The old saying in boxing goes that "styles make fights," but in basketball, stars make matchups. It's rare that an NBA championship is won by a team devoid of superstars after all, and if you look at the top of the NBA standings this year, well, the teams are littered with top talents.
It's a star-power league, folks, and the postseason only magnifies that fact. So below, along with a full first-round schedule and predictions, we'll also take a look at the key players that should define the first round.
|1st-Round Playoff 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|
On to the picks:
|Pacers vs. Hawks||Pacers|
|Heat vs. Bobcats||Heat|
|Raptors vs. Nets||Nets|
|Bulls vs. Wizards||Bulls|
|Spurs vs. Mavericks||Spurs|
|Thunder vs. Grizzlies||Thunder|
|Clippers vs. Warriors||Clippers|
|Rockets vs. Blazers||Rockets|
So, who should you be watching for?
Well, we'll start in the West, where the Oklahoma City Thunder have the likely MVP, Kevin Durant, who led the league with 32.0 points per game and also added 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists. Few players in the NBA can dominate on the offensive end like Durant does, and the fact that he's paired with the flashy Russell Westbrook just isn't fair.
Of course, when you have two players of that talent, sometimes getting them to coexist can be a problem. That hasn't really been too much of an issue for the team this year, however, as Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report writes:
Watching them play pick-and-roll at the end of games, forcing opponents into the unenviable choice of deciding which one they'd prefer have a clean look at a jumper or a drive to the hoop, is a testament to how accommodating they've become to each other.
Durant, one team source says, is allowing Westbrook to be more of a driving force during the course of the game, and Westbrook has accepted Durant being the first option at crunch time.
Team insiders also contend that talk of serious discord between the two has been largely a figment of outsiders. Their hope is that should Durant, as is expected, be named this year's MVP of the NBA, it will chase the mirage once and for all that Westbrook is a hindrance to Durant realizing his full capabilities.
The top-seeded San Antonio Spurs don't have a player who finished the season top-40 in scoring, but veterans Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili still have plenty of magic tricks up their sleeve.
So too does Dirk Nowitzki for the Dallas Mavericks, though, so you can bet the Mavs will at least push the Spurs.
The Los Angeles Clippers versus Golden State Warriors possesses some of the most exciting stars to watch in the game today. Chris Paul is the league's best pure point guard, while Blake Griffin has evolved into more than a rim-quaking, gravity-defying dunker (it's still fun to watch him throw one down, however). And few players can light it up from the perimeter like Steph Curry can for the Warriors.
Finally, Dwight Howard and James Harden will be the two best players on the court when the Houston Rockets take on the Portland Trail Blazers, but don't sleep on LaMarcus Aldridge or Damian Lillard—both are serious ballers.
In the East, Paul George emerged as one of the game's finest players this season, and he'll need to put the slumping Indiana Pacers on his back this postseason.
The Miami Heat are loaded with superstars, led by LeBron James (who can make a strong case that he deserves to be the MVP after averaging 27.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG and 6.4 APG) and including Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Heat have won the last two titles and reached the last three on the backs of those stars.
The Heat stars all practiced together Friday, a rarity for the team this year between injuries and trying to keep guys fresh, James told Michael Wallace of ESPN:
Probably the first day of training camp was the last time all of us were out there. We all went through contact, and it was great. Guys are just ready for the playoffs. It's fun to have everybody out there competing. We've got to carry the load. We've got to set the example on and off the floor this postseason. It was great we were all out there.
The East doesn't have the star power of the West. Joakim Noah will try to lead the Chicago Bulls past John Wall and the Washington Wizards, but Derrick Rose remains the biggest star in Chicago (and he's out to injury once again this postseason).
The Brooklyn Nets have Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Kevin Garnett, though you could argue the best days are in the past for that collection of veteran talent. Of course, the biggest star on the Toronto Raptors is the unheralded DeMar DeRozan (22.7 PPG), so the Nets have the advantage in the star quotient.
It's a hard and fast rule in the NBA playoffs that if you aren't quite sure which team to pick in a series, go with the squad that has the bigger star. We've all seen Durant and James lift their teams late in a game, and we'll likely see them do so again this year.
The NBA is a team game, but at some point, it becomes about which individual can rise above the rest. NBA titles are like constellations—they're made of stars.