LeBron James and the Miami Heat will officially begin the defense of their title on Easter Sunday against the Charlotte Bobcats.
After winning the last two titles, plenty of discussion has centered on whether anyone in the Eastern Conference can prevent the Heat from making a third straight trip to the NBA Finals. Before they can worry about that, they'll have to worry about a Bobcats squad that appears to be peaking at just the right time.
While most of the intrigue in the first round lies outside of the No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchups, there are still a few questions that remain to be seen when these two squads square off.
Can the Bobcats Finally Beat the Heat?
This question doesn't apply for the series. Barring some kind of catastrophic injury to James, this series has already been decided. However, whether the Bobcats can extend the series beyond four games remains an intriguing subplot.
The Heat franchise owns a 16-game winning streak against the usually downtrodden Bobcats. However, the four-game series between the two clubs this season has featured two close games that could provide a preview into what the series could be like.
Will the Heat sweep the Bobcats? MIA 15-0 vs Bobcats since 2010-11 (best record vs any opponent).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 18, 2014
The Heat needed 34 points in the final eight minutes and 20 seconds to squeak out a one-point victory over the Bobcats on Dec. 1 in Miami and needed overtime on Jan. 18 to defeat the Bobcats on the road, 104-96.
Then there's the matter of just how much momentum each team brings into the playoffs. While the idea of momentum isn't the best of indicators when it comes to the playoffs, it's worth noting that the Heat are just 11-14 over the final 25 games of the season.
The Bobcats were 16-6 in the same stretch of games.
Again, analyzing a small sample size like the last 25 games isn't as accurate as the whole season, but it does prove the Heat are vulnerable enough for the Bobcats to steal a game or two.
Will Al Jefferson's Phenomenal Season Carry Over to the Postseason?
Just as surprising as Charlotte's ascension from constant punchline to playoff team has been Al Jefferson's emergence as the team's star player.
The former Jazz big man came to Charlotte this season and proceeded to have the best season since 2008-09 with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Jefferson scored 42 double-doubles and, aside from the development of Kemba Walker, was the biggest reason for the team's 22-win improvement from the 2012-13 season.
Who will be the second-best player on the court in this series?
Now the question becomes whether he can prove that he's among the NBA's elite big men on the grandest stage of them all.
The postseason isn't something that Jefferson is too experienced in. While he's been in the league for 10 seasons, he has just 11 playoff games to his name. Seven of those games were as a role player in the Boston Celtics rotation where he averaged just 19 minutes per game.
The last time he was in the playoffs as a starter was in the 2011-12 season with the Utah Jazz. Utah was swept in four games.
The Bobcats will need Jefferson to take over for long stretches to keep up with the Heat's offensive attack.
Are LeBron and Co. Locked in on Another Title?
Anytime a team makes it to three straight finals there's a lingering question of fatigue. Over the last three seasons James has played an additional 87 games of postseason basketball.
Essentially, that means he (and several of his teammates) has played more than four seasons' worth of basketball in the last four years.
The Bobcats are the perfect team to begin testing whether all of the additional basketball will have an averse affect on their title hopes. The Heat have all the advantages on paper. They have the best player on the court and a huge advantage in playoff experience.
However, the Bobcats will undoubtedly play with plenty of energy. With an emerging point guard in Walker who has the ability to collect baskets and a veteran in Jefferson who has rarely experienced the playoffs, Charlotte will be anxious to make the experience last at least an extra game.
If the Heat can cruise right through the Bobcats, we should expect another run at the title. If the Bobcats are able to experience some success, there may be a little more to that 11-14 finish than Heat fans would like to think.