By Chris Mannix
April 18, 2013

Here is an overview of the first round of the NBA playoffs:

Burning Questions

? Can Melo-ball carry the Knicks? With Amar'e Stoudemire sidelined for all but 29 games this season, the Knicks leaned heavily on Anthony, who delivered with his first scoring title. Backed by Anthony and the the most prolific three-point-shooting attack in NBA history, New York produced the league's third-most-efficient offense. But will the Knicks stay hot in the playoffs? The Knicks face an immediate test from Boston, the NBA's sixth-ranked defense.

? Can the Nuggets continue their regular-season success? Denver opened the season with limited expectations; it finished it as one of the top teams in the league, with the NBA's best up-tempo offense and a group of rugged rebounders. The game tends to slow down in the playoffs, and without Danilo Gallinari, it may be difficult for the Nuggets to manufacture offense. But the pace could remain fast in the first round because Denver is playing another team that likes to move quickly, Golden State.

? What now for the Lakers? The Lakers salvaged something from an abysmal season by surging into the playoffs with a 28-12 finish. They avoided Oklahoma City -- and regular tormenter Russell Westbrook -- by beating Houston in the season finale. Though Kobe Bryant is sidelined, the Lakers have the frontcourt muscle to give the banged-up Spurs headaches in the first round.

? Can the Pacers regroup? Indiana lost five of its final six regular-season games and has some key players dealing with nagging injuries, including point guard George Hill (groin). The Pacers have dropped 11 consecutive road games against their first-round opponent, Atlanta. At their best, though, the Pacers can rely on the NBA's top defense and score just enough to be dangerous.

? How about that Clippers frontcourt? The Clippers have one of the best backcourt rotations in the league, with Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe. But in a rematch of last season's first round with Memphis, it's the frontcourt of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Lamar Odom that must step up. Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin -- two key contributors against the Grizzlies last season -- are gone, leaving fewer bodies to match up with Memphis's physical bigs, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

Complete first-round playoff schedule

Five matchups to watch

? James Harden vs. Thabo Sefolosha: Harden averaged nearly 30 points per game against his former team in the regular season. He will need to equal that output in the playoffs if the Rockets hope to have any chance. The defensive-minded Sefolosha will draw the assignment, with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka watching his back.

? Kevin Garnett vs. Carmelo Anthony: There is no love lost between KG and Melo, and the two will see plenty of each other in the opening round. Anthony badly needs an efficient scoring series, while the Celtics need a hobbled Garnett to be the elite defender he has been his entire career.

? Dwight Howard vs. Tim Duncan/Tiago Splitter: With Bryant out, the Lakers' offense will run through Howard (along with Pau Gasol). Splitter will likely get the early assignment, as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will try to preserve Duncan until the fourth quarter. Howard has carried teams deep into the playoffs before and he has been significantly more productive in the second half of the season. Containing Howard will be San Antonio's top priority.

? David West vs. Josh Smith: When the game slows down, Indiana leans heavily on West, a capable scorer from the low post or the elbow. The athletic Smith had another strong statistical season. Their contrasting styles makes for an intriguing matchup.

? Warriors vs. Denver altitude: The ailing Nuggets (who are without Gallinari and could have Kenneth Faried limited by an ankle injury) still have one big advantage: the one mile they play above sea level. Denver, an NBA-best 38-3 at home, is used to running in the thin air; the Warriors are not.

GOLLIVER: X-factors for all 16 playoff teams

Welcome to the big stage

Here are five notable players with zero or limited playoff experience set to play big roles:

? Stephen Curry, Warriors: Curry was one of only four players (along with LeBron James, Bryant and Westbrook) to average at least 22 points, four rebounds and six assists this season. The playoff rookie headlines a young starting lineup with at least four players -- including David Lee, Klay Thompson and 2012 first-round pick Harrison Barnes -- without a single game of postseason experience. Curry paces an offense that led the NBA in three-point shooting at 40.3 percent.

? Brook Lopez, Nets: After missing all but five games with a foot injury last season, Lopez averaged a team-high 19.4 points in 74 games this season. Against a battle-tested Bulls team, Lopez must continue to balance the floor with strong a post presence in his postseason debut.

? Kevin Martin, Thunder: Just do what Harden did last year, Kevin. No pressure. Martin's playoff résumé consists of six games with Sacramento in 2006, but he will be counted on as the third scorer on a team with Finals expectations.

? Avery Bradley, Celtics: The third-year guard was a key contributor to Boston's playoff run last season before a shoulder injury sidelined him in the second round. With Rajon Rondo out of the lineup -- and with the ability to stop Raymond Felton's penetration vital to Boston's success -- the Celtics will need a sharp series from Bradley.

? Jeremy Lin, Rockets: Linsanity was striclty a regular-season story in New York last season, as a knee injury kept him out of a first-round series with the Heat. In his first playoff appearance, Lin will be asked to put up big offensive numbers on one end while keeping Westbrook in check on the other. No problem, right?

Market forces

Here are five pending free agents hoping to make a lasting impression before hitting the market in July:

? Josh Smith, Hawks: The enigmatic Smith believes he is a max player; not many NBA executives agree with him. Still, Smith, 27, could boost his stock with a strong first round against Indiana's vaunted front line. For Smith, shot selection is key: One-third of his attempts come at the rim, where he is shooting 77.3 percent, according to Hoopdata. But when Smith steps out to 10-15 feet, that number dips to 26.7 percent, his lowest since 2008-09.

? Jeff Teague, Hawks: The often-maligned point guard (the only restricted free agent on this list) turned in the best season of his four-year career. Indiana likes to play in the half court, and the 24-year-old Teague will be counted on to disrupt the Pacers' rhythm by pushing the tempo (Atlanta ranked third in fast break points) and getting into the paint.

? Lamar Odom, Clippers: Odom, who played all 82 games this season after a disastrous stint in Dallas in 2011-12, could see plenty of time against Memphis' super-sized front line. The 33-year-old's ability to produce will be big for L.A. in the first round's toughest series.

? J.R. Smith, Knicks: Smith has a $2.9 million player option for next season, but after the year that he had, he isn't picking it up. At 27, Smith emerged as arguably the NBA's top sixth man while showing maturity and flashes of an all-around game. A strong postseason could ensure a major payday.

? David West, Pacers: West is Indiana's rock, and he has earned every nickel of the two-year, $20 million deal that he signed in 2011. At 32, West will be looking for one more big payday this summer. How well Indiana does in the postseason could determine whether it is the team that gives it to him.

Series predictions

Eastern Conference

? Heat (1) vs. Bucks (8): Miami enters the playoffs healthy and a better team than last year. Milwaukee has a handful of good shooters, but the troika of Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick may need to combine for 60 points a game just to keep the Bucks in it. And even that won't be enough. Heat in 4.

? Knicks (2) vs. Celtics (7): The Celtics will be feisty, and they'll head to New York for the first two games of the series inspired to play for a city still reeling from the Boston Marathon bombings. But Rondo's absence and the lack of home-court advantage are just too much for the injury-ravaged Celtics to overcome. Knicks in 6.

? Pacers (3) vs. Hawks (6): The Pacers stumbled late in the regular season as the Knicks passed them for the No. 2 seed. Atlanta impressed by making the playoffs after losing Joe Johnson. But half-court execution will be rule this series, and Indiana is considerably better at it. Pacers in 6.

? Nets (4) vs. Bulls (5): The Nets quietly put together a strong finish, going 7-2 in April. Chicago will challenge Brooklyn with its experience and defensive pressure. Still, a rejuvenated Deron Williams sparked Brooklyn in the second half of the season and the Nets can lean on one of the best closers, Joe Johnson, down the stretch. Nets in 7.

MAHONEY: Ranking the first-round series by watchability

Western Conference

? Thunder (1) vs. Rockets (8): Harden returns to Oklahoma City a bona fide superstar and, along with Lin, part of one of the league's best young backcourts. Still, this shouldn't be too much trouble for the Thunder. Kevin Durant and Westbrook took big leaps this season and should be able to score plenty against a mediocre Rockets defense. Thunder in 6.

? Spurs (2) vs. Lakers (7): The Lakers are reinventing themselves in the absence of Bryant, fulling embracing the Howard/Pau Gasol twin towers offense. Size has given the Spurs problems in the past (see Memphis, 2011), but this San Antonio team has an improved Splitter. Parker should shred the Lakers' porous perimeter defense. Spurs in 6.

? Nuggets (3) vs. Warriors (6): With Gallinari available and Faried healthy, the Nuggets would be a safe pick. But with Gallinari out and Faried possibly hobbled, the door is open for the Warriors to pull off the upset. Denver doesn't defend the three-point line particularly well (opponents shot 36.3 percent during the season), and if Curry, Thompson and company get comfortable, this is a series they can steal. Warriors in 7.

? Clippers (4) vs. Grizzlies (5): Easily the most intriguing first-round series. Memphis would like to slug it out and use its superior size to win a half-court battle. The Clippers don't play fast, either, but they would like to take advantage of their athletic big men in transition and avoid having to try to score so much against a set Grizzlies defense. The Grizzlies have played well since dealing Rudy Gay, but without Gay's offense -- and remember it was Gay who looked most comfortable late in games in last season's series against the Clippers -- the margin for error is slim. Clippers in 7.

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