Brace yourselves, the playoffs are coming.
One more night of regular season basketball before an entirely new, more intense season of basketball kicks off. The playoffs are long, difficult and fun as hell. It's where the memories are really made.
All those 82 games are to set up the second season, and it's time we really start digging in. We'll have plenty more around these parts to set you up for postseason basketball, but here are five big trends to watch as the playoffs kick off this weekend:
1. Health update
One of the biggest stories throughout the regular season was the unfortunate injury bug that demolished the seasons of a lot of great players. Kobe Bryant. Derrick Rose. Danilo Gallinari. Rajon Rondo. Al Horford. Brook Lopez.
The quality of this season has been damaged because of injuries, but heading in to the playoffs, a couple teams will be battling health still.
- The Warriors could be without their starting front line against the Clippers (or maybe Thunder) as Andrew Bogut (fractured rib) and David Lee (hamstring) are indefinitely out.
- Russell Westbrook has missed 36 games this season, but lately his absences have only been because of planned rest during back-to-backs. And in the playoffs, there are no back-to-backs, so he should be more than good to go.
- Dwight Howard has been dealing with an ankle issue, but has played the last week, as well as Patrick Beverley who is recovering from a torn meniscus.
- The team with the biggest health questions is the Heat, who seem to have their entire postseason hopes placed on the knees of Dwyane Wade. He returned briefly after a nine-game absence because of a hamstring issue, but Wade has always has lingering ailments that have slowed him down.
2. Does it matter if you're playing well entering the playoffs?
Much of the focus in the second half of the NBA season has centered around contending teams seeing considerable drop-offs in the way they've played. The Pacers are the most obvious example, having won just 10 of their last 24 games. They're still the No. 1 seed and in the postseason, the slate is wiped clean. So, does it even matter how you're playing?
Recent history's indication is no.
The West's four recent representatives in the Finals:
- Last season, the Spurs lost seven of their final 10 games in the regular season. And obviously that didn't impact them much as they swept the Lakers in the opening round, took care of the Warriors in six, then swept the Grizzlies and were 20 seconds away from winning an NBA title.
- The Thunder went 7-7 in their final 14 games of 2012, before storming through the West to the Finals.
- In 2011, the Mavericks went 4-4 in their final eight games, and had 3-5 stretch a couple weeks before that. They were a streaky team, but were able to get on a good roll in the playoffs, which is all that mattered.
- The Lakers in 2010 were 4-7 in their final 11 games. And they beat the Celtics in seven games for an NBA title.
In the East, though, the Heat last season entered the playoffs rolling, having won eight straight and 37 of 39. In 2012, the Heat lost three of their final four games and were just 9-6 in their final 15. In 2011, the Heat entered the playoffs having won seven of eight.
In 2010, though, the Celtics were just 3-7 in their final 10 games. Then they shredded the Heat in five games in the opening round and rolled through way to the Finals before losing in that heartbreaking seventh game against the Lakers.
So the verdict: Entering the playoffs playing at a high level doesn't seem to be all that necessary. It obviously doesn't hurt to be playing well, but at the same time, what matters is playing well in that opening series. Because those final 10 games of the regular season really don't count for all that much.
3. Where could the upsets come from?
We don't have a handle on the matchups yet -- there are still 22 scenarios that could happen going into Wednesday's slate of action where all 30 teams are playing -- so it's hard to really gauge specifically who could be sneaking up on someone.
But the top teams that seem most ripe to be upset are probably the Pacers and Raptors. Last season, it was the upstart Warriors that did the most shocking, taking down the 58-win Nuggets in six games. The Pacers have limped their way in to the playoffs and could continue to slip, but with them drawing the Hawks, it seems pretty unlikely.
Assuming the Raptors hold at third, they're a candidate just because they aren't your traditional three-seed, and the separation between them and the No. 6 (currently the Wizards) is extremely thin.
Before the Warriors were crushed by injuries to Bogut and Lee, they had the look of maybe giving the Clippers a good run in that 3-6 matchup, but probably not anymore.
This one feels like a stretch, but the Thunder will (likely) get either the Mavs or Grizzlies in their first round matchup, and that team will have 50 wins. A 50-win team in the West is no joke. And considering the recent history with the Thunder (lost their last two to the Mavs) and Grizzlies (lost in five games in the second round last year) there could be an outside chance OKC has some issues.
A five beating a four isn't quite a big upset, but the Blazers are certainly poised to give the Rockets a run. And if we're counting the second round, watch out for the Rockets -- assuming they get by the Blazers -- and the Spurs. Houston went 4-0 against San Antonio this season.
4. Class system
Let's separate the 16 postseason teams in terms of tiers:
Prime contenders: Spurs, Thunder, Heat and Pacers. Those four teams have been at the top of their conferences all season long and it seems most likely that the conference finals in the East and West will feature them.
Contender-ish: Clippers and Rockets. Both have had tremendous seasons, but neither has proven much in the postseason lately. The Clippers haven't been past the second round in the Chris Paul era and the Rockets, are still young and unproven.
Dark horsey: Raptors, Bulls, Nets, Trail Blazers. The three mid-level East teams and one Western. With the Pacers No. 1 in the East, two of those three in the East will have their chance at an upset ripe Indiana squad in the second round. It's not hard to picture the Nets -- who have been one of the hottest teams in the league since January -- or the Raptors -- who are quietly very talented -- springing that kind of upset. The Blazers though have won eight of their last 10, and since getting LaMarcus Aldridge back healthy from injury, have been back to their winning ways. They could give the Rockets a strong push in the opening round and while the Spurs are a beast not to be trifled with, the Blazers starting five with their length and athleticism, could make it tough.
Threatening: Wizards, Bobcats, Grizzlies, Mavericks. The Wizards are young and in a brand new world. The Bobcats have Big Al Jefferson and a stout defense, but can't score. The Grizzlies have their imposing interior duo, but aren't the team they were a season ago and the Mavs, still with Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle, are old and can't defend. All four could make life difficult on the high seeds they'll play, and they're all upset capable, but I wouldn't pick it.
Why are you here: Hawks. You won 37 games. You shouldn't be here. Call the Suns and apologize right now.
5. Who's facing the most postseason pressure?
The playoffs are when the spotlight burns brightest and players can make or break their reputations. Five that will feel it on them most:
- Start with LeBron James, who always has the most pressure on him. Even with back-to-back championships, so much is expected of him and if the Heat fail this season, with their Big Three all opt-out able, the team could see a break-up.
- The likely MVP, Kevin Durant, is going to experience the most playoff pressure he's ever felt. When you're the top individual player in a season, you've got a target on your back. And at 25 years old, Durant will have accomplished an absurd amount, but it's starting to get to that place where the thing he's really going to need on his resume is a championship.
- Frank Vogel, who wasn't exactly the Pacers' first choice as coach when he took over full-time after being their interim guy in 2011, has expectations bearing down on him and his team for the first time. A unexpected second-round exit and his seat might begin to warm.
- Quietly, Chris Paul does not have a very prestigious postseason record. He's never been past the second round and in the past, he's had the benefit of the doubt. Bad coach, bad teammates, bad whatever. Now? He's got a fully operational Blake Griffin running alongside him, one of the game's top coaches in Doc Rivers and more depth on the roster than he's ever had before. I wrote as much back in October and it still rings true: It's time for Chris Paul to start winning.
- Dwight Howard went to Houston in a fairly controversial way, choosing a young star teammate over the aura of the Lakers. It looks like he made a pretty great decision. But Howard is 28, and he's only been to the Finals once. The Rockets are still a young team, but they'll be favored in their opening round series. A disappointing first-round exit and the perception around Howard -- and teammate James Harden -- might quickly take another turn downhill.