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Seven NBA playoff story lines to watch

Apr 19, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Getty Images

After weeks of trying to predict seedings and matchups while watching teams rest their perfectly healthy superstars, the playoffs are finally upon us.

In no particular order, here are the story lines we’ll be watching when the postseason tournament opens on Saturday.

How much damage can the Lakers do without Kobe Bryant?

L.A. opened the season as the favorites (on paper) to challenge the Heat in the Finals, thanks to the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the offseason. An early season coaching change, followed by an insane rash of injuries derailed the Lakers’ chances all season long, and Kobe Bryant became the final casualty of the seemingly lost season once he went down with a torn Achilles injury just as the team was making a run at that final playoff spot in the West.

The Lakers managed to keep it together without Bryant long enough to beat the Spurs and the Rockets to seal a playoff berth, and enter the postseason winning eight of their last nine games. But how this team fares without Bryant while they try to combat the efficiency of the Spurs machine in a series will be extremely interesting to watch, though undoubtedly nerve-wracking for Lakers fans at the same time.

How far can the Clippers go, and what will that mean for Vinny Del Negro’s future?

Vinny Del Negro is legitimately on the hot seat in Los Angeles, for a variety of reasons. How far the Clippers do or do not advance in the postseason is likely to determine his fate, but just how far does L.A. have to get for him to be safe?

The Clippers have a tough but favorable first round matchup against the Grizzlies, who they beat in the first round of the playoffs a season ago in seven games. Last year, the Clippers were swept by the Spurs in the second round, so getting there again this year probably won’t be enough by itself to bring Del Negro back next season.

A trip to the Conference finals might be enough improvement to retain Del Negro’s services, but honestly, it’s going to be Chris Paul‘s decision as much as it will be anyone’s inside the organization. Paul is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and will have all the say in the world regarding whether or not Del Negro is brought back next season.

Will the Thunder return to the Finals without James Harden?

Thanks to Oklahoma City largely returning the same roster from a season ago that got them to the NBA Finals, the Thunder are once again poised to make a deep postseason run. But the elephant in the room is the fact that they traded James Harden away to Houston, and the reality is that if they don’t make it back to the Finals, this season will be a wild disappointment, and the front office will be scrutinized for choosing dollars over a legitimate championship chance.

Can the Knicks win a playoff series for the first time in 13 years?

It seems like a silly question, given the success New York has put together this year while being lead by the league’s leading scorer in Carmelo Anthony, and a likely Sixth Man of the Year candidate in J.R. Smith. But nothing is guaranteed for the Knicks despite holding the two seed in the East, and a first round matchup against the Celtics could be terrifying given the history between the teams this season, along with the intensity that veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will bring to a seven-game series.

How much noise can the Warriors make?

The Warriors are in the playoffs for just the second time in the last 19 years, and with one of the best fan bases in the league there to support them, it’s an exciting time in the Bay Area for a basketball resurgence to be taking place. Mark Jackson has been successful in installing a winning culture in just his second season as head coach, but he and the team have said all along that simply making the playoffs was not the ultimate goal this season. We don’t know what the team believes it’s capable of internally, but a first round matchup with an injury-depleted Nuggets team could prove favorable if Golden State can play flawless basketball during the road games of this series.

Will the Spurs finally live up to their potential?

San Antonio has always been one of the more well-coached regular season teams. Gregg Popovich has his system installed, and has the players on the roster to execute it to perfection, no matter the injuries that may take place over the course of the season.

But despite the regular season success, the Spurs haven’t been to the Finals since winning it all in 2007, and have lost to teams they were favored to beat in the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. We know the system allows for regular season success, but at some point the Spurs are going to run out of chances with their core of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili to get back to the Finals. Another early exit this season would be a major disappointment, and might signify the end of an era in San Antonio.

Will the Heat repeat as champions?

This is the question we all want answered. Miami ran roughshod over the rest of the league during the regular season, and just about everyone fully expects them to continue the trend throughout the playoffs. The Heat have the best player in the game in LeBron James, and All-Star complimentary pieces in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that are a wealth of riches when compared to the rosters of other teams Miami might face on the way to a title.

The Heat aren’t just the favorites to repeat as champions; they’ve become the expectation. The way they finished the regular season by winning 37 of their final 39 games is absolutely absurd, and they did so even while resting their best players at times along the way.

It’s gotten to the point where we’d all be surprised if Miami didn’t win the title again this season. But that won’t make the journey any less exciting to watch.

  1. dohoangquan35 - Apr 19, 2013 at 8:09 AM

    another storyline: the refs.

    this happens every year for this league and i think i don’t need to tell you guys about that

    • nickjackalson - Apr 19, 2013 at 8:38 AM

      ever heard about self-fulfilling prophecies?

      • dohoangquan35 - Apr 19, 2013 at 9:01 AM

        already, in 2002

  2. money2long - Apr 19, 2013 at 9:43 AM

    not to say the season ending injury to kobe was a good thing at all, but it’s good that it didnt happen in the final game of the season. the lakers had a couple games to see what life without kobe will be like heading into the post season, and so it didnt catch them off guard. they’ve probably been thinking about game plans of how better to use pau and dwight because they have no choice now, and diantoni has even come out saying he was wrong about how the two bigs faired playing alongside each other.

    the lakers were able to have a different mindset with kobe going down a little before the season was over. dwight’s mentality has changed. i noticed in the houston game, he played fantastic defense on harden’s penetrations to the hoop. and dwight, after hearing the crowd cheer and making great plays, wasnt smiling. he had a mean/determined look on his face, like he meant business. kobe definitely rubbed off on dwight. dwight knows it’s time to put the team on his shoulders. everyone in that locker room is looking at him , and it’s time.

  3. bucrightoff - Apr 19, 2013 at 10:04 AM

    The refs are gonna be interesting cause this is Sterns last Finals. No doubt if he can get the matchup he wants (i.e. not San Antonio and Indiana), he’ll do what he can. Obviously the dream final four for him is either LA team and OKC and Miami-NY.

    • Mr. Wright 212 - Apr 19, 2013 at 1:15 PM

      New York is not big on Stern’s radar. It’s Miami, Oklahoma City, Clippers and Celtics.

    • kavika6 - Apr 20, 2013 at 4:07 AM

      The Spurs/Lakers matchup should be interesting. Stern admittedly loves the Lakers and obviously hates the Spurs.

  4. miamatt - Apr 19, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    Can’t imagine why people who believe the refs are the storyline would even bother watching; I know I wouldn’t if I believed that was the case.

    Reality is officiating the NBA is like watching the trenches in the NFL- they could call holding on every play, or let it go every play. You just hope for some measure of consistency.

    And yes, ALL star players get the benefit of the doubt a good amount of the time. But if you believe there is a “conspiracy”, than naturally it appears that the Champion was manufactured, precisely because they are the team that won. NBA fouls are often dubiously defined and subjectively officated, and any person can read into it whatever they want to see.

    • Mr. Wright 212 - Apr 19, 2013 at 1:15 PM

      Of course you say that, being a fan of the team that gets far more ref help than anyone in the NBA.

      • miamatt - Apr 19, 2013 at 3:15 PM

        *insert current NBA champion here* is always the team “that gets far more ref help anyone in the NBA”. We simply don’t scrutinize missed calls that help the teams that fall short with the same vigor as we do the champion that isn’t our favorite team.

        Sorry, but you lose all credibility when you rail on about the refs. Be a man and root for your team, don’t warm up the excuses before they are necessary. And don’t fall back on some lazy “you’re a heat fan and have only watched basketball for two years” retort becuase that’s bunk, and neither one of us could prove our side either way.

        If your Knicks do beat my Heat, one comment you won’t read from me is how the refs stole the series. And I’d still like to know why you bother watching a sport that you view as rigged. Makes no sense to me.

    • bucrightoff - Apr 19, 2013 at 2:46 PM

      The NBA is the only sport where the refs can literally add points. No other league can do this. And Stern said a long time ago that his dream Finals was “The Lakers versus the Lakers”. Plus there’s just way too many coincidences in his tenure for them to be coincidences.Stern has been great for the game in terms of growth, terrible in terms of credibility.

    • critter69 - Apr 19, 2013 at 11:01 PM

      “ALL star players get the benefit of the doubt a good amount of the time.”

      Proper officiating pays absolutely NO attention to who is, and who is not, a star or a ‘benchwarmer’. That is why ‘professional basketball’ is heading in the direction of ‘professional wrestling’, in my opinion.

  5. 4thquartermagic - Apr 19, 2013 at 4:07 PM

    How much damage can the Lakers do without Kobe Bryant? Not much.

    How far can the Clippers go, and what will that mean for Vinny Del Negro’s future? Second round. Re-hired.

    Will the Thunder return to the Finals without James Harden? Nope.

    Can the Knicks win a playoff series for the first time in 13 years? Nope. Lose in 7.

    How much noise can the Warriors make? 2 wins.

    Will the Spurs finally live up to their potential? They did last year and wasn’t good enough. Father time is undefeated.

    Will the Heat repeat as champions? Injury is the only way they don’t.

    • jimeejohnson - Apr 20, 2013 at 12:03 PM

      If the Knicks lose in 7, they suck!

  6. mazblast - Apr 20, 2013 at 2:30 PM

    One thing that has always bothered me about Stern is that he doesn’t even bother to hide his preferences. I have little doubt that his henchmen make it clear to the refs, too (“Do you want to keep your job? Do you want to keep it, but spend all of next year in Detroit, Minnesota, Cleveland, Sacramento, Philly, and Charlotte?”).

    We KNOW that IF it’s close, the Lakers will get the calls and the Spurs won’t. The Spurs have to kick the Lakers early and often and not let the Stern “magic” come into play.

    Fortunately, I don’t see nearly as much chance of Stern’s “divine” intervention in the other series. The #1 seeds don’t look to be in any danger. The media will focus on the Heat vs. “opponent”, Knicks-Celtics, and of course the Lakers, and pay almost zero attention to Pacers-Hawks and Nuggets-Warriors.

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