Breaking down Sunday's action
The champs open their title defense. Two traditional Western powers tip too. Four games are on the slate for Sunday, and our experts have it all covered. Let's debate!
1. Lakers vs. Spurs: What's the most intriguing storyline in the series
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Lakers' saga was the story of the regular season, as the NBA's glamour franchise fought through adversity -- both self-created and borne of injury -- to qualify for the playoffs on the final day. But they aren't going to win a championship without Kobe Bryant. In fact, it's been three years since they won a championship with Kobe Bryant. But it's been twice as long since the Spurs won one. That's why this series is really about Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. It could be the beginning of their final legitimate run.
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: Are the Lakers capable in the postseason without Kobe Bryant? If the answer is yes, then there will remain the lingering question of whether Dwight Howard and Kobe should play together in the future. That storyline overshadows the sudden drop-off by the Spurs, who are fighting off another ill-timed rash of injuries.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Kobe Bryant's Twitter feed. Sure, I'm fascinated to see whether Dwight Howard can withstand the pressure of leading the Lakers over the mighty San Antonio Spurs. But I'm more curious to see how Bryant would react to the Lakers succeeding without him. The in-game commentary from Bryant's couch could be epic, but there are much larger implications at play if the Lakers play better without him.
Dave McMenamin, ESPNLosAngeles.com: Were those two wins L.A. earned without Kobe Bryant to finish the season just fueled by adrenaline and pride or did the Lakers really reinvent themselves that quickly as a defensive-minded, post-oriented team to be reckoned with? On a related note, if Dwight Howard gets to play a whole series with that style of ball and success and national recognition follows, does it help the chances of him re-signing with L.A.?
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: I'm sure you've seen the stat about how the six previous Spurs-Lakers playoff matchups featuring Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant have all propelled the winner to the NBA Finals. So the question is: What happens when the Spurs and Lakers play but only one of those two titans is healthy?
2. Hawks vs. Pacers: What's the most intriguing storyline in the series?
Adande: Paul George has enjoyed the benefits of his steps toward the elite level, including a trip to the All-Star Game. Now it's time for him to accept the responsibility. Being a star means finding ways to score even when opponents have no agenda other than stopping him for two weeks. He'll need to come through on the road. He can't afford to have more than one off game per series.
Gutierrez: Can the Pacers dominate? Indiana wants nothing more than to continue to progress, and this season that would mean an Eastern Conference finals berth. For confidence purposes, dominating the Hawks, a team that has had significant success against Indy in recent seasons, would be a terrific start.
Haberstroh: Is this Josh Smith's last hurrah in Atlanta? Imagine if Smith leads an upset bid over the Indiana Pacers and the Hawks make an unlikely run to the Eastern Conference semifinals. Does that put more pressure on general manager Danny Ferry to re-sign him this offseason? Or would a Cinderella run just make it more likely that Smith's price tag becomes too rich for Ferry's taste?
McMenamin: Is Paul George ready for his close-up? George's third season in the league earned him an All-Star selection as well as Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year consideration. He's already being talked about as one of the best shooting guards in the league to boot. Will his star grow or diminish in the playoff spotlight?
Stein: Can I even pretend to twist Roy Hibbert versus Al Horford into some sort of marquee matchup? My Grantland buddy Zach Lowe aptly summed up the widespread appeal of this series when he said on the B.S. Report that Indy-Atlanta coverage might as well be restricted to online streaming.
3. Bucks vs. Heat: What's the most intriguing storyline in the series?
Adande: Will the Heat show the focus they demonstrated during their 27-game winning streak, or will they start the playoffs the way they did the regular season, when they dropped six of their first 12 road games? This series will serve primarily as a test of the Heat's preparedness. If they could go seven weeks without a loss in February and March, they should be able to go at least three weeks without one in April and May. They ought to make short work of the Bucks in four games.
Gutierrez: How will Brandon Jennings play following his prediction? The Milwaukee guard called it: Bucks in six. That served to make him a target of the Heat, who can suffocate an opposing guard when they really want to. If Jennings can put up strong numbers despite some extra attention, he'll save face no matter who wins this series.
Haberstroh: There's little we can learn from this series that we don't already know about the Heat, but this is shaping up to be an audition for the Milwaukee Bucks' backcourt. Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick can all be free agents at the end of the season, so there's more at stake than just winning playoff games. If Ellis, Jennings and Redick want big money, they can earn it over the next four games. Yes, I said four.
McMenamin: Will Miami lose a game? It's almost silly to acknowledge Brandon Jennings' prediction that Milwaukee will beat Miami in six games, but at least it prompts a discussion heading into what otherwise was a pretty cut-and-dry series. Forget the Heat losing the series; will it lose a game?
Stein: Getting our first glimpse of Playoff LeBron. This, like my previous answer, is what we call a reach. I suppose you could pretend to get fired up by the prospect of Brandon Jennings getting swarmed by Heat defenders in retribution for his "Bucks in six" pick, but I highly doubt the Heat have been paying much attention, since they don't need bulletin-board material to beat the Bucks. I will say that I'm looking forward to Shane Battier's interviews, no matter how lopsided the series is.
4. Rockets vs. Thunder: What's the most intriguing storyline in the series?
Adande: Just to mix it up, I'll avoid the obvious -- James Harden -- and go with the corollary: Kevin Martin. The Thunder made the bet they could still win a championship with Martin playing the minutes that used to belong to Harden. So far it has paid off in a 60-win season and the Thunder's first No. 1 seed. But Martin's scoring contributions have dropped each month, the opposite of what you would expect as he grew more familiar with his new surroundings. That's just enough to make you wonder what he'll give the Thunder in the playoffs.
Gutierrez: Who, outside of James Harden, will ascend for the Rockets? For all the talk about how much or little the Thunder miss Harden, we tend to forget how much Harden could miss Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Harden will get all the attention from Oklahoma City. Are Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin capable of carrying the load when necessary?
Haberstroh: Harden, Harden, Harden. Do I make myself clear? It's fresh in the minds of Thunder fans that Harden crumbled into pieces in the Finals last season, so they probably assume (er, hope) that Harden might squander his opportunity in the spotlight again. I wouldn't be so sure.
McMenamin: Which James Harden will show up? In Harden's first game against his former team, he racked up 46 points on 14-for-19 shooting, seven rebounds and six assists to spring the Rockets to a 122-119 win. In his next two, Harden registered a combined 42 points, five rebounds and four assists while shooting 9-for-33 from the floor, and Houston lost by an average of 26 points. What will The Beard have in store?
Stein: Great news! There's an undeniably saucy one here with the whole Harden Homecoming angle. Two out of four ain't bad.
5. Make one bold prediction for Sunday's games.
Adande: The Lakers win Game 1 in San Antonio. The Spurs will still recover to win the series, but the Lakers are coming in hot and that will continue Sunday. Los Angeles won eight of its last nine games to grab the No. 7 seed, while San Antonio lost seven of its last 10 games to miss out on the No. 1 seed. The Spurs are also reintegrating Manu Ginobili. These things don't happen instantly, even for a team as familiar in its ways as the Spurs.
Gutierrez: The Hawks will win Game 1 against the Pacers. The Hawks are a surprising 7-4 against Indiana over the last three seasons, and the Pacers have stumbled down the stretch, losing five of six. Plus, Atlanta remains one of the more unpredictable teams, particularly in the postseason. It'll be a wake-up call for the Pacers, who will still win the series.
Haberstroh: Harden and the Houston Rockets catch fire in Game 1 and beat the Thunder on their home floor. But that's all they'll get in this series. I see the Rockets' 3-point attack stealing one game from the Thunder, but Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are just too good for the Rockets D.
McMenamin: The Heat will hound Jennings with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James the same way they did when they effectively put an end to "Linsanity" last season by suffocating Jeremy Lin wherever he went on the floor.
Stein: Kobe Bryant's vow to tweet from his undisclosed rehab location while the Lakers and Spurs are playing will be as absorbing as the game itself.