AS THE SIXERS gear up for the NBA Draft in June, 16 teams begin their quest for a championship. The playoffs start tomorrow afternoon, when the Raptors and Nets meet in their first-round matchup at 12:30 p.m.
This year's playoffs is a mix between the usual contenders and a few surprises. The Eastern Conference is significantly weaker than the Western Conference, as has been the case all season.
For example, the Washington Wizards, who are the No. 5 seed in the East, won 10 fewer games than the Portland Trail Blazers, the No. 5 seed in the West. The Atlanta Hawks, who snuck in as the eighth seed, are six games below .500.
The Heat and Pacers are the class of the East, and seem to be on a collision course in the conference finals. Any one of the top four seeds in the West thinks it realistically has a shot at getting to the Finals. The combination of the two scenarios will make for an exciting 2 months of basketball.
Let's take a look at the first-round matchups:
SPURS vs. MAVERICKS
Season series: Spurs, 4-0
Three things: San Antonio is the first team since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976 to not have a player averaging over 30 minutes a game . . . The Spurs went on a 19-game winning streak this season that is tied for the sixth longest in NBA history . . . The Mavs lost their final regular-season game to Memphis, which sealed their fate of playing the Spurs rather than the Thunder, whom they beat two out of three times this season.
Fun fact: The teams last met in the playoffs in 2010, also in the first round. The Spurs came out on top, 4-2.
The pick: Spurs in 4
THUNDER vs. GRIZZLIES
Season series: Thunder, 3-1
Three things: The Grizzlies took down the Thunder in last year's playoffs, but that was without star OKC point guard Russell Westbrook . . . The Thunder's Kevin Durant led the league in scoring, at 31.7 points . . . The Grizzlies went 33-13 since center Marc Gasol came back from a knee injury early in the season.
Fun fact: This matchup will feature the top defensive player (Gasol) against the top offensive player (Durant), though they probably will not guard each other at all.
The pick: Thunder in 6
CLIPPERS vs. WARRIORS
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Three things: Both have great point guards, but with much different styles. Steph Curry, of the Warriors, is a lethal shooter from outside, while the Clippers' Chris Paul is a classic pass-first point guard . . . Andrew Bogut could miss the whole series for Golden State with a fractured rib, so Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have a chance to bring Lob City to life . . . These franchises have never met in the playoffs.
Fun fact: These two teams are not friendly. They reportedly have declined pregame chapel services together.
The pick: Clippers in 6
ROCKETS vs. TRAIL BLAZERS
Season series: Rockets, 3-1
Three things: The Blazers' LaMarcus Aldridge is scoring 21.1 points per game in his career against Houston, which trails only Dallas as the team against which he scores the most . . . In all but two of the last 15 meetings, the winning team eclipsed the 100-point mark . . . The Rockets have not been to the Finals since 1994-95, when they took home the title.
Fun fact: The Rockets have won all three playoff series against the Blazers (1987, 1994, 2009).
The pick: Rockets in 5
PACERS vs. HAWKS
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Three things: The Pacers went only 15-13 after acquiring Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen from the Sixers, after starting the season 41-13 . . . This is the seventh straight playoff appearance for the Hawks, the longest stretch of consecutive playoff appearances in the Eastern Conference . . . The Hawks lost 14 of 15 games in a span of February and March, but still managed to beat out the Knicks for the last playoff spot.
Fun fact: In the last meeting, on April 6, the Hawks held the Pacers to a franchise-low 23 points in the first half.
The pick: Pacers in 5
HEAT vs. BOBCATS
Season series: Heat, 4-0
Three things: Miami lost only seven games this season when it held opponents under 100 points . . . The Heat is looking to become the first team to win three straight NBA Finals since the Lakers from 2000-02 . . . The Bobcats' 43 wins more than doubled their win total from last season (21).
Fun fact: The Bobcats are the only NBA team without a win in the postseason.
The pick: Heat in 4
RAPTORS vs. NETS
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Three things: The Nets have a record of 34-17 since the start of 2014, giving them the second-best record in the East since Jan. 1 . . . The Nets are only the third team in the past 40 years to qualify for the playoffs after beginning the new year at least 10 games below .500 . . . Toronto set a franchise record this season by making 713 shots from beyond the arc, with former Villanova and Cardinal Dougherty High star Kyle Lowry setting a team single-season record by making 190 of them.
Fun fact: The only playoff series win the Raptors have is against the Knicks, in 2001.
The pick: Nets in 7
BULLS vs. WIZARDS
Season series: Wizards, 2-1
Three things: Since the beginning of the year, Chicago owns the best record in the East, with a mark of 36-16 . . . The Wizards won 44 games this season, their highest total since 2007-08, the last time they made the playoffs . . . Chicago is 41-4 this season when leading going into the fourth quarter.
Fun fact: The only two teams Michael Jordan played for were the Wizards and Bulls. In fact, he was on the 1997 Bulls team that knocked the then-Washington Bullets out of the playoffs.
The pick: Bulls in 5