By Ray Hamill
The NBA playoffs got under way this weekend, and surprisingly for what is usually the most predictable tournament in all of sports, it looks pretty open this year.
Whether or not that translates to an exciting two months of action remains to be seen, but for now at least there’s plenty to consider …
* The big question in the East is whether anyone can seriously challenge the Heat or Pacers, who dominated the conference this season, even if both stumbled into the postseason.
The Heat, if healthy, have perhaps the best championship credentials of any team – not to mention the best player on the planet – and are looking to become just the fourth franchise ever to three-peat, following in the footsteps of the Celtics, Bulls and Lakers.
The Pacers, meanwhile, have looked anything but serious championship contenders since the All-Star break and are off to an ominous start, falling to the eighth-seeded Hawks in their postseason opener Saturday.
* Does a team with a losing record belong in the playoffs? The Hawks say yes, and judging by Saturday’s opener, maybe they do.
Perhaps the Pacers don’t belong in the playoffs.
* Interestingly, the Celtics, Lakers and Knicks, the three most storied franchises in NBA history, are all absent from the postseason. I can’t recall a year where that ever happened before.
* The West is by far the more intriguing of the two conferences, with at least three and perhaps four or five legitimate contenders.
You have to consider the Spurs and Thunder – the last two losing finalists – the frontrunners, while the Clippers have now established themselves as perennial contenders and should be more dangerous this time of the year with Doc Rivers calling the shots.
The Rockets and Trailblazers are outsiders, although both, I suspect, are still learning to win in the playoffs, while the Warriors and Grizzlies are dangerous enough to knock off anyone but probably not good enough to win three straight series.
And that leaves the Mavericks, following in the not-so-proud tradition of all eight seeds, and just there to make up the numbers.
* It’s important to remember that the coaching game changes in the postseason, with teams matching wits over a seven-game series instead of once every six weeks, and the coaches that make the better adjustments from game-to-game will have the advantage.
For what it’s worth, four of the 16 playoff coaches have previously won a championship, Gregg Popovich (San Antonio), Doc Rivers (Los Angeles), Rick Carlisle (Dallas), and Erik Spoelstra (Miami).
* Congratulations to the Charlotte Bobcats on what has been a remarkable turnaround, making the playoffs just two years after posting a 7-59 record and just one year after winning 21 games, the second fewest in the league.
Admittedly, they are in the East, but it’s still a commendable turnaround.