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.”
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.”
Stern has said the league didn’t know what to expect when it returned from a nearly five-month lockout that shortened the season to 66 games. Instead of a backlash from fans, TV ratings were up and attendance held steady.
Most importantly, the fear of a lengthy injury list from too many games crammed together was overestimated. Howard, Chauncey Billups (Clippers), Jeremy Lin (Knicks) and Al Horford (Hawks) won’t be around to help their teams, at least in this round, but Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose are ready to go after battling injuries down the stretch.
And now they get the marathon playoff schedule instead of the 120-day sprint of this regular season. Often dreaded for how spread out the first round is, four games in nine days, such as the Heat and Knicks have, now will be welcomed by teams who had to play four times in five nights during the season.
Coaches will love it, a chance for the practice time that was rarely available to them. And veteran teams like the Celtics and Spurs could thrive with the extra time off.
The Spurs won the 1999 title after the lockout and hope they have one more run in the Tim Duncan era. They never recovered after Manu Ginobili was hurt in the regular-season finale last year and were knocked off by Memphis in one of the NBA’s biggest postseason upsets.
They’re healthy now and rolling into the postseason, just as they did in ‘99, after winning their final 10 games.
“We weren’t playing well at the end of last year. Manu getting injured, that hurt us, too,” Duncan said. “We’re playing well right now. We’re getting a rhythm. To end the way as solid as we have, it’s been good. It’ll be great for us going in.”
The Celtics have their own Big Three that’s winding down. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen won one and fell just short a second time and they may not get another shot.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” Pierce said. “There’s definitely a sense of urgency there. A lot of things are going to be up in the air this summer. We want to try to get it done one last time.”
“We’ve been looking to this postseason with incredible anticipation and excitement. The regular season has been terrific for us. We’ve been able to accomplish a lot of things we wanted to,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But this is the time of year that everybody looks forward to, and we have an opponent that we really respect. They’ve been playing as well as anybody.”
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.
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