It was not a time for reflection. The NBA regular season ended and about 15 minutes later the play-offs began.
OK, we exaggerate. It was more like 15 hours, and 16 teams were launched into the so-called second season.
The surviving 16 are not created equal. Some are legitimate title contenders. Some need a batch of breaks. Some are first-round fodder. (Adieu, Utah Jazz.)
Only four look capable of winning a championship. It would have been five, but Derrick Rose's knee blew up on Saturday so we can safely write off the Chicago Bulls.
The four who matter:
- Miami Heat So talented, so confounding. They were everyone's pre-season pick, and with good reason. They returned the best trio in basketball, in LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, and seemed more mature after their shock loss in the finals to the Dallas Mavericks last year. But they still have very little depth, and they were 12-9 before entering the play-offs. In theory, they ought to be able to turn it up, as that 100-67 victory over the New York Knicks would suggest. The Boston Celtics are the only team in the East who seem to bother them, but they cannot meet them until the conference finals, if the creaky Celtics last that long.
- San Antonio Spurs Past their primes, overlooked and dangerous as ever. They are the top seeds in the West, as they were last year when Memphis beat them, but this time Manu Ginobili is healthy, Tony Parker is at the peak of his game and they have great depth and cohesion. The favourites.
- Oklahoma City Thunder Have they really arrived? Their dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are supported by a young, athletic cast. They are as fast from end to end as any team in the NBA. Still, the Thunder have struggled against bigger and more mature teams, and some remain convinced they need another year to get this play-offs thing right. They needed a lucky bounce on the last shot to win their opener against the Mavericks. This will not be easy.
- Los Angeles Lakers The team who cannot be dismissed. It has been a tumultuous season for the Lakers: a new coach (Mike Brown), an aborted mega-trade (Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom for Chris Paul), a late deal for a point guard (Ramon Sessions), and a seven-game suspension for a volatile starter (Metta World Peace) after he knocked out Oklahoma City's James Harden. But they still have Kobe Bryant and Gasol. And the tempestuous Andrew Bynum is the best centre still standing. And their core has won two titles.
- Honourable mention (as in, "could happen") Mavericks and Celtics.
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