The NBA season is almost over and the last playoff spots are still undecided in each division.
Dallas still has a chance to trump San Antonio to steal the Western Conference’s top seed. Players like Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are still making their push for this year’s MVP award, until the last day of the season. Some teams will fade; some will make a strong push into the playoffs. Just ask the Hornets, who at the all-star break were the darlings of the NBA and locked into a playoff spot. Now, they will probably be on the outside looking in.
Here are a few of the storylines and subplots that will separate contenders from pretenders and decide how much of the playoffs each team will see from the court or the couch.
1. The energy of the Pistons is a major concern. Sure they dominated the regular season, and for a while threatened the 72-win record of the Bulls, but their starting five of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Ben and Rasheed Wallace has to be getting exhausted. Whereas other teams battle injuries, only Rasheed Wallace’s suspension for too many technical fouls in a season can keep this group from playing together. Will they have the energy for grinding each game out, or will their play dip enough for Miami to avenge last year’s game six and seven shockers?
2. Shaq is aging and it shows; he’s barely averaging 20 points and nine rebounds per game. He’s still dominant and his presence demands the ball, despite what Miami’s ballhandlers think.
This year is the same old story: he’s going to flip the switch on for the playoffs. After missing a chunk of the season and with declining stats, at 34, this switch only has a few more years.
Who knows if the light will not come on this year. Miami’s window of opportunity hinges on the big fella. Dwayne Wade and his teammates need to feed the ball to Shaq more this season, because each year it’s the last time they’ll Shaq at the level he’s playing. Also, with Jason Williams hurt, Wade’s suspect decision-making may doom the Heat and lead to a repeat of last year’s game seven collapse.
3. LeBron James in the playoffs, for the FIRST TIME. If that doesn’t excite NBA fans, then what will? The prodigy himself nearly averaged his way into a triple-double this season and now he gets to play when it matters. All eyes will be on how he plays and how far Cleveland gets into the playoffs. Playing Washington in the first round-who have a two-game lead over Milwaukee and shouldn’t lose it-will put pressure that the Cavs get in the second round. Anything less would be a disappointment.
4. Mark Cuban and Avery Johnson will insist that the D in Big D is defense. Their road victory over San Antonio on April 6 is sure to wake up the Spurs, but can they do it when it counts and dethrone the perennial Western Conference powerhouse? If so, the Mavericks might be seeing gold in June. But first, Dirk Nowitzki will have to be dead-on with shooting, they will have to minimize turnovers, and follow Avery Johnson’s defensive scheme. That’s a lot of if’s, but luckily, Dallas isn’t the only one with a plethora of those.
5. Don’t say that Tony Parker’s super play this year and their deep bench will overcome the funk that Tim “the Big Fundamental” Duncan is in. San Antonio’s playoff success depends on Duncan. The Spurs’ forward can’t mope through the playoffs like he did in their April 6 loss to Dallas, where he scored 13 points on 5-15 shooting. If he doesn’t wake up and get some energy, then the additions of Michael Finely and Nick Van Exel in the offseason will mean nothing because this team will be in want of a low post presence.
6. The Suns, once again, are without Amare Stoudemire, who had season-ending knee surgery. Steve Nash will have to anchor this team if they intend to make the Western Conference Finals again. Will the defense with Boris Diaw at center be affective in the playoffs? Will Raja Bell keep playing well? Will Nash minimize his mistakes, which have been too common as of late? Like New Jersey, this team’s regular season success comes with too many caveats to count.
7. Now that LeBron led the Cavs into ending New Jersey’s 14-game win streak, the Nets can start thinking playoffs. They are exciting, but will they have more playoff substance than the Sacramento Kings had a few years ago, or are they another fun-n-gun falls flat when it counts?
8. The first round matchup of Denver and Memphis. With two good coaches in George Karl and Mike Fratello, two excellent young studs in Carmelo Anthony and Pau Gasol, this should be a fierce series. Though neither team will probably see past the next round if they do advance, these two hard-nosed defensive teams matchup very well from point guard to center. Expect this one to go seven and steal the first round spotlight.
9. Yes, the apocalypse is upon us and the LA Clippers are not only in the playoffs, but they have a higher seed then their City of Angels counterpart. Sam Cassell has brought his championship experience and leadership to guide the Clippers out of the dark. Elton Brand, formerly the most under-recognized and underappreciated player in the NBA, continues his fierce defense and post-up offense. The Clippers are set for a first round matchup with Dallas. If there is a chance at a major first-round upset, then this is it. The Clippers are solid from point guard to center, and have the swagger to not be phased by the loud cheering of Dallas’s fans.
10. Assuming the Lakers and Kings both hold on, then watching Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant in the playoffs is enough. Which of these uniquely gifted players will put on the best show? Artest has revitalized Sacramento, but if they finish eighth and play San Antonio, he’ll have to play the best defense of his life to get past the Spurs. Face it, Kobe won’t get the Lakers past the first round, but everyone might want to see the Lakers win a game and Kobe score 80 in the playoffs. Or rather, who cares if the Lakers win, it only matters that Kobe is playing.