The roller-coaster ride that has been the 2013-14 NBA regular season came to an end Wednesday night, and with it, came the start of a new, more thrilling ride: The NBA Playoffs.
The playoffs are the apex of excitement among players and fans in the league, whether their team is playing in the postseason or not. The intensity reaches a completely new level come playoff time, and as the nail-biting games come down to the closing seconds, there are very few things more exhilarating in the world of sports.
This year, the postseason comes bundled with heated rivalries, top matchups and much more.
Here are nine reasons to watch the playoffs this year.
You can follow Mitch Kunzler on Twitter at @MitchKunzler.
The Toronto Raptors are the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, but if they played in the Western Conference, they wouldn't have made the playoffs. The West is extremely tough this year. The Phoenix Suns have the same record as two Eastern Conference teams that are in the playoffs, and have a better record than four others that will play in the postseason. Yet sadly enough, the Suns weren't good enough to make the playoffs in the West.
The West has been the superior conference for decades with the exception of a couple teams from the East (Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics). Naturally, when there are several elite teams playing in the same conference, it makes for some compelling matchups. This year is no different.
The Dallas Mavericks will face the San Antonio Spurs in a matchup that will feature two teams that have dominated the West for years; the Los Angeles Clippers will face the Golden State Warriors in a matchup between two high-octane offensive teams; the Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers will be a series between two teams trying to prove themselves as the future of the West; and the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies will meet in familiar territory as these teams have faced in the playoffs before.
No matter which series it is, NBA fans get a real treat with the Western Conference this year.
Over the past couple seasons, the playoffs have brought out the best in some players and the worst in others. There have been certain players that really come out of their shell come playoff time and prove themselves as threats in the league.
Last year, fans saw Indiana's Paul George go toe-to-toe with LeBron James and the Miami Heat, battling them for seven games. Although the Pacers lost the series, it was George's coming out party, and the confidence he gained in the playoffs was a huge reason he was a popular MVP candidate for much of this year.
Danny Green is another player who really established himself as force in the playoffs. He set the NBA Finals record for most 3-pointers made. Had the Spurs won the finals, Green may have won the NBA Finals MVP Award.
With players like Terrence Ross, Lance Stephenson, Patty Mills and Mason Plumlee showcasing flashes of brilliance during this season, this year's playoffs may be the time where they take the next step to stardom.
Last season, James and the Heat defended their championship title for the first time. This season, they hope to do much of the same as they gear up for another championship run.
Miami has been extremely smart when it comes to managing its players, and with the adequate amount of games Dwyane Wade has been able to rest. Don't be surprised when he relentlessly attacks opponents like he does every postseason.
When Wade, James and Chris Bosh are on their games and in their rhythm, the Heat are nearly unbeatable. The Heat have paced themselves all season long for this moment. Can they seize it a third straight year?
After the well-documented colossal collapse of last year's Lakers, many questioned whether or not Howard had the competitive spirit needed to win an NBA Championship. His leadership was poor and his complaining was constant. When he joined the Rockets a few fans even flinched. Three or four years ago a move like that would have a huge impact on the league, but this time no one seemed intimidated.
Throughout this year, the Rockets have played great basketball. The combination of Howard and James Harden has proven to be a deadly tandem, but even now, no one seems intimidated. In everyone's mind, Howard still has a ton to prove and he will get the opportunity show the world what he is made of.
Is Howard the soft jokester he has been made out to be? Or does he have what it takes to raise a championship banner at his core?
Unless something very unexpected happens, OKC's Kevin Durant will win the 2014 NBA MVP Award. He has had an amazing year and no one has been better. His ability to score the ball is a beauty to watch, and the way the other aspects of his game have matured and complemented each other have really helped him become a special player.
The playoffs aren't unfamiliar to Durant. In fact, he has made the playoffs for five straight seasons now, but that doesn't change the fact that he is playing in the Western Conference that is full of teams that pose a big threat to Durant and the OKC Thunder.
Even if the Thunder do make the NBA Finals, there is a good chance that they will face the defending champions, the Miami Heat, a team that beat them 4-1 in the 2012 NBA Finals.
This season Durant has proven he is a phenomenal player. He has proven that he can score at will. He has proven that he can carry a team, but how far? All the way to an NBA Championship? That is yet to be seen.
Year after year, it's the same. Players, fans, analysts and even coaches count the Spurs out. They just don't think that San Antonio can keep up an elite level of play every single year. The things said about the Spurs every year are nearly identical: They are too old; they are too slow; and their luck has run out.
Closing in on 15 years now, the Spurs have made noise in the playoffs in the same fundamental fashion, and it is special to watch.
After losing to Heat in Game 7 of last year's NBA Finals many thought that it would take a toll on the Spurs' ego, and therefore they would lose a ton of motivation, and have a mediocre season at best. The result, however, was quite the opposite. San Antonio seems to have been fueled by the heart-breaking loss it suffered in the NBA Finals, as the Spurs went 62-20 this season — the best record in the league.
The way they have played this, the Spurs will likely come more than ready to compete in the postseason. In fact, they might not even be worth betting against anymore. Well, at least not until the finals.
Like San Antonio, Indiana is another team that was bitter following a seven-game series loss to the Miami Heat. And like the Spurs, the Pacers have bounced back to have a tremendous season. When the regular season wrapped up Wednesday, it was the Pacers, not the Heat, to end with the best record in the Eastern Conference. That being said, it is only natural for the Pacers to be favorites to go to the NBA Finals from the East, right? Not so fast.
In their last 13 games, the Pacers have won just five. This is very uncharacteristic for the Pacers who had played elite level basketball all season long. They seemed out of focus, out of rhythm and out of gas. It was almost as if the aliens from the movie "Space Jam" had stolen the Pacers' talent. Which begs the question: What if the Pacers aren't as good as everyone thought?
Indiana has the chance to silence the doubters or prove them right in the playoffs.
The Brooklyn Nets created some huge waves during the offseason. Sure, they already had Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, but trading for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett only increased the talent on their squad. Naturally, they were considered to be NBA title contenders.
Then Brooklyn got off to a shaky start and most counted them out, but that was before the Nets found their groove. They are now considered a hard-nosed club that can beat any team on any given night.
But what has been most remarkable has been Brooklyn's ability to show up against the defending-champion Miami Heat. Of the four matchups between the two teams, the Nets have won every one of them. No other team has beat Miami in all four matchups since James and Bosh signed with the Heat, so that is certainly a big accomplishment.
Also during the offseason, James was asked who he considered to be his biggest rival. His answer wasn't Kobe Bryant, Durant or even George. It was Pierce.
Pierce and James have faced off in the playoffs many times before, and if they get the chance to do so again with a trip to the conference championship on the line, then expect fireworks.
Pierce and the Nets might be Miami's Achilles' heel or perhaps just another obstacle the Heat will brush aside along their journey to the finals.
The NBA Playoffs are the biggest drama series on television this summer. There are so many underlying stories, that it is sometimes difficult to keep track of all of them.
Like any series, the NBA has a great cast that will be on full display. The usual award-winning actors such as James, Tim Duncan, Durant, Chris Paul and Wade will all be looking to make iconic and memorable performances, whereas new cast members such as John Wall or Damian Lillard look to leave their own mark on the story.
The NBA Playoffs are bound to have a plot for the ages, and one that is sure to have surprises around every corner. The postseason is where legends are made and where moments are cemented in history. Fans get an inside look at what certain athletes are made of and how they will respond when the pressure is at its highest.
Tensity will build and rivalries will be created. It's drama.
So naturally, the games will air on TNT because if anyone knows drama, it's definitely TNT.