Published April 18, 2013
The NBA regular season is over, and yet things are just getting started.
The regular season came to a close Wednesday night with Carmelo Anthony sitting on top of the scoring race, Kobe Bryant sitting on the sidelines and King James sitting on his throne in search of title No. 2. And now it's time to dispense with the sluggishness and star-resting that often comes with the final three weeks of the regular season and get to the real thing.
No more talk about which teams are tanking to improve their lottery positions and which stars are sitting out games for legitimate health reasons and which ones are taking time off to rest up for the playoffs. Even Gregg Popovich won't be resting his players now.
So with that in mind, let's take a look at what we learned from the regular season and what is coming up once the postseason begins Saturday.
THIS IS LEBRON'S LEAGUE: Sure, we kind of knew that after the Heat won the title last year and he led Team USA to the gold medal in London last summer. But he's taken it to an entirely different level this season. In a new Golden Age for the league from a talent standpoint, LeBron James stands above them all. He averaged 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists and shot a staggering 56.5 percent from the field in this, his finest season. He also led the NBA in field goals made despite being only seventh in field goal attempts. He also is one of only two players — Oscar Robertson is the other — to have 20,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 5,000 assists in his first 10 seasons.
MAYBE AGE IS MORE THAN JUST A NUMBER: Just ask the Lakers. Kobe, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol all may be seeing the mileage finally start to take its toll. Bryant's season-long minutes binge ended with a blown Achilles, Nash took two epidurals this week in hopes of getting ready for the playoffs and Gasol suffered a series of foot problems that limited him to just 49 games. The veteran-laden Spurs broke down as well, even though they still managed to win 58 games and earn the No. 2 seed in the West. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker both missed big chunks of time and the Spurs just signed Tracy McGrady after a season in China and actually got younger in doing so. Then there are the Knicks, who just had to sign Earl Barron to address a frontcourt decimated by injuries to the ancient Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace. Amare Stoudemire is out with a knee injury and Jason Kidd's best days are far behind him, as well.
IF YOU DON'T HAVE A STAR, YOU BETTER PLAY SOME D: It may be a star-driven league, but several teams have not just gotten by, but thrived without a superstar. Indiana, Memphis and Chicago, which has been without Derrick Rose all season, all lack the prototypical big star that sells lots of tickets. But they all rank in the top six in fewest points allowed per 100 possessions as they head into the playoffs. They may not have the big-time scorers that grab all the headlines, but they all have defensive standouts anchoring hard-nosed teams. Marc Gasol and Tony Allen are elite defenders in the paint and on the perimeter who have allowed the Grizzlies to weather the trade of leading scorer Rudy Gay. Joakim Noah is a defensive player of the year candidate in Chicago and Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West lead the way for the Pacers, who haven't played this physical since Dale and Antonio Davis patrolled the frontcourt at Market Square Arena.
Here are three storylines to follow with the playoffs:
WHO CAN BEAT THE HEAT?: Miami rolled up 27 straight victories en route to a league-high 66 wins, and a second straight title looks to be more likely than not. Anthony and the Knicks surged to the No. 2 seed as the season came to a close, but if the jumpshots aren't falling for them, good luck. The Pacers have frontcourt muscle that can give the Heat problems, but who handles LeBron? The most likely candidate appears to be the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have the experience of last year's NBA Finals appearance behind them and a superstar in Kevin Durant who had an incredible season of his own. But James Harden sure would have helped, wouldn't he?
WHICH FIRST-ROUND SERIES SHOULD I WATCH?: Denver vs. Golden State. With apologies to the Clippers vs. Grizzlies and Knicks vs. Celtics, this matchup of the No. 3 seed vs. No. 6 out West should be the kind of high-octane, run-and-shoot series that will make for riveting television. The Nuggets have been nearly unbeatable at home, but Danilo Gallinari's knee injury makes them vulnerable. And if there's any team that can keep up with Denver on offense, it could be the versatile Warriors and Stephen Curry, who broke Ray Allen's record for most 3-pointers made in a season. Buckle up, folks.
CAN THE LAKERS SURVIVE?: Good luck. Dwight Howard and Co. got a minor reprieve when they outlasted the Rockets in overtime on Wednesday night to lock up the No. 7 seed and avoid the top-seeded Thunder in the first round. The Lakers may match up a little better against the Spurs. But they've struggled all season to contain quality point guards, and few have had a better season than Parker. With Tim Duncan having a throwback season and young legs like Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Gary Neal ready to run, the Lakers will have their hands full.
Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski
AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this story.