NBA playoff preview: A closer look at first round

Express-News NBA beat writer Mike Monroe breaks down the Western and Eastern Conference first-round matchups. E-N Spurs beat writer Jeff McDonald will have a position-by-position analysis of the Spurs-Jazz series in Sunday’s editions:


(1) Spurs (50-16) vs. (8) Jazz (36-30)

Season series: Spurs won 3-1.

Key matchup: Tim Duncan vs. Al Jefferson — Duncan has been one of the five best big men in the league since the All-Star break (17.4 PPG, 9.6 RPG) but Jefferson always has been a tough cover for him because of his strength down low and a reliable mid-range jumper.

Spurs can win if: They force the pace to their uptempo liking and limit Devin Harris’ 3-point shots. Tony Parker must continue being the pick-and-roll master.

Jazz can win if: The scores are in the high 80s and low 90s. They can’t keep pace with the Spurs, but they’ll have a chance in a slow, physical slog.

Prediction: Spurs in 7

(2) Thunder (47-19) vs. (7) Mavericks (36-30)

Season series: Thunder won 3-1.

Key matchup: Serge Ibaka vs. Dirk Nowitzki — Ibaka led the league in blocked shots and will get lots of votes for Defensive Player of the Year. The Mavs can’t win unless Nowitzki takes Ibaka away from the rim and exceeds his season average of 21.6 PPG.

Thunder can win if: Russell Westbrook doesn’t get so frustrated with Jason Kidd’s defense he forgets his primary role is to get the ball to Kevin Durant. Ibaka must prevent Nowitzki from dominating more than two games.

Mavericks can win if: Shawn Marion knocks three or four points off Durant’s league-leading scoring average (28.0 PPG) and Jason Terry remains a factor on offense.

Prediction: Thunder in 7

(3) Lakers (41-25) vs. (6) Nuggets (38-28)

Season series: Lakers won 3-1.

Key matchup: Andrew Bynum vs. JaVale McGee — The Lakers are at their best when Bynum is dominating inside and occupying defenders who might otherwise be focused on Pau Gasol. McGee has the size and athleticism to keep this from happening, but will he?

Lakers can win if: Kobe Bryant does work and Matt Barnes’ ankle heals. Bryant averaged only 17.7 points in four regular season games against the Nuggets. He must score more. They need Barnes as a reliable replacement for Metta World Peace.

Nuggets can win if: Ty Lawson dominates Ramon Sessions and Al Harrington’s torn meniscus (right knee) doesn’t keep him from being the factor he can be at both ends of the court.

Prediction: Lakers in 6

(4) Grizzlies (41-25) vs. (5) Clippers (40-26)

Season series: Clippers won 2-1.

Key matchup: Mike Conley vs. Chris Paul — It’s Paul who makes the Clippers dangerous and Blake Griffin the league leader in dunks. Conley did a terrific job limiting Tony Parker in the 1-8 matchup last spring. He’ll need to duplicate that.

Grizzlies can win if: Zach Randolph can do to Griffin what he did to Tim Duncan a year ago. If he dominates the matchup, the Grizzlies will be in the second round a second straight year.

Clippers can win if: Paul continues to be the crunch-time king. Plenty of these games figure to be decided in the final minute. Nobody in this series is better in the clutch than Paul.

Prediction: Grizzlies in 7


(1) Bulls (50-16) vs. (8) 76ers (35-31)

Season series: Bulls won 2-1.

Key matchup: Derrick Rose vs. Jrue Holiday — Nobody but Rose and the Bulls doctors know how close the reigning MVP is to 100 percent. Everybody knows how important he is, even in this series. Holiday is a gifted perimeter defender. He’ll have to keep Rose from being a game closer if the Sixers are to have a chance at an upset.

Bulls can win if: They slow down the Sixers’ transition offense and dominate up front. They’re still the best defensive outfit in the East, so count on them to slow down Holiday, Lou Williams and Andre Iguodala.

76ers can win if: Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes can defensive rebound and get the fast break rolling with long outlet passes. Hawes has to put a body on Joakim Noah every time a Bulls shot goes up.

Prediction: Bulls in 5

(2) Heat (46-20) vs. (7) Knicks (36-30)

Season series: Heat won 3-0.

Key matchup: LeBron James vs. Carmelo Anthony — The Knicks run lots of isolation plays for Anthony. James is a great defender and will work hard to limit his pal ’Melo. If that diverts James’ focus from dominating the open court, that’s Anthony’s best defensive weapon against him.

Heat can win if: They need Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh available to take the scoring load off James. With Tyson Chandler likely to focus defensively on Bosh, Udonis Haslem must look to be more of a scorer.

Knicks can win if: Who would have believed Steve Novak might be the key to an upset? If his 3-point shooting changes Miami’s defensive focus enough, they can extend this series.

Prediction: Heat in 5

(3) Pacers (42-24) vs. (6) Magic (37-29)

Season series: Magic won 3-1.

Key matchup: George Hill vs. Jameer Nelson — Hill, the former Spurs guard, took over as starter when Darren Collison was injured in late March. Collison’s back, but Hill is a lock-down defender who can keep Nelson from initiating the Magic’s offense.

Pacers can win if: Roy Hibbert dominates the boards as he should in a series without Dwight Howard. He’ll need to score plenty, too, and that shouldn’t be a problem, either.

Magic can win if: Big Baby Davis grows about half a foot overnight. That won’t happen and he’ll be playing on a sore right ankle, too.

Prediction: Pacers in 4

(4) Celtics (39-27) vs. (5) Hawks (40-26)

Season series: Celtics won 2-1.

Key matchup: Kevin Garnett vs. Josh Smith — Garnett has been a productive center since Jermaine O’Neal went down with an injury. Smith is a power forward, but he will need to match up against KG with Al Horford out and Zaza Pachulia ailing. Smith needs to wear out KG when the Hawks have the ball.

Celtics can win if: They steal home court in Game 1 or 2 because Doc Rivers got enough rest for his stars and Rajon Rondo neutralizes Jeff Teague at the point.

Hawks can win if: Smith prevents Garnett from dominating the defensive glass and scores enough to force the Celtics to double-team, opening lanes for Joe Johnson.

Prediction: Hawks in 7

Twitter: @Monroe_SA

Leave a Reply