Right now the Bulls are telling themselves a motivational story, one that wipes clean this .500 regular season -- with its injuries, trades and reported shoving match between team vice president and coach -- and reloads memories of the sweet camaraderie and dogged competitiveness displayed in last year's thrilling playoff performance against the Celtics, a seven-game, first-round defeat. Meanwhile, their top-seeded opponent is on a multifaceted mission. The NBA's best player, LeBron James, is seeking the sort of personal validation that only comes with a championship. His otherwise nondescript franchise is seeking the salvation of retaining its hometown hero. So, if you're looking for a succinct way to sum up this mismatch, how about Chicago's pipe dream against Cleveland's locomotive? And be thankful we're all spared the even greater carnage of Cavs vs. Raptors.
Anderson Varejao vs. Joakim Noah. This is the NBA equivalent of a steel cage match: Noah and Varejao fighting for position beneath the hoop. The paint ain't big enough for both of them. This is a pair with big hair and even bigger hearts, two of the game's most valuable bangers with nonstop motors that enable them to show hard on the pick-and-roll, joust for tip-ins and scramble after loose balls they've probably dislodged from their opponents. Each had his most successful season, proving that dedicated hustle can qualify as an NBA-level skill.
Cavaliers: Shaquille O'Neal. The longer Shaq sits on the sideline, the more it seems likely that his offseason acquisition has become a colossal non-event. Because if Cleveland is going to knock enough rust off the Diesel to ready him for a potential conference finals showdown with Dwight Howard and the Magic, it needs to start feeding him minutes when there is greater margin for error in the first round.
Bulls: Kirk Hinrich. The Bulls' two-guard shot 47.5 percent from three-point territory in April to help Chicago win six of eight and overtake Toronto for the eighth seed. On the court primarily for his rugged perimeter defense, when Hinrich is hitting his spot-up threes, it opens up the floor for more unencumbered penetration by backcourt mate Derrick Rose, and the offense hums.
It might almost be in Cleveland's interest to drop a game or two, especially if it means getting Shaq reacclimated and disrupting parallels to last year's postseason, when the Cavs swept two straight series and thus magnified the shock of their exit in the conference finals against Orlando. Chicago may have split the season series with Cleveland, but it's the postseason now, and the Cavs will capture every game they feel they need. Cavs in five.
This could be a much tougher test for the Magic than it first appears. Their 3-1 season edge over Charlotte included two victories in the first three weeks of the season, before the Bobcats acquired Stephen Jackson. Since then, Charlotte extended Orlando to overtime before losing and then went into Orlando and beat the Magic in mid-March. Points will be precious, as Larry Brown's Bobcats led the NBA in defensive efficiency (fewest points allowed per 100 possessions), Orlando was third and both teams play at a slower-than-average pace. If Orlando isn't hitting its three-pointers, Charlotte could steal a game on the road -- and the Bobcats finished (31-10) at home.
Dwight Howard vs. Bobcats big men and FT line. Charlotte's three centers -- Theo Ratliff, Tyson Chandler and Nazr Mohammed -- all understand the value of a well-chosen foul. Howard went 12-of-14 from the field but just 3-of-10 from the line in that mid-March loss, and he was 12-for-30 from the charity stripe against Charlotte overall. It is one of Orlando's few weaknesses, and the Bobcats will be the first of Howard's foes to relentlessly make him beat them with free throws.
Magic: VC and 'Shard. Brown will have schemes to counter Orlando's inside-outside offensive philosophy of surrounding Howard with three-point shooters, making Vince Carter's ability to create his own shot in the mid-range game especially important. ... Will Rashard Lewis shake off the doldrums? He had as many turnovers and more fouls against Charlotte than any other opponent, while shooting just 11-of-39 from the field and 5-for-25 from three-point range.
Bobcats: Stephen Jackson. Jackson's extensive postseason experience and inherent swagger will be a boon to a franchise making its first trip to the playoffs. But Captain Jack can't overdo the "leadership" thing and deny touches to All-Star Gerald Wallace and capable crunch-time point guard Raymond Felton.
Charlotte is tough enough to have beaten Cleveland three times -- and undisciplined enough to have lost to New Jersey twice. Orlando is the deeper, more experienced and talented team. If they play under control, limit turnovers and establish Howard in the paint at both ends of the court (his presence especially hurts slashers and undersized rebounders like Wallace), the Magic should survive this bruising series rather routinely. Magic in six.
What a horrible matchup for the Andrew Bogut-less Bucks. Without its vastly improved Aussie center, Milwaukee simply can't joust effectively in the paint with Atlanta's quick, tenacious frontcourt duo of center Al Horford and forward Josh Smith. Bogut enriched the defensive grit and compensated for the offensive limitations of power forwards Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Mbah a Moute in ways 37-year-old Kurt Thomas can't duplicate. On the perimeter, Atlanta's Joe Johnson is a better go-to shooting guard than Milwaukee's John Salmons in almost every aspect of the game -- and Salmons may now be the Bucks' best available player. Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles built a beautifully integrated team that was the year's most pleasant surprise in the NBA. But with Bogut sidelined by hand, wrist and elbow injuries, the Bucks have lost their linchpin.
The point guards. This is the lone position at which Milwaukee is more athletic than Atlanta. But can it pay off? Rookie Brandon Jennings can blow past Mike Bibby off the dribble, but has trouble finishing (either at the rim or on the pull-up jumper) even without the shot-swatting Smith waiting for him. Neither Bibby nor combo guard Jamal Crawford turns the ball over and both are capable of sticking the three-pointer in crunch time. For Milwaukee to have any chance, Jennings and backup Luke Ridnour have to improve on their fine performance as regular-season sparkplugs.
Hawks: Mavin and Zaza. The consensus is that the Hawks will beat the Bucks and then lose to the Magic in the second round. A strong performance from underachieving small forward Marvin Williams on Milwaukee's Carlos Delfino -- who is similar in style to the Magic's Matt Barnes -- would be a hopeful sign for Atlanta. So would quality minutes from backup center Zaza Pachulia, prepping for Orlando's Dwight Howard and Marcin Gortat.
Bucks: The wiles of Skiles. Not even Larry Brown is better at motivating defensive dedication than Skiles. Atlanta has been prone to bouts of overconfidence in the past, and it'll probably coast on cockiness at some stages in this series. Expect the Bucks to pounce and try to swing the momentum as much as possible in those moments.
Only Cleveland should be a bigger favorite than Atlanta in these first-round series, and the Hawks need to immediately start fostering a killer instinct if they are going to further their blueprint and get to the conference finals. A sweep is certainly possible, but even without Bogut, the Bucks are probably too proud and hard-nosed to succumb without snatching a game. Hawks in five.
These are not your older brother's Boston Celtics. The 2008 champs went 27-24 since Jan. 1, picking up embarrassing home losses to the Nets and Wizards in the final six weeks of the season. They are constantly out-rebounded, their bench is suspect and their three veteran stars are all clearly on the wane. By contrast, the Heat are better than their so-so reputation, winning 18 of their final 22 games. Their team defense is as synergistic as Boston's and their star, former Finals MVP Dwyane Wade, is not on the wane.
The Big Three vs. Father Time. The quality of the twilight in a star's career depends on his knowing when to will himself through an obstacle and when to concede the disadvantage and renegotiate his approach. The Celts have three fading stars -- Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen -- who each can draw upon an enormous reservoir of pride and savvy. If at least two of them play with an accurate self-assessment that maximizes their strengths and limits their weaknesses, Boston will be tough to beat.
Celtics: Rajon Rondo. The Celtics' best player was especially dominant against Miami this year, averaging 20 points, 4 rebounds and 11 assists while shooting 58.3 percent, including the bucket that spelled the difference in Boston's overtime win back in January. Despite a three-inch height disadvantage, he's a viable option for spot coverage of Wade.
Heat: Wade in crunch time. According to 82games.com, Wade was among the least-accurate clutch shooters in the league this year, converting just 31.8 percent of his field goals and 22.2 percent of his three-pointers. But he also had the third-highest assist rate in the clutch -- behind only Utah's Deron Williams and Phoenix's Steve Nash -- mostly by feeding Jermaine O'Neal (55.2 percent), Udonis Haslem (51.9) and Quentin Richardson (50). When the pressure's off, Wade's teammates too frequently muff his would-be assists. But in what should be a nip-and-tuck series, collapsing on Wade in crunch time may not be Boston's best strategy.
Miami possesses the NBA's most underrated defense. While Haslem, a tireless grinder, will make Garnett work his aching wheels, it will be interesting to watch Allen's long jumpers after he's spent 30 minutes chasing Wade. Picking against the Big Three in a first-round series where it has home-court advantage feels odd, particularly against a team whose second-leading scorer is the inconsistent Michael Beasley. But the Heat, like the Celtics, are better than .500 on the road, and the boys in green have been too mediocre for too long this season. Heat in seven.