|Previews of the eight first-round NBA playoff series|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 17 April 2008 13:58|
No. 1 BOSTON CELTICS (66-16) vs. No. 8 ATLANTA HAWKS (37-45)
Season series: Celtics 3-0. They won all three by double digits and didn't even need to play their Big Three in the fourth quarter of the last meeting to do it. Atlanta never reached 90 points in any of the three games. Kevin Garnett averaged 23.7 points and 13.7 rebounds while shooting 62.5 percent from the floor.
Storyline: After rolling to the NBA's best record in the largest one-season improvement in NBA history, the Celtics are back in the playoffs against the Hawks, who ended the league's longest postseason drought with their first appearance since 1999.
Key Matchup I: Garnett vs. Josh Smith. Garnett, a favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, against a player who should get some votes. Smith was in the league's top 10 in blocks and steals, but lacks Garnett's offensive skills and can get distracted yelling at referees, coaches or teammates. Nothing makes Garnett lose his focus.
Key Matchup II: Rajon Rondo vs. Mike Bibby. Here's one advantage for Atlanta. Bibby appeared in 51 postseason games while playing for Sacramento, while Rondo is making his debut in only his second NBA season. But his speed advantage will be tough for Bibby to handle.
X-Factor: Marvin Williams. Some Atlanta fans may never forgive the Hawks for taking Williams instead of Chris Paul or Deron Williams with the No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft. But Boston has struggled to defend athletic small forwards this season, so Williams could make an impact.
Prediction: Celtics in 4.
No. 2 DETROIT PISTONS (59-23) vs. No. 7 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (40-42)
Season series: Tied 2-2 after the 76ers won the last two meetings. Philadelphia averaged 80 points in the first three games before scoring 101 in a victory on April 9, when Richard Hamilton was out and none of Detroit's starters played 30 minutes.
Storyline: Picked to finish near the bottom in the East, the 76ers instead turned into one of the league's biggest surprises and made the playoffs for the first time in three years. The key was an 11-4 March that included a one-point win at Detroit.
Key matchup I: Chauncey Billups vs. Andre Miller. Miller averaged a career-high 17.1 points as the veteran leader on a young team. The 76ers will need him to be just as good against Billups, a clutch postseason performer who was in double figures in every game this season against Philadelphia.
Key matchup II: Hamilton vs. Andre Iguodala. Iguodala couldn't reach a contract extension with the Sixers in the fall, but he will earn a nice deal from them in the offseason after leading them in scoring. He can help his case even more by containing Hamilton, Detroit's three-time All-Star and leading scorer.
X-factor: Lou Williams. Only 21 years old, the third-year guard has shown no fear taking the big shot late in games. He brings energy and confidence off the bench and coach Maurice Cheeks loves having him in the game in the fourth. A close game on the road won't rattle him, either.
Prediction: Pistons in 5.
No. 3 ORLANDO MAGIC (52-30) vs. No. 6 TORONTO RAPTORS (41-41)
Season series: Magic, 2-1. Orlando found things to be pretty easy against Toronto on the offensive end, shooting 49 percent from the field and averaging 105.7 points. Chris Bosh scored 40 points in the Raptors' lone victory, but was out with an injury when the Magic clinched the season series with a 102-87 rout on March 4.
Storyline: Despite their 52 wins, the Magic are the overlooked team in the East, not considered much of a threat to Boston or Detroit, and this is their first chance to prove otherwise. Series matches two of the NBA's best 3-point shooting teams, but the Raptors will have to find a way to slow All-Star center Dwight Howard.
Key matchup I: Rashard Lewis vs. Bosh. The Magic are without a true power forward, using Lewis as an undersized 4, and now they have to face one of the best in the East. Bosh averaged 33 points against Orlando and should put up big numbers in this series. But Lewis creates his own matchup problems with his 3-point shooting and scored 20.7 per game against the Raptors.
Key matchup II: Howard vs. Rasho Nesterovic. Nesterovic heads to the postseason after one of the best stretches of his NBA career, averaging 16.3 points on 60 percent shooting in April. Any offense he provides here is a bonus, because his primary role will be to slow Howard, the NBA leader in double-doubles who shot 71 percent against Toronto.
X-factor: Jameer Nelson. Wasn't consistent enough with his play during the season, now faces Toronto's excellent point guard tandem of Jose Calderon and T.J. Ford.
Prediction: Magic in 6.
No. 4 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (45-37) vs. No. 5 WASHINGTON WIZARDS (43-39)
Season series: Tied 2-2. It's tough to gather much from the regular season, because the teams were never at full strength at the same time. Gilbert Arenas missed all four games, while All-Stars LeBron James and Caron Butler each sat out a loss because of injuries. James averaged 27 points, 10 rebounds and 7.7 assists in the three he played.
Storyline: Third straight year these teams are meeting in the first round. Cleveland won the previous two, sweeping a Washington team missing Arenas and Butler last year.
Key matchup I: James vs. Butler. Butler averaged 23 points in Washington's two wins, but was limited to 10 in the one loss he played in. Anxious for a good performance after missing last year's series with an injury. Whichever of these players survives will be a nightmare for Boston in the second round.
Key matchup II: Arenas vs. Daniel Gibson. Gibson had his own injury problems, missing more than a month after the All-Star break with an ankle injury. Either can change the momentum in a game by coming off the bench and getting hot from outside in a hurry, as Gibson did a few times last year during the Cavs' run to the NBA finals. Arenas has gradually been getting his confidence back after a lengthy absence following knee surgery.
X-factor: Brendan Haywood. Amid all the injuries around him, the center put together the best season of his career, averaging 10.6 points and 7.2 rebounds in 80 games.
Prediction: Wizards in 7.
No. 1 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (57-25) vs. No. 8 DENVER NUGGETS (50-32)
Season series: Lakers 3-0. All three meetings were in the first half of the season before the Lakers added Pau Gasol. Los Angeles shredded Denver for 118 points per game, only needing 22 per game from Kobe Bryant. Allen Iverson had 51 for Denver in one loss and averaged 32 points, but Carmelo Anthony managed only 20.7.
Storyline: A strong finish gave Bryant and the Lakers the No. 1 seed, but they get a dangerous first-round opponent that was only seven victories worse. Bryant (28.3), Iverson (26.4) and Anthony (25.7) ranked 2-3-4 on the NBA's scoring list.
Key matchup I: Bryant vs. Iverson. May not spend much time defending each other, but who cares? Two great scorers from the deep 1996 draft respect each other and both should put on a show. Lakers don't always need Bryant to score, but the Nuggets need points from Iverson.
Key matchup II: Gasol vs. Marcus Camby. Andrew Bynum never made it back, so Gasol is forced to remain as the center. That could help the Lakers here, because with all his offensive skills, Camby won't be able to help off him much to go for blocked shots and rebounds.
X-factor: J.R. Smith. Had fallen out of favor with coach George Karl by the end of last year's playoffs, but he's become a force off the Nuggets' bench now. Averaged 15.7 points after the All-Star break and spreads the defense with his 3-point shooting.
Prediction: Lakers in 6.
No. 2 NEW ORLEANS HORNETS (56-26) vs. No. 7 DALLAS MAVERICKS (51-31)
Season series: Tied 2-2. The Mavericks earned the split to set up this series by beating the Hornets 111-98 on the last night of the season. The teams also split two meetings since Dallas acquired Jason Kidd, with the Hornets winning 104-93 in Kidd's Mavericks debut in the first game after the All-Star break.
Storyline: A year after losing in the first round as the No. 1 seed, the Mavericks are now the dangerous underdogs against a New Orleans team with little postseason experience.
Key matchup I: Chris Paul vs. Kidd. Paul had easily been getting the better of this matchup this season, both when Kidd was playing for New Jersey and Dallas, but the veteran collected his 100th career triple-double in the Mavs' victory in the season finale. Kidd struggles against Paul's speed, but always finds other ways to get by.
Key matchup II: David West vs. Dirk Nowitzki. West was one of the NBA's most underrated power forwards before making his first All-Star game this season. Can step away from the block to hit from the outside, though not with nearly the range of Nowitzki, who was superb down the stretch after returning from his ankle and leg injuries.
X-factor: Brandon Bass. Chance for the former Hornets player to hurt his old team off the bench. He did it Wednesday night, finishing with 13 points and 12 rebounds in 30 minutes. New Orleans doesn't have much size and strength among its reserves.
Prediction: Hornets in 7.
No. 3 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (56-26) vs. No. 6 PHOENIX SUNS (55-27)
Season series: Suns 3-1. Phoenix won both games after acquiring Shaquille O'Neal. Tim Duncan was a combined 15-for-40 in those two games, while O'Neal averaged 15 points and 12.5 rebounds. The Suns won twice in San Antonio.
Storyline: Second straight year these teams meet in the postseason. Spurs won last year's tense Western Conference semifinal in six games, aided by suspensions to the Suns' Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in Game 5.
Key matchup I: Duncan vs. O'Neal and Stoudemire. Stoudemire was frequently in foul trouble trying to defend Duncan, but now is free of that responsibility with O'Neal there to do it. Duncan, one of the league's top low-post defenders, probably has to take turns defending both.
Key matchup II: Manu Ginobili vs. Leandro Barbosa. Ginobili is the best sixth man in the league, and Barbosa, who won last year's award, isn't too far behind. But the Suns can afford an off night from Barbosa, the Spurs have no chance if Ginobili doesn't play well.
X-factor: Grant Hill. Sat out the season finale with a groin injury but is expected to be fine by the series opener. Considered signing with the Spurs before opting for the Suns, and now tries to show San Antonio what it missed out on.
Prediction: Spurs in 7.
No. 4 UTAH JAZZ (54-28) vs. No. 5 HOUSTON ROCKETS (55-27)
Season series: Jazz 2-1. They won the season series with a 105-96 victory on Monday. The Rockets handed the Jazz one of their four home losses with a 106-95 victory on Nov. 1.
Storyline: Rematch of a first-round series from a year ago, with similar circumstances. The Jazz are the No. 4 seed as a division champion, but the Rockets have home-court advantage because of their better record. That didn't help in 2007 - Utah won Game 7 at the Toyota Center.
Key Matchup I: Carlos Boozer vs. Luis Scola. Scola has played in numerous big games in Europe and the Olympics, where he helped Argentina win the gold medal in 2004. His first taste of postseason play in the NBA has him trying to contain Boozer, who led Utah with 21.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
Key Matchup II: Ronnie Brewer vs. Tracy McGrady. McGrady scored 47 points in Houston's win and a total of 43 on 38 percent shooting in their losses. If Brewer and his help hold McGrady down here, T-Mac's streak of never getting past the first round continues.
X-Factor: Bobby Jackson. With Rafer Alston expected out at least for the first two games, the Rockets need big games from Jackson, who they acquired from New Orleans at the trade deadline to back up both guard spots.
Prediction: Jazz in 6.