The sprint to the NBA playoffs is over and the postseason lineup is one of the most intriguing ever.
LeBron James vs. Carmelo Anthony, the young and confident Oklahoma City Thunder looking for an early knockout against the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, two Los Angeles teams shooting for one title and the venerable San Antonio Spurs looking for a second lockout-season title.
Yes, the shortened yet surprisingly successful regular season is the books and the playoffs promise to be even better.
“I think our fans are hungry for the playoffs,” Commissioner David Stern said. “Our network partners are excited by the prospect, and you know, I think, I can tell you, I’m looking forward to it in the same way. So I think it’s going to be great.”
It starts Saturday with the Chicago Bulls, the overall No. 1 seed, hosting the Philadelphia 76ers. Then it’s Miami against New York, with James and Anthony just a couple of the big names in a series loaded with star power.
And with history.
The teams met four straight years from 1997-00, the Knicks winning three of the series and earning a draw in the fights. The animosity doesn’t exist between these players _ James and Anthony have known each other since high school before entering the league together in 2003 _ but you bet it’s still around for the organizations and fans.
“Once the ball tips off, it’s a series that we’re both trying to win,” Miami’s Dwyane Wade said. “Obviously it makes great headlines and makes everyone in the organization really tuned in to what’s going on. It’s kind of like they’re looking at us like, `All right, go get it done for us.’ But when the ball tips off, it’s another game against a very talented opponent.”
Also Saturday, the Indiana Pacers host the Orlando Magic, who playoff hopes seem to have left along with Dwight Howard, before the Mavericks visit the Thunder in the nightcap.
Dallas eliminated Oklahoma City in five games last year on its way to the NBA championship. The teams ended up in the first round this season after the Thunder fell into the No. 2 seed with a late-season stumble, and the Mavericks could never put together a run to move up.
“It’s all we’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” Thunder All-Star Kevin Durant said. “It’s going to be a tough, tough series for us playing against the reigning champions. They cause so many problems on the offensive end and defensive end for us.”
The other four series start Sunday. San Antonio hosts Utah in the opener, followed by the Lakers against Denver. Boston visits Atlanta before Memphis welcomes the Clippers in the two 4-5 series at night.
The Celtics have the higher seed as Atlantic Division champions but the Hawks get home-court advantage based on their better record. The Grizzlies snatched home-court advantage from the Clippers by winning their final six games while Los Angeles dropped three of its final four.
Yet Chris Paul and Blake Griffin say they aren’t scared of the rugged Grizzlies, who were a game away from the West finals last year and are a trendy pick to get there this time.
“It’s just like any other NBA team,” Griffin said. “They’ve got good bigs, they’ve got good guards. You’ve got to be ready to play. We’re not intimidated by them by any means.”