MIAMI -- LeBron James was accused of taking the easy way to his breakthrough championship, but the last two years have been anything but easy. He was five minutes and 49 seconds away from the brink of his ultimate goal when he found himself sliding and falling to the floor. He lost control of the ball and he had to be worrying if he was going to lose the game and the NBA Finals along with it. Was this how it was going to end again?
Russell Westbrook's impressive 43 points were not enough to end the Oklahoma City Thunder's losing streak in game four of this year's NBA finals.
MIAMI -- Five thoughts from Miami's 104-98 win over Oklahoma City in Game 4 ...
A fierce late-game rally by the Oklahoma City Thunder proved fruitless Thursday night as the Miami Heat held out to win game two of the 2012 NBA Finals 100-96, tying the series, 1-1.
For all we know, Bobcats owner Michael Jordan may have finally gotten it right with the surprising hiring of St. John's assistant Mike Dunlap as coach on Monday.
MIAMI -- If the Thunder are right, and if they're able to make good on their promise to break through in Game 4 Tuesday night, then this NBA Finals will be on its way to fulfilling its promise. It can become one of the most entertaining showdowns in recent memory, but that won't happen unless Oklahoma City responds to the elevated play of the Heat and LeBron James.
Of all the facets of the Oklahoma City blueprint that Bobcats general manager Rich Cho hoped to follow, landing the No. 2 pick in the draft wasn't one of them.
MIAMI -- The closest games were supposed to favor the Thunder. They were supposed to be the better team down the stretch, even though that reputation for performance under pressure had not been earned. Yes, they'd dethroned the Mavericks in the opening round, survived the Lakers and overwhelmed the Spurs, but suddenly none of that mattered.
MIAMI -- The Oklahoma City Thunder may yet play in 10 NBA Finals and win six championships and lure NFL, NHL and MLB teams to Oklahoma City, but in the meantime, these guys are so young that when they cross the street somebody ought to hold their hand. Otherwise, Russell Westbrook will sprint into a parked car, and Kevin Durant will knock over a crossing guard, and Kendrick Perkins will just stand there and shake his head in disgust.
A missed three-pointer by Russell Westbrook in the final minute of Sunday's game signaled the end of a fierce back-and-forth between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder in game three of the 2012 NBA Finals.
MIAMI -- Five thoughts from the Heat's 91-85 win over Oklahoma City ...
MIAMI -- It is possible that, as LeBron James warms up for the Heat on Sunday, fans at American Airlines Arena will be looking down at their phones to follow Tiger Woods' surge at the U.S. Open. Of course, the way Tiger played Saturday, it is also possible that Tiger will pull his phone out on the 18th fairway to get a Heat-Thunder score. Tiger is five strokes off the lead on a course that just put him in a headlock. The odds are not good.
Agent David Falk wishes it had all happened differently for Jeff Green, that his phones were ringing off the hook for a very different reason these last few days.
The NBA Finals are tied 1-1 after the Thunder and Heat split two games in Oklahoma City. With Game 3 set for Sunday night in Miami, five SI.com writers analyze the biggest storylines and surprises so far, examine which team is in a better position and take issue with the criticism of Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Was this the kind of star he'd always hoped to become? Not exactly. The minutes were clearing away from the game clock as slow as evaporation, and never fast enough for LeBron James.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Four thoughts after the Heat's 100-96 victory over the Thunder in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Thursday ...
OKLAHOMA CITY -- "Resilient" is not a word most people use to describe the Miami Heat, but since I'm not allowed to repeat the words they do use, let's start with that one. In one of the toughest road venues in the NBA -- season on the line, world ready to pounce -- the Heat were tougher, stronger and just grittier than the Oklahoma City Thunder.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- A throng of reporters packed around Chris Bosh's podium on Wednesday, jostling for position as they waited for the All-Star power forward to arrive. For all of the attention paid to LeBron James (When you going to guard Kevin Durant, 'Bron?) and Dwyane Wade (How's your health, Dwyane?) the player Miami needs to bounce back in Game 2 the most is Bosh, who simply can't afford another subpar (10 points on 4-of-11 shooting) night.
The preseason favorites to reach the NBA Finals have arrived with their credentials newly polished and their resolve tested. Oklahoma City and Miami both feature one of the two best basketball players on the planet in three-time MVP LeBron James and three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, each one enjoying the best season of his career and seeking his first championship. Less than seven months after the end of a nasty lockout, the league has delivered a Finals matchup with enough superstars and plot lines to lure in the casual fans, and enough depth, balance, grit and legitimacy among these two teams to further stoke the passion of the cognoscenti.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Years from now, when the Thunder are accustomed to making the NBA Finals, perhaps the franchise will wise up and put its superstars on opposite ends of the locker room, to spread out the media horde. In the meantime, Kevin Durant dresses next to James Harden, who dresses next to Russell Westbrook. Tuesday night, they really could have used a police escort to lead them from the shower to their underwear.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were instrumental as Oklahoma City Thunder won the first game of the 2012 NBA Finals.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Three thoughts after Oklahoma City's 105-94 victory over Miami in Game 1 of the NBA Finals ...
Miami and Oklahoma City are playing for the championship in a series that features the MVP, LeBron James, the MVP runner-up and scoring champion, Kevin Durant, and a host of other stars. The Heat are back in the NBA Finals for the second year in a row as the 27-year-old James seeks his first title to cap his ninth season. Durant, 23, is also looking for his first ring, the five-year veteran having led the franchise to its first Finals appearance since 1996, when the Thunder played in Seattle. Game 1 is set for Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET in Oklahoma City. Which team will get off to a good start? Join SI.com's Ben Glicksman and Paul Forrester as they live blog the series opener beginning at 8:45 p.m.
As a child, I sometimes dreamed of going to the NBA Finals, but I never imagined they would take place in Oklahoma City and all the players would dress like nerds. Life is full of surprises. Let's keep that in mind as we get ready for the epic battle between the man who broke Cleveland's heart and the city that stole Seattle's team. These Finals may not be what we expect.
Miami and Oklahoma City will play for the championship in a series that features the MVP, LeBron James, the MVP runner-up and scoring champion, Kevin Durant, and a host of other stars in the Heat's Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the Thunder's Russell Westbrook and Sixth Man Award winner James Harden. The Heat are back in the NBA Finals for the second year in a row as the 27-year-old James seeks his first title to cap his ninth season. Durant, 23, is also looking for his first ring, the five-year veteran having led the franchise to its first Finals appearance since 1996, when the Thunder played in Seattle. What can we expect once Game 1 tips off on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City? Five SI.com NBA writers analyze how each team got this far and what lies ahead in the Finals.
MIAMI -- A three-year experiment that was extended out to a fifth postseason potentially ended when Boston coach Doc Rivers pulled his four stars off the floor in the last minute of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday. LeBron James and the Heat were looking ahead to launching a new rivalry with Kevin Durant and the Thunder after their Game 7 victory, while Rajon Rondo and the Celtics' Big Three were left to think back on what they had shared, and to wonder what comes next.
For the second time in as many years, LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates will get a shot at the NBA championship after beating the Boston Celtics on Saturday night.
MIAMI -- A few thousand Celtics fans sat through the humiliation of LeBron James' virtuoso performance in Game 6 at Boston for two reasons. One, they wanted to send the Celtics back to Miami with the understanding that some of them still believed they could upset the Heat. And they also wanted to say a proper goodbye, in case James should prove them wrong.
BOSTON -- This was LeBron James's rendition of what Michael Jordan did next door 26 years ago, in a building that no longer exists. On his Sunday afternoon, Michael had 63 points against Larry Bird's Celtics and was glorified for losing in two overtimes. There are many differences between them and on Thursday this was the most important one: Jordan was on his way up when he revealed his true self in the old Garden, but when LeBron broke through in the newer building it was to prevent himself from tumbling off the cliff.
In the fast-moving media world of 2012, the obituary comes before the death certificate. You call it tasteless; we call it efficient. So it is with the Miami Heat, who are only down 3 games to 2 but already have been cut into bite-sized pieces and served to stray dogs.
The pitch for Phil Jackson to run the Orlando Magic isn't dead just yet.
MIAMI -- The videos were spliced together to give the false impression of never-ending effort and resilience. "It is our destiny," growled the narrator amid highlights of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh dunking and celebrating one after the next.
The Eastern Conference finals resume Tuesday night (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) with the Celtics and Heat tied at 2-2. Miami returns home for Game 5 after losing twice in Boston, where Dwyane Wade missed a potential game-winning three-pointer in Game 4, the second game in this series to go to overtime. What have we learned so far and what's in store for the rest of the series? Four SI.com NBA writers make their predictions and analyze Chris Bosh's potential return, Rajon Rondo's brilliance and the highly scrutinized officiating.
BOSTON -- To watch Miami in a game like this is to wonder about destiny. You think about all of the great players that preceded LeBron James, and of how you somehow knew that Larry Bird or Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan or Tim Duncan were going to have their way in the end. As the tension grows you find yourself expecting James to force his way into their world, and to have his way as the great ones inevitably do.
BOSTON -- The Celtics and Heat have spent the first three games of their Eastern finals exploring unpredictable ways that ended in the predictable results.
BOSTON -- Kevin Garnett changed the NBA two decades ago as a 6-11 power forward who played with the skills of a shooting guard. He launched a trend that has been emulated by his generation and its followers, but now, surprisingly, it looks like an elaborately extended con game. If the Celtics are to return to the NBA Finals in what may be Garnett's final month of basketball, they are going to need him to become the kind of low-post dinosaur that he and his kind worked so hard to replace.
BOSTON -- Of course the Heat are looking ahead. It is with no disrespect to the Celtics that Miami will aim to tighten its play and win at least one of the long weekend's two games in Boston.
As if the NBA playoffs and lead-up to the June 28 draft weren't enough to keep hoops fans satiated this time of year, there's a number of personnel positions in play that are worth monitoring.
MIAMI -- Was this the end, or a beginning? Will the Celtics be too exhausted to go on, or will they be heartened to build on the gains made here? Will the Celtics be discouraged by the discrepancies of officiating, or will their anger inspire them to defend their home court in Games 3 and 4?
When the NBA Draft lottery balls came bouncing down in 2007, then-Seattle assistant general manager Rich Cho was standing next to then-Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard inside the Madison Square Garden room where the fates of two franchises were being determined.
MIAMI -- The Celtics are old, tired and injured. They were run off the floor in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals by the Heat, who are overwhelming favorites to reach a second straight NBA Finals. Yet Boston enters Game 2 on Wednesday with hope for better performances in the short term and a renewal of their dynasty in the long term around coach Doc Rivers.
This is the time of the year when NBA executives may get a little religious, praying that the ping pong balls in Wednesday's NBA draft lottery fall in their favor.
MIAMI -- "They don't have to score 70 for us to have a chance to win,'' said coach Erik Spoelstra before his Heat beat the Celtics 93-79 in Game 1 of the Eastern finals. And he was right. In this series it's about quality more than quantity.
Two star-studded, high-profile teams that, for very different reasons, are especially desperate to win a championship this season square off in an Eastern Conference finals series that features at least a full handful of future Hall of Famers and an unusually high quotient of drama and uncertainty.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Maybe Larry Bird's advice was misunderstood.
PHILADELPHIA -- This is the same team that barely made the playoffs, that was bullied by the Celtics six weeks ago as its coach worried whether he was too hard on his young players. This is the neglected contender that lacks a go-to scorer and meaningful playoff experience, and now these 76ers are the No. 8 seed that stands one win in Boston away from reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Celtics and the Heat are racing each other to the finish line. Each team now believes it is destined to meet the other in the Eastern Conference final. Each understands that the first team to cross the finish line -- by wrapping up its current round of play -- will hold an advantage.
In a game that will be remembered mostly for three flagrant fouls, including one blatant cheap shot by Miami deep reserve Dexter Pittman, the Heat reclaimed control of this chippy conference semifinal behind a swarming defense that produced the sort of chaos fast-break points on which Miami thrives.
BOSTON -- The visitors from Philadelphia had not been set up, and they were not the victims of a confidence game. These truths did not prevent the 76ers from feeling as if they had been hustled by the Celtics and their crowd. The Boston fans could not have been in on the sting, because, in fact, they had come here Monday to possibly say goodbye.
Let the Dwight Howard hirings begin.
Before our recent lunch, the last time I had seen Mike D'Antoni was on the afternoon of March 11, right after an embarrassing 106-94 home defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers. Linsanity had gone quiet, the New York Knicks had lost eight of their last 11 games and their hold on the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot was growing ever more precarious.
So now what do we do? Should we say that this was "just Game 4" and "just the second round," and downplay LeBron James' one-man obliteration of the Pacers? Should we say he is lucky he didn't have to hit a game-winning shot? Should we play the Fun With Stats game and point out the Heat only outscored the Pacers by four points with LeBron on the floor, while they were plus-17 with Mario Chalmers?
INDIANAPOLIS -- The missed shots piled up, and Dwyane Wade was at a loss to explain the problem. For two days Wade had stewed over his abysmal five-point, 2-for-13 performance in Game 3. He sought treatment for his sore legs from the Heat trainers, sought counsel from his former college coach, Tom Crean, in nearby Bloomington. The extended break between games was a nightmare for Miami, said head coach Erik Spoelstra, perhaps for no one more so than Wade, who was on the arena floor two and a half hours early on Sunday, firing up jump shots and running through drills with a Heat assistant coach, desperately trying to work away the problem.
PHILADELPHIA -- If it's true that it's harder to forget the worst losses than it's easier to remember the best victories, then this is one game that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen -- not to mention Rajon Rondo -- may be forced to remember for years to come.
The usual guidelines no longer appear to be relevant. The NBA postseason has become unusually unpredictable. What comes next may no longer be based on what happened before.
INDIANAPOLIS -- All season long, Frank Vogel has hammered home a message, one simple, easy to understand: We're good.
Who is better than Kevin Garnett?
Glenn "Doc" Rivers is living up to his nickname again. The Boston Celtics coach loves to joke that he's Doc, not a doctor, when you ask him about player injuries. But Doc is quite skilled at making ill teams healthy.
The chastising chatter that often surrounds LeBron James grew loud again Tuesday night, the questions about heart and poise and that game of hot potato that he sometimes likes to play late in games.
BOSTON -- One month ago the inexperienced 76ers were so anemic offensively that they routinely lost close games, couldn't win on the road and were in danger of missing the playoffs. Now all of those trends are uncoiling inexplicably. Here on Monday they outshot the Celtics down the stretch to move within three wins of the Eastern Conference finals.
It is the growing sports epidemic of the 21st century, where being the best team in the regular season of any of the four major professional leagues has never meant so little for the postseason. In fact, not only are the trophy cases of such teams likely to be empty at playoffs' end, but these regular season champions are lucky if they get past their first playoff opponent.
LeBron James raised the heavy bronze MVP trophy high above his head Sunday afternoon, a validation of a season well done. No one takes more flak than LeBron these days, but no one played better in these last wild, unpredictable four months than him. He was the best, joining the rarified air occupied by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Moses Malone as three-time MVP winners. He was the best, which he left no room for doubt of in a brilliant 32-point, 15-rebound, five-assist effort in Miami's 95-86 win over Indiana.
The third-seeded Indiana Pacers enter this second-round series as the clear-cut underdog against the No. 2 Heat. Miami has more playoff experience, the two best players in the series and a home-court advantage made more significant by its NBA-best 31-5 home record through the regular season and first round. Although the Pacers won four straight in their first-round matchup with Orlando after dropping the first game, they frequently allowed an overmatched opponent missing star center Dwight Howard to come back from large deficits. Similar lapses in intensity will be fatal against the Heat, who thrive on swift bursts of momentum.
The 76ers looked hopeless throughout the second half of the season while surrendering the division championship to Boston. But Philadelphia was able to hold onto the final playoff spot and then take advantage of injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to upset the top-seeded Bulls in six games. The Celtics should win most of the individual matchups, but those advantages could be offset by the variety injuries that afflicted them during their six-game win in the opening round against Atlanta. In March, Philadelphia exploited its youth, depth and team defense to push the pace while beating Boston twice, and its upset of Chicago has restored the Sixers' confidence. This will be a surprisingly competitive series.
BOSTON -- "Experience showed," said Andre Iguodala after his Sixers allowed Boston to rally back for a 92-91 win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Saturday. But it wasn't the end of the Sixers' hopes for another series upset. Quite the opposite: It could be the beginning of another predictable surprise.
No one is completely sure what Kevin Garnett will do next season, when he will become a free agent for the first time in his career. There are those close to him that believe he will retire, that the prospect of another 82 games on his achy right knee will force him out. It takes a lot of work to get Garnett's surgically repaired knee game ready, sources say, and some friends think that after 17 seasons and more than $290 million in career earnings, KG will call it quits.
He was whispering to his son as the weight of the game, the season and his entire career thrust itself down upon him with 2.2 seconds remaining. His son was far away, out of sight, but Andre Iguodala spoke to him all the same.
Know this about the Knicks' 2011-12 season, which ended with their loss to Miami in Game 5 on Wednesday: They gave us plenty to talk about.
For a season shortened by a lockout, the Knicks' felt like it lasted a lifetime. But the team's mercurial campaign was finally taken off life support Wednesday, when Miami overpowered New York for a 106-94 win and a 4-1 series victory.
ATLANTA -- Hawks coach Larry Drew and Al Horford agreed the big man would play somewhere between 15 and 25 minutes in Game 5 against the Celtics -- just his second game back since a torn pectoral muscle suffered on Jan. 11.
The Chicago Bulls are grievously outmanned, short on offensive production and thin off the bench. They may not win another game in this series, but the sheer effort they showed in their 77-69 Game 5 victory over the Sixers was pretty inspiring. This was not what you would call a pretty basketball game, but there was something beautiful in the Bulls' resilience, fire and especially their elite defense. Even playing without Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, it's easy to see how this team won 50 games during the regular season.
The Indiana Pacers finally finished one of their first-round playoff games against Orlando with a strong fourth quarter, and put behind them a long process of rebuilding from an ugly era. Tuesday's 105-87 win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse gave Indiana its first playoff series victory since 2005 -- the season of the infamous brawl in Detroit.
BOSTON -- All of a sudden the Celtics looked like potential NBA champions. But the appearances of their 101-79 win over the Hawks in Game 4 on Sunday were as revealing as the picture of Dorian Gray. They looked young, but felt old. Home-court advantage in the second round and a conference final for the third time in five years were within their reach, and yet three of their most important players couldn't be sure of playing in Game 5 on Tuesday at Atlanta.
NEW YORK -- At first glance, the streamers that fell from the roof of Madison Square Garden almost as soon as Dwyane Wade's errant three-pointer that would have eliminated the Knicks might have seemed a bit much. After all, New York's 89-87 triumph in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals was merely one win and it did little to dispel the notion that the Knicks are nothing but a speed bump in Miami's increasingly wide-open path to a second straight appearance in the NBA Finals.
It wasn't pretty for either team, but the 76ers' 89-82 victory over the Bulls in Philadelphia on Sunday will hold a certain beauty only a defensive-minded team with no superstars can appreciate. After getting manhandled in the series opener, the Sixers pushed the top-seeded Bulls to the brink of elimination with their third straight victory in the series. Philadelphia gritted its way through a low-scoring game, made all the clutch plays down the stretch, and pushed the injury-riddled Bulls -- still searching for a leader after losing Derrick Rose late in the series opener -- into a 3-1 series hole.
The scene was all too familiar. The Bulls led 45-42 with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, firmly in command of Game 3 against the 76ers. They held Philadelphia to just 1-of-10 shooting to start the second half, and following an emotional letdown Tuesday, seemed ready to regain control of the series. They were playing selfless Chicago basketball. They looked every bit the team that went 18-9 without Derrick Rose during the regular season.
MIAMI -- This should have been just another lost night for the Knicks, who have suffered plenty of them over the last 11 years, but it turned into something far more troubling when forward Amar'e Stoudemire slashed open his left hand by slamming it in frustration against a glass-encased fire extinguisher on his way to the locker room Monday following the Heat's 104-94 win.
BOSTON -- It was an inspired loss and an unimpressive win. It was a game to be survived and then forgotten. It was a night of injuries, fatigue and just enough basketball scraped out of the bottom of the jar.
MIAMI -- This was a big day for the Heat, who controlled everything within their reach and benefited from the worst kind of luck. Derrick Rose is out of the way, sadly, and the Knicks provided little resistance in their playoff-opening 100-67 bludgeoning Saturday.
NEW YORK -- This was no New York nick. This was a full-blown laceration, a wound that left a trail of blood, necessitated stitches and, depending on your sources, almost divorced a finger from the rest of a left hand. Three days had elapsed since Amar'e Stoudemire stalked off the AmericanAirlines Arena court in Miami and decided to fight the glass encasement shrouding a fire extinguisher -- the glass won decisively, as glass tends to do when pitted against bare human flesh.
For two months now O.J. Mayo has heard the rumors about the aborted deadline deal with the Celtics for Ray Allen, how it was he who quashed the trade that would have broken up Boston's Big Three. He heard reports coming out of Boston of a conversation he allegedly had with Celtics president Danny Ainge, of how he told Ainge he wasn't interested in winning championships, that Boston's rich history didn't count for much.
The Magic basket used to be protected by the equivalent of a crocodile-infested moat. Then Dwight Howard suffered a back injury and underwent season-ending surgery. What should have been an intriguing matchup has turned into an exhibition for Roy Hibbert.
Yes, Chicago, things have changed with Derrick Rose out for the season. You can claim the goal is still a championship. You can say each player just needs to contribute a little more to make that happen. But when you look at Philadelphia's 109-92 victory Tuesday night, you're fooling yourself if you don't see a completely different first-round series. These weren't the same Bulls who tied for the league's best record while Rose missed 26 games with five different injuries. These weren't the Bulls who used their deep bench to weather the loss of several other key players throughout the regular season. These Bulls looked lost offensively and had no answers defensively as Philadelphia attacked in transition, on the boards and at the rim while tying the series 1-1 and significantly altering the Bulls' playoff image.
The Pacers went back to basics Monday, rebounding from a stunning Game 1 loss and a troubling Game 2 deficit to even their series with the Magic after a 93-78 win at Indianapolis. Five players scored in double figures and, more important, the Pacers appeared to regain their confidence. Let's break down the keys to Game 2:
Make that two clocks that are ticking loudly now for the embattled Michael Jordan.
ATLANTA -- Less than a minute away from blowing a 19-point lead and Game 1 at home, the Hawks got a much-needed bump from the unlikeliest of sources.
The faces were all the same with 1:10 remaining in the fourth quarter Saturday at the United Center in Chicago: sunken expressions, hands clasped to support chins, mouths closed. And they all had to be asking the same question: Why was Derrick Rose on the court at that point in the Bulls' 103-91 victory against the Sixers when the game was already decided? Fair or not, that became the question that will loom over Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau after Rose tore the ACL in his left knee at a time when Chicago was tying a bow on an impressive playoff opener. After the game, Thibodeau was asked about his decision to have Rose in the game with the Bulls still leading by 12 despite Philadelphia's 14-6 run. "I don't work backward like you guys do," Thibodeau said. "The score was going the other way."
Watching the Charlotte Bobcats stumble around the court this year may make the casual fan wonder who is running this beleaguered organization.
Riding the bus back from the Bobcats' shootaround in Orlando Tuesday, Kemba Walker sounded markedly glum. He was reflecting on his rookie season in Charlotte -- one in which he averaged 12.1 points, 4.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds -- and spoke tersely about what he'll remember most from his first-year experience.
It's a tale of two teams: One, Indiana, has quietly put together an elite season behind a big front line, a deep bench and an opportunistic defense. The other, Orlando, has had its chemistry rocked by squabbling between coach Stan Van Gundy and star center Dwight Howard, and its roster depleted by the loss of Howard to season-ending back surgery. Orlando took three out of four from the Pacers in the regular season, a stat that means little now with Howard out of the lineup.
The Celtics were guaranteed a No. 4 seed as champion of the Atlantic division, but the No. 5 Hawks' superior record provides them with home-court advantage -- and with it, they believe they have a chance to earn what could be their most satisfying postseason victory of the Joe Johnson era. The Hawks have reached the conference semifinals each of the last three years, but they've never knocked off a title contender like Boston, which won the 2008 title after surviving a Game 7 against Atlanta in the opening round of the playoffs. This will be Atlanta's last shot at Boston before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen enter free agency this summer. But injuries threaten both teams.
The 76ers will be hoping for a low-scoring series, as they are limited offensively while ranking among the best in the league defensively. The Bulls were the most resilient team in the league, earning the top seed overall despite persistent injuries to their three starters on the wing -- reigning MVP Derrick Rose, All-Star Luol Deng and former All-Star and champion, Richard Hamilton. The anemic Sixers backed into the playoffs after leading the Atlantic Division for much of the season. They'll hope to come up with easy scores in transition, but the defensively focused Bulls are likely to prevent that from happening.
It's fitting, given how crazy this New York season has been, that none of the three games these two teams played in the regular season -- all Miami wins -- have much relevance now. One Miami win came in late January, before the Jeremy Lin craze and with Carmelo Anthony out nursing injuries. A second came at the height of the Lin madness, just before the All-Star break. And the last came with Amar'e Stoudemire out and Anthony shifting to power forward.
This story appears in the April 30, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
The Nets and the Sixers were playing for very different things on Monday. The Sixers' motivation was fairly straightforward: Win in New Jersey and assure yourself a playoff spot. But for the Nets, things were more bittersweet. This was, after all, their final home game before moving to Brooklyn, the final episode in their long, complicated relationship with the people of New Jersey. But as shown by Philadelphia's 105-87 victory, when it comes to winning basketball games, playoff-level focus is more effective than nostalgia.
While it's true that the final Garden State game for your New Jersey Nets was contested Monday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, if you concentrated hard you could likely hear the ancient sounds from the Meadowlands just 12 miles north.
Like many sports teams, the Charlotte Bobcats are caught in an argument between haters and homers. One group thinks the Bobcats are one of the worst teams in NBA history. Those are the homers. The haters think the Bobcats have been losing on purpose so they can get the No. 1 pick in the draft. The homers say "No, that's not fair. They really do suck this bad. They're not trying to suck; they just suck at trying."
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