For fans of the Sacramento Kings, this season has largely played out off the court. Many Kings fans could barely bring themselves to pay attention to Kings games, so it's understandable that Kings fans may not have been paying much attention to other happenings around the league. Here's a quick playoff preview to catch you up on what you may have missed. SB Nation also has a playoffs hub if you really want to delve into the playoff storylines.
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs. Houston Rockets (8)
The Rockets somehow managed to slide into the 8th seed, giving us the storyline of James Harden facing his old team. The Rockets aren't considered a serious threat to take down the Thunder, but I think they match up better with the Thunder than they did with the Spurs. If nothing else, this should be an incredibly fun series. The Rockets play an up-tempo style that is both fun and effective. Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin both proved to be huge additions for the Rockets, and Chandler Parsons really came into his own. If you haven't seen the Phantom Cam footage of Parsons' huge three against the Lakers to force overtime Wednesday night, you should check it out.
If nothing else, you get to watch Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. If LeBron James went to play minor league baseball for a few months, Durant would be the unquestioned MVP of the league. This season he joined rare company as the newest member of the 50-40-90 club, meaning he shot over 50% from the field, over 40% from three, and over 90% from the line for an entire season. Durant also averaged 28.15 point per game this season, the second highest PPG total for any member of the 50-40-90 club. Only Larry Bird averaged more. Bird averaged an insane 29.93 points per game while shooting 50-40-90 in 1987-88.
My prediction: Thunder in 5
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. L.A. Lakers (7)
As the season wound down, it seemed like the Lakers really would miss the playoffs. Instead, the Utah Jazz collapsed down the stretch and the Rockets stumbled as well. Against all odds, the Lakers managed to land in the 7th seed. They'll face a Spurs team that has also struggled some down the stretch, mostly as they attempted to get their key players healthy in time for the playoffs. This situation would be perfect for the Lakers to come in and pull the upset. Remember before the season, the common thought about this Lakers team was that they'd be much more dangerous in the playoffs than they would be in the regular season. In the playoffs, the Lakers' lack of depth wouldn't be such an issue. And as Dwight Howard has finally started looking healthy, this would've been the team nobody wanted to face. But then Kobe Bryant went down with a torn achilles.
Without Kobe, I can't see the Lakers toppling the Spurs. Tim Duncan has quietly had his best season in years on both ends of the floor. His defense has been fantastic. Tony Parker will be guarded by either a hobbled Steve Nash or a healthy Steve Blake, so either way he's facing a defense he can carve up. Manu Ginobili is expected back for the start of the playoffs. With Manu you never know how healthy he will be or how long he'll stay that way, but even if he's limited Danny Green has grown into a reliable contributor for the Spurs. I think the Lakers can steal a game or two, but I think the Spurs will simply overwhelm the Lakers when push comes to shove. And really, it's kind of a shame. With Kobe healthy, this would have been an incredible series.
For more, you can check out our Spurs blog Pounding The Rock and our Lakers blog Silver Screen and Roll. And seriously, I know we love to hate the Lakers, but the guys at SSR do some really good work. All of the blogs I'm linking you to do good work, but I feel the need to specifically justify sending you to a Lakers blog.
My prediction: Spurs in 6
Denver Nuggets (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
This should be one helluva fun series. The Nuggets and Warriors are both fun, up-tempo teams. The Nuggets come in hobbled by injuries, which could make this series closer than it otherwise would be. Danilo Gallinari is out for the season after tearing his ACL two weeks ago. Kenneth Faried is recovering from a badly sprained ankle, but has said he's hoping to play in Game 1. Barring a setback, it seems like he'll be available for at least part of the series, which will be important for the Nuggets. Ty Lawson also recently returned from injury, but has played the last few games and appears to be playing well.
The Gallinari injury impacts the Nuggets mostly from a spacing standpoint. He's one of the few Nuggets who can space the floor as an outside shooting threat. The Nuggets rely almost exclusively on threes and shots at the rim, so spacing is critical. The X-factor for the Nuggets is Evan Fournier. Fournier has played well when given minutes, and might help create some of the space. The Nuggets are an incredibly deep team, and it will be interesting to see how George Karl divvies their minutes.
The Warriors might give the Nuggets a run for their money. I'm not predicting this series to go 7 games, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least. Stephen Curry has managed to stay healthy and has really come into his own as a star in the league. This season he set the all-time record for most three pointers in a season, passing Ray Allen. David Lee gets besmirched for his defense, but he's hugely valuable to the Warriors on offense. Harrison Barnes has been solid in his rookie season, and Klay Thompson is still a threat even if he hasn't lived up to expectations in his sophomore season. With 6th man Jarrett Jack providing a big punch off the bench, the Warriors have a lot of weapons. Even if they aren't as deep as Denver, they are still a deep and dangerous team.
My prediction: Nuggets in 6
L.A. Clippers (4) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5)
I would love to pick the Grizzlies here. Love to. I find them to be a far more likeable team than the Clippers. Marc Gasol has been brilliant this season on both ends of the floor. Mike Conley has been a very good point guard. Tony Allen is still an amazing defender. Zach Randolph is still a force in the post. I loved the trade they made to dump Rudy Gay and pick up Tayshaun Prince. I loved that they also picked up the very underrated Ed Davis. I think Lionel Hollins is a very good coach, and the Grizzlies will be fools if they let him leave this offseason. So for all of these reasons, I'd love to pick the Grizzlies, but I can't.
I can't pick against Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Paul is aggravating for his flopping and his complaining, but he's a master of his craft and the playoffs are where he truly unleashes everything. During the season he holds back a little, not in the post season. And as much as I may dislike it when Blake Griffin faces the Kings, he is one helluva player. He doesn't get enough credit, which is crazy considering he's an All-Star and one of the most recognizable stars in the game. Those two, paired with the Clippers' depth, I can't pick against, not in the first round. A brief side note on the Clippers depth, I'm afraid Jamal Crawford is going to get robbed of the Sixth Man of the Year award. He earned it this year. Alas.
My prediction: Clippers in 7
Miami Heat (1) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (8)
Pop quiz: What's the difference between the Kings and the 8th seed in the East? The answer is 10 wins. It's cliche to discuss how much worse the East is than the West, but the Bucks are the 8th seed with 38 wins. For context, the Nuggets won 38 games at home this season. For more context, the Lakers and Rockets (the 7 and 8 seeds in the West) have the same record as Chicago, the 5 seed in the East. So this series is a total joke, right? Yes and no.
The Heat should dominate the series and finish off the Bucks quickly, but that doesn't mean you should ignore it. The Bucks aren't a great team, but they're a surprisingly fun team to watch. They're such an odd mixture of talent. Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders, er, I'm sorry, LARRY SANDERS!, J.J. Redick, John Henson, they're just an odd mix of players. I wouldn't particularly want to have a rooting interest in the Bucks, but as a fan of NBA weirdness, I love the Bucks and you should too.
As for the Heat, you know the story. LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet. He should be the unanimous MVP, although I'm sure there will be one or two contrarians still hung up over an ESPN special. The Heat are the big favorites to repeat for the championship, and it's hard to argue against them. Aside from LeBron, Dwyane Wade is still great, as is Chris Bosh. And the Heat have more depth than ever, with Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Ray Allen, Chris Andersen and even Rashard Lewis filling in as needed. They'll dominate the first round, and just might dominate every round until the NBA Finals.
My prediction: Heat in 4
New York Knicks (2) vs. Boston Celtics (7)
This Knicks team has had an incredible year. After a hot start it looked like injuries would lead to disappointment, but the Knicks kept winning games. Now the Knicks find themselves as possibly the only true challenger to the Heat in the East. And yet I still have trouble buying into them. Maybe my perception is colored by the Knicks recent history. After all, the Knicks have been a mess of a franchise for the last decade. By any reasonable measure, their success this season is astounding. J.R. Smith putting together the best month of his career? Carmelo Anthony finally becoming the leader we always wanted him to be? Doing all of this without Amare Stoudemire? A point guard platoon of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, and a 35-year old rookie Pablo Prigioni? Kenyon Martin? None of it makes sense. And yet here we are.
But do you really want to bet against Boston? The Celtics should've been done when they lost Rajon Rondo for the year. They'd been playing terrible, lost arguably their best player, and somehow got better. Are you going to bet against Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett putting it together for one more run? Don't get me wrong, the Celtics are held together with duct tape and a prayer. But I'm not sure I'm counting them out of this. If the Knicks are going to win this series, I think they need to do it quickly. I can absolutely see the Celtics hanging around when they have no business doing so. I believe rumors of Jason Terry's demise may be premature. I believe Boston has one more series in them.
My prediction: Celtics in 6
Indiana Pacers (3) vs. Atlanta Hawks (6)
Before the final month of the season, the Pacers, not the Knicks, were generally considered the second best team in the East. Indiana failed to finish out the season strong while the Knicks surged, and now the Pacers face a Hawks team that is arguably less dangerous than the Celtics. The fact that the Pacers are even in the three seed could really be considered a small miracle, though. The Pacers lost Danny Granger to injury for the full season (for all intents and purposes), which was expected to be a huge blow. Instead, Paul George stepped up and filled the void, and further established himself as a player on the rise. Roy Hibbert struggled offensively, but more than made up for it by excelling at protecting the paint. The Pacers traded away Darren Collison, but saw George Hill prove himself to be more than worthy of the starting point guard position. Despite the low expectations entering the playoffs, the Pacers are still a very good team.
Speaking of low expectations, the Hawks are being completely overlooked. While I'll be stunned if they make it out of the first round, I also said that about last year's Hawks, who swept Orlando back when that meant something. The Hawks should truly be commended. They traded their best player in the offseason, received a scrap pile of expiring contracts, and ended up one seed lower than they were last season. Al Horford remains underrated as ever, Josh Smith remains as long-twoier as ever, and, uh....oof. Man the Hawks roster is ugly. Yeah, they aren't getting out of the first round this year. If they do, I'll buy a custom shirt with the Hawks mascot on it.
My prediction: Pacers in 5
Brooklyn Nets (4) vs. Chicago Bulls (5)
This is a game of a team going according to plan hosting a team where nothing has gone to plan. The Nets moved to Brooklyn, retained Brook Lopez, re-signed Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries, traded for Joe Johnson, and were immediately penciled in for a playoff spot. The Bulls lost Derrick Rose at the end of last season, but expected him back at some point this year. They just had to hold on long enough. The only real question was whether they would be good enough to still make the playoffs. For the Nets, the season went to plan.
The Bulls, meanwhile, are still without Rose. Rose has been cleared by doctors to return, but doesn't feel ready. But the Bulls were not only good enough to make the playoffs, they were never really in danger of missing the playoffs. But their success has come at a cost. The Bulls are banged up, having dealt with a variety of injuries, particularly injuries to Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah. Some of the blame gets placed on Tom Thibadeau, who plays his stars long minutes even when games are well in hand. But to his credit, he's gotten the most of out of this roster.
While the smart money is probably on the Nets, I think the Bulls will pull this one out. Mostly I'm rooting for this because it will be a fascinating storyline if the Bulls reach the second round and Rose still isn't ready to return. Or even better, if he is.
My prediction: Bulls in 7
The games kick off at 3pm ET Saturday. Use this thread for discussions throughout the day.
For those of you on Twitter, I'll be taking over SB Nation NBA's twitter account for the two early games. Be sure to follow @SBNationNBA and enjoy my ramblings.