By Chris Mannix
March 22, 2010

With the playoffs less than a month away, let's predict the Eastern Conference first round based on the standings through March 21:

No. 1 Cleveland vs. No. 8 Toronto: A surprisingly tough series for the Cavs, who lost once to the Raps and needed overtime to beat them a second time. Containing Hedo Turkoglu and Andrea Bargnani on the perimeter has been a challenge, but Cleveland takes them in five.

No. 2 Orlando vs. No. 7 Charlotte: The Magic have taken three of four from the Bobcats. Charlotte isn't overwhelmed by Dwight Howard (16.5 points per game against the Bobcats); it's Vince Carter (23- and 21-point performances in the last two meetings) who has more of a threat. Magic in six.

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Miami: The C's have swept three from the Heat but no win has been by more than seven points. Rajon Rondo (20.0 points, 11.0 assists in the three matchups) feasts on the flotsam Miami trots out at point guard. Boston in six.

No. 4 Atlanta vs. No. 5 Milwaukee: Only one matchup so far (an OT win by Atlanta) but two to go, including Monday night in Milwaukee. The Hawks have had trouble with explosive, scoring guards, and Milwaukee has two in Brandon Jennings and John Salmons. But Atlanta's length up front gives the Bucks' smallish forwards fits. Hawks in seven.

(All stats and records are through March 21.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 1
The Cavs didn't fare too badly without Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- a 13-4 record with wins in 13 of their last 14 games -- but they could be even better with him. Big Z, who was waived by Washington after being part of the Antawn Jamison trade, is eligible to re-sign with Cleveland on Monday and will likely be back in uniform this week.
2 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 3
Another year, another Andrew Bynum injury. Though he should be back before the playoffs, Bynum has dealt with four injuries this season and missed much of the last two with knee injuries. Fortunately, the Lakers continue to show they can win without him: L.A. is 4-1 in games Bynum has missed this season.
3 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 2
Orlando Magic (49-21)
Remember Brandon Bass? Orlando's $18 million free-agent signing whose confidence (and work ethic) bottomed out with his diminished playing time two months ago? Bass seems to have finally escaped Stan Van Gundy's doghouse, playing double-digit minutes in nine of the Magic's 10 games this month. "I like what he's done," Van Gundy told the Orlando Sentinel. "He's given us good energy."
4 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 7
Atlanta Hawks (45-24)
Marvin Williams' 26-point outburst against San Antonio on Sunday -- a win that put the Hawks one away from clinching their third straight playoff berth -- was exactly what coach Mike Woodson was looking for when he asked Williams to be more aggressive. "He needs to not take a backseat to his teammates," Woodson told local reporters. "It's not about calling plays. I played 11 years and I got one or two plays called for me."
5 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 8
Utah Jazz (45-25)
Paul Millsap's 22-point, 15-rebound performance against New Orleans on Saturday is further proof the Jazz have little to fear if Carlos Boozer prices himself out of Utah in the offseason. "[Millsap]'s been huge for us this year," coach Jerry Sloan said after Saturday's victory. "Our team needs somebody who can come off the bench and give us instant energy. He's capable of playing extremely well as a starter, but when I look at our team, I think he's the best suited to come off the bench and give us a lift."
6 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 4
With coach George Karl undergoing cancer treatment, the Nuggets are Adrian Dantley's team, and Dantley is already catching heat for his coaching decisions. Dantley could take more heat if Denver tanks during its upcoming road trip -- a five-game, seven-night trek through New York, Boston, Toronto, Orlando and Dallas.
7 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 5
Jason Terry has a new mask and a new nickname (Jet-I Knight) as a result of the surgically repaired fractured orbital bone, but his game hasn't changed. Terry single-handedly outscored Boston's bench (18-13) in a loss to the Celtics last week. That's good news for the Mavs, who rely on Terry's scoring, especially in the fourth. Terry's average of six fourth-quarter points per game ranks fifth in the league.
8 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 13
Could it be? When Rondo's shooting -- both in attempts and percentage -- is down, Boston wins. The Celtics have won four straight while he's hit 46.4 percent of his 28 attempts. In the four games prior, of which the C's lost three, Rondo hit 54.2 percent of his 48 attempts. "When I feel I need to score and be aggressive, I try to do it," Rondo told the Boston Globe. "But otherwise, when we're rolling, I don't have to take shots. That's fine with me, as long as we win. Getting assists is better for me than scoring."
9 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 9
Phoenix Suns (44-26)
Amar'e Stoudemire is on an offensive tear -- he's averaging 29.0 points this month -- but his coach is more impressed with the complete game he's bringing every night. "He's more focused in defensively," Alvin Gentry told the Arizona Republic. "He's done a better job of finding open guys. He's playing with more energy. He says he's in better shape, so maybe that has a lot to do with it. His focus has been much better. Every once in awhile he'll lose it a little bit, but not anywhere close to the way he used to."
10 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 6
The Thunder can't afford to take nights off like they did Sunday in a 20-point loss to Indiana, not with fourth and eighth place in the West separated by 3½ games. "We can't stop what we're doing," Scott Brooks told The Oklahoman. "We can't just say, 'We're here. We've arrived.' We have to keep bringing effort and keep finding ways to improve our team."
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