April 16, 2015

A look at the eight first-round series in the NBA playoffs:

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EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 ATLANTA HAWKS (60-22) vs. No. 8 BROOKLYN NETS (38-44)

Season Series: Hawks, 4-0. Atlanta led by at least 14 in every game, once by as much as 39. Brooklyn never led any of the four games by more than eight points.

Story Line: Can Atlanta do it in the playoffs? Much has been made of the culture change Mike Budenholzer has engineered, but note this - the Hawks haven't won two playoff series in the same year since 1958, when they were in St. Louis.

Key Matchup 1: Kyle Korver vs. Joe Johnson. Both can get sizzling hot, and Brooklyn's only hope is probably that Johnson finds a way to thwart his former team. Korver shot 49 percent from 3-point range this season; he's only a 39 percent shooter from beyond the arc in his playoff career.

Key Matchup 2: Jeff Teague vs. Deron Williams. Atlanta is 50-13 when Teague has four turnovers or less. Williams saw his scoring drop for the third straight year, and he struggled with his shot in his three appearances against Atlanta this season.

X-Factor: Brook Lopez. He's only played in the playoffs once before, but averaged 22.3 points in a seven-game loss to Chicago in 2013.

Prediction: Hawks in 5.

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No. 2 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (53-29) vs. No. 7 BOSTON CELTICS (40-42)

Season Series: Tied, 2-2. It's slightly misleading; both of Boston's wins came in the final days of the regular season when Cleveland's spot on the East bracket was already secured. Both teams went 1-1 on the other's home floor.

Story Line: LeBron James, back with the Cavaliers, back in the playoffs, back against the Celtics. Of course. Boston ended James' first run with Cleveland in 2010, remember. So how perfect is it that James' second quest to deliver a title to championship-starved Northeast Ohio starts with Boston?

Key Matchup 1: Kyrie Irving vs. Marcus Smart. Boston is a big longshot in this series, but if Smart can find a way to keep Irving in some sort of check, the Celtics will give the Cavaliers some headaches.

Key Matchup 2: Tristan Thompson vs. Isaiah Thomas. No, they won't be guarding each other, but their roles are huge. Thomas is explosive off Boston's bench, while Thompson finds himself pulling many duties in his role as Cleveland's go-to sub.

X-Factor: Kevin Love. Like Irving, he's making his long-awaited postseason debut. He'll have to learn fast what this time of year is all about.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 5.

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No. 3 CHICAGO BULLS (50-32) vs. No. 6 MILWAUKEE BUCKS (41-41)

Season Series: Bulls, 3-1. Chicago held Milwaukee to 87 points or less in all three wins, and neither team scored more than 95 points in any of the four games.

Story Line: Welcome back to the playoffs, Derrick Rose. He blew out a knee in Game 1 of Chicago's 2012 loss to Philadelphia and hasn't seen the floor in a postseason game since. He's shown flashes of great things since coming back late this season. The Bulls absolutely need him at a high level, or else.

Key Matchup 1: Jimmy Butler vs. Khris Middleton. Butler has been great for Chicago all season, a true Most Improved Player candidate. Middleton keeps steadily getting better, was part of just 15 wins last year and now is a go-to option for the Bucks.

Key Matchup 2: Pau Gasol vs. Zaza Pachulia. Gasol led the NBA in double-doubles this season. Pachulia is a playoff veteran, but will have his hands full.

X-Factor: Tom Thibodeau. Bulls have lost eight of their last nine playoff games under Thibodeau, whose job security might hinge on Chicago going deep in these playoffs.

Prediction: Bulls in 5.

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No. 4 TORONTO RAPTORS (49-33) vs. No. 5 WASHINGTON WIZARDS (46-36)

Season Series: Raptors, 3-0. One of the wins was in overtime and another went down to the buzzer, but out of the first 103 minutes where the teams went head-to-head this season the Raptors trailed for all of 23 seconds.

Story Line: Will this be the breakthrough for the Raptors? They've never won a best-of-seven series and have been past the first round only once, back when those were best-of-five matchups.

Key Matchup 1: Kyle Lowry vs. John Wall. Two of the elite point guards in the game. Lowry could have left Toronto last summer and didn't; Wall shot just 37 percent in last year's playoffs for Washington and needs to improve that number.

Key Matchup 2: Jonas Valanciunas vs. Marcin Gortat. They're almost identical; both European, both virtually the same height and weight, both shot 57 percent this year and averaged about 12 points and 9 rebounds per game.

X-Factor: Paul Pierce. He helped Brooklyn win a Game 7 in Toronto last year, and his recollections of that series should be invaluable to the Wizards now.

Prediction: Wizards in 7.

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WESTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (67-15) vs. No. 8 NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (45-37)

Season Series: Warriors, 3-1. Golden State won the two games on its home floor with ease, one by 27 and the other by 16. New Orleans won the last meeting, earlier this month.

Story Line: Leading MVP candidate Stephen Curry goes against the league's unquestioned budding megastar in Anthony Davis. And the Pelicans will play like they have nothing to lose.

Key Matchup 1: Draymond Green/Andrew Bogut vs. Davis. Green figures to get the bulk of the defensive workload here and is going to have his hands full, obviously. If Davis gets rolling, the Warriors will have cause for worry. Some cause, anyway.

Key Matchup 2: Curry/Klay Thompson vs. Tyreke Evans/Eric Gordon. The Pelicans actually did OK against the Warriors' starry backcourt, holding them to a combined 43 percent shooting. They'll have to do that again, or even better.

X-Factor: Norris Cole. Traded to New Orleans by Miami midseason, Cole has been in three previous postseasons - getting to the NBA Finals every time. And he's quick enough to make Curry work, too.

Prediction: Warriors in 5.

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No. 2 HOUSTON ROCKETS (56-26) vs. No. 7 DALLAS MAVERICKS (50-32)

Season Series: Rockets, 3-1. Don't get too swayed by that. Combined score of those four games: Rockets 402, Mavericks 398. Dallas had double-digit leads in three of the games.

Story Line: James Harden missed out on the scoring title and will likely miss out on the MVP as well, but now gets a chance for something better. Harden has yet to get Houston past the first round, and his postseason career to date has been erratic at best.

Key Matchup 1: Jason Terry vs. Rajon Rondo. The Rockets went 8-3 down the stretch with Terry in the starting lineup. Rondo has been in 92 playoff games already, and though his tenure with Dallas hasn't always been smooth he certainly knows how to win at playoff time.

Key Matchup 2: Tyson Chandler vs. Dwight Howard. There's serious star power in this series, with Harden, Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki and others. But Chandler and Howard will be vital. Some guys can get on scoring streaks; these two can get on rebound streaks.

X-Factor: Chandler Parsons. He was with the Rockets for his first three seasons, then took Dallas' big-money offer last summer and so perhaps it's fitting that paths cross now.

Prediction: Rockets in 6.

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No. 3 LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (56-26) vs. No. 6 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (55-27)

Season Series: Tied, 2-2. Clippers won by 20 in San Antonio in January, before the Spurs found their end-of-season groove. Both teams went 1-1 on the other team's floor.

Story Line: The best of the eight first-round matchups could very well be this one, pitting the defending champion Spurs against a Clippers team that's still looking for that big postseason breakout. San Antonio rolled through the last third of its schedule, but now the question is whether the Spurs will be deflated by missing out on a chance to finish No. 2 in the West and falling to the 6 spot.

Key Matchup 1: Chris Paul vs. Tony Parker. They've gone head-to-head 43 times, and Paul has the better stats - but Parker and the Spurs have won 28 of those matchups.

Key Matchup 2: Blake Griffin vs. Tim Duncan. Anytime a pair of former No. 1 picks get together - Duncan from 1997, Griffin from 2009 - it's going to be worth watching. Duncan's next playoff game will be the 235th of his career, while Griffin has played in only 30.

X-Factor: Kawhi Leonard. Since the start of the 2013 playoffs, the Spurs are 131-43 when last year's NBA Finals MVP is in their lineup.

Prediction: Spurs in 6.

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No. 4 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (51-31) vs. No. 5 MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (55-27)

Season Series: Grizzlies, 4-0. Memphis held the high-octane Blazers to 91.3 points per game - more than 12 below their average output against everyone else.

Story Line: Portland gets the higher seed by winning the Northwest Division, but doesn't have home-court because the Grizzlies had the better record. And both of these teams have serious injury concerns.

Key Matchup 1: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Marc Gasol. Neither figures to totally muzzle the other, but the pressure will be on both of these bigs. Aldridge adding 3-point range this season will only add to Gasol's challenge.

Key Matchup 2: Damian Lillard vs. Mike Conley. Much like Aldridge, Lillard has gotten his numbers (22.0 ppg) against the Blazers this season. And Conley missed the end of the regular season with a foot injury, so Lillard figures to put him to the test right away.

X-Factor: Tony Allen. He hasn't played since late March because of a bad hamstring, and the Grizzlies will need their defensive ace.

Prediction: Grizzlies in 6.

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