A shortened NBA regular season now gives way to the usual four-series, 16-team sprint to determine the league’s champion. The 66-game campaign — shortened by 16 games due to the owners’ lockout — concluded Thursday, April 26. All the playoff berths were clinched prior to Thursday, though some seedings remained up in the air entering the final games of the regular season.
The first round, which begins Saturday, April 28, features plenty of enticing matchups for fans and ticket brokers alike, though it remains to be seen if resellers get a dream NBA Finals like they did last year, when the underdog Dallas Mavericks stunned the Miami Heat in six games.
The Eastern Conference, led by the top-seeded Chicago Bulls, features four big market behemoths – the Bulls, the fourth-seeded Boston Celtics, the seventh-seeded New York Knicks and the eighth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers — that have combined to win 28 NBA titles as well as the second-seeded Miami Heat, i.e. the team everybody loves to hate. In addition, the Bulls (first), Heat (fourth) and Knicks (fifth) all ranked in the top five in the NBA in attendance this year.
The Miami Heat and New York Knicks series — pairing two teams that engaged in bitter postseason duels four straight years from 1997 through 2000 — highlights the first round. Other series pit the Bulls (the top seed for the second straight year) against the 76ers, the third-seeded Indiana Pacers against the sixth-seeded Orlando Magic and the Celtics against the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks.
Brokers are rooting for the Eastern Conference to go according to seed. In that case, the Celtics and Bulls would tangle in a battle of basketball royalty in the conference semifinals while the Bulls and Heat would play each other a round later in a rematch of last year’s conference finals.
The Western Conference playoff field, as usual, has the 16-time champion Los Angeles Lakers, though for the first time in years they are not the odds-on favorite to advance to the Finals. That honor goes to either the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, who won 50 straight games for a remarkable 13th straight season, or the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Spurs lack the sizzle of the Eastern Conference’s favorites, but the franchise’s blue-collar ways have earned it four NBA titles since 1999. The Thunder carry plenty of cache, though, thanks to a lineup that includes two of the top five scorers in the league in scoring champion Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
In addition, the Thunder’s series against the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks — a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals — is the must-see attraction among first-round matchups in the West. The other best-of-seven series include the Spurs taking on the eighth-seeded Utah Jazz, the third-seeded Lakers battle the sixth-seeded Denver Nuggets and the fourth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies face the fifth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers.
As in the East, a first round in which the chalk wins would benefit brokers. In that scenario, the conference semifinals would pit the Spurs against the Grizzlies in a rematch of last year’s first round series in which the eighth-seeded Grizzlies recorded a stunning win. A Thunder and Lakers series, meanwhile, would have an obvious storyline in the potential changing-of-the-guard battle between Durant and veteran Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant.
Come June and the NBA Finals, brokers are surely rooting for either a reunion between historic big city rivals — such as Bulls and Lakers or Celtics and Lakers — or a matchup between the Thunder and the Heat and the opportunity for the two biggest stars in the game, Durant and LeBron James, to take center stage.