A look at the eight first-round series in the NBA playoffs, which start this weekend:
A look at the eight first-round series in the NBA playoffs, which start this weekend:
No. 1 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (66-16) vs. No. 8 DETROIT PISTONS (39-43).
Season series: Cavaliers 3-1. The Pistons won 96-89 on Nov. 19 after holding LeBron James to 8-of-21 shooting, but the Cavaliers took the final three meetings, limiting the Pistons to 77 points per game in those victories. Detroit shot 38 percent in those three losses. James averaged 25.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists.
Storyline: Following the best regular season in franchise history and the best record in the league, the Cavaliers open against a Pistons team that hopes to somehow put an ugly season behind it and make a seventh straight trip to the conference finals.
Key Matchup I: Mo Williams vs. Rodney Stuckey. The Cavs needed help for James, and Williams delivered an All-Star season. Stuckey, given the job after Chauncey Billups was traded, was horrible against Cleveland, averaging 7.3 points on 29 percent shooting.
Key Matchup II: James vs. Tayshaun Prince. After defending Cleveland’s superstar when the teams split meetings in the 2006 and ‘07 playoffs, then teaming with him on the U.S. Olympic team, the versatile Prince is plenty familiar with James’ game. Stopping it is another matter.
X-Factor: Antonio McDyess. The Cavaliers hoped McDyess would sign with them after Denver bought him out after acquiring him with Billups in the Allen Iverson trade. Instead the power forward opted to return to Detroit. With Ben Wallace’s health uncertain, McDyess and Detroit’s big men could have an advantage.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 5.
No. 2 BOSTON CELTICS (62-20) vs. No. 7 CHICAGO BULLS (41-41).
Season series: Celtics, 2-1. Boston won the first two before Chicago’s 127-121 victory March 17, the lone meeting after the Bulls remade their team following the trade deadline. The two key players they brought back, John Salmons and Brad Miller, scored 38 and 21, respectively. Kevin Garnett sat out that game.
Storyline: The Celtics could be without Garnett throughout the playoffs because of his strained right knee. That could make them vulnerable against a Chicago team that played very well in the second half of the season to surge from well below .500 into postseason contention.
Key matchup I: Ray Allen vs. Ben Gordon. The two sharpshooters from Connecticut can get on hot streaks from the 3-point line. Gordon didn’t do much against Boston, averaging 12.7 points in the three games. Allen had 27 against Chicago in one of Boston’s wins and without Garnett may have to play at that level throughout the series.
Key matchup II: Rajon Rondo vs. Derrick Rose. The Celtics look great whenever Rondo plays that way, which isn’t all the time. He was good against Chicago, averaging 14.7 points and 10.3 assists. Plenty of eyes will be on Rose to see how the No. 1 overall pick and likely Rookie of the Year performs in his first postseason.
X-factor: Leon Powe. Has given the Celtics a number of strong performances off the bench or as Garnett’s replacement in the starting lineup. He missed 12 games down the stretch with his own knee injury but looked ready after an 18-point, 13-rebound night against Washington in the season finale.
Prediction: Celtics in 7.
No. 3 ORLANDO MAGIC (59-23) vs. No. 6 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (41-41).
Season series: Magic, 3-0. Orlando won twice in Philadelphia and did a good job defensively against the 76ers, allowing 94 points per game in the series. Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu both scored 23 points in one game and 20 in another. Andre Iguodala averaged 18.3 points and Thaddeus Young added 16.7.
Storyline: The Magic will try to shake off some late-season struggles that saw them lose three straight games before a victory on the final night of the regular season. The 76ers were even worse down the stretch, dropping six straight and costing themselves a shot at the No. 5 seed before beating Cleveland’s reserves in their finale.
Key matchup I: Turkoglu vs. Young. Both players had ankle injuries late in the season, and the Sixers really missed their swingman. Turkoglu, with all his postseason experience, is often the player Orlando turns to when it needs a big shot.
Key matchup II: Rafer Alston vs. Andre Miller. Had he been healthy, this series would have given All-Star guard Jameer Nelson a chance to play in the city where he starred collegiately. Instead, the Magic traded for Alston to run their team.
X-factor: Samuel Dalembert. The key to beating Orlando is having a center who can defend Dwight Howard without help to avoid having to double-team and leave its outside shooters free. Howard was fairly quiet against Philadelphia, averaging 15.7 points, and the Sixers have to hope Dalembert can somewhat contain him in this series.
Prediction: Magic in 5.
No. 4 ATLANTA HAWKS (47-35) vs. No. 5 MIAMI HEAT (43-39).
Season series: Hawks, 3-1. Atlanta won both meetings at home, including the series clincher in a meaningless 81-79 victory Tuesday night, a game where the Heat rested Dwyane Wade. The NBA’s leading scorer averaged 25.7 points in three games against the Hawks.
Storyline: Rebounding from a 15-win season, the Heat landed the coveted No. 5 spot in the East, allowing them to avoid the power trio of Cleveland, Boston and Orlando. Now Wade will try to prevent Atlanta from its first postseason series victory in 10 years.
Key matchup I: Joe Johnson vs. Wade. If not for Wade, Johnson would be the best guard in the Southeast Division. He averaged 21.4 points this season and was right at that average against the Heat before scoring only nine in limited minutes Tuesday.
Key matchup II: Al Horford vs. Jermaine O’Neal. Horford averaged 14.5 points and 16.0 rebounds in two meetings before a quiet night in short duty in the last matchup. He and the Hawks, though, have rarely seen O’Neal, who played in only one of the meetings since he was acquired from Toronto at the All-Star break.
X-factor: Flip Murray. The swingman has been a solid contributor off Atlanta’s bench, averaging 14 points since the All-Star break, and could be a key against a Heat team that isn’t particularly deep.
Prediction: Hawks in 7.
No. 1 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (65-17) vs. No. 8 UTAH JAZZ (48-34).
Season series: Lakers 2-1, capped by a 125-112 victory Tuesday night in a game Utah needed to win to have any chance of avoiding a rematch against the Lakers in the postseason. Kobe Bryant scored 16 points in that game after averaging 38.5 in the first two meetings. The Jazz were without Carlos Boozer in their first loss, while the Lakers were missing Andrew Bynum for their loss at Utah.
Storyline: The Lakers are back at full strength and will be overwhelming favorites to return to the NBA finals. Much more was expected than a No. 8 seed from Utah, and the Jazz would be dangerous if they could find a way to win once in Los Angeles, because they still enjoy one of the league’s best home-court advantages.
Key matchup I: Pau Gasol vs. Carlos Boozer. Gasol averaged 18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds during one of his best seasons, but many still believe the best way to defend him is to be physical with him. The muscular Boozer is capable, and the Jazz certainly need him to score more than the 16.2 points per game he did during an injury-plagued regular season.
Key matchup II: Lamar Odom vs. Andrei Kirilenko. Two versatile swingmen who can play multiple positions off the bench. Kirilenko has added value; he’ll probably get some turns defending Bryant — along with plenty of other teammates.
X-factor: Mehmet Okur. Okur averaged 21.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in two games against the Lakers but sat out the finale after straining his right hamstring the night before. Utah needs its center’s outside shooting and rebounding on the floor for any shot at the upset.
Prediction: Lakers in 5.
No. 2 DENVER NUGGETS (54-28) vs. No. 7 NEW ORLEANS HORNETS (49-33).
Season series: Tied, 2-2. Each team won once on the road, and the teams were rarely at full strength when they met. The Nuggets were missing Carmelo Anthony for one of their losses, while the Hornets never had Tyson Chandler and were also without Peja Stojakovic in one of the losses.
Storyline: The Nuggets, eliminated in the first round five straight seasons, finally have home-court advantage after tying their franchise record for most wins since joining the NBA. They get a Hornets team that struggled down the stretch, losing six of eight and missing a chance to move up to No. 6.
Key matchup I: Chauncey Billups vs. Chris Paul. Paul, who beat out Billups for the backup point guard spot on the U.S. Olympic team last summer, has the quickness edge but had some sloppy performances against the Nuggets, averaging more than five turnovers to go with his 20.8 points and 11.0 assists. Billups, who likely will try to be physical with the smaller Paul, scored 16 points per game against New Orleans.
Key matchup II: J.R. Smith vs. James Posey. Two different roles for the top players off their respective benches. Smith is there to score, and he averaged 21.3 points against the Hornets. New Orleans relies on Posey for his defense and will ask him to cool off Smith and Anthony.
X-factor: Stojakovic. The Hornets were robbed of their only real reliable 3-point threat when he was frequently hurt and ineffective down the stretch. He averaged 20.7 points against Denver. With that kind of production, the Hornets stand a much better chance.
Prediction: Nuggets in 6.
No. 3 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (54-28) vs. No. 6 DALLAS MAVERICKS (50-32).
Season series: Tied, 2-2. The highlight was the Spurs’ 133-126 double-overtime victory in Dallas on Dec. 9, and San Antonio’s other victory was a 93-76 home rout in a game that neither Tim Duncan nor Manu Ginobili played. Josh Howard averaged 20.7 points in the three games he played, missing one of Dallas’ losses. Dirk Nowitzki had a pair of 30-point games for Dallas.
Storyline: The state and division rivals meet in the postseason for the first time since the Mavs beat the Spurs in a thrilling Western Conference semifinal in 2006, winning Game 7 in overtime in San Antonio. The Spurs are playing without Ginobili but still managed to win its last four to clinch the Southwest title. Dallas also finished strong to vault all the way to the No. 6 seed.
Key matchup I: Tony Parker vs. Jason Kidd. Kidd no longer has the speed to defend quick point guards. Chris Paul dominated him in last year’s playoffs, and Parker torched the Mavs for 31.3 points per game this season, including a pair of 37-point nights. So Dallas may need another solution for San Antonio’s All-Star.
Key matchup II: Michael Finley vs. Josh Howard. If Howard’s ankle is healthy enough, the Spurs will struggle to find anyone athletic enough to defend him. Finley averaged 14.5 points and made 11 of 24 shots in two wins against his former team but was a combined 3-for-14 for eight total points in the losses.
X-factor: Jason Terry. If Ginobili were playing, this would have been a matchup of the NBA’s two best sixth men. Now there’s no doubt Terry is the top game-changer off the bench in the series.
Prediction: Mavericks in 6.
No. 4 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (54-28) vs. No. 5 HOUSTON ROCKETS (53-29).
Season series: Rockets, 2-1. Houston won its two home games but had no chance for the sweep after falling 101-99 in overtime in November in Portland on Brandon Roy’s 3-pointer as time expired. The Rockets limited the Trail Blazers to 91 points per game in the other two meetings.
Storyline: A young Portland team got the Trail Blazers back into the postseason for the first time since 2003, ending the longest playoff drought in the NBA. Better yet for the Blazers, they earned home-court advantage on the final night of the season when the Rockets lost at Dallas, falling from a chance at the No. 2 seed. Portland is 34-7 at home, one of the league’s best records.
Key Matchup I: Roy vs. Ron Artest and Shane Battier. The Rockets have two top defensive options to throw at Roy, who scored 17 in Portland’s victory and averaged 23 in the two games at Houston. Artest scored 18 per game in the Rockets’ wins but was limited to nine in the loss.
Key Matchup II: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Luis Scola. The Rockets need Scola, a rugged interior defender, to slow down the Blazers’ power forward, who averaged 23.3 points in the series.
X-Factor: Aaron Brooks. The former Oregon star, starting for the Rockets since they traded Rafer Alston at the trade deadline, scored 16 points per game against Portland this season.
Prediction: Rockets in 7.