Steve Aschburner
Friday April 17th, 2009

OVERVIEW: Few teams have as much to prove as these two, which means that someone is going to win more than just a first-round playoff series -- and likewise, the loser, who will be stuck all summer facing questions that already have gotten old. For the Nuggets, it will be about their playoff wall, hitting and sticking in the first round for what would be six consecutive years (they're 4-20 over the past five). For the Hornets, it's the growing suspicion that last season (56-26) was their outlier rather than their glimpse at the future.

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THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. The point guard matchup. Chris Paul versus Chauncey Billups shapes up as arguably the best individual showdown of the first round. Billups is bigger stronger, more experienced and more successful (team category), earning Finals MVP honors while leading Detroit to the 2004 title. Paul gets the individual acclaim and is the gold standard by which point guards currently are measured. They spent the past week or two vying for the fifth spot on a lot of voters' MVP ballots, and now they get up to seven games to battle straight up. Billups will need more help from teammates in coping with Paul than vice versa, but stymieing the New Orleans guard cuts off more of what that team can muster offensively.

2. Injury issues. Hornets center Tyson Chandler was back on the floor Wednesday, a tune-up for the postseason after missing a month with an inflamed left ankle. His presence is vital on the defensive end and on the glass, but how effective he'll be and how long he can play are big unknowns. Denver has its own ailing big-man concern, with Kenyon Martin having recently returned from a strained left ribcage injury that cost him four games.

3. Big game James? This is the time of year when James Posey has to earn his keep. That means playing pesky defense on, say, Carmelo Anthony while reminding the Celtics how valuable a piece he was last season, before New Orleans signed him to a four-year, $25 million deal.

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UNDER THE RADAR: It's been all Kobe and LeBron this season, and Dwyane Wade elbowed his way into national MVP debates through repeated electrifying performances. But it has been a relatively quiet year for Anthony, who has avoided off-court distractions and misdeeds while boosting his stock within Denver's locker room as a leader and franchise guy. Getting out of the first round for the first time in his career is the next logical and, frankly, mandatory step.

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PREDICTION: Nuggets in 7. Denver has prided itself on a defensive makeover this season -- there was almost no direction to go but down, numbers-wise, after getting torched for 114.8 per game in the first-round sweep by the Lakers last year -- and New Orleans' difficulty in finding points on a consistent basis from anyone beyond Paul and David West will only make the Nuggets look better.

MORE SERIES BREAKDOWNS

Cavaliers vs. Pistons Hawks vs. Heat Magic vs. 76ers Celtics vs. Bulls Lakers vs. Jazz Spurs vs. Mavericks Blazers vs. Rockets

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