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.”
So what’s past is past, right?
Or is it?
3. Is Mike D’Antoni being wrong going to make everything right?
The once-mighty Los Angeles Lakers barely made it into the playoffs, and now without the great Kobe Bryant they must face 58-victory San Antonio.
But don’t necessarily count the Lakers out, not if Dwight Howard decides to put on his big-boy pants for the playoffs, not if Steve Nash can come back from injury.
And not if Mike D’Antoni is sincere about his recent admission that he was wrong earlier this season when he concluded big men Howard and Pau Gasol can’t play together.
The Lakers finished the season 8-2 and beat out Utah for the West’s eighth and final playoff spot, and Gasol starred alongside Howard down the stretch after missing six weeks because of a foot injury.
His play caused Nash to tell reporters Friday, “This is the Pau that I was begging for a chance to play with.”
It also has put him back in favor with D’Antoni after falling into the coach’s disfavor early in the season.
“I’ve come to realize that we can play with the two big guys,” D’Antoni told reporters earlier this week. “I was a little skeptical at first. I think with both of them being close to 100 percent, yeah, they can play together easily. I kind of had a preconceived notion that probably wasn’t right.”
4. With apologies to the Fabulous Thunderbirds, are the flashy L.A. Clippers “tuff enuff?”
The Clippers won the Pacific Division for the first time in history and swept the hometown rival Lakers for the first time since Donald Sterling bought the franchise in 1981.
But as loaded and high-flying as they are with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and, heck, even former Timberwolves big man Ryan Hollins, do the 56-victory Clippers have enough substance with their style to go deep in the playoffs?
It’s a particularly important question given their first-round rematch with Memphis, a team they beat in seven games in last season’s first round.
In contrast, the Grizzlies are all about muscle and moxie and short on style points.
TNT analyst Charles Barkley, of course, has an opinion.
“That team has got no toughness,” Barkley said. “They’re not a legitimate contender.”
5. A playoff pick-’em: Russell Westbrook, hero or goat?
No playoff player is more polarizing that the Oklahoma City point guard, who alternately delights and confounds even his coach — sometimes on the same play.
With Chicago’s Derrick Rose apparently out for the season and these playoffs, Westbrook is a singular combination of size, speed and strength at that position. He’s also a guy prone to shoot too much — particularly with a guy named Kevin Durant on his team already — and then there’s that temperament that led him to storm off the court when he was pulled from the game for barking at a teammate and hoisting a wild shot during a January contest.
Barkley at the time on the air implored Thunder coach Scott Brooks to “handle this” and said Westbrook must “grow up” or an OKC team that traded away James Harden to Houston after reaching the NBA Finals last spring can’t win a championship.
“This thing is going to show its ugly head deep in the playoffs if they don’t,” he said.
But now that Harden meets his old mates in a first-round matchup, Saunders said the same thing that makes Westbrook a nightmare to defend — his aggressiveness — is also what causes the second-guessing.
“The guy plays every night, gives everything he has,” Saunders said. “I think the last time he missed a game was probably in elementary school.
“The benefit and rewards of what he does and how aggressive he plays far outweigh the negatives that happen over the course of a game.”