The NBA Playoffs are upon us. The Los Angeles Lakers are back to defend their title while 15 other teams try to be the one to take the crown from them. There are so many story lines to follow with each team, each match-up, and each individual. So here are the biggest questions to pay attention to. Depending on how these teams respond to these questions in the first round will go a long way to determine how likely they are to win it all.
Four trips to the playoffs, two to the Eastern Conference finals, and one to the NBA Championship. Yet “The King” has zero rings. Last year so many people thought that it was the Cavs’ best chance to win it all.
With the best record in the NBA, the mid-season acquisition of power forward Antawn Jamison, and a thirteen-game winning streak, people feel the same way about them this postseason.
However will Cleveland be able to handle the pressure?
They have the pressure of being No. 1. There is also the pressure of the entire city of Cleveland not winning a championship in any professional sport since 1964, the longest drought of any city with three pro teams. They also have the pressure of potentially losing James, a free agent, in the off season if they can’t make him happy by winning a championship.
Being in the postseason isn’t enough for the Cavaliers anymore. Making the finals isn’t enough, either. Cleveland needs to win the championship. However, they won’t be able to do that if they don’t put aside those issues and just play basketball.
The Hawks were quite a surprise this season. They played well enough to earn the third seed in the playoffs, ahead of Atlantic Division champions Boston. This also means they’d avoid a potential second-round match up against top-seed Cleveland (not that Orlando is a slouch).
They also come into the playoffs on a roll, winning their last four games. But are they for real?
The team doesn’t have a lot of playoff experience and that definitely counts for something in this league. Their opponent won’t be a walkover either
Milwaukee won six straight to start off the month of March, and from February 19 through March 14 the Bucks won 12 of 13 games.
Atlanta was a thorn in Boston’s side two years ago. This year, they need to prove they are a legitimate contender, and they do that by rolling in their first playoff series, going into the second round confident.
The Celtics, only two seasons removed from their championship victory, looked old, slow, injured, undisciplined, and just not hungry enough this season.
There are two things great teams do: beat the weak opponents that they are supposed to beat, and close out games. Boston did neither.
So many times did the Celtics blow double-digit leads after the half, including a 16-point lead against the Magic and an 11-point lead against the Lakers. They put teams on the ropes, but then turn their back on them and allow them to get back into the match and clock them from behind.
They also lost to non-playoff teams New Jersey, Memphis, Houston, New York, and Washington. The Nets, Knicks, and Wizards were three of the very worst teams in the league. The Memphis loss was by 20 points. Throw in 20-point losses to the Spurs and Cavaliers and the Celtics were often left embarrassed.
Is their slide really that bad, though? Of the seven months the season spans, the Celtics had an above-.500 record in all but two of them. Injuries happen, bad luck happens, and sometimes you just can’t bring it every single game of such a long and arduous year.
One of those losing months was April, however, so they’re not really going in on a roll or confident.
The Celtics really need to turn it on. Last season they were in a dogfight in the first round with Chicago, and with a Kevin Garnett injury could not keep pace with the youthful legs of the Magic. This year expect Dwayne Wade to bring a ton of fight to the Celtics.
If Paul Pierce doesn’t fight back, if Ray Allen goes cold, if Kevin Garnett goes limp, expect the Celtics to be in huge trouble.
A lot of people expected the Cavaliers to run away with the Eastern Conference last year, and they were wrong. This season many are predicting the Cavs again. But the Magic would like to prove them all wrong again, and there is plenty of reason to be confident.
This Magic team is much deeper than last year’s team. Improved play from J.J. Redick, along with the additions of Ryan Anderson, Brandon Bass, and Jason Williams have really made this team a threat no matter who is on the floor—you can’t take any plays off. Vince Carter is an upgrade over Hedo Turkoglu, and All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson is actually healthy this year.
Add in Dwight Howard’s improvements on offense to his already dominating game, and Orlando is a scary team. They have a lot to prove to people, but so does Cleveland. The Magic are a real threat not only in the East, but in the entire NBA.
The question is common: If not the Lakers in the West, then who? The common answer is Denver.
They boast one of the most clutch players in recent years in point guard and leader Chauncey Billups. Carmelo Anthony has matured and developed into one of the elite players in the league. Kenyon Martin is an absolutely physical force to reckon with. They’ve also gotten strong play from J.R. Smith, Nene, and backup point guard Ty Lawson.
They are athletic, can score with the best of them, are physical, play good interior defense, and can be clutch. They are really a good overall team.
There’s something to be said about the team coming together under tragedy as well, playing for Coach George Karl, who is fighting cancer.
What will hurt Denver is if their immaturity festers and rears its ugly head. Guys like Anthony, Martin, Smith, and Chris Anderson really need to play smart and not get bothered and lose their heads.
The Lakers are once again the top-seed in the West and will be pushing to successfully defend their championship.
However they’ve been pretty shaky as of late. They have lost seven of their past 11 games. The first loss of that skid came against Oklahoma City by an astonishing 16 points.
The Thunder have been the surprise team of the season. Kevin Durant has emerged as one of the top players in the entire league, right in the discussion with Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. He is a pure scorer.
He’s also got a great support system in place with point guard Russell Westbrook and forward Jeff Green. Guard Thabo Sefolosha is a very good defender and will attempt to give Bryant fits.
The biggest thing the Thunder will have to overcome is their collective playoff inexperience. Most times in the NBA young teams have to pay their dues in the playoffs. They need to get the experience of the physical postseason play and the pressures that come with every game.
They have the talent to pull off an upset, but will they have the maturity to take advantage of their potential?
One of strongest teams in the new millennium, the Spurs won three championships in six seasons from 2002-2007. However, they keep sliding. The Big Three is just getting older and more banged up, and you have to wonder how much basketball they have left in them.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili all missed time because of injury. The biggest culprit was Parker, who played a career low 56 games during the regular season.
They still show flashes of brilliance, both as individuals and as a team, but they also tend to come up short more so than usual as well. They are a tough team to figure out sometimes.
Richard Jefferson hasn’t been the player they expected when they traded for him, but he hasn’t been awful either. DeJuan Blair has been great off the bench for the team. They’ve also gotten good production from George Hill.
But this team runs on the Big Three, and one has to wonder how much gas is left in the tank.
They face their Texas rivals Dallas, who after some midseason trades are deeper and much tougher. They’ll look to be physical with an older San Antonio team and it’s questionable if the Spurs will be able to bang back.
Once dubbed the most exciting team in the NBA, the Phoenix Suns have lost more and more players from that “seven seconds or less” team that put up tons of points but whose lack of defense finally would do them in in the late rounds of the playoffs. Head Coach Mike D’Antoni is also gone.
After this season, Steve Nash, arguably the best point guard in the game, and Amare Stoudemire are free agents. So this could be the last hurrah of the Suns as we know them.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a team, but don’t expect them to back down. They recognize it could be their last chance to do something special and this team will do everything it can to go out with a bang.
Nash is playing some of the best basketball of his career, and watching him sometimes you wonder if there is ever a clutch shot he’ll miss.
This could be a team that others do not want to face.