Eastern Conference Preview
The reigning NBA champion Miami Heat seem destined to make the NBA Finals. Miami stormed through the season, winning 27 straight games at one point, and LeBron James looks like a lock to win his fourth MVP of his career. Will he have a second ring to go with it?
No. 1 Heat (66-16) vs. No. 8 Bucks (38-44)
Season series: Heat, 3-1
Game 1: Sunday, 7 p.m.
Top storyline: Miami’s defending its title. The Heat begin with a series against a Bucks team that lost 12 of its past 16 games. LeBron James and Co. need to show their dominance and quickly take care of the Bucks to rest up for what should be a grinding series against either the Bulls or Nets in the second round.
How the Bucks can win: The Heat’s worst loss of the season was a 29-point defeat in Milwaukee. The Bucks’ defense was the difference — holding the Heat to 85 points and forcing 20 turnovers. If Milwaukee is going to steal a few games, Larry Sanders — who had four blocks in that Dec. 29 win — will need to be the difference on both ends of the floor.
Prediction: Miami in five
No. 2 Knicks (54-28) vs. No. 7 Celtics (41-40)
Season series: Knicks, 3-1
Game 1: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Top storyline: Carmelo Anthony’s under pressure. The Knicks forward won his first scoring title of his career, averaging 28.7 points a game. But now Anthony needs to prove he can perform in the postseason. The All-Star has advanced past the first round once in nine postseason appearances. The health of the older Knicks will also be a major factor in the series.
How the Celtics can win: If Boston can defend the 3-pointer, it’ll win the series. No team in the NBA relies on outside shooting more than the Knicks, who averaged an NBA-high 28.9 3-point attempts a game. When those shots go in, New York can beat anyone. When they don’t, New York struggles.
Prediction: New York in six
No. 3 Pacers (49-32) vs. No. 6 Hawks (44-38)
Season series: Tied 2-2
Game 1: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Top storyline: Are the Pacers for real? Despite All-Star Danny Granger playing in only five games all year, Indiana had its most wins since the 2003-04 season. Paul George had a breakout season, and Roy Hibbert and David West give the Pacers low-post options. They win with their defense, which held opponents to a conference-best 90.7 points a game.
How the Hawks can win: Atlanta has an answer for West and Hibbert in Josh Smith and Al Horford. Atlanta’s two leading scorers need to outplay their counterparts. The Hawks’ big men combined to average 38.2 points a game in wins this season but just 30.9 points in losses, while both shooting substantially worse from the field.
Prediction: Indiana in six
No. 4 Nets (49-33) vs. No. 5 Bulls (45-37)
Season series: Bulls, 3-1
Game 1: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Top storyline: The Nets are back. After missing the postseason five straight years, the Nets are in the playoffs in their first season in Brooklyn. Deron Williams got off to a slow start, but the point guard averaged 22.9 points a game after the All-Star break. He’ll face a Bulls team that’s been without All-Star point guard Derrick Rose all season.
How the Bulls can win: Joakim Noah and the hardest-working team in the league need to outhustle the Nets’ high-energy guys — Reggie Evans, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries. There are plenty of players in this series that will sacrifice their bodies for loose balls and hit the glass hard. Chicago needs to win those battles to advance.
Prediction: Chicago in seven
Western Conference Preview
Injuries have changed the landscape of the Western Conference playoffs. A once- seemingly wide-open bracket now appears to be the Thunder’s to lose after the Spurs, Nuggets and Lakers suffered injuries to key players. Oklahoma City still has a tough road ahead, though.
No. 1 Thunder (60-22) vs. No. 8 Rockets (45-37)
Season series: Thunder, 2-1
Game 1: Sunday, 9:30 p.m.
Top storyline: James Harden is facing his old team. The sixth man of the year in 2012 is now a star in Houston. Harden averaged 25.9 points a game, nearly 10 points more than he did with Oklahoma City in 2011-12. For the Thunder’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to make it back to the NBA Finals, they’ll have to get through their friend.
How the Rockets can win: Houston does one thing really well: score. The Rockets averaged 106.0 points a game, second best in the league. They have six players that average double-digits and were tied with the Knicks for most 3-point attempts per game (28.9). For the Rockets to have any chance against the Thunder, they’ll need to score — a lot.
Prediction: Oklahoma City in five
No. 2 Spurs (58-24) vs. No. 7 Lakers (45-37)
Season series: Spurs, 2-1
Game 1: Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
Top storyline: These two Western Conference powerhouses have been going in opposite directions. The Spurs have lost seven of their past 10 games, while the Lakers have won eight of nine. Injuries will be a key in this series. How healthy are the Spurs’ Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili? And how will the Lakers function without Kobe Bryant?
How the Lakers can win: L.A. has underachieved, but it still has two of the best big men — Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. Gasol has flourished of late as a facilitator in the high post — averaging 8.0 assists in his past four games. If the Lakers are able to continue to run their offense through Gasol, they could give Tim Duncan and the Spurs lots of problems.
Prediction: Los Angeles in six
No. 3 Nuggets (57-25) vs. No. 6 Warriors (47-35)
Season series: Nuggets, 3-1
Game 1: Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
Top storyline: Get ready to run. Denver averages a league-leading 106.1 points a game, while Golden State is at 101.2. But these teams score in different ways. The Nuggets led the NBA in points in the paint. With Ty Lawson, Denver tries to beat teams down the floor on every possession. Meanwhile, the Warriors rely heavily on sharp-shooter Stephen Curry.
How the Warriors can win: Connect from beyond the arc. Curry set an NBA single-season record with 272 3-pointers, and he’s not the Warriors’ only deep threat. Klay Thompson made 211 from 3. Golden State’s starting backcourt shoots better than 40 percent from long range. A hot series from Curry and Thompson would mean trouble for Denver.
Prediction: Denver in six
No. 4 Clippers (56-26) vs. No. 5 Grizzlies (56-26)
Season series: Clippers, 3-1
Game 1: Saturday, 10:30 p.m.
Top storyline: We meet again. Last year, the Clippers beat the Grizzlies in the first round — winning Game 7 in Memphis. This year, L.A. has home-court advantage and has played even better in Chris Paul’s second season with the Clippers. The Grizzlies are the best defensive team in the league — holding opponents to 89.3 points a game.
How the Grizzlies can win: Memphis’ defense must trump the stars of L.A. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford are three of the best at what they do, but the Grizzlies have an answer for each of them. Tony Allen and Marc Gasol will both receive defensive player of the year votes, and Mike Conley was third in the league in steals (2.2 a game).
Prediction: Memphis in seven