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NBA Playoffs 2012: First-Round Matchups Feature Knicks-Heat, Lakers-Nuggets, Bulls-76ers

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Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. | Getty Images

A look at the eight first-round series in the NBA playoffs:



No. 1 CHICAGO BULLS (50-16) vs. No. 8 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (35-31)

Season series: Bulls, 2-1. Chicago won the final two meetings, including a 96-91 victory March 4 in one of the rare times this season when it had its starting five together. Derrick Rose had 35 points and eight assists in that game. The 76ers won 98-82 on Feb. 1 when the Bulls played without Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton.

Story line: After falling to Miami last year in the Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls are the East's No. 1 seed again and picked up some motivation during the week as they face former Chicago coach Doug Collins' team. Philadelphia guard Evan Turner said he preferred to face the Bulls instead of the Heat, believing that was a better matchup.

Key Matchup I: Luol Deng vs. Andre Iguodala. Iguodala led a strong defensive effort against the fellow first-time All-Star, as Deng shot 3 for 11 in both games he played and averaged just 7.0 points. Iguodala also scored 19 points in the 76ers' victory but totaled only 21 in the losses, going just 3 for 10 for seven points in the finale.

Key Matchup II: C.J. Watson vs. Lou Williams. Williams, one of the NBA's top reserves, had an 0-for-7 night as part of a 7-for-28 season against the Bulls, averaging just 9.7 points. Watson, the solid backup to Rose or starter when Rose was hurt, had a pair of 20-point games against the 76ers.

X-factor: Joakim Noah. Had only two points and two rebounds in Chicago's loss, then averaged 12 points and 14.5 boards as the Bulls took the last two meetings.

Prediction: Bulls in 5.


No. 2 MIAMI HEAT (46-20) vs. No. 7 NEW YORK KNICKS (36-30)

Season series: Heat, 3-0. Miami had a pair of double-digit wins at home before pulling away in the fourth quarter to beat the Knicks 93-85 on April 15 at Madison Square Garden despite 42 points from Carmelo Anthony. Anthony and Amare Stoudemire each missed a game. Dwyane Wade averaged 26 points on 52.5 percent shooting for the Heat, while LeBron James added 26.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists.

Story line: A matchup loaded with star power as the teams renew an old playoff rivalry. New York beat Miami three times in four years from 1997-00, but the Heat will be expected to get through this one in what they hope is the first step toward another NBA finals.

Key matchup I: James vs. Anthony. Perhaps the marquee duel in the first round, matching the longtime friends from the 2003 draft class and Olympic teammates. Anthony's sizzling April was built largely against power forwards he had quickness advantages on but now has to deal with James, who held him to only two baskets in the fourth quarter of the most recent meeting.

Key matchup II: Chris Bosh vs. Stoudemire. Stoudemire wondered why Bosh was ranked above him in the 2010 free agent class, saying he had been on winning teams throughout his career while Bosh hadn't. But Bosh outplayed him this season even with a 4-for-18 night in the first meeting, averaging 18 points and 10.3 rebounds. Stoudemire managed just 12.5 points and 6.0 boards before missing the finale.

X-factor: JR Smith and Steve Novak. New York needs its perimeter shooters to get hot off the bench if Anthony and Stoudemire are going to get the room they need.

Prediction: Heat in 6.


No. 3 INDIANA PACERS (42-24) vs. No. 6 ORLANDO MAGIC (37-29)

Season series: Magic, 3-1. Orlando won twice in Indiana, holding the Pacers to 82 points per game in those matchups. Of course, the Magic had Dwight Howard for those four games and don't have him now, which makes the season series largely meaningless.

Story line: Orlando long had the inside track on the No. 3 seed in the East, but ended up barely holding on to sixth after Howard was lost at the end of the season to back surgery. Meanwhile, the Pacers surged to the finish to draw what appears to be a favorable matchup.

Key matchup I: Danny Granger vs. Quentin Richardson. Richardson has always been a rugged defender up for the task of taking on the opposition's top scorer, but nobody on the Magic had much luck against Granger, who averaged 19.3 points even with a 4-of-16 night thrown in.

Key matchup II: George Hill vs. Jameer Nelson. Hill played well after replacing an injured Darren Collison that he held onto the point guard job even after Collison returned. Nelson has long been Orlando's second-best player and will need to be at his best without Howard.

X-factor: Tyler Hansbrough. With Orlando a little undersized up front, Hansbrough has a chance to come off the bench and duplicate his performances in the last two meetings, when he averaged 18 points.

Prediction: Pacers in 5.


No. 4 BOSTON CELTICS (39-27) vs. No. 5 ATLANTA HAWKS (40-26)

Season series: Celtics, 2-1. Boston won the first two matchups by a combined five points, then essentially gave away the shot at home-court advantage in this series when it rested all of its top players in a 97-92 loss in Atlanta on April 20. Rajon Rondo had 20 assists in a triple-double in one of Boston's wins.

Story line: For as long as the Celtics last in this postseason, the story is whether this is the last we'll see of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen together. Boston has the higher seed as the Atlantic Division champion but that is meaningless, because the Hawks' better record gives them home-court advantage.

Key matchup I: Garnett vs. Josh Smith. A pair of versatile power forwards who have been forced to spend time as centers because of injuries. Garnett averaged 19 points against the Hawks and was out resting when Smith had 19 points and 12 rebounds in the final meeting.

Key matchup II: Allen vs. Joe Johnson. It's unknown what Allen can do after sitting out the final nine games, two against Atlanta, because of a sore right ankle. He scored 19 in the game he did play. Johnson poured in 30 on April 20, bouncing back from a 5-for-17 night in a two-point overtime loss to the Celtics nine days earlier.

X-factor: The second-year guard was productive as Allen's replacement and may need to have a big role if Allen isn't up to defending the All-Star Johnson.

Prediction: Celtics in 7.



No. 1 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (50-16) vs. No. 8 UTAH JAZZ (36-30)

Season series: Spurs, 3-1. Ignore the April 9 game in Salt Lake City, because the Spurs did. They left Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili behind for the second night of a home-and-home series, resulting in Utah's only victory over them this season.

Story line: San Antonio won its final 10 games to earn the No. 1 seed for the second straight season. The Spurs were knocked off in the first round last year by Memphis, but go in healthy this year as they look to duplicate their 1999 title that came in a shortened season.

Key matchup I: Parker vs. Devin Harris. Harris got better in each matchup, culminating with 25 points in the April 9 meeting. But he was outplayed in the other three games by Parker, a fellow speedster who scored 28 points the night before.

Key matchup II: Duncan vs. Al Jefferson. Jefferson had four double-doubles, two of the 20-10 variety, so he'll put up good numbers. Duncan might not, at least not like he used to, but will provide the steady play on both ends that the Spurs expect.

X-factor: Ginobili. The Spurs' playoff hopes were wrecked before they started last year when Ginobili was hurt in the season finale. He's healthy now and a threat against the Jazz after a pair of 23-point outings against them.

Prediction: Spurs in 5.



Season series: Thunder, 3-1. The teams split a pair of meetings in the first 10 days of the season before Oklahoma City won the final two. Kevin Durant averaged 25.5 points and Russell Westbrook added 22.8 for the Thunder, while Dirk Nowitzki's 22.5 led the Mavericks but were 10 per game fewer than he averaged in last year's playoff series.

Story line: A rematch of last year's Western Conference finals, won by Dallas in five games, is probably not the matchup either team wanted in the first round. The Thunder would have avoided it without their sputtering finish to the regular season, while the Mavericks dropped their final two in a title defense that's never really gotten off the ground.

Key matchup I: Westbrook vs. Jason Kidd. The Thunder's biggest struggles often come on Westbrook's poor shooting nights, and the 39-year-old Kidd will need help to force the speedy point guard into them.

Key matchup II: Durant vs. Shawn Marion. Marion remains a versatile defender whom the Mavericks like to put on opposing point guards, but probably can't risk using anyone else against the NBA's reigning three-time scoring champion.

X-factor: Brandan Wright. The reserve forward is one of the few Mavericks with young legs, and they will be needed to keep up with the much quicker Thunder.

Prediction: Thunder in 6.


No. 3 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (41-25) vs. No. 6 DENVER NUGGETS (38-28)

Season series: Lakers, 3-1. The Lakers won the final two meetings after the teams split a holiday home-and-home on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Kobe Bryant sat out the final meeting April 13, but Andrew Bynum scored 30 points as part of a monster series. He averaged 24.8 points on 66 percent shooting.

Story line: Knocked out in the second round last year after consecutive NBA titles, the Lakers try to start another finals run against a Nuggets team that won its final four games to reach the No. 6 seed.

Key matchup I: Bryant vs. Arron Afflalo. No matter what shape Bryant is in after a shin injury sidelined him for much of the stretch run, he'll have to shoot better than he did against the Nuggets. He made just 27.5 percent of his shots, worst against any team.

Key matchup II: Pau Gasol vs. Kenneth Faried. If the Nuggets can't stop Bynum they need to have some success against Gasol, and they really didn't in the regular season. He averaged 16 points and 10.8 rebounds, and now it's up to the rookie to try to contain him.

X-factor: Matt Barnes. With Metta World Peace suspended the next six games, Barnes will have to provide the defense against Danilo Gallinari and Al Harrington on the wings.

Prediction: Lakers in 5.



Season series: Clippers, 2-1. Memphis won the final meeting in April, getting a split of the two games in which Zach Randolph appeared. Chris Paul averaged 19.3 points and 8.7 assists for the Clippers.

Story line: A good first-round matchup between teams who enjoyed some of the most successful seasons ever. But the ending belonged to the Grizzlies, who won six in a row while the Clippers dropped three of their final four, allowing Memphis to grab home-court advantage.

Key Matchup I: Randolph vs. Blake Griffin. Randolph was the star of the Grizzlies' surprising run to a Game 7 of the second round last season and has played his way back into shape after a knee injury. But he lacks the quickness and explosiveness to defend Griffin, who scored 19, 20 and 20 points in the three games.

Key Matchup II: Rudy Gay vs. Caron Butler. A pair of former Connecticut forwards who were forced to watch the playoffs because of injuries last year. Gay, set for his playoff debut, averaged 17 points on 51 percent shooting against the Clippers. Butler couldn't make it back in time to play for the Mavericks in the NBA finals but brings veteran leadership now to a club that is largely inexperienced in the postseason.

X-Factor: Randy Foye. The Clippers need the replacement for Chauncey Billups to hit from the outside the way he did in their March 24 victory, when he scored 18 points. But the Grizzlies held him to just 11 on 5-of-17 shooting to win the finale.

Prediction: Grizzlies in 7.

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