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NBA playoffs: First-round previews

The back-to-back-to-backs are mercifully over, though the back-to-backs may not be.

The NBA playoffs could include games on consecutive days in the conference semifinals for the first time since 1999, the last time teams had to endure the vagaries of a lockout-shortened season.

That was the year the eighth-seeded New York Knicks made it all the way to the Finals before succumbing in a game of two on 12, with Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell unable to sprout clones to help combat the considerably deeper San Antonio Spurs.

Similar upsets seem most likely this season in the deep Western Conference, where the defending champion and still formidable Dallas Mavericks dropped to — gulp — seventh in the standings.

Contrast that with the East, where Chicago and Miami are so much better than their first-round opponents that they should receive byes into the conference semifinals.

A breakdown of the Western and Eastern conference matchups:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. San Antonio vs 8. Utah

San Antonio 50-16 (Home: 28-5; Road: 22-11)

8. Utah 36-30 (Home: 25-8; Road 11-22)

Season series: San Antonio, 3-1.

Key stat: For all the talk of the supposedly decrepit Spurs, the average age of their primary starters is only 27.6 years old versus the Jazz’s 27.4.

Outlook: Kudos to the Jazz for rebuilding so quickly given such drastic turnover in personnel — and coaching, for that matter. One season after Utah said goodbye to Jerry Sloan, Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko, making the playoffs is quite an accomplishment. Too bad it will be such a short stay against a San Antonio team determined to avoid another first-round flop.

Prediction: The only thing keeping this from being a San Antonio sweep is the boost the Jazz receives from a raucous home court. Spurs in five.

2. Oklahoma City vs. 7. Dallas

Oklahoma City 47-19 (Home: 26-7; Road: 21-12)

Dallas 36-30 (Home: 23-10; Road 13-20)

Season series: Oklahoma City, 3-1.

Key stat: Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to average 51.6 points per game, more than any other duo in the NBA.

Outlook: OK, so the Thunder hasn’t been playing its best of late. OK, so James Harden might be a little woozy in the wake of that unexpected run-in with Metta World Peace’s elbow. It won’t matter because the Mavericks have been a season-long disappointment and don’t match up well with the dynamic Thunder.

Prediction: The defending NBA champion Mavericks might win a game or two for old time’s sake, but this series belongs to the youngsters. Thunder in six.

3. Lakers vs. 6. Denver

Lakers 41-25 (Home: 26-7; Road: 15-18)

Denver 38-28 (Home: 20-13; Road 18-15)

Season series: Lakers, 3-1.

Key stat: The ageless Kobe Bryant (he’s allegedly 33) averaged 27.9 points and came within a whisker of winning a third scoring title, allowing him to shake off the occasional clunker like his six-for-28 embarrassment onNew Year’s Day in Denver.

Outlook: World Peace will miss the first six games of the series — should it go that far — after pulling a Ron Artest in the Lakers’ penultimate regular-season game. In most instances, that would figure to give the Nuggets an advantage. Not so much given that Denver has no stars and the Lakers are simply the better team.

Prediction: Even with World Peace relegated to a non-factor outside of the occasional rogue tweet, this series figures to be as one-sided as the enigmatic forward’s defense of his inexplicable elbow to the head of Harden. Lakers in five.

4. Memphis vs 5. Clippers

Memphis 41-25 (Home: 26-7; Road: 15-18)

Clippers 40-26 (Home: 24-9; Road 16-17)

Season series: Clippers, 2-1.

Key stat: As many as four home games in the series for the Grizzlies, who capitalized on the Clippers’ late-season fade to gain homecourt advantage.

Outlook: This is where the loss of Chauncey Billups will once again make Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro cringe. Without the savvy playoff veteran, the Clippers could find themselves adrift against an opponent with a recent history of postseason success (see top-seeded San Antonio, 2011). Getting forward Zach Randolph back from a lengthy layoff caused by a knee injury has given the Grizzlies even more bite.

Prediction: This figures to be one of the most intriguing — and competitive — first-round series in the playoffs. Memphis in six.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Chicago vs. 8. Philadelphia

Chicago 50-16 (Home: 26-7; Road: 24-9)

Philadelphia 35-31 (Home: 19-14; Road 16-17)

Season series: Chicago, 2-1.

Key stat: Philadelphia has gone 15-22 since it was 11 games over .500 in mid-February.

Outlook: The 76ers were a pleasant surprise for the season’s first two months before reality set in. With plenty of solid but unspectacular players and a locker room that doesn’t seem cohesive (witness Andre Iguodala’s take on Lou Williams: “He can’t guard anybody. I don’t get that.”), maybe it’s no surprise this team was such a late-season dud. Chicago, on the other hand, has been on a season-long roll, even with injuries limiting star Derrick Rose to 39 games.

Prediction: This is the closest thing the NBA has to a No. 1 seed vs. a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. Bulls in four.

2. Miami vs. 7. New York

Miami 46-20 (Home: 28-5; Road: 18-15)

New York 36-30 (Home: 22-11; Road 14-19)

Season series: Miami, 3-0.

Key stat: Miami superstar LeBron James has made a career-best 53.1% of his shots and 36.2% of his three-pointers on the way to what could be a third most-valuable-player award.

Outlook: New York made a nice late-season run amid adverse circumstances, going 18-6 since Mike Woodson replaced Mike D’Antoni as coach and 12-5 since point guard sensation Jeremy Lin injured his left knee. That might bode well for 2012-13 should Woodson be retained, but it won’t mean much over the next 10 days. Miami’s James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh still make this the basketball equivalent of theU.S. military vs. Andorra.

Prediction: Inspired by the Madison Square Garden crowd and former Knicks great Walt Frazier’s dapper duds, New York will win a home game before talent quickly prevails. Heat in five.

3. Indiana vs. 6. Orlando

Indiana 42-24 (Home: 23-10; Road: 19-14)

Orlando 37-29 (Home: 21-12; Road 16-17)

Season series: Orlando, 3-1.

Key stat: Orlando center Dwight Howard will play zero games in this series after having surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back.

Outlook: Indiana’s approach could be described as no stars, just talent. The Pacers have five players averaging double figures in scoring but lack a Kobe Bryant-like closer for critical situations. There doesn’t figure to be a need for last-minute heroics against a Magic team missing Howard, who played in all four regular-season meetings.

Prediction: The Magic will go poof without putting up much of a fight, probably precipitating the ouster of embattled Coach Stan Van Gundy. Pacers in five.

4. Boston vs. 5. Atlanta

Boston 39-27 (Home: 24-9; Road: 15-18)

Atlanta 40-26 (Home: 23-10; Road 17-16)

Season series: Boston, 2-1.

Key stat: One final playoff run for Boston’s Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen before Garnett and Allen become free agents this summer.

Outlook: The Hawks, who have lost in the conference semifinals in each of the last three years, again appear to possess a team built for the regular season. Often overlooked forward Josh Smith will need to supplement Joe Johnson’s scoring punch for Atlanta to have a chance. Hawks point guard Jeff Teague also must keep dynamic counterpart Rajon Rondo from making things too easy for the Celtics.

Prediction: After winning seven-game series against the Hawks in 2008 and 1988, the Celtics will continue to be a haunting presence. Celtics in seven.


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