EASTERN CONFERENCE SERIES
Cleveland Cavaliers (1) vs. Chicago Bulls (8)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
CAVALIERS: Shaquille O'Neal
The good news? Shaquille O'Neal has lost 20 pounds during his injury rehab, showing that he appreciates the moment at hand. The bad news? He still is Shaquille O'Neal, a lumbering presence who slows the offense and clogs the lane and takes Cleveland away from the smallish approach that has proven so successful over the second half of the season. It will be interesting to see how much Cleveland integrates O'Neal early, or if it merely waits until a series against the Magic and Dwight Howard.
BULLS: Joakim Noah
The energy Noah has provided since his return from foot problems has been undeniable. The Bulls simply have been a different team since his return. What that does is again make Chicago an energy team, and against a Cleveland team that clearly has its sights on greater goals, that could allow the Bulls to sneak in a victory or two. Of course, with all the drama surrounding Noah and his foot, it will be interesting to see if any type of limitations are placed on his minutes.
CAVALIERS: The entire focus of the season has been that nothing short of a championship will suffice. But the backstory is one that still could emerge as an issue: Are these LeBron James' final days with the Cavaliers? The All-Star forward has yet to shoot down any of the speculation. While James has proven he can handle such distractions, how will the speculation weigh on teammates, who will be bombarded with questions as the Cavaliers push closer to James' July 1 window of opportunity? The Cavaliers could wind up more interesting off the court than on the court for the next few weeks.
BULLS: Based on what Chicago accomplished in last year's first round against the Celtics, there should be no doubting Derrick Rose. When he is on top of his game, Rose can be as much of a game-changer as any point guard in the league. Yet while the leadership is strong on the court, can the same be said on the sideline, where coach Vinny Del Negro has been on shaky ground for months, hardly helped by this latest revelation of a falling out with general manager John Paxson? Somehow, the sight of Del Negro on the bench hardly inspires postseason confidence.
In some ways, the Cavaliers could wind up using the opening rounds of the playoffs to find their game, as odd as that might sound.
With Zydrunas Ilgauskas back and Shaquille O'Neal returning, the question becomes the degree that Cleveland moves away from the more wide-open style that proved so effective during the closing weeks of the season.
And then there remains the continued integration of Antawn Jamison into the offense.
Beyond that, LeBron James also will be working himself back into form, after being given a vacation over the final week of the season.
For Cleveland, this never was about the first round, even though Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah certainly could provide this challenges. The one thing the Cavaliers proved last season is that they can be cleanly efficient against the lesser lights in the conference.
No, this has been about steeling a game that will work against both the Celtics and then the Magic.
That could have Cleveland looking ahead if it gets up quickly in the opening round, producing, dare we say, an actual defeat along the way.
But there is no LeBron stopper here, as if there was such a thing.
Instead, there merely is a glad-to-be-here opponent, one more than content with somehow earning the right to make its season last for one more week.
Because some experimentation will be involved in the process, and based on what Chicago did in last season's opening round against the Celtics, there actually could be the taste of defeat. But only once. Cavaliers in five.
Orlando Magic (2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
MAGIC: Jameer Nelson
Nelson was reduced mostly to bystander during last season's playoffs, making an ill-advised bid to return for the NBA Finals. This time around, he is the engine, responsible not only for getting the offense set, but also creating his own offense. The Magic was at its best last season when Hedo Turkoglu was making plays. Now Hedo is gone and Vince Carter is a shell of himself. Nelson needs to set the tone against Raymond Felton and the equally fleet D.J. Augustin.
BOBCATS: Stephen Jackson
For as stout as the Bobcats' defense has been this season, there is only so much that can be done to limit Orlando's inside-outside game. No, the Bobcats will have to put points on the board and no one is better equipped for that challenge than Jackson, who helped Golden State pull off its remarkable first-round upset of Dallas in the 2007 Western Conference playoffs. Jackson can shoot you into games and out of games. But he also can win a game or two on his own.
MAGIC: This is not the same team that advanced to last season's Finals. While the depth is superior, what with the additions of Matt Barnes, Jason Williams, Ryan Anderson and even Brandon Bass, there no longer is the unique skill set that a motivated Hedo Turkoglu delivered in his contract year. There are, however, plenty of questions when it comes to Vince Carter, who finally has his first 50-victory season, but still is looking to make it out of the second round. Dwight Howard will have to make his free throws, because the Bobcats will have plenty of fouls to throw around.
BOBCATS: While this is the Bobcats' first visit to the playoffs, there is plenty of playoff experience, starting with coach Larry Brown, and continuing through Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, Tyson Chandler and Theo Ratliff. What there isn't is consistent offense. Raymond Felton and D.J. Augustin will have to step up with their playmaking. And while Charlotte's defensive brilliance comes off its pick-and-roll containment, the Magic are not a particularly high-volume pick-and-roll team. Instead, the veterans will have to be quick to Orlando's 3-point shooters.
Larry Brown got the best of Stan Van Gundy when the matchup was Pistons vs. Heat and there is little doubt that Brown will have his team prepared, while also creating enough drama to keep the focus away from his team's long odds.
The Bobcats are bulldogs in the halfcourt with their defensive tenacity, but that pace also plays to the defensive strengths of the Magic's inside-out game.
For a basketball purist, it will be interesting to see how much of a hack-a-Howard approach Brown takes, with the luxury of playing Tyson Chandler, Theo Ratliff, Nazr Mohammed and even DeSagana Diop against the Magic big man.
For those who forget, the Magic started slowly in last season's playoffs and nearly were victimized by the 76ers in the opening round, with Howard seemingly raising his game only when needed.
Orlando does not necessarily have the athleticism to counter Gerald Wallace, but Wallace's ability to wipe the boards clean figures to be significantly offset by the presence of Howard.
It will be interesting to see how Vince Carter, Jameer Nelson and even Matt Barnes react to the moment.
Ultimately, the Magic's abundance of weapons figures to overwhelm the Bobcats' relentless defense. It is highly unlikely Charlotte will be able to sustain in more than a victory or perhaps two.
The Bobcats will smother the Magic once, and perhaps even twice, in Charlotte, but it won't be nearly enough in the franchise's playoff debut. Magic in six.
Atlanta Hawks (3) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (6)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
HAWKS: Jamal Crawford
Well, what do you know, Jamal Crawford has reserved a table in the playoffs. No longer holding the longest tenure without a playoff appearance, Crawford has essentially served as the Hawks' entire bench this season, changing games upon his entrance, a lock to emerge with the league's Sixth Man Award. Last year, it didn't get any better than Flip Murray when it came to the second unit. Now Atlanta has a game-changer, as well as someone to hit shots if Joe Johnson is off or if Marvin Williams is proving too one-dimensional.
BUCKS: John Salmons
No player had a stronger close to the season than the way John Salmons put the Bucks on his back and lifted them to a higher-than-expected seed. Considering the damage Salmons did for Chicago in last season's opening round against the Celtics, who is to say that an encore is out of the question? With Andrew Bogut out, Salmons will have to put up at least 20 a night to keep Milwaukee competitive, something he certainly is more than capable of accomplishing on such a stage. For Salmons, the reward could be a rich summer as a free agent.
HAWKS: How high is the upside? Last season, after struggling through seven games against the Heat in the first round, the Hawks were swept by the Cavaliers in the second round. This season, the roster is mostly the same, which makes the question the degree of internal growth. Josh Smith certainly has lifted his game, as a candidate for the Most Improved Player award, and Al Horford took the next step to All-Star. But Mike Bibby continues to age rapidly and questions remain about whether coach Mike Woodson is up to such moments. What matters for the Hawks is not getting through the first round, but rather making some sort of second-round statement.
BUCKS: It all comes down to coach Scott Skiles, who already has made this season a success by leading Milwaukee to the postseason. Skiles' next spotlight moment could be accepting Coach of the Year honors, because it is highly doubtful that a team running on fumes has the ability to make any sort of postseason breakthrough. This mostly will serve as a playoff initiation for Brandon Jennings, who has proven up to almost every challenge this season. Still, the Bucks are feisty enough to steal a game or two if their shooting is on. But, in the end, we're talking about a team lacking both Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd. And that simply is not good enough.
The Hawks certainly have taken another step this season, pushing past the 50-win mark and improving from last season's No. 4 seed to a No. 3 seed. That last step is most significant because it moves them out of Cleveland's second-round bracket, something that proved to be their undoing last season.
This remains a rather limited roster, with little depth beyond Jamal Crawford, but this also is a team with solid chemistry, as shown in its ability to switch with its length defenders on almost every pick and roll.
Mike Woodson has done a quality job in consistently moving his team up the standings, yet this could prove to be somewhat of a put-up-or-shut-up moment. Yes, his coaching future could be on the line in this first round, should there be an upset.
As for the Bucks? Well, sometimes life isn't fair.
Andrew Bogut has emerged as the best center in the Eastern Conference this side of Dwight Howard, yet can only watch this series from the bench.
Then there is John Salmons, who has closed out the season so well that he's almost certain to depart as a free agent in the offseason.
But there is the feistiness of Scott Skiles and Brandon Jennings, dogged point guards who have proven to be quality leaders in their own way.
This could prove to be an ugly series as Skiles tries to keep it competitive.
If Milwaukee was at full strength, this could have proven to be an extended series. But the Bucks aren’t. Hawks in five.
Boston Celtics (4) vs. Miami Heat (5)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
CELTICS: Kevin Garnett
Something just isn't right and hasn't been right for a while. Kevin Garnett simply has not looked like Kevin Garnett. The trouble is, it's not as if anyone on the Celtics is willing to step up and say as much. So Garnett still is counted upon to smother opposing offenses, even though he seems a step late, is still counted upon for timely rebounds, even though the Celtics as a team don't rebound, and still is expected to hit timely shots. If he doesn't get right, then this remains all wrong.
HEAT: Michael Beasley
A year ago during the playoffs, Michael Beasley wasn't even a starter. Now, he's a starter but hardly has been the Heat's best power forward, with Udonis Haslem still the player most trusted at closing time. But with opposing defenses to further load up against Dwyane Wade in the postseason, the Heat will need someone to create his own offense. Jermaine O'Neal can only do that in limited doses. The Heat need Beasley to finally make his move before his entire sophomore season goes to waste.
CELTICS: Boston enters the postseason reeling, loser of seven of its last 10. This has the look of a team on the downside, scrambling for one more moment of glory, but unable to seize the necessary energy. Kevin Garnett looks old. Rasheed Wallace looks older. Paul Pierce no longer is a guarantee from mid-range. And Ray Allen is an all-or-nothing proposition. In essence, it could come down to the ultimate supporting player, with point guard Rajon Rondo arguably the Celtics' best player this season. Rondo will have to set the tone on both ends, by creating easy scores in transition and with his deflections and steals.
HEAT: The rent-a-parts have meshed remarkably well this season. But will the Heat be able to hold it together as speculation increases that Jermaine O'Neal, Quentin Richardson, Udonis Haslem and Dorell Wright all will be allowed to walk as free agents in the offseason, when the Heat sets its sights and cap space on the likes of Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire? It will be an interesting dynamic, to see if a group in its final days as a team can summon the energy to do something the franchise has not done since its 2006 championship, win a playoff series. As it is, the Heat have won just three playoff games since that 2006 postseason.
Both teams were planning on a better fate than this opening-round pairing.
The Celtics entered the season with championship visions and therefore a higher playoff seed, certainly something outside of the Cavaliers' second-round bracket. Instead, Cleveland sets up as the next opponent.
The Heat, in closing 12 games above .500, figured on something more reasonable as an opening opponent than a team designed to contend for a championship this season.
The styles are similar, with both teams favoring a slower pace. And each team can win with its defense.
It all comes down to whether the Celtics are on their last legs, or whether there is another gear. There certainly have been enough moments along the way this season to create encouragement about big-game moments.
For the Heat, the question is whether their strong close to the regular season was the product of a team coming together, or whether it was the product of a ridiculously favorable closing schedule.
There is plenty at stake here for the futures of each franchise. Will the Celtics be willing to come up with big bucks for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen this summer? And will the Heat create enough confidence for Dwyane Wade to remain a South Florida fixture when free agency rolls around?
This is not a good matchup for the Heat, with Wade having to work on the defensive end against either Pierce or Allen. Celtics in six.
WESTERN CONFERENCE SERIES
Los Angeles Lakers (1) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (8)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
LAKERS: Kobe Bryant
This was supposed to be a season when Bryant wasn't going to have to carry the load. Ron Artest was going to step up on both ends, Lamar Odom was going to justify the new contract, the depth was going to provide a break during the regular season. Instead, Bryant had to produce not only at a high level but at an end-game level heretofore unseen from the veteran guard. The question now is if he can sustain it through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference playoffs, mangled finger and all.
THUNDER: Russell Westbrook
Thought we'd put Kevin Durant here, didn't you? Oh, Durant will get his, will have to get his. But this is when Ron Artest is expected to step up and this is when the versatility and length of Lamar Odom will come into play. The Lakers won't stop Durant, but they should be able to somewhat deter him. But at point guard, it's another story. The Thunder not only has to outplay the Lakers at the position, but has to dominate. For Russell Westbrook, there is only one option: Continue to make Derek Fisher look over the hill.
LAKERS: We will know soon enough whether the late-season struggles were the result of injury and indifference, or whether this brilliant two-plus-year run has the Lakers running on fumes. This has not had the look of an elite team for weeks. Then there are the injury concerns with Andrew Bynum, who has the Lakers back to their 2008 worries of not having the needed bulk to persevere. Ron Artest can alleviate many of those concerns, but in some respects the Lakers are running at somewhat of a deficit without what Trevor Ariza provided last season.
THUNDER: The just-glad-to-be-here state of any playoff newcomer cannot be understated. Anything more than a victory or two would be viewed as a major success. Yet, to his credit, coach Scott Brooks has kept his team from settling this season. This is a very good team that could have gotten to the conference finals with the right draw. This, however, is not that draw. The lights of Staples Center are not exactly the glare to deliver total resurrection. As much as anything, consider this series necessary growing pains.
Probably the worst thing that happened this season to Thabo Sefolosha was receiving the Kobe-stopper tag. It's not as if Bryant doesn't have motivation enough in his bid to repeat.
And the presence of Kevin Durant presents Bryant with the challenge of proving he is second to none, at least in the West.
The talent deficit is not as severe for Oklahoma City as one would expect in a No. 1 vs. No. 8 series. But, then again, the Western Conference features nothing but elite teams in the postseason.
But what's the end game? What is the true goal of the Thunder? Making the home games matter would seem to be most significant. That will be the focus.
But with Bryant missing time late in the season and with Andrew Bynum possibly not back for the start of the series, there also could be an opportunity to steal one at Staples Center.
The shame is that the Thunder could not get someone other than the Lakers. Then this magical ride might have been able to last a bit longer.
For now, it figures to be about growing pains for the likes of Jeff Green, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and perhaps even Durant.
Until Oklahoma City finds a post presence, the ability to control pace when necessary will be limited.
This, nonetheless, will be fun to watch. For as long as it lasts.
The way the Lakers have looked lately, it's almost as if there is not enough of an attention span to force a sweep. So give the Thunder a homecourt victory, which will provide the needed wakeup call to end it back at Staples. Lakers in five.
Dallas Mavericks (2) vs. San Antonio Spurs (7)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
MAVERICKS: Shawn Marion
Now back home in the Western Conference, Marion also is back in the playoffs. The pace should be to his liking and we already know Jason Kidd's passing is to his liking. What he provides Dallas with is the type of knowledgeable, mature athlete it has been lacking in previous years, especially on the defensive end, where he can take on the most difficult challenge. Figure on Marion defending at three or four positions over the course of games, allowing Dallas' scorers to focus on scoring. His presence should prove to be a welcome luxury even more in the postseason.
SPURS: Tony Parker
So what to make of Parker? After his protracted layoff, will the speed and stamina be there? It was an uneven season even before his hand injury and an argument could be made that the Spurs were more efficient with George Hill in the lineup. But now it is Hill who is sidelined, and that means Parker will be needed to reclaim his championship form. Even with Duncan and Ginobili sharp in recent weeks, this was not the same team without Parker creating havoc with his forays into the lane. That havoc needs to return.
MAVERICKS: There have been times this season when the Mavericks have been as impressive and anyone in the West. And there have been times when you weren't sure coach Rick Carlisle knew how to get the most out of his team. Injuries haven't helped, with Caron Butler in and out of the lineup since his acquisition from the Wizards. It still will come down to Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, but the question is whether the depth the Mavericks have is actually built for the long haul. It hardly would be surprising to see Dallas in the Western Conference finals. It also hardly would be a shock to see the Mavericks out in the first round.
SPURS: This is not a second-tier team, even in this season's competitive Western Conference. But this also is a not a team that has been whole for extended stretches this season. While the postseason will open in the absence of George Hill, who proved to be a revelation this season, it also will open with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker all ambulatory at the same time. And is that a trio you ever would bet against? The question remains the supporting cast. Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess have offered minimal support to this point, but both also have had their playoff moments over the years.
The Mavericks got the best of the Spurs in last season's opening round, and an argument could be made that this is a much stronger Dallas roster than what was fielded last year. But the Spurs have played well down the stretch, priming themselves for this moment.
Dallas has the superior depth of talent, but the playoffs have never been about depth of talent. San Antonio's veterans consistently have risen to the moment. The same cannot always be said of Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki.
Almost certain is that this series will go more than the five games of last year's opening-round matchup.
Interestingly, this time it is Dallas that arrives with the defensive stopper, with Shawn Marion capable of defending each of San Antonio's Big Three.
By contrast, San Antonio arrives without Bruce Bowen, which will heighten the challenge against Nowitzki and Caron Butler.
Still, there is something about coach Gregg Popovich that makes you think he has been working on these matchups for weeks, glad to be out of the Lakers' portion of the bracket.
For both teams, this is somewhat of a make-or-break postseason, even with Ginobili locked into an extension and Dallas locked into several long-term teams. One team will look different next season when it exits in this season's first round.
Dallas has more ways to win. This will go the distance and be as competitive as any opening-round matchup. Mavericks in seven.
Phoenix Suns (3) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (6)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
SUNS: Amare Stoudemire
It can be argued that over the second half of the season, Stoudemire has been the league's most valuable player. Never has a contract push been more evident or more effective. That chip does not figure to fall from Stoudemire's shoulder in this matchup against the Trail Blazers. Yes, Steve Nash is the engine who makes the Suns go. But Stoudemire's ability to finish, be it at the rim or with his jumper, has Phoenix at the top of its game. Figure on a few more monster nights before his series ends, even with the height the Blazers have in place at power forward.
TRAIL BLAZERS: Marcus Camby
First there was Greg Oden. Then there was Joel Przybilla. Now there is Camby, who has seized control in the middle upon his midseason acquisition from the Clippers. The rebounding and defense have never been issues, but the leadership also should not be understated. Camby has proven to be up to such moments in his previous stops and should provide enough deterrence to keep the Blazers competitive even amid the injury absence of Brandon Roy. Camby has proven to be the season's best midseason acquisition this side of John Salmons.
SUNS: Phoenix once again certainly will be questioned about whether its approach can produce enduring playoff success. But this is not the helter-skelter offense of Mike D'Antoni, but rather a more efficient approach under coach Alvin Gentry that has proven reliable and allows for ample time to settle in on defense. While age remains an issue with the Suns, this team certainly has not looked old over the closing stages of the regular season. But there will remain questions about its ability to succeed in a grind-out game, especially with the injury to Robin Lopez. As with each recent Suns playoff team, it could be one-and-done or it could mean playing into June.
TRAIL BLAZERS: And why exactly is Nate McMillan not the front-runner for Coach of the Year? No team has had to reinvent itself as often as Portland this season. That work now continues in the midst of Brandon Roy's knee troubles. But what began as such a young team has thrived behind the veteran leadership of Andre Miller and Marcus Camby. Who knew two former Clippers could make such a difference? If the kids are making shots, and if Batum has his lockdown in gear, there is considerable chance that this unlikely success story continues to play on into May.
There was a point this season when you weren't sure if either team would avoid a first-round matchup with the Lakers, let alone advance to the postseason.
Yet through adjustments (Suns) and injuries (Trail Blazers), each team persevered behind a coach who simply would not allow his team to concede.
With the Blazers, it has been behind a dogged defense. With the Suns, it has been through the post-deadline revival of Amare Stoudemire.
While this sets up as a blue-collar team (Portland) against a team at its best playing at speed (Suns), these also are teams who know exactly what they are and who they should be.
If Brandon Roy was able to be Brandon Roy, this could have been as compelling as any series in either conference. But for all that Andre Miller and Marcus Camby have done for the Blazers this season, the lack of offense from Roy is critical.
That does not mean, however, that coach Nate McMillan won't come up with a game plan to somewhat choke Phoenix's offense. It might not necessarily be Miller with the prime assignment against Steve Nash.
These are two good coaches who will keep this compelling.
This could have been something particularly special, but because of Brandon Roy's injury won't be. Suns in six.
Denver Nuggets (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
NUGGETS: Carmelo Anthony
Dwyane Wade already has his championship. LeBron James has been to one NBA Finals and appears headed to another. Then there is Anthony, who not only has missed out on the latter stages of the playoffs but has stood as mostly an afterthought this season amid the impending free agency of both Wade and James (Anthony did not take a similar opt out.) That makes these playoffs his opportunity to make sure he does not again go overlooked. The Nuggets will need everything he can provide.
JAZZ: Paul Millsap
With Carlos Boozer's rib injury creating a huge question mark, the league's ultimate backup plan figures to take on a major postseason role. At one point last summer, when the Jazz matched Millsap's offer sheet, it appeared he would be the opening-night power forward. Instead, Boozer never got his trade and returned to his dominance. But Millsap consistently has put up big numbers when given the opportunity and there is no reason to doubt he won't be able to come through again, especially if Kenyon Martin remains limited by injury.
NUGGETS: How much can one team endure and still persevere? This has not been the same team since Kenyon Martin went down with his injury and since George Karl's plan to coach through his cancer was derailed. In many ways, this is a team that has been sapped of its spirit, a team that at midseason looked as good as anyone in the West, at least this side of the Lakers. While it sounds cliche, heart could have as much to do with Denver's ability to advance as anything produced in the box score by Chauncey Billups or Carmelo Anthony or Denver's scrappy big men.
JAZZ: Injuries clearly are a concern, what with Boozer's rib and Andrei Kirilenko's slower-than-expected return to health. But the Jazz consistently have found a way this season and there can be no doubting of Deron Williams. While spending most of the season as an afterthought, the Jazz find themselves against an opponent battling issues that extend way beyond the court. Yes, you would like to have something closer to a traditional center than Mehmet Okur, but his ability to draw the opposing big man to the perimeter should not be understated. The Jazz can move the ball as well as any team and are a load to stop, even without Boozer.
If this series was played in January or even February, the Nuggets would have been prohibitive favorites, they were playing that well.
But with George Karl forced to take his leave and with Kenyon Martin once again betrayed by his body, the Nuggets turned pedestrian.
Similarly, Utah was feeling a lot better about itself until Carlos Boozer sustained his rib injury. While Paul Millsap has filled in admirably, the Jazz's pick-and-roll game is not nearly as efficient without Boozer.
Then there is the issue of the way Denver has been able to bully the Jazz to a degree, although Martin's limitations could somewhat change that equation.
With these teams at the top of their games, this would be a sight to behold, with game-changers throughout the lineups.
But a glance at Adrian Dantley on the Denver sideline instead of Karl tells you that this hardly is Nuggets-Jazz at its best.
And a glance at Carlos Boozer on the opposite bench unable to flex his muscles tells you just about as much.
Denver should be able to make it through this one. But by falling into the Lakers' half of the bracket, the run could be limited.
If only these teams were whole in body and spirit. As it is, Denver squeezes through. Nuggets in six.