With NBA playoffs set to get underway tomorrow, the Post’s Brandon Parker takes a look at the first-round matchups:
No. 1 Indiana vs. No. 8 Atlanta
Why the Pacers will win in five: For as much as Indiana has struggled of late, losing eight of its past 13 games, the Pacers still sit as the Eastern Conference’s top team and one of the NBA’s best defensive units. With a home record of 35-6, emerging superstar Paul George will look to set the tone early for a deep Pacers team on a mission to dethrone two-time defending champ Miami.
Difference maker: Roy Hibbert, Pacers. In Indiana’s last meeting with Atlanta on April 6, the Pacers were blown out by 19 points and Hibbert was benched early, finishing with zero points and one rebound in nine minutes. The two-time All-Star must re-establish his presence inside if Indiana hopes to create matchup problems for the smaller Hawks.
No. 2 Miami vs. No. 7 Charlotte
Why the Heat will win in five: After dropping six of their past eight games in which one of its three superstars rested, Miami
is now ready to break out its full roster in its quest for a three-peat. LeBron James had his way in the four regular-season games against the Bobcats, averaging 37.8 points, including a career-high 61 points in their last meeting.
Difference maker: Kemba Walker, Bobcats. With his shifty moves and playmaking skills, Walker can score in bunches and has the ability to cause problems for the Miami backcourt of Mario Chalmers and recovering Dwyane Wade.
No. 3 Toronto vs. No. 6 Brooklyn
Why the Nets will win in seven: One of the NBA’s most surprising teams, Toronto will face one of the league’s best teams on paper in the Nets. Though Brooklyn stumbled to four losses in its past five games, the Nets boast 399 games of playoff experience with the likes of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on their roster. Meantime, the Raptors’ young but upstart squad has just 24 combined postseason games under its belt.
Difference maker: Kyle Lowry, Raptors. While Brooklyn’s Deron Williams has battled injuries en route to one of his worst seasons, Lowry has been the sparkplug for the Raptors’ surprising success. Against the Nets this season, the point guard averaged 22 points and six assists while shooting 50 percent from the field.
No. 4 Chicago vs. No. 5 Washington
Why the Bulls will win in six: Though the Wizards won the regular-season series, Chicago is peaking at the right time and will give Washington too much trouble on the defensive end. The Wizards have a league-high four players with at least 100 three-pointers, but Chicago held teams to just 35.1 percent shooting on less than 19 three-point attempts per game.
Difference maker: Nene, Wizards. The biggest difference between Washington’s two wins and one loss against Chicago this season was that Nene sat out the Wizards’ lone defeat because of a knee injury. Without Nene in the lineup, Joakim Noah had his way, exploding for 21 points and 12 rebounds in an 18-point rout earlier this month at Verizon Center.
No. 1 San Antonio vs. No. 8 Dallas
Why the Spurs will win in five: The aging Spurs haven’t missed a beat this season, winning 19 straight games at one point and notching the NBA’s best record to wrap up homecourt throughout the playoffs. San Antonio has defeated the Mavericks nine straight times, including four wins this season in games in which role players Danny Green, Marco Bellinelli and Patty Mills all stepped up in victory.
Difference maker: Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks. Even at 35, the one-time MVP remains the centerpiece for a Dallas team boasting the league’s second-rated offense. The Mavs’ defense isn’t good enough to stop the Spurs, leaving the onus on Nowitzki to fill it up from the outside.
No. 2 Oklahoma City vs. No. 7 Memphis
Why the Thunder will win in six: The Grizzlies capitalized on the knee injury that knocked Russell Westbrook out of the playoffs last season and sent the favored Thunder packing in the Western Conference semifinals. That surely isn’t lost on Kevin Durant, who elevated his game to even greater heights for a campaign that likely will yield his first MVP trophy.
Difference maker: Tony Allen, Grizzlies. No one has been able to stop Durant this season, but if there’s anybody who can come close, it’s Allen. The lockdown defender will be charged with harassing the Thunder superstar, although this time the Grizzlies will have to worry about Westbrook as well.
No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 6 Golden State
Why the Clippers will win in seven: Golden State’s chances at a deep playoff run took a major blow when center Andrew Bogut went out indefinitely last week with a fractured rib. Without their man in the middle, the Warriors will have a hard time slowing down the Clippers’ high-octane offense behind Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in what should be an intense series.
Difference maker: Deandre Jordan, Clippers. The ability of the Clippers center to take advantage of the absence of Bogut in the paint will be key to offsetting the sharpshooting, high-scoring tendencies of Golden State’s Splash Brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
No. 4 Houston vs. No. 5 Portland
Why the Rockets will win in six: With both teams wanting to push the tempo and able to pour in points from all over the floor, defense likely be at a minimum in this series. That gives Houston a slight advantage, as James Harden averaged 30.3 against Portland in four games this season while Dwight Howard put up 25.5 points and 13.5 rebounds.
Difference maker: LaMarcus Aldridge, Trailblazers. The All-Star forward has the upper hand in the size, skill and experience departments against Houston power forward Terrence Jones. Aldridge’s inside-outside game helped Portland start and end the season on a high note and opens space for his trigger-happy teammates.