The NBA playoffs will be occurring for a fifth consecutive season without the participation of the Toronto Raptors, but there are still plenty of compelling storylines to follow before a champion is crowned.
When the calendar turned to mark a new year, the Heat were in the midst of a 10-game span in which they won just four. Hard to believe now, given that the defending champions would soon make headlines with a 27-game win streak. Whether Miami "peaked too soon" is a subject best left to be addressed countless more times on the various ESPN panels. Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James all spent time on the sidelines after the streak was over, but really, Miami had little left to play for. It's also true that the Heat this time around are deeper, as Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis came over after last season's championship.
New York, New York
With Carmelo Anthony shooting out the lights — he averaged 39 points over a recent seven-game stretch en route to winning the scoring title — the Knicks vaulted to second place in the East this season. It's the franchise's best regular season showing since 1993-94, a squad which reached the NBA Finals.
But the team is no longer alone in the Big Apple, which will be truly be a basketball mecca again for at least a couple of weeks. The Nets have thrived in their move from New Jersey to Brooklyn, reaching the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. First-year Nets Andray Blatche and Joe Johnson have strengthened a group that included star incumbents Deron Williams and Brook Lopez (who missed most of the previous season).
League execs probably popped corks over the fact the New York teams match up against another marquee city: The Knicks begin against the Boston Celtics, with the Nets christening the Barclays Center with playoff basketball against Chicago. There's a chance the Nets and Knicks could meet later on down the road, although it would take an upset in one of the other East series.
It's not quite as significant as the New York angle, but it's a rarity to have three post-season teams in from California. Want to know how mediocre the California basketball teams not named the Lakers have been? Since the Clippers moved to Southern California in 1978, this will be only the second occasion in which both they and the Golden State Warriors are in the playoffs at the same time.
The biggest focus will be on whether Blake Griffin and Chris Paul can get the Clippers to the third round of the playoffs for the first time in the 43-year history of the franchise. Griffin and Paul admitted to having a "clear the air" session late in the season amid rumours that they weren't the best of buds. They sure appear to be on the same page, with Los Angeles heading into the post-season on a seven-game win streak. Championship veteran Chauncey Billups is back on the court after an injury to add depth to a backcourt that also includes Jamal Crawford and Willie Green. For a second straight year, though, they will be challenged immediately by Memphis. The Clippers and Grizzlies were one of two first-rounds series last spring to go the full distance.
Thunder look to roll further
The Oklahoma City Thunder won the first game of the NBA Finals last year but then dropped the next four to Miami. Led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder responded by improving their winning percentage for the fourth consecutive season and for the first time ever they achieved 60 wins and the No. 1 seed in the West.
Now they will look to follow the Heat's example in going from runner-up to champion. Standing in their way immediately is former teammate James Harden, the Sixth Man of the Year with the Thunder in 2012. He should be supremely motivated to try and lead Houston to an upset of his old team, which would mark the third time a No. 1 West seed has fallen in the first round since 2007.
Harden was traded in the off-season in a multi-player deal that saw Kevin Martin and draft picks go the other way. While Durant and Westbrook are the horses, the Thunder will need Martin and Serge Ibaka to at least maintain, if not improve, their solid regular-season contributions if they want to go all the way. If Derek Fisher can drain even one more winner at the buzzer for old time's sake, all the better.
Same time, every year
Oh look, the San Antonio Spurs are in the playoffs for a 16th consecutive season. For the ninth time in that span they are one of the top two West seeds. In terms of winning percentage they took a dip from the shortened 2011-12 season, but they had a comparable amount of wins the last time they won in 2007.
Few observers think this team has that "look," as they've lost eight of 13 heading into the season finale. Tim Duncan will celebrate his 37th birthday during the first round, and Manu Ginobilli, Tony Parker and Boris Diaw have all been banged up. The team even signed Tracy McGrady, most recently of the Chinese league, on the eve of the playoffs. But Gregg Popovich's bunch has made mincemeat out of lowered expectations before, and a first-round series against a Los Angeles Lakers team playing without Kobe Bryant seems ideal to give them some post-season momentum.
Speaking of … the Lakers threatened to miss the playoffs for just the third time in 37 years before they were spared on the final night of the regular season what would have been one of the most epic failures in sports history given the talent assembled. That said, the quartet of Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were on the same court for only about a quarter of the 82-game season due to injuries.
In the East, both the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers have played fairly uninspired basketball in the last couple of weeks. But one of them will move on in what will likely be the least publicized of the conference's first-round matchups.
The next big thing?
When you take what amounts to a season's worth of veteran coach George Karl's most recent playoff games, the tally is just 33-52. But the Denver Nuggets have roared into the playoffs on a 23-3 roll. Aside from reserve point guard Andre Miller, the oldest players by several years, every member of the team is under 30.
Point guard Ty Lawson once led an NCAA championship team at North Carolina, and is among a core group that remembers the sting of fading in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Lakers in the opening round last season. The Nuggets lost Danilo Gallinari to a season-ending knee injury earlier this month, but have depth up front with the likes of Kenneth Faried and Corey Brewer.
The Milwaukee Bucks are returning to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, the Houston Rockets haven't played a post-season game in four years, and the Nets and Golden State Warriors qualified for the first time in six years.
Not surprisingly, the players being thrown into NBA playoff basketball for the first time are largely from those teams.
Big man Lopez of the Nets will battle it out down low with, among others, Joakim Noah of the Bulls.
Stephen Curry will debut with the Warriors on the heels of setting a record for the most 3-pointers in an NBA season. Curry's teammate David Lee surprisingly makes his first ever playoff appearance just a week or so before turning 30 years old. Harrison Barnes, who neither wowed nor embarrassed in his rookie year, also contributes to the Golden State cause.
The Bucks aren't expected to last long, but the team's brass will get a taste of what Larry Sanders and John Henson have to offer in post-season play. Sanders was second in the league in blocks, while Henson recently pulled down 25 boards in a game.
And will the playoffs feature a dose of Linsanity? Houston guard Jeremy Lin saw his season shut down before the playoffs last year while with the Knicks.
Steve Nash hasn't played since March 30, despite the nailbiting circumstances for the Lakers, due to a hamstring injury.
Cory Joseph (San Antonio) and Joel Anthony (Miami) are bench players, while Sam Dalembert of Milwaukee will have his hands full in his return to playoff basketball against the likes of Wade and Bosh.
But with Andrew Nicholson (Orlando) and Tristan Thompson (Cleveland) in the league, and Myck Kabongo and Andrew Wiggins among those coming down the line, we could one day be marking this as one of the last lean playoff sessions for Canadian players.
The article originally stated that the Knicks last made the NBA Finals in 1994. New York also made the NBA Finals in 1999.Sep 12, 2013 4:28 AM ET