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The championship race has never had more title-worthy teams. Here are the questions they'll be answering over the next two months:
1. Who will be the Lakers' main challenger in the West?
Pay no attention to the worst losing streak—six games, through April Fools' Day—of Tim Duncan's 14-year career. The Spurs have earned the easiest draw in the West and will carry home court advantage into the conference finals against Los Angeles, which hasn't won a series against a higher seed since 2004. While San Antonio's defense is no longer intimidating, Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili are as lethal as ever, and they can count on a relatively fresh Duncan, who averaged a career-low 28.3 minutes this season.
2. Which higher seed is most vulnerable to an upset?
The Mavericks have the firepower, experience and—thanks to center Tyson Chandler—D to win the championship. But they haven't advanced past the second round in the last four years, and that discouraging trend creates hope among the underdogs. Nuggets coach George Karl voiced a widely held sentiment last week when he said he'd rather face Dallas than the Thunder in the opening round.
3. Can Derrick Rose run the table?
The last point guard to win a championship without deep playoff experience was Lakers rookie Magic Johnson in 1980, and he leaned on 11-year veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to reach the Finals. The suspicion among the Bulls' rivals is that Chicago won't be able to make big shots over the tighter postseason defenses. It'll be up to Rose, Luol Deng and Kyle Korver to disprove that theory.
4. Will the Heat peak in the playoffs?
Miami went 4--7 against the Spurs, Bulls, Celtics and Lakers, and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh still need to improve their chemistry in the half-court. Despite all the ups and downs this season, the Heat still ranked No. 2 in shooting (48.1% at week's end) and field goal defense (43.4%), and an underdog's role in the playoffs may relieve James & Co. of the burden of expectations and make them especially dangerous. They are a real threat to reach the Finals.
5. Who will win the title?