Saturday, April 19, marked the beginning of the NBA Playoffs, and the eight best teams in the East and eight best in the West have hit the court running. Even with the sport’s growing popularity worldwide, the NBA Playoffs remain as the pinnacle of superiority in basketball.
Once again, the Western Conference has put out teams with higher regular season performances. Seven of the eight Western conference teams racked up at least 50 wins this season, compared to just two in the East. Early playoff predictions favor the top seeded teams in each Conference: the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, and Miami Heat. Other teams receiving attention for potential playoff success include the Los Angeles Clippers and the Houston Rockets from the West. For the first time in league history, the playoffs will not have the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, or New York Knicks competing.
Thus far, the first round has been too close for comfort for the two first seeded teams in the East and West. The Spurs again enter the post-season with high expectations as the team with a league-leading record of 62-20, led by Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. They are faced with the 2011 Champions Dallas Mavericks in the first round and hope not to have a repeat of their 2010 campaign in the playoffs, where they lost to the eighth seed Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. The Spurs’ playoffs hopes are made more potent by their loss to the Heat in last year’s Finals. Expectations are high for this veteran team who are consistently successful in the regular season for their solid play and not the flash of most current teams.
The Pacers ended the season with a record of 56-26, besting last year’s champions, the Heat. The team, in fact, was created with the goal of beating the Heat in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals. This may be to their detriment if they lose early on in the playoffs and they are being threatened early on by the eighth seeded Atlanta Hawks. If the Pacers do make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, they will be a tough team to beat for the Heat or any other team that battles its way up the ranks.
Perhaps the most pressure lies on the Heat, who are expected to be top contenders as the defending Champions. Questionable health and general inconsistency prevented them from capturing the top seed and home court advantage through the Conference Finals. But any team with LeBron James has the potential to compete; help from a healthy Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh might mean victory.
This year’s poster-child team for young talent, the Thunder, continues its quest for a first championship title. Despite early injury of its star point guard, Russell Westbrook, the team has bounced back and stayed strong throughout the season. With scoring leader Kevin Durant leading the team, the Thunder have a chance to steal the show this playoff season.
The playoffs atmosphere is infectious, and each team is expected to rise to the next level to compete on the biggest stage in basketball. With several more rounds to go before a new, or old, Championship team is once again crowned, there is no certainty for even the most experienced or talented teams.