1. Can anybody beat the Heat?
The Heat were terrifying at times this year. The team adopted LeBron's laser-like focus and the off-season acquisition of Ray Allen paid tangible dividends. Miami has a red carpet to the Eastern Conference Finals, with the Pacers and Knicks on the other side of the playoff bracket. Things are shaping up for the Heat to challenge the 2001 Lakers for the best playoff record (15-1) in NBA history, with a perfect postseason not out of the question. The Knicks boast a winning record against the Heat (3-1) this season, but they did get smacked last year by Miami, falling in five games to the eventual champs. The Pacers won two of three this year against Miami and took them to six last year in the conference semis, but Indy faded down the stretch, dropping five of their last six. If the Heat do advance to the Finals, will they meet the Thunder for a superstar-stuffed rematch or will they face a new upstart like Denver and its home court advantage that rivals Russia's in the winter?
2. Can Melo be a postseason leader?
No one doubts Melo's scoring prowess. The '12-'13 scoring champ went berserk in April, opening the month with five straight games of 36 points or more on 51% or better shooting from the field. All that being said, if Anthony wants to go down as a great player, he'll need to carry this team in the postseason. Currently, Anthony is set to join the likes of George Gervin, Dominique Wilkins, and Charles Barkley as a player who excels individually but fails to lead his team to a championship. The Knicks finished strong, posting a 16-2 record over their final 18 regular season games. They held their opponents to just 92 ppg during their 16 victories, while allowing 112 ppg in their two losses. This team has the firepower to score with anyone, but if they want to challenge the Heat in the East they'll need Anthony to turn up the Knicks' defensive intensity.
3. Are the Thunder really better without Harden?
The Thunder posted a better win percentage this year without James Harden than they did last season with the Sixth Man of the Year coming off the bench for OKC. Kevin Martin nearly replaced Harden's 16 ppg from last season, but Harden was nothing short of amazing in the playoffs in 2012. During the Thunder's Finals run, Harden shot 41% from three point range and got to the line six times per game coming off the bench. Without Harden to lean on in crunch time, will Russell Westbrook regress to his chucker ways, or will the balance that led OKC to a 60-22 regular season record prevail? Did I mention that Harden and his new team will face off with the Thunder in round one? The NBA couldn't have scripted that one any better.
4. Can the Nuggets win on the road?
We should all have a home as inviting as the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets steamrolled the competition at home, posting an NBA-best 38-3 record on their home court. Their show did not travel well, however, posting a perplexing 19-22 record on the road. Playoff basketball can often grind down to a half court halt, so it'll be interesting to see if the Nuggets can generate the kind of fast break points they need to win. Denver leads the league in fast break points at 20.1 per contest. If they can steal one-to-two wins per series on the road, they could end up in the Finals this June.
5. Can Lob City challenge the Thunder?
The Clippers lost three entertaining games to OKC this season, with KD torching them for 102 points in those contests. The Clips rank 22nd in defensive efficiency this year, regularly giving up triple digits to quality opponents. Despite their defensive struggles, there is reason for optimism. LAC held five of its final eight opponents under 100 points, posting a 7-1 record down the stretch. If Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can make quick work of the Grizzlies in round one (3-1 vs MEM reg. season) and the Rockets press OKC to six or seven in their first round series, the Clippers should be able to take the Thunder deep in a compelling and fast paced Western Conference semifinal matchup.