By Ben Golliver
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the cream has risen and the soot has settled. Through Tuesday, 11 teams had clinched playoff spots and nine others had been mathematically eliminated from the postseason. Those numbers are even a bit deceptive, as there's really just one open playoff berth remaining and only two teams in a realistic position to secure it after the Mavericks lost a crucial game to the Lakers on Tuesday.
As the Jazz and Lakers potentially go down to the wire in their fight for the Western Conference's No. 8 seed, the other 15 playoff-bound teams turn their attention to possible first-round opponents. With that in mind, here are five first-round matchups that I'd like to see, judged primarily from the watchability perspective.
5. Miami Heat (1) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (8)
What this matchup lacks in competitiveness, it more than makes up for in intrigue as a gawker's special. The question on the top of everyone's mind: Were the Heat performing at their peak during their historic 27-game winning streak? Do they have yet another gear once the postseason hits? And how much more monstrous do they look with time to prepare and dissect the same opponent?
The Bucks should play the appetizer role gamely. Brandon Jennings will go all-out with the national attention on him at the conclusion of his contract year, while Larry Sanders can take up the "You never know what he might do, he might just punch a fire extinguisher" mantle from Amar'e Stoudemire. This is an average team that gets up for playing Miami, and Jennings recently tossed out some quality bulletin-board material by saying that he would prefer to face the Heat rather than the Knicks in the first round. That should ensure the presence of a fully motivated Miami team. That's big, because the easiest way for the Heat to disappoint in the first round is if they are bored.
Chances of this happening: Very good, although not a guarantee. The Celtics lead the Bucks by only 1½ games for the No. 7 seed and have lost four of their last six games without Kevin Garnett. (Milwaukee owns the tiebreaker over Boston.) A rematch of last season's Miami-Boston East finals would be great, too, but significantly sweeter if the Celtics managed to fight through a fairly weak field to make it a true rematch, in the conference finals, rather than in the first round.
4. San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (8)
Yes, most impartial observers can agree that it would be hilarious if the Lakers miss the playoffs after all of the preseason hype. But I offer this buzz-killing reminder: The Spurs dismantled the Jazz in a clinical sweep last year, winning the four games by an average of 16 points. Please, no sequel.
Still clinging to the "But I really want the Lakers to fall flat on their faces" card? Understandable, but open your mind to history. These two franchises went head-to-head in the playoffs for four straight years from 2001-2004 but haven't faced each other since 2008. We're past due for some pregame montages starring Derek Fisher, David Robinson, a young Tim Duncan, Kobe and Shaq and Robert Horry. We should be savoring every chance we get to see Duncan, 36, and Kobe Bryant, 34, bring their polar-opposite personalities and like-minded competitiveness into the same gym. And this would give the Duncan-era Spurs the opportunity to cut into the Bryant-era Lakers' 4-2 lead in postseason series.
L.A. also offers a major curiosity factor. In recent years, the Lakers haven't responded particularly well to losing, although a lot of that shameless behavior left town when Andrew Bynum was traded. Still, how does Mike D'Antoni handle himself against Gregg Popovich? Does Dwight Howard show up or disappear? Does Bryant completely take over the offense if San Antonio starts seizing control? So many fun questions would be left unanswered if this clash doesn't materialize.
Chances of this happening: The Lakers took an important step by defeating the Mavericks on Tuesday, pulling even with the Jazz for eighth place at 39-36. But the Lakers will need a strong finish to beat out Utah, which holds the tiebreaker. The Spurs could slip from the No. 1 seed, too, as they lead the Thunder by only one game and are playing without Manu Ginobili, who is expected to miss three to four weeks with a hamstring injury. San Antonio visits Oklahoma City on Thursday.
3. New York Knicks (2) vs. Boston Celtics (7)
The Knicks are in position to win their first playoff series since 2000. Why shouldn't it come against the team that has lorded over them and the rest of the Atlantic Division for the last half-decade? The Celtics won't be the Celtics without Rajon Rondo, but that won't detract from Knicks fans' pre-series anxiety or the post-series jubilation if New York gets it done.
Symbolism aside, this would be an early test that the Knicks need. It's quite possible that their third-ranked offense will wind up facing three top defenses in the East (Boston, then Indiana, then Miami) if all goes according to plan. What better way to prepare for the Pacers, who boast the league's No. 1 defense by a wide margin, than by finding ways to score against the Celtics? What better way to get into the active ball movement groove necessary to keep up with Miami? And what better preparation for the Heat's pressure perimeter defense than dealing with tireless gnat Avery Bradley?
There's just no overlooking the volatility factor, either. Even with Rondo out and Stoudemire's status uncertain, you can always count on Kevin "Honey Nut Cheerios" Garnett, Jason Terry, Kenyon Martin, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith to provide on-court fireworks and solid post-game material.
Chances of this happening: Totally up in the air. The Knicks, winners of nine straight, are in a virtual tie with the Pacers for the No. 2 seed. The seventh-place Celtics, as noted, are 1½ games ahead of the Bucks. Cross your fingers. A Pacers-Celtics series could produce games with final scores in the 50s.
Many will be rooting for the Clippers to face the Warriors, largely because of the animosity between the two teams, especially involving Blake Griffin and David Lee. But allow me to pitch Nuggets-Warriors, which has the brilliant by-product of creating a rematch of last season's first-round, seven-game slugfest between the Clippers and Grizzlies (a series that certainly could have made this list).
This matchup would pit two top-10 offenses with wildly different methods of scoring, two of the five fastest-paced teams and two clubs that enjoy superior home-court advantages. On the one hand, the Warriors lead the league in three-point shooting, fueled by super sniper Stephen Curry, profiled recently by Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard. On the other hand, the Nuggets are heading toward record-setting totals for points in the paint, with a roster full of players who attack the rim relentlessly. Both teams have transformed below-average defenses in 2011-12 into above-average defenses in 2012-13, but both face the question of whether they can get it done in the postseason.
There's also the new blood factor. These two front offices have done a nice job in building their cores over multiple years without real dividends to show for it yet. Golden State has won only one playoff series since 1991, while Denver has advanced in the postseason once since 1994. It's about time one of these revamped teams -- either one, really -- gets a shot at the second round.
Chances of this happening: It's tight on both sides. The Nuggets, Clippers and Grizzlies are separated by just 1½ games in the Nos. 3-5 spots. (As soon-to-be Pacific Division champions, the Clippers are guaranteed a top-four seed.) The Warriors lead the Rockets by only one game for sixth place.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Houston Rockets (7)
I'll wait here for a moment while you wipe the slobber off your keyboard. Just reading "Thunder vs. Rockets" should prompt some serious salivation. The storylines write themselves and the fascinating aspects are everywhere.
The headliner: the blue-chip team that traded James Harden faces James Harden and his upstart buddies. The simplest way to boil down those implications: Thunder general manager Sam Presti could transform from "most unimpeachable basketball mind in the NBA" to "most second-guessed basketball mind in the NBA" in just four quick losses. Similarly, Kevin Martin, Harden's replacement and an upcoming free agent, has a whole lot on the line.
The Rockets have built the perfect system for Harden to thrive offensively -- fast-paced, lots of touches, unlimited freedom -- and it's an ideal set-up for a memorable playoff explosion (provided Harden is healthy after nursing a foot injury of late). That's all well and good, because we've seen how Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can dial things up in the postseason, and neither is likely to be stopped by his Houston counterpart. Both teams are top seven in offensive efficiency and top eight in pace, meaning the points should flow freely, and both teams have crowds that appreciate, and help perpetuate, the offense.
In addition, given how well the Rockets are set up for the future with a promising, well-balanced core and cap space to make moves this summer, there's the possibility of a "first-chapter" feel to this series that could easily get plenty of iterations.
Last but not least, let's not forget the fact that Linsanity has never hit the postseason. Jeremy Lin was sidelined for the 2012 playoffs with the Knicks after knee surgery, delaying his postseason debut. I can already picture him breaking YouTube with a crossover on the Thunder's Fisher. Chances of this happening: It's possible, but not nearly there yet. The Thunder could supplant the Spurs for the No. 1 seed, and the Rockets could overtake the Warriors for No. 6. With any luck, neither of those things happen.