The NBA playoffs begin Saturday without the Timberwolves for the ninth consecutive season or a guy named Kobe Bryant, but not without its usual share of compelling story lines.
In the East, the defending champion Miami Heat is clearly the team to beat, no matter how much commotion the New York Knicks’ late-season surge created in Gotham. What else can you say about a team that’s already won one title and has lost only two games since Feb. 1?
In the West, five teams won 56 or more regular-season games, the kind of parity that could make even a first-round series between Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers one for the ages.
Even the No. 1 vs. 8 series pitting Oklahoma City and Houston reunites Rockets star James Harden with the team that traded him away mostly for salary-cap reasons last fall, and the 2 vs. 7 series offers a Los Angeles Lakers team without injured Bryant in the unexpected role as underdogs against four-time champion San Antonio.
Here are five questions that will have an impact on this year’s playoffs.
1. What’s it going to take to beat the Heat?
Sounds like a silly question here in Minnesota in any number of ways, doesn’t it?
Usually it takes a big ol’ parasol or one of those misting machines, but in this case, judging from the season’s final three months, it sure looks like it’s going to take a whole lot more than that.
LeBron James might win both league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year if voters were honest with themselves. Instead, he’ll probably have to settle for his third MVP, another All-NBA first-team designation and his second championship ring.
The Heat won 66 games, lost ony four times since Jan. 14 and finished the season with a 37-2 flourish that included a 27-game winning streak, the second-longest in NBA history.
“I don’t see anyone challenging them,” ESPN analyst Flip Saunders said. “They’ve really been off the charts, the way LeBron is playing. There are teams that are going to be able to beat them a game or two maybe, but I can’t see anyone that has the ability to beat them four games.”
2. How are Kevin Garnett and Carmelo Anthony going to top THAT?
You can’t make this stuff up, or maybe you can…
When New York and Boston played in January, Anthony went looking for Garnett in the Celtics’ locker room and later outside the team bus, seething over something K.G. said during the game at Madison Square Garden.
That something reportedly was about Anthony’s wife, La La, tasting like Honey Nut Cheerios. Later, Anthony’s wife denied the remark was ever said but said her hubby played along with it by telling reporters, “I’m definitely going to get a bowl of that, for sure.”
Anthony’s actions earned him a one-game suspension. Both players have downplayed any rivalry between them since then.
Garnett praised Anthony in the days leading to Saturday’s first-round playoff opener, calling his late-season burst in which he claimed the NBA’s scoring title from Kevin Durant “unbelievable.”