The 2012-2013 NBA campaign has certainly provided basketball fans with an abundance of twists and turns to follow, not to mention the various storylines that have developed from the outset of the season. Thankfully, as another outstanding regular season came to a close, a plethora intriguing storylines will finally come to fruition as the playoffs continue. So, as the first round matchups unfold, here are some of the elements I’ll be watching closely, as well as my projected forecast for each these developments.
Dwight Howard and the Kobe-less Lakers
After a whirlwind of a regular season, the once-laughable Lakers somehow managed to sneak into the postseason. However, between the devastating news of Kobe Bryant’s ruptured Achilles tendon and the daunting task of facing San Antonio in the first round, Lakers fans have little to celebrate. Without Bryant, arguably the greatest competitor in the game, the herculean task of carrying the Lake Show to an improbable title chase is centered squarely on the massive shoulders of Dwight Howard. With the possibility of free agency looming, Howard’s future in Los Angeles will likely be determined by his performance in the playoffs.
Bryant’s absence is too much for Howard and the Lakers to overcome, and the center turns in underwhelming performances against the Spurs’ big men. Los Angeles musters one win in the friendly confines of the Staples Center, but ultimately drop the series to San Antonio by a count of three games to one.
Boston copes with injuries, tragedy
Less than a week removed from the tragic Boston Marathon bombings, the Celtics were given an opportunity to lift the spirits of their proud city in their first round matchup with the Atlantic Division champion New York Knicks. Under head coach Doc Rivers, the Celtics have already demonstrated their resiliency, having earned a playoff berth after losing star point guard Rajon Rondo to a torn ACL midway through the season. Meanwhile, the streaky Knicks entered the postseason as the East’s greatest threat against Miami’s quest for a third straight Finals appearance.
The people of Boston deserve another gutty Celtics postseason run to distract them from the pain of Marathon Monday, but without their magician at the helm, Boston comes up short in a thrilling series. New York will advance, but I would not be surprised if the C’s stretch this to six games.
Harden vs. Oklahoma City
(Battle of the Offensive Juggernauts, Part I)
By dropping the regular season finale to the Lakers, James Harden and the Houston Rockets likely sealed their postseason fate, as the eighth seed in the West earned them the dubious honor of facing reigning conference champions Oklahoma City in the opening round. For Harden, this series is an opportunity to make the Thunder regret trading him to H-Town, after OKC refused to offer the former Sixth Man of the Year a max contract. Harden has obviously proven his star caliber abilities as the featured man in Houston, but a stellar performance in this series would cement his status as an elite player.
Harden will get his numbers, but Houston’s inexperience against the ultra-talented Thunder results in a commanding series win for OKC. I really hope the Rockets can extend the series to at least six games, but I don’t expect them to do so.
The Wild West
(Battle of the Offensive Juggernauts, Part II)
Despite the fact that Miami is expected to repeat as NBA champions, the Western Conference is still the superior league from top to bottom. As such, the West has provided some of the most thrilling playoff series in recent years, and the Denver-Golden State matchup has all the makings for another highly competitive, highly entertaining bout. Both the Nuggets and Warriors have a knack for scoring a ton of points, and the young talent on each squad should make for some outstanding battles.
I fully expect this series to go to seven games, with the Nuggets’ incredible home court dominance carrying them to the second round. Denver and Golden State both suffered tough blows with the injuries to Danilo Gallinari and David Lee, respectively. Nevertheless, I still believe the offensive firepower of each team will make for an awesome series, including the deciding seventh game in the Mile High city.