Heat seek Three-peat but Spurs, Pacers top seeds
LeBron James of the Miami Heat steals a pass from Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets during a game at AmericanAirlines Arena on April 8, 2014 in Miami, Florida - by Mike Ehrmann
But it will be the league-best San Antonio Spurs and Eastern Conference pace-setter Indiana that carry the top seedings and home-court edges throughout the NBA playoffs that begin Saturday.
Attention will focus on four-time NBA Most Valuable Player James and Miami's bid to defend the crown once again. And while Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh need strong supporting roles, there's no doubt James must excel for Miami to have any real chance.
"We need him to be a monster for us," Miami's Shane Battier said. "As long as he has the edge to his game, that's what we need. That gives us the best chance of winning. I think he's close."
Saturday's opening games in the first round, best-of-seven playoff matchups find Memphis at Oklahoma City and Golden State at the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference and Atlanta at Indiana and Brooklyn at Toronto in the Eastern Conference.
Sunday finds Washington at Chicago in addition to Charlotte at Miami in the East and Portland at Houston and Dallas at San Antonio in the West.
Miami went 1-5 to end the regular season, a far cry from last year when they enjoyed a 27-game win streak at one stage and finished the season 66-16. But Charlotte is the only NBA club that has never won a playoff game.
"It's going to be a dog fight playing against the defending champions," said Charlotte center Al Jefferson.
"We've been underdogs ever since I've been here and it's worked so far... Why not go against the best? Regardless, we'll learn something."
The Bobcats are 0-16 against the Heat since James joined Miami in 2010, and he scored a career-high 61 points against Michael Jordan-owned Charlotte last month. But the Heat vow no overconfidence.
"We'll be tested. Our guys understand that," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
"We embrace that competition. When you get into this second season, you have no idea what's going to happen. That fierce competition either brings out the best of you or brings out something else."
- No worries for Wade -
Wade has been nagged by a sore hamstring late in the season and could have trouble reconnecting the correct chemistry with James quickly in the playoffs. "I'm not worried about continuity with him at all," Wade said.
"The biggest thing is we both know what we need to do and we just have to do it. We've played together for four years, so it's enough continuity right there. So we'll be fine."
Indiana opens against eighth seed Atlanta and the Pacers have superior depth and the NBA's best home-court record while the Hawks have had to play well to secure the last East spot and stretch their run of playoff bids to seven in a row, the East's best.
The Pacers were eliminated by Miami in each of the past two seasons and the teams will be favored to reach the East final again.
Washington will return to the playoffs for the first time in six years against Chicago, seeking their first playoff series win since beating Chicago in 2005.
The Bulls will offer a pressuring defense against Wizards top scorer John Wall.
Toronto, a third seed, will return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 when the Raptors face Brooklyn, which is 34-17 since the start of 2014.
In the West, the Spurs led the NBA with a 62-20 record and will open against a Dallas team that has lost three consecutive playoff meetings to San Antonio.
NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant will lead second seed Oklahoma City against Memphis. The Grizzlies upset a Thunder team without injured Russell Westbrook in last year's second round.
The Clippers, who set a club win record for the second year in a row, took the third seed to set up a playoff date with Golden State.
Houston will face Portland, a team that it beat in three of four regular-season meetings. The Trail Blazers missed the playoffs the past two seasons.