The overbearing role played by Miami, the possible end of the Celtics as we know them, the strong, the weak and the wild card of Derrick Rose -- it's all here as the NBA playoffs begin at last. Here are the top storylines for the next two months:
Can anyone beat the Heat?
Not so long as they remain healthy. The story of this season is that the Heat have faced so little adversity, while their rivals have been overwhelmed by issues. The Nets and Bucks fired their coaches in midseason. The Bulls and Celtics lost All-Star point guards. Amar'e Stoudemire has been sidelined for most of the Knicks' season, and Danny Granger isn't coming back for the Pacers until next year. The problems of everyone else appear to be insurmountable; in the meantime the Heat are stronger than ever thanks to the acquisition of Ray Allen (which further weakened Boston) and the familiarity of three seasons together for the Big Three, along with the confidence they've earned by winning the championship last year and 27 straight games this season.
LeBron James is going to be awarded his fourth MVP in five years. At 28 he is at the peak of his game in all ways, and the Heat are built coherently around him. He can move to any spot on the floor as dictated by the needs of his team and the look of the opposing defense. How can anyone prepare to stop a shape-shifter? He's a point guard, a perimeter shooter, a post-up playmaker and a force in transition. Defensively he's just as versatile. There is no answer for him.
Not one of the hamstrung rivals in the East has the firepower or the teamwork to reach the NBA Finals. The biggest test for the Heat is likely to come in June, probably against the Thunder or the Spurs. The former has been driven to learn from its loss in the NBA Finals last year to Miami; the latter is hungry to add another championship six years after Tim Duncan won his fourth. Each is capable of giving Miami an excellent series. But neither the Thunder nor the Spurs have LeBron, and LeBron is the ultimate difference-maker.
Is this the end of the run for the Celtics?
The immediate future of the Celtics revolves around the 36-year-old Garnett. If he's healthy and playing at the high level of his playoff run last season, then the No. 7 Celtics can upset the No. 2 Knicks in the opening round. If Garnett is struggling physically, then there are people around the team who envision him retiring this summer. That should come as no surprise since Garnett considered retirement after last season, and earlier this year he predicted that he would never play in an another All-Star Game.
Pierce, 35, has already admitted that he would have considered retirement himself last year if Garnett had not come back. With that in mind, rival teams expect the Celtics to consider the following scenario if -- and only if -- Garnett retires: They assign the remaining two years of Garnett's contract (including next year's salary of $12.4 million) to amnesty, and then buy-out Pierce (who is set to make $15.3 million next year) for $5 million. They would go into next season with a core of Rajon Rondo, who is coming off ACL surgery, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, Courtney Lee and Brandon Bass -- all in their 20s -- along with about $5 million in cap space to be applied toward a potential sign-and-trade for Paul Millsap, Josh Smith or Tyreke Evans or another young or peaking player who could be available for financial reasons as rival teams transition to the new collective bargaining agreement.
Don't take on the wrong impression here. No one should think the Celtics would be pushing Garnett out the door. His current $11.6 million salary has proved to be excellent value for many reasons, including the fact that the Celtics have been poor defensively without him. He remains one of the great difference-makers in the NBA (as affirmed by the rumors of a midseason trade for DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe on the basis that Garnett could transform the Clippers into champions) and the Celtics can't count on anyone fully replacing him.
The decision on his future is entirely Garnett's to make. The bottom line is that fans of the Celtics ought to appreciate every game Garnett and Pierce are able to play this spring, because their future can no longer be taken for granted.
Which coaches are under pressure?
It's a short list and it begins with Vinny Del Negro, whose Clippers drew the short straw of having to play Memphis in the opening round. The Grizzlies won 56 games, they have meaningful playoff experience and their post-up style is perfect for the postseason. Del Negro's future isn't assured even if the Clippers advance to the second round, but a first-round exit would be almost impossible for him to survive, considering he's been hearing rumors of his dismissal since the early months of his tenure last season. How could the Clippers, who as a franchise have never experienced life beyond the second round, fire the second-year coach who led them to their first 50-win season (56 wins to be exact)? But that appears to be where they are headed unless Del Negro leads them through the most difficult draw on this side of the bracket.
Larry Drew has kept the Hawks relevant despite the trade of Joe Johnson, the January ACL injury of Johnson's replacement, Lou Williams, and the uncertain future of Atlanta's best player, Josh Smith. The bottom line is that Drew is in the final year of his contract and he's working for a new boss in GM Danny Ferry.
P.J. Carlesimo of the Nets and Jim Boylan of the Bucks are both interim coaches who could use a strong showing in the playoffs. Boylan drew an opening-round series with the Heat, so good luck to him. The Nets responded positively to Carlesimo, who has a good chance of steering them into the second round (where they too would be confronted by Miami) -- but he's working for a highly ambitious owner who is expected to seek a "big-name" coach this summer.
It would be shocking for the Lakers to fire Mike D'Antoni after less than a full season in charge. He had neither a training camp nor a full roster, and he was able to guide the Lakers to a No. 7 seed in spite of all of their obstacles. At the same time, the Lakers have become harder than ever to predict under the leadership of Jimmy Buss.
Then there is Lionel Hollins in his lame-duck year. While there have been no indications that the Grizzlies' new owners are seeking to make a change, it's also true that they have yet to re-invest in Hollins. The play of the Grizzlies this postseason may yet be crucial.
Which of the upper seeds is most vulnerable?
That would be the Nuggets. Danilo Gallinari is out with a torn ACL and point guard Ty Lawson has been slowed by plantar fasciitis. The Nuggets don't play to a style that is traditionally successful in the playoffs -- they create shots by forcing tempo and attacking the basket relentlessly, but the rule of the NBA postseason is that teams get back on defense and the game slows down. The Nuggets had more losses on the road (22) than any of the other upper seeds, and they drew a first-round series against the Warriors, who have a noisy homecourt of their own. The series with Golden State figures to be a shootout -- a style that would give the Warriors a chance of moving forward if Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes are making threes.
Which contender drew the best bracket?
The Spurs were wise to play for No. 2 in the West. In so doing they avoided a second-round series against either the Clippers or the Grizzlies.
The Spurs should be able to overcome the troubled Lakers in the opening round (see more below). Then they'll probably be facing the Nuggets, who won't have homecourt advantage and who figure to be in trouble if their running game is limited by San Antonio. If the Spurs avoid turnovers and their role players get back on defense, they should be able to reach the conference finals for the second time in three years.
Which lower seed can go the furthest?
In the West, it's hard to imagine any of the lower seeds preventing Oklahoma City and San Antonio from meeting in the conference finals. The most dangerous team in the Western bracket is undoubtedly the No. 5 Grizzlies, based on their experience, their strong frontline and the leadership of Mike Conley, who is surely the most underrated point guard of the playoffs. Will the Grizzlies miss Rudy Gay? That question will be answered in the opening round against the Clippers.
In the East, look out for the Bulls or Celtics. If Garnett is at full strength and Boston is able to avoid turnovers against the trapping perimeter defense of the Knicks, then the Celtics will have a chance to control tempo while bottling up Anthony defensively. The absence of Rondo may be felt in the playoffs, however, because they have no ball handler or playmaker who can make decisions under pressure and break down the defense off the dribble. The Knicks will be trying to win the series defensively 30 feet from the basket by creating turnovers and disrupting Boston's offense before it can start.
The Bulls won three of four this season against the Nets, but the outcome will hinge on the right foot of Chicago center Joakim Noah. His sprained ankle (not to mention Derrick Rose's ACL injury) doomed the Bulls to a first-round loss last season, and this time plantar fasciitis is the cause of fear. If he is able to play effectively against Brook Lopez, then the Bulls will have a chance to reach the second round against Miami.
Where do the Lakers fit in?
They clearly wanted to avoid Oklahoma City, and they earned their wish by winning eight of their final nine games -- including five in a row -- to seize the No. 7 seed and meet San Antonio in the opening round. The Spurs are surely going to be worrying about the size and talent of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol up front, as they were able to carry L.A. to wins against San Antonio and Houston after the season-ending injury to Kobe Bryant. But Steve Nash has been sidelined by a variety of ailments and his availability for big minutes has to be in doubt. They don't have Bryant, their leading scorer, they lack depth and they haven't shown the focus they'll need at both ends of the floor in order to extend a seven-game series and pull off an upset.
Having said all of that, the Spurs will show enormous respect to the Lakers' trio of Howard, Gasol and Nash. That respect and the ensuing focus on the details should help San Antonio survive the opening round. The Lakers may steal a game or two, but they haven't shown themselves capable of the discipline they would need against the more cohesive Spurs.
Who wins a Spurs-Thunder showdown?
They split their four games this season, but more relevant was the conclusion to their conference final matchup last year. The Spurs had won 20 straight games overall and held a 2-0 lead in the series when the Thunder won Game 3 by 20 points before sweeping the next three games in order to reach the NBA Finals.
OKC will have homecourt advantage this year, and its trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have improved and overcome the preseason trade of James Harden. They are absolutely hungrier and more focused as a result of last year's loss in the NBA Finals to Miami.
Health will define San Antonio's hopes in the playoffs. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been struggling lately, though both are back in the rotation. Boris Diaw may miss the first three weeks of the playoffs after undergoing surgery last week to remove a cyst from his back. Stephen Jackson was waived, surprisingly, and even more surprising was San Antonio's decision to sign Tracy McGrady. None of those issues and events should prevent San Antonio from reaching the conference final. Once the Spurs are there, however, they're going to face the same problem as last season. The Thunder's best players are younger, more explosive and better able to elevate their games in the biggest moments than are Tim Duncan and Ginobili. Westbrook is going to cause problems for Tony Parker. No one should rule out the Spurs' chances of returning to the NBA Finals for the first time in six years, but they are definitely underdogs alongside Oklahoma City.
What is the biggest variable?
It has to be Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, who has kept open the possibility of making his season debut in the playoffs. The consequences would be hard to predict: During the regular season there would have been less pressure on him to make an immediate impact, and he could have worked his way back into the lineup. If he makes his debut during the playoffs, however, the Bulls will be counting on Rose to do more good than harm, and that's asking a lot of a point guard who hasn't had the ball in his hands (officially) for one year.
If the Bulls were to reach the second round, then that would extend the window for Rose to return. But it would also increase the pressure on Rose exponentially. He would need to play at full speed against Miami while absorbing heightened scrutiny. Put it all together and it becomes difficult to picture him returning under the highly demanding circumstances of the postseason. And yet, based on Rose's own comments, a return for the playoffs can't be ruled out.
(Shouldn't the NBA offer fans discounts on the final game or games of the season? I can't think of any way to legislate some kind of compensation, but many of the league's best teams rested their primary players in anticipation of the playoffs -- amounting to a huge waste of money for fans who bought tickets to see those players.)
Dwight Howard led the NBA in rebounds per game (12.4); Rajon Rondo qualified for the lead in assists (11.1) despite playing in only 38 games; Serge Ibaka was the leader in blocks with 3.03; and Chris Paul (2.41) edged Ricky Rubio (2.40) for the league-lead in steals.
The future of first-year coach Mike Dunlap in Charlotte was reportedly in doubt after he spent a season trying to help the young Bobcats improve individually, even though they lacked the talent to win. Keith Smart was expected to be replaced as part of a larger overhaul of the Kings, who remain up for sale. The Suns must decide the future of interim coach Lindsey Hunter, who went 12-29 after replacing Alvin Gentry.
In Toronto, coach Dwane Casey finished a 34-48 season and made a case for the Raptors to bring him back along with president Bryan Colangelo so they can transform their talented young roster into a winner. "I want Bryan back," said Casey. "We know each other and I know he knows what we're looking for, what we're trying to do."
The coaching uncertainty of the Timberwolves was based on an entirely different set of circumstances: They hope that Rick Adelman will return, but he said he will need several weeks to decide whether to continue his career or return home to care for his wife, Mary Kay, who has been suffering from seizures.
McGrady was an All-NBA player through 2008, when some in the NBA viewed him as a better young player than Kobe Bryant. The comparison didn't hold water because Bryant played for championship teams while McGrady's teams never won so much as a playoff series. If that changes now, the bigger influence will probably be the return to health of Manu Ginobili, who played Wednesday for the first time in nine games after suffering hamstring tightness. But it will be interesting to see if the Spurs are inclined to make use of McGrady, who can no longer jump but hasn't forgotten how to make plays.
This is an interesting choice. How often are players criticized for jumping at the money when they aren't ready to play in the NBA? Smart decided that his long-term development was more important than the money. After all, he knows better than anyone whether or not he is ready for the NBA lifestyle. The league would be better served if more young players made similar decisions.
If Curry's Warriors are to have any chance in the playoffs against Denver, he and his teammates will need to make a lot more of those shots.
Quote Of The Week
"I'm so happy we decided to cancel the game."
"People thought we canceled because of security," the Celtics coach told me the day after the bombings of the Boston Marathon on Monday that killed at least three people and wounded more than 170. "It had nothing to do with [fears over] security. It was more that it just wasn't the right time to play a game. The police need to be working on this and not worrying about fans at the game."
And so the NBA agreed to cancel the Celtics home game Tuesday against the Pacers. Each team will finish the season with 81 games, which means the record books will stand in observance of this tragic event. The Celtics lost a lot of money -- to put it into perspective, it is said that each playoff game is worth about $1 million to the home team, and so something in that neighborhood was surrendered here -- but neither the money nor the integrity of the 82-game season meant much of anything in comparison to what was lost Monday. It was a wise decision by Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, team president Rich Gotham and the NBA.
The scout said: "I broke it down by the five positions:
PG Chris Paul SG Kobe Bryant SF LeBron James PF Tim Duncan C Joakim Noah
"Point guard was the hardest one to pick. If Tony Parker played the last 20-25 games of the season, then I would have put him on the First Team. I wound up putting Deron Williams ahead of Parker because Williams finished strong, even though he was up and down throughout the year. I look at the way the Nets played the last 30-40 games since P.J. [Carlesimo] took over, and Williams has stepped it up. He lost weight and he looks good. He's been playing the way he used to play. The weight loss has helped tremendously -- he has a little more explosion and quickness that he didn't have earlier in the year.
"Kobe was First Team, no question. He's carried that team, he's played through everything right up to the end. He played huge minutes. He was the focal point. LeBron didn't have as much pressure from the press this year, but Kobe has been in the spotlight every day from the coaching changes and all the other stuff that's come out over the year. He performed at a high level night in and night out, and he's been the difference in them winning or not winning games, whether Pau played or not played. He was the point guard for awhile. He did everything.
"At the 3, all three guys are MVP candidates. But I think the best 3 man all year long was LeBron. The most important player to his team was probably Carmelo, because when you take him off, they're not the same team. That's why I put Durant third in that group, because he has Russell Westbrook and other guys with him. But you could make the argument to switch that around with Durant and Carmelo.
"At power forward, Aldridge's offensive numbers were better, but Ibaka has had a good year quietly, and he's made an impact at both ends more than Aldridge.
"Noah is my First-Team center, even though my reasoning for him kind of contradicts what I said about Parker. Noah missed games, but he was so impactful on the games he was in. Dwight Howard averaged a double-double while playing through injuries, but he wasn't as impactful as Noah in the games he played. Noah was rebounding, he was blocking shots, he was scoring and doing things at a higher level than he's ever done. He's been the most impactful of the guys at that spot and he had the best year. His offensive rebounds, assists, steals -- his activity level just changed the game when he was in there. He makes them a different team.
"When you look at Howard, he's been consistent despite the injuries. I still go back to this: Who do you have to gameplan for? You still have to gameplan for Howard. You have to know where he is and keep him off the boards. He still runs the floor. He hasn't missed that many games. But it's a close pick between Howard and Horford.
"Brook Lopez would be honorable mention for sure. But there are games I've seen where you don't notice him. He is probably the best true center on the offensive end as far as being a low-post guy with his back to the basket, but there are too many games where he's quiet and not always impactful defensively. And there are days when he wants to be a jump shooter or perimeter player too much. You definitely have to gameplan for him, though. In reality, Howard and Lopez and Noah and Duncan are the top centers in real life. I couldn't put them in any order for you, but they're centers, while a guy like Horford is more of a power forward. And Ibaka's a center too -- he ends up playing 5 as much as plays the 4."
All-Kobe Bryant Team
This team represents the greatest players in the upcoming postseason who have won at least one championship. It is named after Bryant, the greatest winner of his generation, who will be missed as he begins to recover from recent surgery to his ruptured Achilles. I didn't necessarily pick the players who are playing the best basketball today; instead I went for the players with the most meaningful careers, with the understanding that they should be appreciated over the next two months, when the games really matter.
C -- Kevin Garnett, Celtics (won NBA Finals in 2008) F -- Tim Duncan, Spurs (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007) F -- LeBron James, Heat (2012) G -- Dwyane Wade, Heat (2006, 2012) G -- Jason Kidd, Knicks (2011)
C -- Tyson Chandler, Knicks (2011) F -- Pau Gasol, Lakers (2009, 2010) F -- Paul Pierce, Celtics (2008) G -- Ray Allen, Heat (2008) G -- Manu Ginobili, Spurs (2003, 2005, 2007) G -- Tony Parker, Spurs (2003, 2005, 2007) G -- Derek Fisher, Thunder (2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010)