year's edition likely will feature at least a few major upsets.
Five particular storylines have the 2014 NBA playoffs looking like one to remember.
Playoffs Start Early in the West
With one month left in the regular season, the Eastern Conference's playoff race is largely decided. The New York Knicks could still steal the No. 8 seed from the Atlanta Hawks, but beyond that, it's simply a matter of teams jockeying for seeds.
The final few spots in the Western Conference playoff race, on the other hand, are still completely up for grabs.
As of March 20, only 1.5 games separate the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks from the Phoenix Suns, who have the ninth-best record in the conference.
And as noted by NBA TV's Tas Melas, the three-way battle among Dallas, Phoenix and Memphis could easily come down to the final week of the regular season:
The final week of the season should be entertaining in the West: Dallas @ Phoenix 4/12, Memphis @ Phoenix 4/14, Dallas @ Memphis 4/16.— Tas Melas (@TasMelas) March 18, 2014
Of the three, Memphis appears to have the easiest route to the playoffs, as only seven of its 15 remaining games come against current playoff teams. The schedule isn't doing Phoenix any favors, on the other hand, as eight of the Suns' final 14 games are against current playoff teams.
ESPN.com's Hollinger Playoff Odds give Dallas a 91.9 percent chance of making the postseason, Memphis a 77.5 percent chance and Phoenix a 26.6 percent chance. The Suns, projected by the Hollinger Odds to finish 10 games over .500, legitimately may have to lobby commissioner Adam Silver for a late-season transfer to the Eastern Conference.
Whatever happens among these three squads, the Western Conference playoffs appear all but certain to effectively kick off one week early. That's a huge win for NBA fans.
Injuries? What Injuries?
A slew of injuries robbed the 2013 playoffs of significant intrigue early on.
Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo couldn't accompany their teams to the postseason due to a range of lower-body maladies. David Lee, Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook all missed time during the playoffs due to a torn hip flexor, a severely sprained ankle and a torn meniscus, respectively.
Even those who did battle their way through injuries, including Manu Ginobili, Dwyane Wade, Joakim Noah and Stephen Curry, clearly weren't 100 percent. In turn, the early rounds of the 2013 playoffs left fans wanting more.
This year, fans should have no such concerns. Rose and Bryant are once again sidelined, but the Los Angeles Lakers are nowhere near playoff contention, while Joakim Noah has lifted Rose's Chicago Bulls on his broad shoulders.
Assuming LaMarcus Aldridge's back contusion heals by mid-April, all of the major playoff contenders will have their core pieces at or near 100 percent. Superstar-on-superstar crime should be a common theme through this year's postseason, which will represent a major upgrade over 2013.
No Longer the "Leastern" Conference
Six weeks into the 2013-14 regular season, the Eastern Conference appeared on pace for a historically miserable season.
Through Dec. 15, only two teams—the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers—had records above .500. To put that in context, nine Western Conference teams could say the same on that date.
After a practice on Dec. 2, LeBron James shared his thoughts on his conference's inferiority, per ESPN.com's Michael Wallace:
Obviously, we only worry about what we do, but I’m very surprised where some of the teams are in the East. Coming into the season, there were a lot of expectations on a lot of teams. It’s still a [long] season. But early on, it’s surprising. I take pride in being an Eastern Conference player, and hopefully we can hold up our end of the bargain. As a collective group, we’re not doing that.
With one month remaining in the regular season, however, the Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards have helped redeem the East. Each squad is at least three games over .500, and all four appear to be legitimately worthy of a playoff spot.
Better yet, the first two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs no longer appear to be snoozers, as renowned NBA gambler Haralabos Voulgaris noted on Twitter:
If you would have told me back in December that I’d be looking forward to the 3v6 and 4v5 East playoff series - I wouldn’t have believed you— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) March 17, 2014
Despite their respective struggles as of late, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers are still the favorites to return to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight season. The Bulls, Wizards, Raptors and Nets won't simply roll over for the Heat and the Pacers, though.
Chicago could prove particularly irksome for either Miami or Indiana, as a Western Conference scout suggested to ESPN.com's Marc Stein in mid-March:
I really think they're gonna be a pain in the butt for both [Miami and Indiana in the playoffs]. The Bulls will take the challenge of playing Miami or Indiana and convince themselves that they can beat the team that's getting all the hype. But I think they're more likely to beat Miami in a series than Indiana, because Indiana has enough depth inside to help neutralize Noah.
The Heat and Pacers will likely cruise through their respective first-round matchups, but nothing else will come easy for either squad. Drama won't be limited to the West, in other words. Speaking of which…
The Bloodbath Out West
Think this year's March Madness is wild? Imagine a bracket in which every team could legitimately emerge as champion.
That's what this year's Western Conference playoffs are shaping up to be.
After all, only three years ago, the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies stunned the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the opening round of the playoffs. And wouldn't you know it? Memphis and San Antonio could have another first-round date this season.
The Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers should be considered prohibitive favorites to advance to the NBA Finals, but the other five teams in the West's playoff bracket could easily throw a wrench in those plans.
Houston touts two top-15 players in Dwight Howard and James Harden. Golden State has the "Splash Brothers" and Andre Iguodala's lockdown defense. Portland brings sophomore sensation Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge to the table. The trio of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol make Memphis a potential nightmare for any opponent, while the two-man combination of Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis has turned Dallas' fortunes around.
This year, more so than most seasons, the West will boil down to matchups. If teams can't adjust their playing style based on each opponent, they could be looking at an early trip home for the summer.
A Battle-Tested Finals Matchup
Regardless of which two teams make it to the NBA Finals, they'll be well-deserving of that distinction.
In the East, the Bulls and Pacers could wage a holy war against one another in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Heat and Nets, meanwhile, could rekindle the old flames of hatred lingering between Miami's Big Three and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from their Boston Celtics days. The Wizards and Raptors also loom as potential Cinderellas, ready to knock off their heavily favored opponents.
In the West, barring injuries, no team will be an easy out. Just to get to the finals, for instance, the Spurs could be forced to face Memphis, Houston and Oklahoma City or Los Angeles in three consecutive rounds. Just getting to the finals will be a significant accomplishment. Doing so in one piece would be even more ideal.
The 2013 playoffs may have lacked intrigue in the early rounds, but the NBA Finals matchup between Miami and San Antonio quickly developed into an all-time great series. There's likely no topping the drama provided by Ray Allen's game-tying three-pointer in the waning seconds of Game 6, because, well, it's quite possibly the greatest shot in league history.
Still, what the 2014 postseason may lack in a single moment of Twitter-shattering excellence, it will make up for in four rounds of knock-down, drag-out, back-room-brawling action, culminating in what's sure to be yet another must-see finals matchup.
Brace yourself for a wild ride. This year's NBA playoffs are going to put the NCAA tournament to shame.