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It will be tough to beat the drama of last year's NBA playoffs, but there will be plenty to watch for as the postseason gets under way on Saturday. Here are 10 things I've got my eye on as the race for the Larry O'Brien trophy begins.
1. The pressure on T-Mac. Hard enough as it is to believe, Tracy McGrady has never won a single playoff round in his NBA career. Coming off what might have been his best season ever – and with his Houston Rockets owning home-court advantage over a struggling Utah Jazz team – T-Mac has to get past the first round this year. No player in the league is facing more pressure. If he fails to lead Houston to victory over the Jazz, McGrady's legacy will continue to be an inauspicious one: "Best player to have never won a playoff series."
2. The teacher vs. the pupil. How much fun will it be watching Avery Johnson and Don Nelson go at it? Johnson spent a year as an assistant under Nellie in Dallas and clearly saw the game differently than his boss. His emphasis on defense was a dramatic change in philosophy for the Dallas Mavericks once he took over, but Nelson and his Golden State Warriors will provide a huge first-round challenge. No coach can distort a game plan and control the flow of action better than Nellie, who will play a small lineup and challenge Johnson's defensive strategy. Nelson's small-ball style may keep Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop off the floor, and that dramatically damages Johnson's preferred plan of protecting the rim. If that happens, the game will be played at a fast pace, which is to Golden State's advantage.
3. LeBron trying to take the next step. Perhaps the expectations have always been too high, but LeBron James is supposed to elevate his team and turn it into a championship contender. The Cleveland Cavaliers have an easy path to the East finals, needing only to beat the depleted Washington Wizards and then either the New Jersey Nets or Toronto Raptors to get there. All eyes will be on James, who had a relatively disappointing regular season until the final six weeks of play. He needs to seize the opportunity, lead the Cavs to the conference finals and show the world that he's closer to being the next Michael Jordan than the next Vince Carter.
4. Kobe's supporting cast. Speaking of the next Jordan, Kobe Bryant is the closest thing we'll ever see to M.J. In fact, this season Kobe was M.J. – as in his ability to adapt to his surroundings by giving his team what it needed on a particular night. Score 50 to win this game? Done. Need 10 assists instead? You got it. The Los Angeles Lakers know that the best way to beat the Phoenix Suns is for Kobe to pound the ball inside rather than fire away from the perimeter. That plan almost worked last year, when L.A. took the Suns to seven games. But will Andrew Bynum, Kwame Brown, Lamar Odom and Luke Walton offer enough support for Kobe? We'll find out.
5. Mavs and Suns meeting great expectations. Neither franchise has ever won the championship, but both are in position to do so. Expectations are to the point that anything less than a title will be considered a failure. It's possible that the San Antonio Spurs will sneak in and deny both Dallas and Phoenix of their goal. The pressure is on for both of these clubs, and given the incredible strength of the Western Conference, getting to the NBA finals will be an incredibly difficult challenge.
6. Chicago getting past the first round. Unlike the Mavs and Suns, the Chicago Bulls are in a position where winning one round would be enough to please their fans. Chicago hasn't won a playoff series since Jordan's final season with the team in 1998. The Bulls' loss to New Jersey on the final day of the season meant a first-round matchup with the Miami Heat, the defending champs. Chicago will have a tough task on its hands, trying to slow down Dwyane Wade and speeding up Shaquille O'Neal. It's actually been a good matchup the last couple of seasons for the Bulls, but now is the time for them to take the next step – to get beyond the first round and establish itself as a title contender in the coming years.
7. Wade's health. His shoulder – and his game – didn't look right the last two weeks of the season. But there may not be a more resilient player in the league. If Wade can elevate his game, and Shaq can stay out of foul trouble and control the paint, then Miami can gather momentum and make a serious run to defend its crown. Look for Chicago to put Wade through the ringer at both ends of the floor. Scott Skiles will make sure he doesn't get many easy hoops at the rim, and he'll make sure Wade has to defend the screen and roll as often as possible. This could be a test of wills – or at least a test of Wade's shoulder.
8. Flip Saunders' pursuit for redemption. A year ago, the Detroit Pistons flopped in the East finals and seemed to come apart after Ben Wallace openly questioned Saunders' coaching style. The incident led to Wallace's departure from the team, and now Detroit has Chris Webber manning the post. The result is a more well-rounded offensive club, one that boasts five skill players in the starting lineup. The Pistons are the East favorites, and anything less than a trip to the NBA finals would be considered a failure, particularly for Saunders. Perhaps no coach in the league is facing more pressure.
9. Utah's search for its lost mojo. A month ago, the Jazz were one of the best teams in the league. But after fading down the stretch and losing seven of its last 11, Utah now looks like it will be lucky to survive its first-round series with Houston. In fact, the Jazz have to go on the road to start the series against the Rockets thanks to the late fade. For Utah to bounce back, it has to play with great energy, confidence and purpose – something we haven't seen much of lately. If not, this wonderful turnaround season for the franchise will go down the drain.
10. The team to beat … San Antonio? As usual, the Spurs have been lying in the weeds. While the focus has been on the Mavericks and Suns for most of the season, San Antonio has quietly put together a great season of its own. In fact, this looks a lot like the squad that won the NBA title in both 2003 and 2005. Tim Duncan is playing at his highest level in years, Manu Ginobili has looked unguardable and the Spurs' defense is the best in the league. It's possible that all of this talk about Dallas and Phoenix will go down the tubes, and that the championship will once again belong to San Antonio.