WASHINGTON – An NBA season trimmed to four months by a money dispute between players and team owners has set up a playoff showdown that begins on Saturday with a handful of heavy favorites to capture the crown.
Chicago and San Antonio each won 50 games in a campaign shortened from 82 to 66 games per club, while Miami thrived behind its stars, Oklahoma City proved a young roster is ready to contend and the Los Angeles Lakers remained a threat.
“The season has gone better than we could have hoped,” said NBA commissioner David Stern. “Our sponsors are very happy with the way the league has charged back and we are looking forward to a very exciting playoffs.”
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat will try to fulfill their dream mission of winning the title after losing to German star Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in last year’s NBA Finals.
“There’s only one champion,” Wade said. “It’s a failure for every other team. If you don’t win a championship, you had a failed year.”
Best-of-seven first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference will send top overall seed Chicago against Philadelphia, Miami against New York, Boston against Atlanta and Orlando against Indiana.
The Bulls went 2-1 against Philadelphia in the regular season, the same margin by which Boston won the season series over Atlanta. Orlando went 3-1 against Indiana while Miami swept the Knicks 3-0.
James will be tested by New York’s Carmelo Anthony while Miami’s Chris Bosh and New York’s Amare Stoudemire will guard one another in another key matchup in the fourth Knicks-Heat playoff meeting but the first since 2000.
“You put too much work into a season to automatically call it a failure (if you don’t win the title), but it would be a disappointing,” James said. “This is our goal. This is what we’ve come together for.”
Western Conference first-round matchups find the Lakers against Denver, San Antonio taking on Utah, Oklahoma City facing Dallas and the Los Angeles Clippers meeting Memphis.
San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Lakers each went 3-1 against their first-round playoff rivals in the regular season while the Clippers went 2-1 against Memphis.
NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant, with support from Russell Westbrook and top reserve James Harden, will try and guide the young Oklahoma City Thunder to the top after they were one victory shy of the finals last year.
“We’ve got guys who really enjoy that moment and enjoy wanting to take those shots,” Durant said of the Thunder’s poise in the last minutes of games. “If I make it cool. If I miss it, I learn from it.”
The Mavericks will try to defend their crown after matching Utah for the fewest wins of any Western Conference playoff qualifier, but the team they edged to reach the final in now their first obstacle this time around.
“You have got to be tough-minded, especially on the road,” Nowitzki said. “Teams are going to make runs on you and the building is going to be crazy and you have to withstand that and stop the bleeding.”
Derrick Rose, last year’s NBA Most Valuable Player, was nagged by injuries but Chicago boasts Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer at forward, Joakim Noah in the middle and veteran Richard Hamilton in the backcourt plus formidable defensive skills.
They will open against Philadelphia, the losingest playoff qualifier.
“We’re playing well enough to be playing right there with any team,” said Philadelphia’s Lou Williams, who led 76ers scorers with 14.9 points a game.
San Antonio will enter the playoffs as the NBA’s hottest club, having ended the season on a 10-game win streak. But Spurs veterans Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will be watched to see if the grind of too many games and too little rest takes a toll in the playoffs.
And the Lakers, ignited by sharpshooter Kobe Bryant, seek their third title in four years and the sixth of Bryant’s career after edging the Clippers by only one game for the Pacific division crown and a third seeding.
“The thing that makes us a championship team is our size, our ability to defend and our versatility,” Bryant said. “The biggest thing for us is how well we’re going to shoot the ball from the perimeter.
“We’re a much better team when we play at a slower pace, and play a game in the 90s. That’s our championship DNA.”