The NBA’s regular season has finally come to a close and the world is set to enjoy the 2013 NBA playoffs which is slated to kick off in a few days. The last day of action was perfunctory for a lot of teams with their playoff seeding was already set as early as a few days back. While for others, like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz it was about fighting tooth and nail to secure the last remaining slot in the Western Conference bracket. Here is a quick snapshot of the first-round match-ups from both conferences.
Miami Heat (1) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (8)
The Miami Heat are the team to beat and are strong favorites to snag a back-to-back title. Their dominant run in the regular season secured their overall home court advantage very early and they have had the luxury to rest their key stars. The Bucks simply do not have the right weapons to deal with the Heat’s small-ball offense. They are also coming into this series with injuries to key players, Brandon Jennings and Larry Sanders. The Heat look to dispatch with the Bucks swiftly and stay fresh for the second round.
Brooklyn Nets (4) vs. Chicago Bulls (5)
Even with the emergence of Jimmy Butler as a solid contributor for the Bulls, the X-factor in this match-up will be whether Chicago’s injured stars can return to full health in time to make an impact. Big men Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are coming off recent injuries and Coach Tom Thibodeau has repeatedly stated that there is no “drop-dead date” for their all-star guard’s return from knee surgery last season. The Nets are also banged up themselves and it will be about which team can gut it out to survive the first round.
Indiana Pacers (3) vs. Atlanta Hawks (6)
The Pacers are an up and coming young team, but their stellar rise this season may have taken its toll on their key players such as George Hill, who has been dealing with a plethora of injuries this season and Paul George, who looked like he was getting gassed out down the stretch of the regular season. Roy Hibbert who vaulted into relevance post-All-star break, will need to step up his game and be threat in the paint. The Hawks need Al Horford healthy to match-up with Hibbert and David West in the paint. The back court duel between point guards George Hill and Jeff Teague will be key in this series.
New York Knicks (2) vs. Boston Celtics (7)
The Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony came away with the regular season scoring title, which was held last season by Kevin Durant. Anthony’s MVP-worthy season and J.R. Smith’s strong second half are the main reasons the Knicks are a serious threat this post-season, but their banged up front court and a recent injury to Argentine guard Pablo Prigoni may have just added another layer of challenges for the NY franchise. The Celtics, who may be without Rajon Rondo, still have the experience factor up their sleeves. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jeff Green look to jury rig a new “Big 3” in Bean Town.
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs. Houston Rockets (8)
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were taken to school by the Miami Heat in last season’s Finals. This season they are more experienced and are that much hungrier to take another crack at the NBA title. Former Thunder sixth man, James Harden will be leading the Rockets in a bitter-sweet return to playoffs, but this time trying to play the spoiler against his former team. The Rockets don’t have enough weapons to go toe-to-toe with the Thunder, but expect Harden to put in an epic effort nonetheless.
Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5)
This will be the true acid test to see if the Grizzlies will miss the services of their former top scorer, Rudy Gay, who they traded away at the deadline. Mike Conley Jr.’s improvement has helped offset the loss, but it is Memphis’ front court tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol should carry the Grizzlies. For the Clippers it boils down to how well Chris Paul and Blake Griffin’s chemistry can keep both stars on the same page. They have the depth to keep up with a lot of teams, but again it will be all about their execution that matters.
Denver Nuggets (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
There are three words to describe this match-up. Offense. Offense. Offense. Both of these teams rode their ability to put up points on the scoreboard, whether it’s by Denver’s up-tempo running offense or the Warrior’s ability to rain threes on their opponents. The Nuggets are going to miss Danilo Galinari’s on-court rapport with Ty Lawson, but they are deep when it comes to athletic swingmen to compensate. On the other hand, Stephen Curry just recently set a new NBA record for most three-point shots made in a regular season. Curry finished the season making 272 threes, eclipsing the record of 269 set by Ray Allen in 2005-06 season. Contributions from Warriors’ sophomore Klay Thompson and Nuggets’ versatile guard-forward Wilson Chandler, serve to be the X-factors in this series.
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (7)
Kobe Bryant gave everything he had, including his body (torn achilles) just to get the Lakers the opportunity to sneak into the playoffs. A combination of the Lakers’ overtime win and a loss by the Utah Jazz on the last game of the regular season, allowed them to manage a tie with the Rockets. Since the Lakers hold the tie-break advantage over Houston, they get bumped up to the seventh seed, avoiding an early clash with Western Conference favorites, the OKC Thunder. Tony Parker, who is playing the best season of his career, and a rejuvenated Tim Duncan look to give the Lakers a big headache in the first round. Without Bryant and with Steve Nash not at 100-percent health, the Lakers are expected to make a graceful early playoff exit.