No more tanking. No more meaningless basketball. The NBA's second season is here, and it's right on time. If fans outside of Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Utah were forced to watch the teams from those cities again, we may have drifted into a state of hoops depression.
One half of the playoff matchups begin on Saturday, while the other half will kick off on Sunday. Here's a look at each series equipped with odds information and predictions for the series outcomes.
All odds information per Odds Checker.
The Eastern Conference
1. Indiana Pacers vs. 8. Atlanta Hawks
Indiana didn't exactly finish the regular season on a roll. Over the last month-and-a-half, the Pacers are actually under a .500 winning percentage with a 12-13 record. As ESPN Stats and Info points out, that's one thing the two teams have in common.
Pacers-Hawks meet in 1st rd. The 1 and 8 seeds, respectively, have one thing in common - both teams are 12-13 since March 1.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 18, 2014
Even with the Pacers' struggles of late, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone picking the Hawks to win more than two games in the series.
The Pacers are 1-6 favorites to win the series with the strongest odds leaning toward a 4-1 result.
Though going against the grain is sometimes fun, it's not advisable in this one. Rebounding is kind of a big deal, and the Pacers do it really well, while the Hawks struggle in that area.
Indiana is eighth in the NBA in that category while Atlanta is just 28th. A lot of things can slump with a team, but rebounding usually isn't one of them.
Prediction: Pacers win in five.
2. Miami Heat vs. 7. Charlotte Bobcats
The two-time defending champs are enormous favorites in the first round. How big? Try 1-19.
There's belief that the Bobcats could possibly win one game in the series. Those looking to gamble on some measure of Charlotte success might want to go that route, but even that's too risky.
The Heat have been waiting all season for this time of year. Once a veteran team has won multiple championships, the regular season becomes a bit of a drag.
When the postseason begins, the light comes on.
LeBron James and Co. will sweep the Bobcats in the playoffs, just as they did in the regular season.
Prediction: Heat win in four.
3. Toronto Raptors vs. 6. Brooklyn Nets
This is an interesting series. Will the Raptors' youth and athleticism be too much for the Nets' guile and experience? Brooklyn is an 11-17 favorite, but this is the series in the Eastern Conference that has created the most debate.
The Nets were 34-17 in 2014 during the regular season. That strong finish is what assured them of a playoff spot. Even with that, everyone isn't sold on the thought that the Nets are now a true contender.
Bleacher Report's Howard Beck writes: "Despite their brilliant run in 2014, the Nets enter the postseason without home-court advantage, and they are still prone to the occasional, inexplicable pratfall."
Toronto isn't even supposed to be in this position. The team traded away Rudy Gay during the season and seemed headed toward a season of concession. But head coach Dwane Casey never wavered.
The Raps held off a hungry Chicago Bulls team to keep the third seed in the playoffs.
While picking them might be tempting, it's hard to ignore how well Brooklyn has played of late, as well as the experience that players like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson will provide.
Brooklyn will take it—pun intended.
Prediction: Nets win in six.
4. Chicago Bulls vs. 5. Washington Wizards
Defensively, there aren't many teams anywhere near the Bulls' level. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has maintained that identity for his team, and it's the reason Chicago has remained a force despite a rash of injuries and the trading of Luol Deng.
That defensive stoutness is the reason the Bulls are 8-15 favorites, and why they will handle the Wizards.
Some might point to the fact that Washington won the season series against the Bulls 2-1, but Chicago fans know the regular season doesn't necessarily matter.
During the 2010-11 season, Chicago swept the Heat in the regular season, but Miami sent the Bulls packing in five games during the Eastern Conference Finals.
Everything changes in the postseason.
The Wizards' dynamic backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal could be problematic for Chicago, especially Wall. Kirk Hinrich's old legs will get a workout trying to keep pace with the swiftest Wizard.
Wall recently spoke about his pace, per Joseph Wright of the Associated Press, via ABC News: "I learned how to slow down and change paces and things like that. It takes time, getting healthy, learning from my coaches, me improving my game and watching a lot of film."
Because of Wall's pace and the Bulls' lack of fleet-footed defensive point guards, Wall could have a nice series.
But the Bulls will win the battle inside.
Along with being the league's stingiest defense, the Bulls are also the 10th-best rebounding team. Washington is 20th. Chicago will simply wear Washington down.
Prediction: Bulls win in five.
1. San Antonio Spurs vs. 8. Dallas Mavericks
San Antonio had the best record in the NBA, but it could be argued the team didn't get its respect during the regular season. The Heat, Pacers, Clippers and Thunder got the bulk of attention while San Antonio just kept winning.
Against Dallas, the Spurs are 1-7 favorites. The Mavs have an intriguing scoring combination in Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki, but the biggest issue will be their defense.
When they're clicking, the Spurs are an offensive juggernaut. Dallas hasn't been a solid defense all season. It ranked 20th in the NBA in opponent points per game.
It's hard to see a below-average defensive team having a prayer against the Spurs.
Prediction: Spurs win in four.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 7. Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis' only chance is to try to out-muscle the Thunder. That explains why OKC is a 4-17 favorite. The Grizz simply don't have the athletes to match up with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the perimeter.
If Memphis can force Oklahoma City to slow the ball down somewhat, it can win as many as two games. But ultimately, the Thunder's athletes will run Memphis out of the postseason.
Prediction: Thunder win in five.
3. Los Angeles Clippers vs. 6. Golden State Warriors
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clips are legitimate threats to reach the NBA Finals. Golden State isn't. The Clips are 3-10 favorites in this series, and the Warriors' chances were almost certainly hurt by the injury to Andrew Bogut.
Veteran Jermaine O'Neal will do his best to fill in for Bogut, but the injury leaves the Warriors thin in the middle.
DeAndre Jordan's rebounding and shot blocking will close down the middle, and Griffin is likely to have more than his share of second-chance buckets working the offensive glass.
This series might be over more quickly than people expect.
Prediction: Clippers win in five.
4. Houston Rockets vs. 5. Portland Trail Blazers
Houston is the 1-2 favorite, but it's close. These two teams are so evenly matched, it's going to be difficult to predict a winner. This is easily the toughest call of all the first-round series.
Because Dwight Howard was a bit banged up down the stretch of the regular season, some may have soured on the concept that the Rockets were legitimate threats to come out of the Western Conference.
When healthy, Howard was as dominant as any big man in the NBA. With Howard, James Harden, Chandler Parsons and others, Houston's inside-outside balance is excellent, but the Blazers have been strong as well.
Defense, rebounding and three-point shooting will be the most pivotal categories throughout the series. Neither team has shown itself to be a lockdown defensive club. Flipping that switch will offer a huge edge.
Despite Howard's presence, Portland has the edge in rebounding. The Blazers are tops in the league in that category.
The Rockets are still formidable at No. 4.
Last but not least is the long-range bombing. Both teams shoot a ton of treys. They rank first (Houston) and third (Portland) in three-point attempts.
The team that is most effective from distance has the best chance to win. In a series that can go either way, the Blazers have stronger leadership in players like Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews Jr. That intangible will be the deciding factor.
Prediction: Blazers win in seven.
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