Round-by-round playoff picks: The next champion will be ...

Friday April 18th, 2008

First round

No. 1 Celtics vs. No. 8 Hawks: Here's all you need to know about this series: Last Saturday, the Hawks had a chance to clinch a playoff spot against a Boston team that rested its regulars in the fourth quarter. The result: Atlanta was outscored 25-15 in the period and lost 99-89. The Hawks' first playoff appearance since 1999 will end quickly.Prediction: Celtics in four games.

No. 2 Pistons vs. No. 7 Sixers: The 76ers are an upset waiting to happen -- if they had slipped into the sixth spot and faced the Magic instead. Stuck in seventh, Philadelphia bows out to a Detroit team that appears interested in playing only three months (April, May and June) a year.Prediction: Pistons in six.

No. 3 Magic vs. No. 6 Raptors: Too much uncertainty in Orlando. Will Dwight Howard have enough left in the tank on offense after defending Chris Bosh? Hedo Turkoglu was the Magic's go-to guy in the regular season -- but is he good enough to play the same role in the playoffs? The Raptors' significant edge at point guard could be decisive.Prediction: Raptors in seven.

No. 4 Cavaliers vs. No. 5 Wizards: On his blog, Gilbert Arenas said the Wizards want Cleveland. Careful what you wish for. LeBron James has averaged 32.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists in 10 playoff games against Washington. Still, Washington has been champing at the bit for another shot at Cleveland, which has eliminated the Wizards in the first round the last two postseasons. The third time will be the charm.Prediction: Wizards in seven.

Second round

Celtics vs. Wizards: A difficult matchup for Boston, which lost three of four games against the Wizards in the regular season. Boston's stifling defense, however, will eventually be too much for the Wizards' Big Three of Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison.Prediction: Celtics in six.

Pistons vs. Raptors: Great matchups in this series. Rasheed Wallace vs. Chris Bosh. Chauncey Billups vs. Jose Calderon/T.J. Ford. Take the experience.Prediction: Pistons in six.

Conference finals

Celtics vs. Pistons: The East series everyone has been waiting for lives up to the hype. The Pistons' laissez-faire attitude in the regular season finally comes back to haunt them as the hungry Celtics wipe them out in the deciding game.Prediction: Celtics in seven.

First round

No. 1 Lakers vs. No. 8 Nuggets: One of the most flawed 50-game winners in NBA history, the potent-offense/no-defense Nuggets become the first (but not the last) of Kobe Bryant's 2008 playoff victims. Prediction: Lakers in five.

No. 2 Hornets vs. No. 7 Mavericks:Dirk Nowitzki's sore left ankle won't get any better as he'll be busy dealing with All-Star power forward David West. The Hornets' playoff-neophyte status will become an issue, but not in this series.Prediction: Hornets in six.

No. 3 Spurs vs. No. 6 Suns: The Suns were one Robert Horry hip-check from potentially upending the Spurs in the second round last season. They will have their full complement this time around, but a healthy Spurs team with a playoff mastermind like Gregg Popovich on the bench will prove too tough to beat.Prediction: Spurs in seven.

No. 4 Jazz vs. No. 5 Rockets: Consider the letdown factor: Houston has to view it as an accomplishment just to make the postseason without Yao Ming. Utah looks at it as a step toward a greater goal. The Jazz carry the league's best home record (37-4) into the playoffs, and with Rockets point guard Rafer Alston (strained hamstring) sidelined for at least the first two games (both in Houston), Utah should be able to take a game on the road.Prediction: Jazz in six.

Second round

Lakers vs. Jazz: Will Andrew Bynum return for the second round? Perhaps, but even without the 7-footer the Lakers have too much firepower for the Jazz. A big series for Pau Gasol, who will match up frequently with the defenseless Mehmet Okur.Prediction: Lakers in seven.

Hornets vs. Spurs: Is point guard the best positional matchup of the playoffs or what? Chris Paul will prove superior when he outduels Tony Parker, but the Spurs' experienced front line of Tim Duncan, Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas will overwhelm West and Tyson Chandler.Prediction: Spurs in seven.

Conference finals

Lakers vs. Spurs: The over-under is 14 -- as in the number of times Bruce Bowen will whack Bryant on his injured pinkie finger in this series. A third consecutive marathon series will have aging San Antonio running on fumes, but Popovich's well-designed defense of Bryant will keep the Spurs in it. The key matchup: Duncan vs. Gasol.Prediction: Spurs in seven.

NBA Finals

Celtics vs. Spurs: Too much Garnett. Too much Paul Pierce. Too much RayAllen. Boston's Big Three has never been to a Finals, and those All-Star players won't shrink in the spotlight. Garnett neutralizes Duncan, Allen gets the best of longtime nemesis Bowen and Pierce outduels Manu Ginobili.Prediction: Celtics in seven.

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