Five-minute guide: NBA playoffs
Stories and matchups to watch, predictions and more
Posted: Thursday April 19, 2007 1:37PM; Updated: Thursday April 19, 2007 1:37PM
With the six-month "preseason'' complete, we now enter the two-month real season: Sixteen teams, as many as 105 games, and the best basketball on the planet. Here are a few things to watch for as spring approaches summer:
Most Intriguing Storylines
In chronological order:
Will Tracy McGrady win a playoff series?
He is 0-for-5 in the opening round, but this is the first time his team will have home court advantage. More important than his personal record, the Rockets need to win this postseason to set themselves up for a title run next year.
Will the Bulls win a playoff series?
When Chicago VP John Paxson talked in this space this week about the Bulls' need for a low-post scorer to "settle the game down,'' he was practically forecasting the reason for their collapse Wednesday at New Jersey. That weak-kneed 106-97 loss dropped the Bulls from the East's No. 2 seed (where they would have faced the sub-.500 Nets) to No. 5, which now forces them to take on the defending champion Heat -- with the Pistons waiting for them in Round 2, if the Bulls are so lucky.
Despite their home court advantage, the young Bulls will be underdogs against Miami. It says a lot about their youth and their perimeter lopsidedness that the Bulls couldn't win the one game they needed against the Nets. Though it might ultimately have done them a favor, for there'll be no overrating their talent now. This series against Miami, coming off the demoralizing loss at New Jersey, will tell Paxson everything he needs to know about the Bulls' resilience, toughness and offseason needs.
Will LeBron James recreate last year's playoff run?
The answer is an emphatic yes, and -- again -- it's all thanks to Chicago's defeat. That win by New Jersey was easily the biggest game of the NBA season, because it swung James' Cavaliers from the No. 5 seed (and early rounds against Miami and Detroit) all the way up to No. 2, where they should breeze past the depleted Wizards (let the alarms sound on the Cavs' professionalism if they need more than five games to win that series) toward a second-round matchup on their home court against the Raptors or Nets. Instead of a first-round loss to Miami and all of the inner-sanctum torment that surely would have followed, the Cavaliers now have a legitimate shot of winning the Eastern finals against an older, tired team from Detroit or Miami. The young Michael Jordan never had it this easy.
Which version of the Heat will show up?
Will they keep things slow to play through Shaquille O'Neal? Will Dwyane Wade feel healthy enough to drive the paint -- and if so will their tempo inch up? They won the championship playing through Wade last year, but this year's team looks stronger going through Shaq, who led them back into contention in Wade's absence.
Will the elderly Spurs win their fourth title?
This team isn't exactly feeble: They won 58 games while limiting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to fewer minutes than last year. They could have challenged Dallas and Phoenix all season, but that would have worn them out for the postseason run. Duncan is far more healthy now than last year, when his Spurs blew Game 7 to Dallas. San Antonio is the most intriguing team of the playoffs.
Can the Suns win without defending?
This has to be the year: Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa have never been better, and Amaré Stoudemire grows stronger every month. If they don't get past the Spurs and Mavericks this time, will owner Robert Sarver be willing to pay a luxury tax next season? Or will he seek traditional moves to improve the defense while trimming payroll?
Will the Mavericks break through?
No contender was more dominant, deeper or tougher than the Mavs, who established a high level of consistently hard play night after night that recalls the 2002-03 Spurs, the 1999-2000 Lakers and the latter-day Bulls of Jordan. The only thing left for Dirk Nowitzki to prove is that he can lead his team through Games 5, 6 and 7 of the playoffs in May and June. Will his Mavericks feel the pressure -- or will they exert it?
Can the East win the championship?
Detroit and Miami (if everything falls into place) are the two teams with the size and experience capable of knocking off Dallas, San Antonio or Phoenix in the NBA Finals. To do so they must control tempo over seven games, and that's a longshot.
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