by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The “second season” of the NBA begins on Saturday as the playoffs commence. And since the playoff road usually takes a full two months to complete, settle in for a long ride.

Following are brief previews of each opening series, along with thoughts and ideas about each team’s prospects for the postseason. Team conference-winning prices (as of April 18) are included at the conclusion of each preview.


ATLANTA vs. INDIANA...It would not be completely accurate to say that the Pacers backed into the top seed in the East, because they had to win an important game on April 13 vs. the Thunder to get a leg up on Miami, which was busy losing to the likes of Atlanta, Washington, and Philadelphia in the final week. But Indiana has hardly been hitting on all cylinders since well before the All-Star break, and indeed had entered last Sunday’s game vs. Ok City having covered just 7 of its last 40 games on the board. Paul George’s offensive numbers have declined in the second half of the season, as has Indiana’s defense, and worth noting that the Pacers enter the playoffs “over” 6-0-1 in their last seven games. There also continues to be an adjustment phase for trade deadline addition Evan Turner, whose presence altered HC Frank Vogel’s substitution patterns. Moreover, insiders suggest hints of chemistry problems, some of those involving C Roy Hibbert, and Vogel was not beyond benching his starting lineup en masse in recent weeks (such as after a 23-point first half vs. the Hawks on April 6). Speaking of Atlanta, it split the four games vs. Indiana in the regular season and has covered five straight and seven of eight entering the playoffs. Shorthanded minus key frontliner Al Horford since midseason, the Hawks still have enough (PF Paul Millsap & spot shooter deluxe Kyle Korver in particular) to cause a few problems for the Pacers. Though Vogel’s team should survive the first round, as this stage we are not bullish on Indiana, which is going to have to play better than it has over the past two months to reach a third straight East finals. Pacers in 6 (Odds to win conference; Atlanta 100/1, Indiana 6/4)

CHARLOTTE vs. MIAMI...On the surface this opening-round series looks to be a mere formality, especially as Miami has beaten Charlotte all fifteen meetings since the “big three” of LeBron, C-Bosh and D-Wade come together in the 2010-11 campaign. But before assuming this to be a cakewalk for the Heat, consider its 11-14 SU record (since March 4) entering the playoffs, and a couple of the wins over the Bobcats this season were of the hair-raising variety (one by a single point, another in overtime). The Bobcats, also closed the regular season with a rush by winning 9 of their last 11 games. Charlotte’s emergence as a playoff entry (only its second postseason berth in franchise history) was one of the pleasant surprise stories in the league, as the team is just two years removed from the disastrous 7-59 mark in the strike-shortened 2011-12 campaign. But the offseason addition of FA frontliner Al Jefferson and the maturity of PG Kemba Walker have helped Charlotte surge behind first-year HC Steve Clifford, a former Lakers assistant and the third Charlotte coach in as many seasons. This is a much tougher first-round test for Miami than a year ago vs. completely outmatched Milwaukee. And while the Heat seem healthy entering the playoffs, D-Wade’s balky hamstring remains a concern, and another physical grind like last year’s grueling trip to the title could take its toll. Miami advances, but we do not expect a sweep, and anticipate the Bobcats (with 15 covers in their last 22 overall) to offer some spread value in the series. Down the road, while we still believe Miami survives the East and advances to the Finals for a fourth straight year (which would be the first since Larry Bird’s Boston did it in 1984-87), we are not thrilled with that prohibitive conference win price, but LeBron and Co. definitely remain our pick to emerge. Considering 29 straight wins vs. first-round foe Charlotte and possible second-round foe Toronto, it’s still advantage Miami, even with the late-season slump. Heat in 5 (Charlotte 100/1, Miami 8/11)

BROOKLYN vs. TORONTO...Consensus-wise, this seems to be the series that most believe goes the seven-game distance, especially after these teams split their four regular-season meetings. Some were also not convinced that Brooklyn was putting forth its best effort in the last week, perhaps desirous of getting this first-round matchup vs. the Raptors. If so, it might be a case of be careful what you wish for, as Toronto surprised all by surging to the Atlantic Division crown after trading away Rudy Gay in what looked like a salary dump in December. Instead, Gay’s departure galvanized the Raptors, who no longer had an overload of perimeter players and could began to play defense like they meant it for HC Dwane Casey (who deserves some Coach of the Year mention), paced by Gs Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. It’s worth noting, however, that from January thru March, the Nets had the best SU record in the East. Earlier, Brooklyn needed to adjust to new players (Paul {Pierce and Kevin Garnett in particular) and as well as a new HC, Jason Kidd, who endured a very bumpy first two months that included re-assigning assistant Lawrence Frank. There has been a lot of worry among East contenders that Brooklyn would be a team to avoid, but as was the case in the regular season, we expect the Raptors (also 25-15 vs. the line away this season) to keep on surprising everyone in the playoffs...at least in the first round. Raptors in 7 (Brooklyn 12/1, Toronto 25/1)

WASHINGTON vs. CHICAGO...Upset alert? The Wizards enter the playoffs hot, having won and covered four in a row and leapfrogging Brooklyn into the fifth spot in the East. After learning and growing with the youthful all-SEC backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal and dealing with many injuries all season, Washington looks relatively healthy and a potential menace, especially since the Wizards learned to play together and work on defense for HC Randy Wittman, who must be making mentor Bob Knight proud with his underrated work this season. The returns of Trevor Booker and Nene, and the early-season addition of C Marcin Gortat, plus the presence of a true stopper on the wing in Trevor Ariza, and the pieces are in place for the Wiz to make some noise. Washington also took 2 of 3 in regular season vs. the Bulls, who once again squeezed all they could out of their Derrick Rose-less roster for HC Tom Thibodeau. Chicago, however, has been forced to count upon G D.J. Augustin to score points off of the bench, and there is simply not a lot of offense on the team. Thibodeau’s defensive schemes could rattle Washington, but the Wizards might have enough scoring sources to compensate. Whichever team survives this series will have a puncher's chance at Indiana in the next round...assuming the Pacers survive Atlanta, that is. Wizards in 6 (Washington 66/1, Chicago 20/1)


DALLAS vs. SAN ANTONIO.. Plenty of nostalgia involved here, with rumors that Tim Duncan might hang ‘em up if the Spurs win their fifth title, and this could also be the playoff swansong for Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki. Sentimentality aside, this is the first-round matchup that San Antonio wanted after winning and covering all four against Dallas in the regular season. As for Nowitzki, a late-season leg injury won’t keep him out of the lineup, but could compromise him somewhat, hardly the development HC Rick Carlisle needs to pull the upset. The Spurs have worn down the Mavs with their depth in the regular-season meetings and we see little to suggest than anything chances in the playoffs. Perhaps Dallas gets one game at home, but we don’t think San Antonio is going to be seriously challenged in this series before things get exponentially tougher in subsequent rounds. Especially since a couple of possible upcoming foes (perhaps Houston in the next round, and Ok City in the conference finals) won all eight regular-season meetings vs. the Spurs. Spurs in 5 (Dallas 40/1, San Antonio 7/5)

MEMPHIS vs. OKLAHOMA CITY...The team nobody wants to face is Memphis, with the league’s best record (37-15. .712) since New Year’s, and on the ascent entering the postseason with five straight wins. Of course, Ok City has a revenge angle after last spring’s 4-game Griz sweep, although keep in mind that Russell Westbrook was out of that series for the Thunder. And Ok City won three of four regular-season meetings. But Memphis can cause matchup problems with its big two of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and it is no coincidence that the Griz began their ascent after Gasol returned from month-long knee injury absence. The beginning of the season was a bit bumpy for Memphis under new HC Dave Joerger, promoted from assistant after Lionel Hollins was dismissed, ostensibly because Hollins was not on board with the new “hoops metrics” approach touted by new GM John Hollinger. The players weren’t on board with the changes, either, and not until Joerger went back to the old Hollins style, stressing defense and a controlled-pace “inside-out” offense that wanted to make sure Z-Bo and/or Gasol got touches one very trip downcourt, did Memphis surge. All not lost upon the Thunder, who endured injuries of their own this season and seem healthy as the playoffs commence. But Memphis has been a tough playoff hurdle for Kevin Durant & Co., taking Ok City to seven games back in 2011 and sweeping the Westbrook-less Thunder last spring. Ok City, with the marvelous Durant likely off an MVP season, is a threat to go deeper in the playoffs, but the Thunder have to survive this series first. Thunder in 7 (Memphis 40/1, Oklahoma City 9/5)

GOLDEN STATE vs. LA CLIPPERS...Sources suggest some real animosity between these sides, part of it stemming from the Clips bypassing league protocol and kicking the Warriors out of pre-game chapel in a Halloween game at Staples Center. The Warriors are also considered very dangerous in a short series because of the firepower in their “Splash Brothers” backcourt of Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. But with Andrew Bogut likely out due to a rib injury, Golden State’s “small ball” will have trouble coping with the Clippers’ bigs, led by a rejuvenated Blake Griffin. Doc Rivers also has the deepest bench in the league, and one of the concerns of Clip fans is that Rivers simply has too many capable players on his bench, and he has been experimenting with various substitution patterns since the trade deadline, looking for ways to get the likes of Big Baby Davis and Hedo Turkoglu some extra minutes, while trying to figure out where ex-Pacer Danny Granger (who has been hurting) fits into the mix. The presence of Rivers, a title-winning coach with Boston in 2008, is another key difference for this year’s Clippers and an apparent upgrade from the Vinny Del Negro teams of the past couple of years. Considering the extreme home-oriented nature of this series (host team winning all four this season), perhaps the Warriors can hold serve in Oakland and stretch this to seven games, but we can’t see Golden State winning at Staples. With a healthy Chris Paul and Griffin, and a deep and varied supporting cast, the Clips loom as a scary foe for someone beyond this series. Clippers in 7 (Golden State 20/1, LA Clippers 5/1)

PORTLAND vs. HOUSTON...Along with Warriors-Clips, likely the most-entertaining first-round series. Houston won three of four regular-season meetings, but what jumps out is the high-scoring pattern and “overs” in all four games. Some insiders give the Rockets a chance to not only win this series, but make a much-deeper run in the playoffs, though terrier-like G Patrick Beverley needs to show he is 100% after a late-season knee injury to give Kevin McHale’s team of the sort of defensive pest that could bother the likes of Ok City’s Russell Westbrook or San Antonio’s Tony Parker in the playoffs. Still, the Rockets score points easily, own a unique weapon in G James Harden, and have an X-factor in Dwight Howard, who (if beyond his late-season ankle woes) gives Houston a dominant defensive presence in the paint. Howard also was shooting free throws better (close to 65%) during the second half of the season, so fouling big Dwight might not be the option it has been for foes in recent years. With LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, Portland has enough firepower to trade points, but not sure if the Blazers have the necessary depth to win this series...especially of Howard is healthy. Remember, in case the Rockets advance to face San Antonio, note that Houston won all four reg.-season meetings vs. the Spurs. Rockets in 7 (Portland 20/1, Houston 10/1)

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