The road to an NBA championship is set to begin after a long and winding regular season. The Miami Heat return to the postseason with their eye on a third straight title, but there's a strong group of contenders hoping to stop that impressive run in its tracks.
Miami was far less dominant during the regular season this year, finishing second in the East behind the Indiana Pacers, which leads to a more wide-open playoff outlook. That's especially true in the West, where parity reigns supreme, even though the San Antonio Spurs lead the pack once again.
The high number of teams capable of making a run to the NBA Finals should make for a very interesting postseason. So let's check out the complete schedule for the opening round, the brackets for both conferences and a breakdown of the contenders.
Full First-Round Schedule
|4/20||(8) Mavericks vs. (1) Spurs||12 p.m.||TNT|
|4/23||(8) Mavericks vs. (1) Spurs||7 p.m.||NBATV|
|4/26||(1) Spurs vs. (8) Mavericks||3:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/28||(1) Spurs vs. (8) Mavericks||8:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/30||(8) Mavericks vs. (1) Spurs||TBD||TBD|
|5/2||(1) Spurs vs. (8) Mavericks||TBD||TBD|
|5/4||(8) Mavericks vs. (1) Spurs||TBD||TBD|
|4/19||(7) Grizzlies vs. (2) Thunder||9:30 p.m,||ESPN|
|4/21||(7) Grizzlies vs. (2) Thunder||8 p.m.||TNT|
|4/24||(2) Thunder vs. Grizzlies||8 p.m.||TNT|
|4/26||(2) Thunder vs. Grizzlies||9:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/29||(7) Grizzlies vs. (2) Thunder||TBD||TBD|
|5/1||(2) Thunder vs. Grizzlies||TBD||TBD|
|5/3||(7) Grizzlies vs. (2) Thunder||TBD||TNT|
|4/19||(6) Warriors vs. (3) Clippers||3:30 p.m.||ABC|
|4/21||(6) Warriors vs. (3) Clippers||10:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/24||(3) Clippers vs. (6) Warriors||10:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/27||(3) Clippers vs. (6) Warriors||3:30 p.m.||ABC|
|4/29||(6) Warriors vs. (3) Clippers||TBD||TBD|
|5/1||(3) Clippers vs. (6) Warriors||TBD||TBD|
|5/3||(6) Warriors vs. (3) Clippers||TBD||TNT|
|4/20||(5) Trail Blazers vs. (4) Rockets||9:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/23||(5) Trail Blazers vs. (4) Rockets||9:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/25||(4) Rockets vs. (5) Trail Blazers||10:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/27||(4) Rockets vs. (5) Trail Blazers||9:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/30||(5) Trail Blazers vs. (4) Rockets||TBD||TBD|
|5/2||(4) Rockets vs. (5) Trail Blazers||TBD||TBD|
|5/4||(5) Trail Blazers vs. (4) Rockets||TBD||TBD|
|4/19||(8) Hawks vs. (1) Pacers||7 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/22||(8) Hawks vs. (1) Pacers||7 p.m.||TNT|
|4/24||(1) Pacers vs. (8) Hawks||7 p.m.||NBATV|
|4/26||(1) Pacers vs. (8) Hawks||2 p.m.||TNT|
|4/28||(8) Hawks vs. (1) Pacers||8 p.m.||NBATV|
|5/1||(1) Pacers vs. (8) Hawks||TBD||TBD|
|5/3||(8) Hawks vs. (1) Pacers||TBD||TNT|
|4/20||(7) Bobcats vs. (2) Heat||3:30 p.m.||ABC|
|4/23||(7) Bobcats vs. (2) Heat||7 p.m.||TNT|
|4/26||(2) Heat vs. (7) Bobcats||7 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/28||(2) Heat vs. (7) Bobcats||7 p.m.||TNT|
|4/30||(7) Bobcats vs. (2) Heat||TBD||TBD|
|5/2||(2) Heat vs. (7) Bobcats||TBD||TBD|
|5/4||(7) Bobcats vs. (2) Heat||TBD||ABC|
|4/19||(6) Nets vs. (3) Raptors||12:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/22||(6) Nets vs. (3) Raptors||8 p.m.||NBATV|
|4/25||(3) Raptors vs. (6) Nets||7 p.m.||ESPN 2|
|4/27||(3) Raptors vs. (6) Nets||7 p.m.||TNT|
|4/30||(6) Nets vs. (3) Raptors||TBD||TBD|
|5/2||(3) Raptors vs. (6) Nets||TBD||TBD|
|5/4||(6) Nets vs. (3) Raptors||TBD||TBD|
|4/20||(5) Wizards vs. (4) Bulls||7 p.m.||TNT|
|4/22||(5) Wizards vs. (4) Bulls||9:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/25||(4) Bulls vs. (5) Wizards||8 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/27||(4) Bulls vs. (5) Wizards||1 p.m.||ABC|
|4/29||(5) Wizards vs. (4) Bulls||TBD||TBD|
|5/1||(4) Bulls vs. (5) Wizards||TBD||TBD|
|5/3||(5) Wizards vs. (4) Bulls||TBD||TBD|
|First Round||Conference Semifinals||Conference Finals|
|(1) Indiana Pacers|
|(8) Atlanta Hawks|
|(4) Chicago Bulls||TBD|
|(5) Washington Wizards||TBD|
|(2) Miami Heat|
|(7) Charlotte Bobcats||TBD|
|(3) Toronto Raptors|
|(6) Brooklyn Nets|
|First Round||Conference Semifinals||Conference Finals|
|(1) San Antonio Spurs|
|(8) Dallas Mavericks|
|(4) Houston Rockets||TBD|
|(5) Portland Trail Blazers||TBD|
|(2) Oklahoma City Thunder|
|(7) Memphis Grizzlies||TBD|
|(3) Los Angeles Clippers|
|(6) Golden State Warriors|
Top Championship Contenders
1. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs posted the league's best record by three games, were five games better than any other team on the road and led the NBA in point differential. They accomplished all that without a single player averaging more than 30 minutes per contest.
Which team will win the 2014 NBA title?
It's no secret San Antonio is built around an aging core. The mastery of Gregg Popovich is balancing playing well with making sure everybody is rested. He did that to near perfection this season as best illustrated by Manu Ginobili. The Argentine looked worn down late in the playoffs last year, but should be ready for an extended run after playing less than 23 minutes per game.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili are as reliable as they come and the Spurs' depth can match up with anybody. Once again, the key piece will be Kawhi Leonard, who took another step forward offensively this season to go along with his strong defense. He must rise to the occasion for the Spurs to capture the title.
2. Miami Heat
Perhaps the biggest question coming into the playoffs is whether Miami will be able to flip a competitive switch and morph back into a championship-caliber team. It didn't play on that level down the stretch, but there's no denying the elite talent on the roster.
Turning things around quickly is certainly possible, especially for a team like the Heat, which had very little to prove in the regular season. Tom Haberstroh of ESPN noted the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh played just one game together in April, but passed along comments from Wade, who didn't sound concerned about his connection with James:
I'm not worried about continuity with him at all. The biggest thing is that we both know what we need to do. We just have to do it. We've been playing together for four years. That's enough continuity right there.
The Heat are still the team to beat in the East, despite finishing behind the Pacers in the standings. If they play their best basketball in the coming weeks—as opposed to what fans witnessed down the stretch—a three-peat will be within reach. It's not a guarantee they can do it, but their track record makes it tough to pick against them in the weaker conference.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
San Antonio and Miami entered the regular season as the top two teams after reaching the NBA Finals last season. Nothing happened to change their status. The third spot has shifted multiple times throughout the season, though. The Pacers, Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder all made their case as a top contender.
Ultimately, the Clippers get the nod because of their scoring depth, which takes a lot pressure off Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Los Angeles has six players averaging in double figures and Matt Barnes was only a shade below that mark. It allowed the team to lead the NBA in scoring and, as SportsCenter noted, post a franchise-best record:
CLIPPERS HISTORY! Los Angeles beats Denver, 117-105, clinching franchise-best 57 wins. pic.twitter.com/RGPm3UFPAD— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 16, 2014
A lot of that success comes back to Paul. He doesn't generate as much attention as many of the league's other stars, but there's nobody better right now at running an offense. His ability to distribute leads to a lot of open looks for his teammates, who have done a great job of taking advantage. That unmatched success on the offensive end makes them a serious title threat.