Story line: Miami went out and added Kyle Lowry to the mix last summer, pairing him with Jimmy Butler and an array of shooters with an eye on contending for a title. So far, so good, but the Heat season won’t be measured by anything that happened in the regular season. Atlanta already has won a pair of Game 7-type games, topping Charlotte and then winning at Cleveland in the play-in tournament to earn the No. 8 seed. Clint Capela’s knee injury is going to be a major question for the Hawks, who have also been without John Collins. The Hawks have won 19 of their last 28 games so they should be brimming with confidence. The Heat have been resting for a week, a fortunate time for them since they were without center Bam Adebayo while he was in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
Key matchup: Lowry vs. Trae Young. Atlanta’s point guard is explosive and showed last season — and again in the second half against the Cavaliers — that the postseason lights aren’t too bright for him. Lowry has the savvy of a point guard who has led his team to a championship and the Heat need him to play with that poise.
Prediction: Heat in 6.
No. 2 BOSTON CELTICS (51-31) vs. No. 7 BROOKLYN NETS (44-38)
Season series: Celtics, 3-1.
Story line: Boston and Brooklyn meet for the second straight season, though this time with opposite seedings. The Celtics shook off a rough start and surged to the Atlantic Division title behind Jayson Tatum’s scoring and a rock-solid defense, while the Nets are a dangerous team with the explosive scoring of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Key matchup: Marcus Smart vs. Irving. Irving can get hot as quickly as anybody in the NBA with his ballhandling and deep shooting, as he showed while making his first 12 shots in the Nets’ play-in victory over Cleveland. But in Smart, the Celtics have one of the league’s toughest defensive guards, possibly good enough to win dyefensive player of the year honors.
No. 3 MILWAUKEE BUCKS (51-31) vs. No. 6 CHICAGO BULLS (46-36)
Season series: Bucks, 4-0.
Story line: The defending champion Bucks will play their closest rival in Round 1, with Milwaukee and Chicago separated by only about 90 miles. Reigning NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo found a new level in last season’s playoffs, and now Milwaukee begins the task of trying to go back-to-back. The Bulls were 28-15 when the Bucks’ Grayson Allen took out Chicago’s Alex Caruso on a play at the rim, causing the Bulls guard to break his wrist. The Bulls went 18-21 the rest of the way, playing without Caruso for much of those contests.
Key matchup: Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton vs. Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan. Both are good enough to simply take over games on their own, and the Bulls need DeRozan to be great in this series to have a chance.
Prediction: Bucks in 5.
No. 4 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (51-31) vs. No. 5 TORONTO RAPTORS (48-34)
Story line: Philadelphia won’t have standout defender Matisse Thybulle available for the games in Toronto because of his vaccination status and Canadian rules when it comes to the virus. That will obviously not help the 76ers’ cause. The Raptors don’t have someone who can stop Joel Embiid, because nobody does, but Philly’s big man might have to be exceptional in this series. Raptors coach Nick Nurse proved during Toronto’s run to the 2019 title that he’s not afraid to take risks. Expect some.
Key matchup: Philadelphia’s James Harden vs. Toronto’s Fred VanVleet. They are the dominant guards, they are the quarterbacks, and they will likely dictate how things go for both clubs.
Prediction: Raptors in 7.
No. 1 PHOENIX SUNS (64-18) vs. No. 8 NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (36-46).
Season series: Suns, 3-1.
Story line: After the best regular season in franchise history and by far the best one in the league this season, the Suns begin the playoffs again searching for their first NBA title. They were two wins away last season before the Milwaukee Bucks rallied with four straight wins. Willie Green was an assistant to Monty Williams on that Suns team before becoming the coach of the Pelicans and taking them from a dismal start to their first postseason appearance since 2018.
Key matchup: Devin Booker and Chris Paul vs. Herbert Jones and Jose Alvarado. The Pelicans will try a pair of rookies in hopes of slowing the Suns’ All-Star backcourt. New Orleans didn’t stop much of anyone against Phoenix this season, with the Suns averaging 117 points on 51% shooting.
Story line: A pair of great stories collide in Round 1. Memphis’ season defied most expectations, probably by a wide margin, and it wasn’t just all Ja Morant all the time, either. The Grizzlies were great for long stretches even without him. The Timberwolves started 4-9 and were still under .500 in mid-January, but have been flying ever since. And the emotional win over the Los Angeles Clippers in the play-in game surely did nothing but help Minnesota’s belief.
Key matchup: Morant vs. Minnesota’s Patrick Beverley. A budding superstar vs. a veteran pest, and Beverley wears that title with pride. It would be very fun to listen to, and will be nearly as much fun to watch.
Prediction: Grizzlies in 6.
No. 3 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (53-29) vs. No. 6 DENVER NUGGETS (48-34)
Season series: Nuggets, 3-1.
Story line: The current (and possibly repeat) MVP in Denver’s Nikola Jokic leads his team against former MVP Stephen Curry and the Warriors. Curry is ready to go for Game 1, albeit on a minutes restriction as he comes back from a bone bruise in his foot. Denver had a fantastic season considering it was without Jamal Murray and, for much of the year, Michael Porter Jr. The Warriors had injury issues as well, but have Curry back and Klay Thompson set to finally appear in a playoff game again.
Key matchup: Jokic vs. Golden State’s Draymond Green. Elite offensive player vs. elite defender. Green will relish this challenge. So will Jokic.
Prediction: Warriors in 6.
No. 4 DALLAS MAVERICKS (52-30) vs. No. 5 UTAH JAZZ (49-33)
Season series: Tied, 2-2.
Story line: Luka Doncic’s strained calf is the enormous question for Dallas entering this series. Unclear if he’ll play in Game 1, and if he does, it’s also unclear how effective he’ll be. The Jazz were 26-9 at one point this season but have looked mortal since, particularly down the stretch, losing seven of their last 11 games. Talent hasn’t been the question in Utah. Chemistry has, and what happens in this series might say a lot about what Utah does going forward.
Key matchup: Dallas’ shooters vs. Utah’s Rudy Gobert. If Dallas doesn’t make 3’s, the Jazz will let one of the world’s best rim protectors in Gobert hang out around the basket and disrupt drives. If Dallas makes shots, Gobert gets pulled away from the basket. That would be a huge plus for the Mavs.
Prediction: If Doncic isn’t seriously injured, Mavericks in 7.
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