The NBA playoffs can often be very predictable, at least at the end. But as the 2014 NBA playoffs begin on April 19, it isn't as easy to predict how they will go. Even in an age where the Miami Heat have won two straight championship, reached three straight NBA Finals and are favored for a potential three-peat, there are more question marks than usual around this postseason.
The Heat get to rest on the first day of the NBA playoffs, although the arch-rival Indiana Pacers won't. Like the Heat, the Pacers all but fell apart in the final weeks of the regular season, but now the postseason is supposed to make them both flip the switch. Of course, Miami has flipped the switch and then some for three years in a row, whereas Indiana hasn't had such fortune.
If the Heat and Pacers can't wake up, how vulnerable will they be to the rest of the field? Miami may not be threatened right away, as it faces the Charlotte Bobcats in round one. Yet the very first game of the playoffs feature the Heat's next potential opponents, as the surprising Atlantic Division champion Toronto Raptors take on the expensive, veteran-laden Brooklyn Nets at 12:30 p.m. est.
After that, the Western Conference field tips off with what may be the most explosive first-round match-up, between the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors at 3:30 p.m. est. If the Clippers survive, will they be ready to threaten the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs -- and perhaps put some new blood in the NBA Finals?
The night portion of the schedule features the Pacers, who take on the sub .500 Atlanta Hawks. On paper, facing such a poor playoff opponent should get Indiana back on track -- but one or two slip-ups may be a very ominous sign indeed.
Another past playoff rival for the Heat starts their playoff run at 9:30 p.m. est, as the Thunder face the Memphis Grizzlies. The Thunder were knocked out by the Grizzlies last May, but Russell Westbrook wasn't around to help. With Westbrook presumably back for the entirety of these playoffs, how different will things go for the Thunder -- and how will it shape the entire postseason?
The accompanying list details these and other major questions that the NBA playoffs will answer over the next two months.
The Miami Heat probably should have already had a three-peat by now. Yet are LeBron James and company due for a 2011-style late collapse, or will this be a repeat of 2012 and 2013?
Pacers limp towards second chance
The Indiana Pacers have been waiting all year to get to the playoffs and beat the Heat, particularly with home court on the side. The Pacers indeed have home court -- but thanks to their ugly finish, even home court might not get them to the conference finals, let alone the NBA Finals, if David West and his teammates don't wake up.
Best of the rest of the East
The rest of the Eastern Conference besides the Pacers and Heat have been mocked, scorned and disrespected all season. But with Indiana and Miami not at their best right now, could another East team -- like Joakim Noah's Chicago Bulls -- have a real shot at making any postseason noise?
The usual suspects are leading the field in the NBA playoffs, yet there is new blood in the mix. John Wall and the Washington Wizards join the Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats, Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks as the only playoff teams who weren't in the field last year. But can any of them win a round to cap it off?
Spurs' own second chance
Like the Pacers, the San Antonio Spurs have impatiently waited all year to avenge last year's heartbreaking finish in Miami. Like the Pacers, the Spurs will have home court if they face the Heat again -- but the Spurs will also have home court against every other team they face in the playoffs. Will that be enough for an overdue fifth ring?
Durant, Westbrook together again in playoffs
The Oklahoma City Thunder didn't have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook together for much of the last postseason, which was partly why it was so short. Durant didn't have Westbrook for all of this season either, yet he's still likely to win the MVP -- but he and the Thunder will need him for all of this postseason to finally become world champions too.
Clippers ready for next step?
The Los Angeles Clippers used to stun the world whenever they got close to the postseason. Now playoff berths and division titles are old hat for the Clippers -- but with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, this Los Angeles team is now due for a playoff run worthy of the other L.A. franchise of old.
Harden, Howard approach big test
The Houston Rockets paired Dwight Howard with James Harden to take the next step in the Western Conference, if not the entire NBA. The Rockets certainly looked elite for much of the regular season, but now the postseason will validate their superstar duo or not.