Five things to watch in the first round of the NBA playoffs, which begin Saturday:
GAME 3 IN BOSTON: April 26, 8 p.m., Knicks at Celtics. You won’t want to be one second late for the start of that telecast on ESPN, because if the scene at the first Bruins game since the Boston Marathon explosions was any indicator, then the emotions that pour out from the stands in the Celtics’ first home game since that tragedy may be unprecedented. The NBA got the scheduling right _ all basketball-watching eyes will be on Boston for that game, as they should be, and the other two matchups that evening are later games on the West coast. Regardless of what happens in the first two games of that series in Madison Square Garden, the Celtics will have to be heavy favorites in Game 3.
JAMES HARDEN‘S RETURN: Given that he shot only 38 percent during the NBA Finals last season, it could be argued that James Harden hurt the Oklahoma City Thunder then, and now he’ll try to do it again _ just while wearing the uniform of the Houston Rockets. Maybe it’s fitting that Harden and the Thunder meet in the first round, after talks about an extension broke down reportedly when the team offered a $55 million deal and the player insisted on $60 million. Yes, one of Harden’s best games this season came against the Thunder, a 46-point outing in February. But his only trip back to Oklahoma City this season resulted in one of his worst games, a 3-for-16 shooting effort. Whatever angst he felt then, he’ll likely feel something similar in Game 1 on Sunday.
WHAT WAS JENNINGS THINKING?: Nothing inspires reigning MVP LeBron James more than the playoffs, with the possible exception of hearing someone say he’s going to lose in the first round. So maybe Milwaukee guard Brandon Jennings shouldn’t have told the crowd at the Wisconsin Sports Awards that he and the Bucks were going to beat the Miami Heat in six games. Granted, every athlete always thinks they’re going to win _ which is perfectly understandable, since really, what else are they going to say? But some of the things Jennings has said in recent weeks about the Heat, like how Milwaukee matches up with the defending champions, has captured Miami’s attention. Odds of the Heat overlooking the Bucks now: About zero, possibly less.
HELLO, BROOKLYN: When the Nets face the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night, it’ll mark the first time a Brooklyn team (at least from one of the four major U.S. pro sports) has hosted a playoff game since Oct. 10, 1956. The Yankees beat Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers 9-0 in Game 7 of the World Series in that one, and a mere half-century-and-change later, Brooklyn fans are finally getting a chance to cheer at another playoff game. The Nets’ bounceback season has almost seemed overlooked at times year _ this is the franchise’s first time in the playoffs since 2007 and its first time hosting a Game 1 since the New Jersey days of 2006. And the Nets are heading into the postseason on a bit of a roll, having won six of their last seven games.
CLIPPERS-GRIZZLIES RENEWED: The only first-round rematch from a year ago might shape up to be a classic this time around. The Clippers went into Memphis and won a Game 7 last season, and Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and Co. will have the home-court edge for this series. Some of the stats posted by these teams this season are ridiculously identical. Both went 56-26 overall, with identical home (32-9) and away (24-17) records. The Clippers were 35-17 in games against Western Conference opponents and the Grizzlies were 34-18 in those games. If this matchup doesn’t go the distance again, basketball fans might get short-changed. The winner will face either the Thunder or the Rockets, and probably will be a bit tired when that second-round series starts.