by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It’s playoff time in the NBA, and while the big question is whether anyone can challenge the Miami Heat, there are plenty of other teams still in action as the postseason commences this weekend.

Following is a quick look-ahead to each of the first-round matchups, beginning in the East.

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Milwaukee (8) vs. Miami (1)...We’re hard-pressed to recall a first-round matchup looking like more of a mismatch than this one. Although Milwaukee did upend the Heat in late December at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, there’s no one in Wisconsin or anywhere else who believes the Bucks have any sort of a chance. Milwaukee hardly enters the postseason on an uptick, either, dropping 12 of its last 16 games, and while star G Brandon Jennings is available for the Bucks, he was slowed in the last week by an ankle injury. Meanwhile, Erik Spoelstra was able to provide proper rest for the Heat’s big guns in the last week, and the champs are relatively healthy entering the postseason. Trends to note: For all of Miami’s prowess this season, the Heat were only 12-15 laying double digits. Milwaukee, however, enters the playoffs having dropped 10 of its last 16 vs. the line, as well as 12 of those SU. The Bucks were also only 15-25 vs. the points at home this season. Miami won 3 of 4 SU in regular season. Odds to watch: So prohibitive a favorite is Miami that the Heat are being quoted at less than even-money (4/5) to win the series in a sweep. The price doesn’t get much better (23/20) for Miami to prevail in five; those who think the Bucks can take the series to six games can get a 5/1 price. TGS forecast: Bigger challenges ahead for the Heat, and this should be a relatively-easy cruise. Better pointspread value on Miami, however, could come on the road in Milwaukee. Heat in 4

Boston (7) vs. New York (2)...It’s been a distracting week for the Celtics and all Bostonians, all hoping to finally resume life with some normalcy as we hit the weekend. It’s also surprising how many insiders believe Boston might have a look at this series, citing past playoff experience and successes. While this is indeed more familiar territory for the Celtics, it’s also not the same set of dynamics as recent years, especially with Rajon Rondo sidelined and both Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce banged up in recent weeks. Moreover, the Knicks won the two most recent meetings by relatively comfy margins (100-85 and 108-89), which were the two series games this season that Rondo missed. Don’t be surprised if we see some chippiness after these teams engaged in some extracurricular activity back on Jan. 7 at Madison Square Garden, when K-G and Carmelo Anthony were engaged in a game-long war of words that became rather animated. Interestingly, that was the only one of the four meetings in which the Celtics won. Will K-G be chirping again, hoping to get under Carmelo’s skin? Count on it. Trends to note: New York closed the season with a rush, winning 16 of its last 18 SU and covering 15 of those. Meanwhile, Boston cooled considerably down the stretch after initially responding well to Rondo’s late-January knee injury; the Celtics were just 5-11 SU in their last 16 games. Odds to watch: Those confident in a Knicks sweep can get a 6/1 price; indeed, the lowest series game price available on New York is 3/1 to win in seven games. Boston can fetch a 6/1 price for those who think the Celtics can wrap things up at home in Game Seven. TGS forecast: We are not ready to bury the Celtics quite yet, and expect they will put up a decent fight vs. a Knicks side that has had little postseason success in recent years. No surprise if this turns into a homecourt affair, which means Boston could force the series to the limit. Knicks in 7

Atlanta (6) vs. Indiana (3)...Neither of these two has been doing much in April, with the third-seeded, Central champ Pacers having lost five of their last six outright and failing to cover all six of those outings. Meanwhile, Atlanta has not been doing much better the past two weeks, losing and failing to cover five of its last seven. While all hands are on deck for the Hawks, key frontliners Al Horford (shoulder) and Josh Smith (knee) have missed games lately and might be hitting the postseason at something less than 100%. But Atlanta doesn’t appear to be at too much of a disadvantage vs. a Pacers team that seemed to tire in the last few weeks, especially high-scoring swingman Paul George, who played almost as many minutes this season (2972) as in his first two campaigns combined (3222). Guard George Hill has also been laboring in recent weeks with a strained groin. The Pacers’ defense, airtight for most of the season as it jockeyed with Memphis for least points allowed, surrendered 100 points or more in five of its last eight. Trends to note: The teams spilt their four regular-season meetings, with the home side winning each game. The Pacers were 25-16 vs. the line at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but dropped their last five spread decisions as host. Odds to watch: Indiana’s shortest win price for series length is five games (11/5), which would be the Pacers’ earliest chance to sew up the series at home. Those who think Atlanta can clinch as host at Philips Arena in Game Six can get a 6/1 price. TGS forecast: We suspect that whichever team advances in this round goes out in the conference semis, so these two should enjoy the postseason while they can. No surprise at all if the reg.-season homecourt series trend holds up throughout the entirety of this playoff series. Pacers in 7

Chicago (5) vs. Brooklyn (4)...For those looking at postseason experience as a potential difference in a first-round matchup, we offer the playoff-savvy Bulls vs. the new-look Nets, who have little postseason pedigree. So if that experience means anything, it could be advantage Chicago. Although the Bulls would gladly trade some of that experience to get Derrick Rose healthy and back on the floor; since that doesn’t appear likely, HC Tom Thibodeau will have to settle for Joakim Noah returning to active duty after his recent foot injury. Before dismissing the Bulls, consider that without Rose they beat Brooklyn three times in four meetings this season (two of those after the late-December coaching switch in Brooklyn from Avery Johnson to P.J. Carlesimo), and in the last few weeks have ended long win streaks by both the Heat and Knicks at the United Center. While he’s not Rose, the emergence of ex-Marquette big guard Jimmy Butler in the second half of the season was a significant development for Thibodeau. Trends to note: As mentioned, the Bulls beat the Nets three of four this season, including a recent 92-90 win on Aprl 4 at Barclays Center. The Nets proceeded to win six of their next seven to close the season. As for Chicago, it was a subpar 13-28 vs. the spread at United Center, but most of those failures came as a heavier favorite; in games where the Bulls were underdogs or laying 3 ½ or less at home, they were 8-6 against the line. "Totals" alert for Brooklyn and its 15-4 "over" binge its last 19 overall. Odds to watch: Most seem to be expecting a competitive series; the price to go “over” 5 ½ games is a prohibitive -200. TGS forecast: While Carlesimo deserves props for straightening out what was an unraveling Nets situation in late December, we have never thought Brooklyn had the look of a team to make a deep run in the spring. Neither, for that matter, do the Bulls minus Rose, but Thibodeau has done a masterful job steering through the injuries, and the core of Chicago’s team has been here before. A mild upset in this matchup would not surprise at all. Bulls in 6

WESTERN CONFERENCE: Houston (8) vs. Oklahoma City (1)...Whereas the consensus among most observers is that Miami will have the easiest time of all of the top contenders in the first round in its expected mauling of the Bucks, we suggest that Ok City might even wrought more damage upon an outmanned Houston side that was obliterated in its first two games vs. the Thunder this season. Houston’s preferred uptempo pace plays into the hands of the Thunder, who will gladly engage any team in a full-court game, and Rockets HC Kevin McHale has been trying to slow the pace somewhat in the last half of the season. The Rockets, however, are not hitting the postseason with much momentum (2-4 SU and 1-5 vs. line last six), and blew a chance at being seeded sixth or seventh in the West by losing at the Suns and Lakers earlier this week. Houston would have much rather seen San Antonio than face Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Trends to note: Ok City offered better big-point value than Miami this season, especially at home in the Chesapeake Energy Arena when covering 25 of 36 chances laying 6 ½ or more. Ok City won the season series 2-1 over the Rockets, with its wins by 22 and 30 points prior to New Year’s before dropping a 3-point decision at Toyota Center in the first game out of the All-Star break. Ok City had covered 17 of its last 25 before HC Scott Brooks subbed liberally in the final two reg.-season games. Also note the Thunder’s curious evolution into an “under” team (14-4 last 18) down the stretch. Odds to watch: Thhose who like an Ok City sweep are better off playing the number of games series odds at four (23/10), which offers a slightly better payout than a Thunder sweep at 21/10. TGS forecast: Looks like a mismatch to us. Thunder in 4

LA Lakers (7) vs. San Antonio (2)...It’s amazing how many observers give the Lakers a puncher’s chance in this one, even without Kobe Bryant, who is out with a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Lakers, however, bravely beat the Spurs and Rockets without Kobe to close the regular season and clinch a playoff berth, part of a season-ending 8-1 SU run by the Lake Show. While we don’t believe LA is better without Kobe, in the short term his impact could be minimized with other capable weapons such as Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol now not having to look over their shoulders and wonder what the insufferable Bryant might be thinking, and of course there will be better sharing of the ball in the 4th Q without the Mamba taking almost every Laker shot. Knowing something about sport, we suspect the remaining Lakers are enjoying the chance to play without Kobe. Still, LA was hitting less than 40% from the floor in its last two games minus Bryant, Steve Blake is not to be counted upon to produce as he did in the final couple of games, and Howard’s free-throw inadequacies can resurface at any time. The Spurs cooled down the stretch, and there were rumors of some internal discord after HC Gregg Popovich released the popular Stephen Jackson within the last week, replacing him with Tracy McGrady on the roster. Some also wonder about all of the lineup juggling Coach Pop did over the past month in order to have his troops healthy for the playoffs; have the Spurs sacrificed some continuity? At least almost all important hands (save Boris Diaw) are back on deck for the Spurs after Manu Ginobili made it back from a hamstring injury at the end of the regular season. Trends to note: San Antonio lost 7 of its last 11 SU to close the regular season, and the Lake Show won 8 of its last 9. The Lakers won only 1 of 3 regular-season meetings, however, and were just 4-15 SU vs. the top five West seeds in the regular season. Odds to watch: The price has been posted lower than any other first-round set to go “over” 5 ½ games, which can fetch a +110. TGS forecast: While the Kobe-less Lakers intrigue a bit, especially with the Spurs struggling a bit, we doubt SA is going to get into serious trouble in this series. Popovich, after all, has bested Miks D’Antoni in past playoffs when the Spurs didn’t have a manpower and depth edge. Spurs in 5

Golden State (6) vs. Denver (3)...Of course, the Nuggets are one of the top storylines entering the postseason thanks to their 23-game SU win streak at Pepsi Center (last home loss on Jan. 18 vs. the Wizards). All part of a breathless surge by the Nuggets since mid-December, when they were sitting at 11-12; they finished 46-13 SU thereafter. Although there is injury concern with sharpshooting F Danilo Gallinari out with a knee injury, George Karl was able to navigate through several health-related absences on his roster this season due to improved depth at his disposal. And PG Ty Lawson looks okay after a recent heel injury, although Karl has excellent cover at the point in vet Andre Miller. We suppose the Warriors have a puncher’s chance, especially with bombs-away G Steph Curry having set a league three-point record, and Mark Jackson’s side has had a more-functional look all season after adding useful vets Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack in the offseason. But can the Warriors really win a game in Denver? Trends to note: Denver has not only won the aforementioned 23 in a row SU at home, it is 28-13 vs. the spread at Pepsi Center. The Warriors enter the playoffs having won and covered 10 of their last 15. Denver won and covered 3 of 4 reg.-season meetings, although all but one of those was played before December, and the most-recent meeting took place on Jan. 13. Odds to watch: The last time the Warriors were in the playoffs back in 2007, Baron Davis-Monta Ellis-led side, as an 8 seed, shocked the top seed Mavs in six games; a repeat of that ‘07 shocker in six is fetching a 15/2 price. Not enough value by us. Denver series game win prices in a sweep (4/1) and five games (9/5) seem more realistic; if you think homecourt holds for every game in this series (and we don’t), Denver is 7/2 to win in seven games. TGS forecast: The Nuggets can end this one rather early by winning just once in Oakland; we doubt the Warriors break through at Pepsi Center. Nuggets in 5

Memphis (5) vs. LA Clippers (4)...There are a lot of teams around the league that would rather not look at Memphis if possible in the postseason; from what we hear, the Grizzlies are the one team in the West that Miami would rather not deal with if the Heat reach the finale. The reason is that the Grizzlies provide some real fundamental matchup issues for many foes simply because of the presence of their rugged bigs Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, which provide all sorts of matchup headaches. Midseason addition Tayshaun Prince has lots of length and is another potential matchup problem for foes. All of that and the NBA’s stingiest scoring defense (only 89 ppg). Unfortunately for the Ggriz, the one team they don’t want to necessarily see in the playoffs was the Clips, whose Blake Griffin (make sure he’s at 100% after recently tweaking his back)-DeAndre Jordan frontline has matched up well in the past vs. Gasol & Z-Bo, while Memphis G Mike Conley has had all sorts of trouble keeping up with Chris Paul. And the LA bench, led by Jamal Crawford, has been big plus for Vinny Del Negro all season. Indeed, the Clips seemed a step quicker across the court in head-to-head matchups, three of four won by LA during the regular season. Trends to note: This is a rematch of last season’s memorable first-round encounter won by the Clips in seven, when LA prevailed twice on the road, rallying from 27 down to win Game One and then stealing Game Seven as the visitor. In fact, there hasn’t been a lot of homecourt edge lately between these two, with the road team winning three of four SU this season and six of the last eleven counting the playoff series last spring. But the Clips did win that series last spring and took 3 of 4 this season, including both games on the road at FedEx Forum. Odds to watch: Competitively-priced series on par with Brooklyn-Chicago, with it costing -200 if you like the series to at least reach six games. TGS forecast: We think this ends up looking a lot like last year’s series, complete with a couple of wins for the road teams. With a healthy Griffin, however, the Clips can stand up to Gasol & Randolph on the blocks, and Paul’s edge over Conley ought to allow the Clips to advance. But it won’t be easy. Clippers in 7

Return To Home Page