Let's get it started...
1. L.A. Lakers (65-17) v. 8. Utah Jazz (48-34)
Season Series: L.A. won, 2-1
Utah hasn't been right all season. For most of the year, they were marred by injuries—specifically to Carlos Boozer (missed 45 games), but also Andrei Kirilenko (15 games), Deron Williams (14 games), and Mehmet Okur (10 games).
As for the Lakers—I mean, wow. They have the most talented team in the league by far. Lately, Shannon Brown, acquired from the Bobcats near the trade deadline in the deal that sent away Vladimir Radmanovic, has been stealing minutes from Jordan Farmar—just another good player for the Lakers, as if they needed any more.
I agree with Charles Barkley - if the Lakers don't win the championship this season, it ain't happening. Think about it: What would make the Lakers win a championship in the next five years that won't allow them to win it this year? Better players? There hasn't been an NBA team this stacked in more than 20 years.
The Lakers beat the Jazz in the playoffs last year without Bynum - and right now Utah isn't playing nearly as well as they played last year. Actually, they seem like they are ready to implode, the same way that the Nuggets did as the Lake Show was sweeping them in the first round last year.
Verdict: Lakers in four.
Season series: 2-2
I really like this Denver team. It's amazing what Chauncey Billups has done with them. Simply put, he's made them more grown up. And as they head into the playoffs, a team that has lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last five years finally has itself a leader—the kind of leader any team could use. Kudos, Mr. Big Shot. We salute what you do.
Carmelo Anthony had some injuries this season—a broken wrist, a bad elbow—the latter likely the cause for his field goal percentage dipping five points, from 49 to only 44. Still, though, he can score the ball with the best of them, and is an improved all-around player.
As far as the Hornets go, aren't they a two-man team at this point? It's an excellent tandem to have—David West was terrific in April, averaging a 24-9 on 52 percent shooting, and he's a bulldog, too. And Chris Paul is the best 6'1"-and under player who ever lived.
I see Paul and West, two super-competitive guys, throwing up a 30-15 and a 25-10, respectively, in this series - and it still won't be enough.
Verdict: Nuggets in six.
Season series: 2-2
In the past, Dallas matched up well with San Antonio. But that was when Dallas was good. Then again, San Antonio isn't what they once were, either - not with Manu Ginobili out for the year and Tim Duncan's knees aching, God bless his soul.
These guys had a great run.
Verdict: Mavericks in six.
Season series: Houston 2-1
Probably the toughest first round matchup to call:
On the one hand, Portland has more talent. That's obvious. Brandon Roy is one of the 10 best players in the league; LaMarcus Aldridge is the re-birth of the Portland-era Rasheed Wallace, minus the techs; Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw are outstanding off the bench; and Batum, Blake, Sergio Rodriguez, and the "Vanilla Gorilla" Joel Przybilla are excellent role players.
They also have the best home-court advantage in the league.
But here's what they don't have: any playoff experience whatsoever by any serviceable player other than Blake.
Houston, on the other hand, is a veteran team with a veteran coach and playoff experience, if not the good kind (they always lose in the first round). Yao is unstoppable on the low-block, and they play defense, and they play well together.
It's impossible to predict how this Portland team will perform in their first playoff appearance, but here's my best prognostication: They will win their first three games at home. So will Houston. Then, in Game Seven, in a close game, right at the end, Portland will play like a team that has never been in such a situation before.
That is the way it goes.
Verdict: Houston in seven.