No. 1 MIAMI HEAT (66-16) vs. No. 8 MILWAUKEE BUCKS (38-44)
Season series: Heat, 3-1. Milwaukee took Miami to overtime in the first meeting this season before losing 113-106, then won a wild game in December where the Bucks led by 12 at halftime, trailed by two entering the fourth, then outscored Miami 35-14 in the final 12 minutes for a 104-85 romp. After that, it was all Miami, with the Heat winning 107-94 on the road in March and then 94-83 at home last week.
Story line: The road toward what the Heat hope is a repeat championship finally gets underway, after a regular season that included a 27-game winning streak and the best record in the NBA. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined to average 48 points and both had their best-shooting seasons. The Bucks haven't won a playoff series since 2001, and lost 12 of their final 16 games.
Key Matchup I: James vs. Everybody. The Bucks will have to send a bunch of different bodies and looks toward the reigning MVP in an effort to keep him guessing, and to get the Heat offense out of sorts. Milwaukee's only win against Miami this season was a game where the Bucks had a 25-2 edge in points off turnovers. They'll need massive efforts like that again in this series.
Key Matchup II: Mario Chalmers vs. Brandon Jennings. Chalmers has been a huge threat from 3-point range this season and is far more consistent now than he was even a couple years ago. But Jennings always seems to find a way against the Heat, averaging 23.8 points against Miami this season on 46 percent shooting.
X-Factor: Larry Sanders, only because he averaged one technical foul every 24 minutes against Miami this season, and he'll need to be on the floor if Milwaukee will succeed in its quest to at least slow Chris Bosh.
Prediction: Heat in 5.
No. 2 NEW YORK KNICKS (54-28) vs. No. 7 BOSTON CELTICS (41-40)
Season series: Knicks, 3-1. New York won the season series for the first time since 2003-04, also the last time it won twice in Boston. Carmelo Anthony averaged 25.3 points but made his biggest news off the court, when he confronted Kevin Garnett outside Boston's team bus after the two exchanged words during the Celtics' 102-96 victory in New York on Jan. 7. The Knicks then won the last three meetings.
Story line: After ending the Celtics' five-year reign as Atlantic Division champions with their first division title since 1994, the Knicks will try to win a playoff series for the first time since 2000. Boston has never lost in the first round with Garnett and Paul Pierce.
Key matchup I: Tyson Chandler vs. Garnett. Neither center, both former Defensive Players of the Year, appeared in the final two meetings, and Garnett's absence was particularly noticed when the Knicks scored 100 or more in both games. Chandler missed most of the final weeks with a bulging disk but is set to play.
Key matchup II: J.R. Smith vs. Jason Terry. Terry averaged only 5.5 points and shot poorly against the Knicks during a somewhat disappointing season for the former Sixth Man award winner. Smith made himself a strong candidate for this season's honor with his second-half play, including a 32-point performance in Boston on March 26.
X-factor: Chris Copeland. The former pro player in Europe has become a surprising contributor in his rookieNBA season for the Knicks and seems to have found a place in the rotation. He scored 22 in the last meeting against Boston and had a pair of 30-point games to end the regular season.
Prediction: Knicks in 7.
No. 3 INDIANA PACERS (49-32) vs. No. 6 ATLANTA HAWKS (44-38)
Season series: Tied, 2-2. Both teams went 2-0 at home. Here's how even the season series was — the Pacers outscored the Hawks 400-395 in the four games, while the Hawks held tiny edges in rebounding (164-163), points in the paint (160-154) and fast-break points (51-48).
Story line: Neither team is exactly hitting the postseason in high gear, with the Pacers having lost five of their final six games and the Hawks going 11-15 since the start of March — then looking downright awful for the final two games, losses that at least got them out of the Miami side of the East bracket. If there is a series that will wind up being a grind-it-out, low-scoring one in the opening round of these playoffs, this one could be the most likely candidate.
Key Matchup I: David West vs. Josh Smith. Simply put, whichever guy plays better will probably see his team win the series. West has been relatively consistent all year and his 54-percent field-goal shooting since the All-Star break suggests he's in the type of form the Pacers would want. Smith could be playing his final games with the Hawks, with free agency looming for him this summer. His approach to this series might give some hints as to whether his bags are already packed.
Key Matchup II: Roy Hibbert vs. Al Horford. Hibbert is obviously a matchup nightmare for everyone because of his size, but Horford tends to control the paint using athleticism, so this one would look to be one of those classic-clash-of-styles situations. Horford averaged 16 points against Indiana in the regular season, Hibbert averaged only 9.5 against Atlanta.
X-Factor: Frank Vogel. The Indiana coach turned into a master motivator last season when Indiana ended up bowing to Miami in six games, though it was a series where the Pacers had the eventual champions down 2-1. Even with no hope for Danny Granger's return this season, if Vogel can get the "gold swagger" mode back, Indiana could be dangerous.
Prediction: Pacers in 6.
No. 4 BROOKLYN NETS (49-33) vs. No. 5 CHICAGO BULLS (45-37).
Season series: Bulls, 3-1. Chicago had an 11-point victory, while the other three games were decided by four points, two and one. The Bulls, never fully healthy, were without Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich in their lone loss, a 93-89 defeat in Brooklyn on Feb. 1.
Story line: Ending a successful first season in Brooklyn with the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2007, the Nets open against the resilient Bulls, who made it to the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff standings even while playing all season without Derrick Rose.
Key matchup I: Deron Williams vs. Hinrich and Nate Robinson — or Rose? Williams had a terrific second half of the season after treatment for his ankles around the All-Star break, though one of his poor performances during that span was a 4-for-12 night in a 96-85 loss at Chicago on March 2. Rose could still play, unlikely as it seems, after sitting out all season following major knee surgery. But the Bulls have gotten by without him thanks in part to Robinson, who had three 12-point games against Brooklyn.
Key matchup II: Brook Lopez vs. Noah. Noah had 21 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the lone blowout, but he missed two games and was limited down the stretch by a foot injury even when he did play. The Bulls will need his defense against fellow All-Star center Lopez, who averaged 22 points against Chicago.
X-factor: Reggie Evans. Evans had some decent scoring nights in the second half to go with his usual strong rebounding, but didn't manage a basket in three of the four games against Chicago. He shot 4 of 5 in the one Nets victory, and Brooklyn will need some offense along with his defense on Carlos Boozer.
Prediction: Nets in 7.
No. 1 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (60-22) vs. No. 8 HOUSTON ROCKETS (45-37)
Season series: Thunder, 2-1. Oklahoma City won a pair of blowouts before the Rockets pulled out a 122-119 home victory on Feb. 20 behind 46 points from James Harden. The Thunder gave Harden a rude welcome back on Nov. 28 when they held him to 3-of-16 shooting in a 120-98 victory, and they followed that a month later by rolling to a 124-94 win.
Story line: After combining for a blockbuster trade in the preseason that dealt Harden to the Rockets, the teams meet in the first round as Oklahoma City tries to begin a second straight trip to the NBA Finals.
Key matchup I: Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin vs. Harden. Harden will try to outduel the player he used to replace in the lineup and the one who ultimately replaced him via trade. Martin has taken over as Harden's sixth man role and averaged 17 points against his former team, while defensive ace Sefolosha provided some unexpected offense in the series with a 28-point game.
Key matchup II: Russell Westbrook vs. Jeremy Lin. Lin helped his team reach the playoffs in his first full season as a starter and had a terrific performance in Houston's victory over Oklahoma City, finishing with 29 points, eight assists and six rebounds. But his first playoff appearance comes against a dominant point guard in Westbrook, who twice scored 28 points against the Rockets.
X-factor: Patrick Beverley. The Rockets aren't afraid to give the backup point guard big minutes, and might need to use him if Westbrook's quickness is too much for Lin.
Prediction: Thunder in 5.
No. 2 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (58-24) vs. No. 7 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (45-37).
Season series: Spurs, 2-1. Los Angeles prevented a sweep with a 91-86 victory on Sunday in its first game after losing Kobe Bryant to a season-ending injury. The Spurs took the other two by a combined five points, pulling out an 84-82 victory in Los Angeles on Nov. 13 during the Lakers' stormy start to the season and winning 108-105 at home on Jan. 9.
Story line: A top Western Conference rivalry in the last decade, this meeting comes without Bryant, who tore his Achilles' tendon last week. The Lakers managed to make the postseason without him, winning their final five games to finish seventh and ending up opposite the Spurs, who battled injuries down the stretch and couldn't hold off Oklahoma City for the No. 1 seed.
Key matchup I: Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter vs. Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. With Bryant gone and Steve Nash sidelined down the stretch, the Lakers reinvented themselves as an inside team, looking little like the usual Mike D'Antoni offense. Duncan, still near the top of his game as he turns 37 next week, and Splitter will have to control them while scoring themselves.
Key matchup II: Tony Parker vs. Nash. Parker was banged-up late in the season and had just four points on 1-of-10 shooting last Sunday in Los Angeles. But he was still healthier than Nash, who missed the final seven games with a strained right hamstring. Parker averaged 21.5 points in the Spurs' two victories and should be able to blow through the Lakers' defense if he's healthy. Nash played only once against San Antonio, finishing with 14 points and nine assists in the Jan. 9 loss.
X-factor: Steve Blake. He started in Nash's place down the stretch and was particularly good after Bryant was lost, scoring 23 and 24 points in his final two games.
Prediction: Spurs in 6.
No. 3 DENVER NUGGETS (57-25) vs. No. 6 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (47-35)
Season series: Nuggets, 3-1. The teams met three times in November and Denver nearly won them all, taking a double-overtime affair on the road in the first meeting, then winning at home and falling 106-105 on the road — all those games coming in a three-week span. They haven't played since Jan. 13, a 116-105 home win for the Nuggets.
Story line: It's just the second trip to the playoffs for the Warriors in 19 years, which means Mark Jackson's team will have to guard against the just-happy-to-be-here pratfall that tends to affect clubs in that situation. Meanwhile, Denver was an in-vogue pick by many people to emerge from the loaded West before the season, and even without Danilo Gallinari the Nuggets have to think they can make a deep run, given their 23-game home win streak.
Key Matchup I: Ty Lawson vs. Stephen Curry. Lawson won't have to do it alone, but the safest way for Denver to grab control of this series would be to not allow Curry — the league's newly crowned single-season 3-point record-holder — to shoot the Warriors into the second round. It'll be interesting to see how keeping at least one eye on Curry on one end will affect Lawson's scoring.
Key Matchup II: Andre Iguodala vs. Klay Thompson. Both are capable of big numbers at any time, but Thompson and Curry form what plenty of people in the NBA say is the league's best-shooting backcourt, probably in some time. Iguodala hasn't been great in the playoffs of late, shooting a combined 80 for 203 in his last two postseasons in Philadelphia. The Nuggets will need more than that.
X-Factor: David Lee. He's a two-time All-Star, an eight-year veteran and not only is this his first time in theNBA playoffs, but it's his first time playing for a team that won more than 36 games. That's right — his most recent postseason game was against Villanova.
Prediction: Nuggets in 7.
No. 4 LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (56-26) vs. No. 5 MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (56-26)
Season series: Clippers, 3-1. One of the Los Angeles wins was a blowout, a 99-73 road romp that came at the perfect time for the Clippers, since they were smarting from having just lost at home to Orlando and Memphis was mired in what became a six-game stretch where it couldn't break the 85-point mark. The Clippers won both games in Memphis, the Grizzlies split two in L.A.
Story line: A pair of 56-win teams, both playing well and meeting a year after the Clippers went into Memphis and won a Game 7 to reach the second round of the playoffs — this has all the ingredients for a classic series. The Clippers are clearly the more high-octane of the two clubs, while the Grizzlies play with a defensive ruggedness probably not found anywhere else in the West.
Key Matchup I: Blake Griffin vs. Zach Randolph. Griffin was bothered by back spasms in the season finale, and Randolph — who Heat forward Shane Battier affectionally compared to an ox earlier this season — will probably create a new bruise or two for the Clippers' star to deal with in this series. Neither will shy away from the other, for certain.
Key Matchup II: Chris Paul vs. Mike Conley. Paul is an absolute superstar, and the Clippers will probably go as far as he takes them. But Conley isn't far off from joining that elite level of player in this league. The head-to-head edge in the regular season clearly went to Paul, as Conley shot just 30 percent in the four games and Paul posted a nearly 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
X-Factor: Marc Gasol. A strong defensive player of the year candidate, he shot 52 percent in the series against the Clippers last season. If he matches that, there will be an "upset" alert, though one 56-win club topping another would hardly be considered an upset.
Prediction: Grizzlies in 7.