After 5½ months, the regular season has come to a close, the standings have been finalized, and the 2013 NBA Playoffs are set to begin on Saturday. Just like last year, this year’s NBA postseason is stacking up to be very interesting. Big stars are injured, new teams are looking to join the elite ranks, bitter rivalries will be renewed, and of course the defending champs will look to win the Larry O’Brien trophy again.
Not excited? Well you should be. And in the list that follows, which presents the biggest storylines of the 2013 NBA Playoffs, we’ll outline why.
Officially this series will be known as just one of the four Western Conference quarterfinal series. Unofficially, however, it will be known as the James Harden-OKC Reunion Series. The Thunder of course traded Harden to the Rockets back in October, where he had an immediate impact, made the All-Star team, and helped the Rockets get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. He got a little revenge over his old team back in February when he scored a career-high 46 points in a 122-119 win over the Thunder, but you can bet he's hungry for another helping of that dish best served cold. So if nothing else this should be a spirited series.
9. The Harden Reunion
The Clippers have been a team on the rise for two years now, ever since the league decided they could have Chris Paul but the Lakers could not. (No, I haven't let that go yet.) Last season they made the playoffs as a #5 seed and pulled off the upset against the Grizzlies in a memorable 7-game series. This year Clippers were even better during the regular season, complete with a 17-game winning streak and a number of amazing showtime plays, and have swapped places with the Grizzlies. Now they have the #4 seed (and home court advantage) for their rematch against Memphis. Will this talented group take the next step, elevating their game this postseason? If so we're in for a treat, because they're one hell of an entertaining basketball team.
8. Can the Clippers take the next step?
Any time any two teams from Boston and New York get together in the playoffs, no matter the sport, it's a good thing. And this first round matchup in particularly is intriguing.
The Knicks fired Mike D'Antoni and dumped the most popular athlete in New York not named Derek Jeter last offseason—that would be Jeremy Lin—thus putting all their chips in front of Carmelo Anthony...and Anthony delivered. The 28-year-old won the first scoring title of his career in 2013 and led the Knicks to their first division title since 1994.
Now the oldest team in the NBA (average age: 31.3) will face another old team in the first round, the Boston Celtics. And of course, the Celtics will be without the one young player that matters most to them: Rajon Rondo. The Knicks should beat the Celtics, but anything can happen. Will this finally mark the end of the Celtics' successful run with KG and company? Stay tuned.
7. Boston vs. New York
Every Chicago Bulls fan remembers exactly where they were when Derrick Rose crumpled to the floor with a torn ACL during Game 1 of their opening round series against the 76ers last year. It was heartbreaking, and this year they had to make do without the 2010-11 NBA MVP.
Here's the crazy thing, though: Derrick Rose was medically cleared to play back in March. His knee is fully healed and there nothing physically wrong. He's been practicing, and practicing, and practicing. However, the guy just is not comfortable playing at full speed yet. It's all mental, and it's hurting his reputation and his team.
Now, I'm not criticizing Derrick. If he has anxiety about his injured knee, that sucks, and I feel for him. But he is going to have to get over his issues and start playing NBA basketball again at some point. The team and its coach have ruled absolutely nothing out. Rose might come back for Game 1, or he might not come back at all this year.
The Brooklyn Nets, Chicago's first round playoff opponents? They're hoping it's not this week. If it is, that could be an Eastern Conference game-changer.
6. Will D-Rose Get Over His Issues?
The Golden State Warriors have been so bad for so long, NBA fans can be excused for not even noticing that they'll be making just their second playoff appearance in the last 19 years. However, if fans do overlook the Warriors, they'll be sorry. Led by Stephen Curry, David Lee, and Jarrett Jack, this is one of the most electric and entertaining teams in the NBA. And in the first round this #6 seed will face off against the #3 Denver Nuggets, who finished the season on an 8-2 run.
In short, if you're looking for one series to Tivo and watch in its entirety, it might be this one.
5. Most Exciting Round 1 Series?
This year, after an utterly embarrassing flopping epidemic during the 2012 NBA Playoffs, the NBA became the first major sports league to institute a coherent flop prevention policy. During the 2012-13 regular season, after one incident of floppery a player was warned, and after his second a player was fined $5,000.
The results? The league said there were 24 violations this season, with five guys getting hit with fines. (I wonder if this was one of them?)
Now the NBA is getting even more serious for the playoffs. The warning is now gone. After one flop players will be hit with a $5,000 fine right away. A second offense will result in a $10,000 fine, a third will cost $15,000, and a four a whopping $30,000.
Will it work? I think so. I've long advocated for such a system. But we'll see.
4. The War on Flopping
When Kobe Bryant went down last Friday, everyone probably figured that the Lakers were done. However, it's not like this team doesn't have other good players, and lately those other good players have been playing really, really good. Er, well. So maybe without Kobe and his larger-than-life presence the Lakers will finally do something they haven't done all year: become a team. And maybe Dwight Howard will be Superman, and Gasol will be Gasol, and Steve Nash will get over his hamstring problems and play like he's just a young 32-year-old again instead of a broken down 39-year-old.
Or maybe not. Honestly, it could go either way. But no matter what, Lakers-Spurs is going to be interesting, and the results might have implications for Kobe's career with the Lakers.
3. Lakers sans Kobe
Forget the NBA Finals for a minute. Does any team in the Eastern Conference have a realistic shot at preventing the Heat from even getting there?
Answer: no—at least, not if everything plays out in the way probability suggests. The only other really "good" (i.e. 50-win) team in the East this year was New York, and at any time one of those old dudes might break a hip. So on paper, nobody has a chance to stop Miami, assuming at least some combination of their big three remains healthy.
Of course, if D-Wade and Bosh should go down for a bit like they did last year, or if LeBron himself got injured, then the picture changes—especially if Derrick Rose does decide to try playing basketball again. But for now, it looks like Miami is destined to repeat.
2. Can anyone beat the Heat?
The Eastern Conference might have the NBA's best team, but overall the Western Conference is far superior. In the West there are five 50-win teams, and every one of them has a better record than the Knicks, the 2nd place team in the East. And the West is better at the bottom, too. The Lakers and Rockets are seven and eight and both have 45-37 records, which would be enough for 5th place in the East.
Do the West's top teams have at least a shot at beating the Heat in the Finals? Absolutely. But here's the question every one of those teams has to be asking: will they be too worn out and beat up by the time they even get to the finals?
Last year the two teams that won 7-game series in the first round—the Lakers and Clippers—got knocked out in the second round by a combines score of 7 games to 1. Meanwhile, Miami had to play seven knockdown, drag-out games against the Celtics to make the finals, and they still beat the Thunder 4-1.
This year there is a ton of parity in the West and a lot of potential for epic series. So you have to wonder: will the competition beat these teams up to the point that they can't hang with LeBron and company?
We'll have to wait and see.