By Matt Dollinger
April 18, 2014
After going seven games in last year's NBA Finals, the Spurs and Heat could end up meeting again.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
NBA Playoff Power Rankings
1 San Antonio Spurs
Sixty-two wins and a 19-game winning streak is a pretty impressive way of bouncing back from a soul-crushing, seven-game loss in the 2013 NBA Finals. Gregg Popovich's team led the league in victories while not having a single player average 30 minutes. With Popovich, a four-time champion, leading a roster full of experienced playoff stars, the Spurs are the favorites to emerge from the loaded West.
2 Miami Heat
Miami Heat (54-28)
Sure, they've lost six of their last eight games, haven't had Dwyane Wade for more than a third of the season and potentially won't have home-court advantage in the conference finals or Finals. But we're talking about LeBron James and the two-time defending champions. The East has given Miami little cause for concern this season, and the Heat get the benefit of the doubt that they can rise to the occasion.
3 Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant is on the brink of winning his first MVP award after averaging a league-leading 32 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists. Is this also the year that the seventh-year forward breaks through on a team level and leads the Thunder to a title? The path won't be easy, starting with the dangerous Grizzlies, but Durant has something he didn't have in the playoffs last season: a healthy Russell Westbrook.
4 Los Angeles Clippers
Warning: Dangerous When Healthy. The Clippers could have everyone available for Game 1 against the Warriors, an important check mark they've been working toward for weeks after going long stretches this season without Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes. Doc Rivers' team has two of the best players in the league in Paul and Blake Griffin, complementary shooters and capable defenders. It also enters the postseason on a 20-5 run.
5 Indiana Pacers
A No. 1 seed, but still a No. 1 contender? The Pacers have the talent and experience to vie for a championship, but the chemistry critical to doing so hasn't been there in recent weeks. Indiana has dropped 13 of 25 after losing only 13 of its first 57. But if the Pacers can get their slumping starters (notably Roy Hibbert and George Hill) to return to first-half form and their revamped bench to contribute, they'll be the Heat's biggest challenger in the East again.
6 Houston Rockets
General manager Daryl Morey didn't make a dizzying amount of roster moves to land Dwight Howard just to win 50-plus games; he relentlessly pursued the big man because he thought Howard and James Harden could carry the Rockets to a championship. Is the duo up to the task of contending for one in only their first year together? One key for Houston will be point guard Patrick Beverley, who is playing through a knee injury. Will he be healthy enough to drive Lillard crazy in the first round and possibly Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul beyond that?
7 Portland Trail Blazers
Finishing the season 9-1 put some wind back in Portland's sails, but questions still remain about the Blazers' depth and defense. Those concerns won't seem as pressing if LaMarcus Aldridge continues his April form (23.3 points, 11.5 rebounds in six games) and second-year point guard Damian Lillard -- who is making his playoff debut -- breaks out like some think he can this postseason.
8 Dallas Mavericks
This is old hat for Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks, who are back in the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 seasons. Dallas is so good offensively that it is capable of catching fire like the 2010-11 team, which rode hot shooting to the franchise's first title. That team, however, was much better defensively, and the Mavs will be hard pressed to stop San Antonio in the first round.
9 Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are not your average No. 7 seed. Memphis has the NBA's third-best record since Jan. 14 (33-13), when center Marc Gasol returned from a knee injury, and its core is playoff-tested after making the conference finals last year. With its bruising style and ability to control tempo, the Grizzlies won't be an easy out against Oklahoma City in the first round.
10 Chicago Bulls
Chicago Bulls (48-34)
Prediction: Chicago wins a game in the first round despite scoring fewer than 85 points. The Bulls won a playoff series without Derrick Rose last year, and I'm expecting them to do the same this year, against the upstart Wizards. Without Rose or Luol Deng, coach Tom Thibodeau has reinvented the Bulls through the surprising contributions of point guard D.J. Augustin and the elite two-way post tandem of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson.
11 Golden State Warriors
Andre Iguodala was acquired to make Golden State a better defensive team and it's worked: The Warriors finished third in points allowed per possession. But losing an integral part of that defense, center Andrew Bogut, to a rib injury is a huge blow, especially given that the Warriors will face the NBA's top offense in the first round. They'll be forced to compensate by playing small ball or giving heavy minutes to Jermaine O'Neal at center, neither of which is a winning recipe in the West playoffs.
12 Toronto Raptors
Toronto returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, when Chris Bosh was its best player. The Raptors have exceeded expectations behind the backcourt of Kyle Lowry and first-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, going an East-best 41-22 since trading Rudy Gay and finishing as the only team in the conference to rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. With a first-round matchup against the Nets, Toronto has a solid chance to make the conference semifinals for the second time in the franchise's 19-year history.
13 Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn Nets (44-38)
After a dreadful start that included the loss of center Brook Lopez, the demotion of lead assistant Lawrence Frank and a rocky stretch for rookie coach Jason Kidd, the Nets posted the East's second-best record since Jan. 1 (34-17). The turnaround has given Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce yet another chance to make a postseason run. Brooklyn's success, though, hinges more on highly compensated guards Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, who have had subpar seasons.
14 Washington Wizards
Guards John Wall and Bradley Beal get their first taste of the postseason, supported by playoff-seasoned veterans such as Nene, Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat, Andre Miller and Al Harrington. Washington is seeking to reach the second round for only the second time in 31 years, but I don't like their chances against the stingy Bulls.
15 Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats' defense is playoff-caliber: Under first-year coach Steve Clifford, Charlotte improved from last to sixth in points allowed per possession. Unfortunately for Charlotte, it's also the team that was swept 4-0 by Miami in the regular season and gave up 61 points in one meeting to LeBron James, whom the Bobcats will be seeing a lot of over the next week or two.
16 Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta Hawks (38-44)
LeBron James signing with the Bucks. Carmelo Anthony leading the league in assists. The NBA raising the age limit to 30. These are just a few of the things more likely to happen than the Hawks winning the 2014 title. That said, Atlanta split its four-game season series with Indiana and gets an opportunity to knock off one of the coldest No. 1 seeds in recent memory.

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