Winderman: Countdown to the NBA Playoffs Begins

View Comments (
)
|
Email
|
Print

    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Getty Images
    Can Vince Carter play as a catalyst as Hedo Turkoglu did during last season's Finals run?

    We take a look at what each playoff contender faces, with three weeks remaining in the NBA regular season:

    Cleveland Cavaliers
    Potential first-round opponent: Miami, Charlotte, Toronto, Chicago.

    Still needs to learn ... How Shaquille O'Neal is going to figure back into the equation upon his return from thumb surgery. Remember, Shaq also is playing for a contract for next season, so a deferential approach in the postseason might not fall within his objectives.

    Cleveland is looking to ... Secure homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs (they already have a comfortable edge over the Magic in the East). Considering it went 1-3 against Charlotte, avoiding the Bobcats in the first round would be welcomed, too.

    Orlando Magic
    Potential first-round opponent: Miami, Charlotte, Toronto, Chicago.

    Still needs to learn ... Whether Vince Carter can step up to the challenge and drive a team deep into the playoffs. Carter finally made it to 50 victories for the first time, now can he play as a catalyst as Hedo Turkoglu did during last season's Finals run?

    Orlando is looking to ... Avoid complacency over the season's final games, having been practically locked into second in the East for weeks. Avoiding the Heat after a competitive 2-2 regular-season series wouldn't hurt, either.

    Boston Celtics
    Potential first-round opponent: Milwaukee, Miami, Charlotte, Toronto.

    Still needs to learn ... Whether Paul Pierce can make it all the way back from his injuries to re-emerge as the definitive game changer he was during the Celtics' 2008 title run. Without much in the way of a post threat, the Celtics' need Pierce's "A" game.

    Boston is looking to ... Avoid finishing as the No. 4 seed in the East, which would mean a likely second-round matchup against Cleveland. Steering clear of a Nos. 4-5 matchup against the surging Bucks wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

    Atlanta Hawks
    Potential first-round opponent: Milwaukee, Miami, Charlotte, Toronto.

    Still needs to learn ... Whether Josh Smith truly is reformed when it comes to stepping away from the jump shot and stepping up with play closer to the rim. There seems to be a degree of regression after playing the right way the first half of the season.

    Atlanta is looking to ... Avoid finishing as the No. 4 seed, which could mean a second-round matchup against Cleveland, which annihilated the Hawks in last year's second round. Steering clear of a first-round rematch with the Heat wouldn't hurt, either, after a 1-3 season series.

    Milwaukee Bucks
    Potential first-round opponent: Atlanta, Boston.

    Still needs to learn ... Whether rookie point guard Brandon Jennings and veteran center Andrew Bogut are up to this type of moment, with minimal big-game exposure for either despite their disparate degrees of experience.

    Milwaukee is looking to ... Hold its ground at either Nos. 5 or 6 in the East, having already recorded victories over both the Hawks and Celtics. Having come so far so fast under coach Scott Skiles, a competitive series would do wonders to legitimize the franchise.

    Charlotte Bobcats
    Potential first-round opponent: Cleveland, Orlando, Atlanta, Boston.

    Still needs to learn ... Whether Tyson Chandler can stay healthy enough and mesh with the starters after missing so much time because injuries. The Bobcats already were pretty stout defensively without him.

    Charlotte is looking to ... Possibly bring an end to the LeBron James era in Cleveland. The Bobcats finished 3-1 against the Cavaliers, a potential first-round opponent. Atlanta would be a consolation prize, with one win and an overtime loss to the Hawks.

    Miami Heat
    Potential first-round opponent: Cleveland, Orlando, Atlanta, Boston.

    Still needs to learn ... Whether Dwyane Wade is capable of lifting the franchise through an entire postseason series like he did in the 2006 NBA Finals against Dallas. The Heat not only haven't won a series since, but have won only three playoffs game since that title.

    Miami is looking to ... Get to at least No. 6, if Atlanta finishes No. 3, or No. 5 if Atlanta finishes No. 4, after going 3-1 against the Hawks in the season series and taking the Hawks to seven games in last season's first round.

    Toronto Raptors
    Potential first-round opponent: Cleveland, Orlando, Atlanta, Boston.

    Still needs to learn ... To, uh, play a little bit of defense. As remarkable as it would be for the Raptors to actually advance with the approach they call defense, it would be practically unfathomable for them to advance without a modicum of resistance.

    Toronto is looking to ... Salvage any chance of retaining Chris Bosh by just making the postseason. Success has been minimal against the top of the conference, so one-and-done might be as good as it gets for the end of the Bosh era.

     

    Chicago Bulls
    Potential first-round opponent: Cleveland, Orlando.

    Still needs to learn ... Whether Luol Deng can get himself back on the court and whether Joakim Noah can stay there. Injuries have crippled the Bulls' season and only a turnabout in injury fortune can salvage it at this stage.

    Chicago is looking to ... Somehow sneak into the playoffs, if only to somewhat slightly improve its resume to attract a prime-time free agent, which was the sole reason John Salmons' contract was cast aside at the trading deadline.

     

    WESTERN CONFERENCE

    Los Angeles Lakers
    Potential first-round opponent: Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Phoenix.

    Still needs to learn ... Whether Andrew Bynum is in or out when it comes to his time on the injured list. Without Bynum, the Lakers came up short in the Finals two seasons ago. With Bynum, they celebrated last season on the Magic's home court.

    Los Angeles is looking to ... Catch up to Cleveland or at least stay ahead of Orlando when it comes to overall record. With no guarantees of the Cavaliers making the NBA Finals, it could be another homecourt edge over the Magic in a potential rematch.

    Dallas Mavericks
    Potential first-round opponent: Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Phoenix.

    Still needs to learn ... How to make all the pieces fit when everyone is healthy, be it at center, with Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier, or in a perimeter rotation that might squeeze out J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson or Rodrigue Beaubois.

    Dallas is looking to ... Secure a top-three seed, thereby avoiding a potential meeting with the Lakers until the Western Conference finals. Of possible playoff opponents, Dallas already has lost twice to Portland, a possible opponent in a No. 3-No. 6 series.

    Denver Nuggets
    Potential first-round opponent: Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Phoenix.

    Still needs to learn ... The status of coach George Karl, whose battle with throat cancer has taken him away from the bench longer than initially anticipated. While winning for Karl has become somewhat of a crusade, his presence has driven Denver to this level.

    Denver is looking to ... Win its division and secure a top-three seed, thereby avoiding a potential meeting with the Lakers until the Western Conference finals. Avoiding the Suns in the opening round also would help, with two losses already to Phoenix.

    Utah Jazz
    Potential first-round opponent: San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Dallas, Denver.

    Still needs to learn ... Whether it can muster the muscle and physicality to match up with the biggest of big men when the games slow and the play-on rule is in effect when it comes to anything shy of the most violent of interior contact.

    Utah is looking to ... To avoid the Lakers' half of the West bracket, which most likely would mean a No. 3 or No. 6 seed. Avoiding Oklahoma City also is in its best interest, with three losses to the Thunder. There are, however, 4-0s against the Blazers and Spurs.

    Phoenix Suns
    Potential first-round opponent: Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Utah, San Antonio, Oklahoma City.

    Still needs to learn ... Whether amid all this talk about free agency and opting out, Amare Stoudemire will be able to replicate in the postseason the type of numbers he has been putting up over these final weeks of the season. Focus will be a factor.

    Phoenix is looking to ... Overcome its midseason lapse and sneak into a homecourt spot in the first round. The downside of closing at No. 4 or No. 5, though, would mean a possible second-round series against the Lakers, who took the season series 3-1.

    Oklahoma City Thunder
    Potential first-round opponent: Denver, Dallas, Utah, Phoenix, L.A. Lakers.

    Still needs to learn ... What playoff basketball requires. (OK, that's the politically correct thing to say. The reality is that this is a talented, deep roster that is a mere post presence from being as good as anyone this side of the Lakers in the West.)

    Oklahoma City is looking to ... Well, frankly, have some fun, with nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain. Fear factor? What fear? There already have been three victories against the Jazz, as well as victories against Nuggets, Mavericks, Suns and Spurs.

    San Antonio Spurs
    Potential first-round opponent: Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Utah, Phoenix.

    Still needs to learn ... How effective, if at all, Tony Parker will be when or if he comes back from his hand injury. Manu Ginobili has been carrying a heavy load these past few weeks and who knows how much he will have left for the postseason?

    San Antonio is looking to ... Make one final push for a homecourt spot in the first round. Yet save for an 0-4 season series against the Jazz, San Antonio has won against every other top team in the West and hardly would be an overwhelming road underdog.

    Portland Trail Blazers
    Potential first-round opponent: Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Utah.

    Still needs to learn ... If this ridiculously timed front-office turmoil will cut into the focus coach Nate McMillan has stressed as his team has persevered through injury. It is remarkable that the front office could be so petty with so much at stake on the court.

    Portland is looking to ... Dare we say not avoid the Lakers? There has been some pretty good homecourt mojo over the years against the Lakers. For that matter, there have been two victories so far against the Mavericks. Basically, Portland is looking to become a bracket buster.

     

    Memphis Grizzlies
    Potential first-round opponent: Los Angeles.

    Still needs to learn ... How to put together a complete season, instead of play in spurts, which is why this unexpected chase likely will fall short. The lack of depth ultimately will do in a team that no one expected to play even one meaningful April game.

    Memphis is looking to ... Take advantage of an utter collapse by someone at the bottom of the conference race, something that looks less and less likely, unless the turmoil-riddled Trail Blazers start firing players in addition to team executives.