The schedule of the NBA playoffs was announced on Wednesday with San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers sitting at the top of the Western and Eastern conferences respectively. With each of the 16 teams eyeing the Larry O'Brien trophy, winning four games in the first round is their primary target.
Here is a quick look at the teams and players that can make the difference in clinching the NBA crown.
Atlanta Hawks vs Indiana Pacers: Atlanta Hawks is set to lock horns with heavyweight Indiana Pacers in the playoffs. Point guard Jeff Teague and forward Paul Millsap can put Pacers in trouble, but the talent around them will have to step up to the occasion. The table-toppers Pacers are once again in mix for the title, despite enduring a shaky second half of the regular season. Roy Hibbert's form will play a crucial role as Ian Mahinmi and Andrew Bynum haven't been inspiring in the season so far. Hawks can pull off an upset and the way Pacers have played in past few months you never know.
Miami Heat vs Charlotte Bobcats: Defending champions Miami Heat have eased into the playoffs courtesy superstar LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Wade in particular, has to lighten the load of James if Heat wants to appear in their fourth-straight final. Bobcats on the other hand have a colossal task and the one-two of Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson has to light up the scoreboard. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist needs to chase extra boards and display some tough defense to challenge the champs.
Toronto Raptors vs Brooklyn Nets: Both Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets are evenly matched sides and a lot will depend on how their top players perform under pressure. Raptors have seen a number of breakout performances this season as DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross have shown flashes of brilliance. For Nets, former Boston Celtics stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce bring plenty of playoff experience to the table. Pierce's leadership could be decisive, even though his contribution is not entirely visible on the stat sheets.
Chicago Bulls vs Washington Wizards: Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards finished in fourth and fifth respectively. Odds favour the Bulls, but on paper both teams look equal. Jimmy Butler, who has taken a step forward this season, is a wild card for the Bulls. Trevor Ariza - who is playing for a new contract - has carved his niche with open jumpers and solid guarding for Wizards, while John Wall and Bradley Beal have also displayed spirited performances.
San Antonio Spurs vs Dallas Mavericks: Last year's finalist San Antonio Spurs are clear favourites against the Dallas Mavericks. With plenty of talent in the team, Spurs are an established outfit, while Mavericks lack reliable offensive threats apart from shooting guard Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki. For Spurs, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker can control the game with their versatile play.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs Memphis Grizzlies: Oklahoma City Thunder are favourites to move ahead in the playoffs, although, they lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the absence of Russel Westbrook. But back-in-form Westbrook and Kevin Durant are sharp enough to take Thunder past Grizzlies. While OKC is an attacking side, Grizzlies slow the game by their intense defensive game. If they can hold off Durant and Westbrook without making many errors they can cause an upset.
Los Angeles Clippers vs Golden State Warriors: Los Angeles Clippers feature some of the best NBA players and can beat any team on a given day. Warriors will be missing the services of Andrew Bogut, who has suffered broken ribs, but DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin can dominate the game for the Clippers. Jordan is currently at the top of his game and posting career-high figures in points (10.6), blocks (2.5) and rebounds (13.8). Warriors are more of a physical unit will be dependent heavily on Andre Iguodala to even out the defense and on the long-rangers of Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry as well.
Portland Trail Blazers vs Houston Rockets: Defensively solid Houston Rockets will enter the playoffs as favourites against the Portland Trail Blazers. The experience of James Harden and Dwight Howard has worked quite well for the Rockets and they will be relying on them against the Trail Blazers. Robin Lopez is having a solid season for the Trail Blazers as he is averaging 11 points, 1.7 blocks and 8.5 rebounds per game. With one of the best offensive sides in the NBA, they are a team to watch out for.