It's been another wild season in the NBA, with several of the teams in both conferences having to wait until the final day of the season to find out where and when they will be playing in the postseason.
With the NBA's second season getting underway this afternoon, it will be interesting to see how some of the top teams in the league fare with some of their key players missing due to injury.
Here's how I think the first round will shake out, in the first part of my playoff predictions.
Few will forget what LeBron James did to the Pistons about two years ago when these same teams met in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals.
In a game-five double-overtime thriller in Detroit, LeBron scored 25 of Cleveland's final 29 points on his way to a 48-point night and a 3-2 comeback series advantage over the highly-experienced Pistons.
Fortunately for the Cavs, they're unlikely to need any superhuman effort whatsoever from James in order to dispatch the Pistons this time around.
A number one seed for the first time in team history, Cleveland has too many weapons all over the floor for the Pistons to be able to handle.
Cleveland can score from the outside with the likes of Mo Williams, Daniel Gibson, and Delonte West, as well as on the inside with Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Tayshaun Prince is a very good defender, but isn't nearly strong enough to be able to stop James on his own.
However, the main problem for the Pistons will be trying to find a way to score on the Cavs' defense.
Diminutive point guard Will Bynum has been nothing short of a hero for the Pistons since being signed from the NBADL, and he provides a nice scoring spark from that position. Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, and Prince have all sorts of playoff experience, which is really all the Pistons have going for them at this point.
In the end, I think the combination of the Cavaliers' elite defense to go along with their offensive firepower makes them too tough for Detroit to handle. Cleveland went 39-2 at home this season, and isn't likely to drop a game at the Q in this series.
Cleveland wins this series four games to one.
The Boston Celtics ultimate playoff hopes may have been dealt a severe blow today with the news that Kevin Garnett could be out for the entire postseason with his knee injury.
However, it's unlikely to hinder their opportunity to reach at least the second round.
The Bulls had been playing some of their best basketball of the season going into last night's home game against the lowly Raptors, where, if Chicago managed to win, they would've been seeded sixth to face Orlando in the first round. However, the Bulls apparently didn't show up to play and now will face the defending champs in round one.
While it'll be tough for the Bulls to win the series, they should be able to give Boston a decent run. The Celtics didn't exactly light the world on fire at the beginning of last year's playoffs either, with their first two series each going seven games.
The Celtics took the season series from the Bulls two games to one, but Chicago won their most recent matchup in mid-March.
One of Chicago's main problems at the beginning of this season had been lack of interior scoring and defense. With Garnett's status in doubt and the midseason trade that brought in seven-footer Brad Miller, the Bulls main disadvantage may actually be perimeter matchups.
It'll be interesting to see how the Bulls decide to defend Paul Pierce, who, at 6'8" and 240, has a size advantage over most of the players Chicago can throw at him. Long-armed Luol Deng is likely the most advantageous matchup for the Bulls, but he is out of the lineup for Chicago with an injury to his right tibia. With the absence of Garnett, however, the Bulls may have the opportunity to put the athletic Tyrus Thomas on Pierce.
One very, very interesting matchup will be between two of the East's up-and-coming point guards, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo. They're comparable in size, and both possess above-average quickness that allows them to get to the rim with relative ease. Rose is by far the more polished offensive player, but Rondo has a knack for doing the right thing with the ball. Both are good on-the-ball defenders, so it will be very interesting to see how they can stop one another.
I think the Celtics are good enough to win despite the absence of Garnett on the inside on both ends of the court. Chicago has enough talent to take a couple of games, though.
I think the Celtics will win it in six games.
The Magic have been reeling a bit of late, having dropped several games to non-playoff teams in recent weeks, but the team could benefit from the rest given to the starters in the last couple of games of the regular season.
Philadelphia comes in off a hard-fought overtime victory against the Cavaliers B-team Wednesday night to earn the right to play Orlando in the first round.
The Sixers have come a long way without their prime free agent acquisition this past offseason, Elton Brand, who has missed the majority of the season with a shoulder injury.
Without Brand, the Sixers will have to use Samuel Dalembert and Reggie Evans as prime defenders against Dwight Howard inside for Orlando.
Dalembert is tall and lanky, and Evans is shorter but stronger. Howard is essentially both of these bodies put together. This doesn't bode too well for the 76ers.
Howard's interior dominance combined with the superior three-point shooting of the Magic will likely be too much for Philadelphia to handle. The 76ers have the advantage at point guard with Andre Miller as opposed to Rafer Alston, but everything else is either close to a wash or a plus for Orlando.
Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis are both 6'10" and matchup nightmares for opposing defenses with their ability to stretch the defense and shoot from the perimeter at very high percentages, respectively.
This helps clear out the middle of the floor, giving Howard more room to operate without a double team coming in time to help.
The 76ers could possibly win one game, but I think it's more likely for the Magic to sweep them out in four.
In my opinion, the Heat-Hawks series is clearly the most intriguing of all four Eastern Conference first round series.
The up-and-coming Hawks have very quietly risen toward the top of the East this season, getting solid production out of all five starters, as well as from a few key parts off the bench.
The Heat, on the other hand, have risen from the cellar of the East and sit in the fifth spot, with a majority of their production coming from their Olympic gold medalist and MVP candidate Dwyane Wade.
Wade led the league in scoring during the regular season at just over 30 points per game. The 6'4" guard also averaged five rebounds and almost eight assists a night, often times almost single-handedly keeping Miami afloat.
Atlanta made lots of noise in last year's postseason, taking the number one seed and eventual champion Celtics to seven games in their first round series.
They key for the Hawks is the home-court advantage. Atlanta was 31-10 at home this season, while Miami was just 15-26 on the road.
While the Heat have some big named big men like Jermaine O'Neal and Michael Beasley, neither of them is likely playing at a high enough level to really punish the Hawks on the inside. Second-year forward Al Horford for Atlanta has continued to develop and is becoming a very reliable option down low.
Combine that with the outside scoring of Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby, with the athleticism and shot-blocking ability of Josh Smith and the Hawks are a very formidable foe for the Heat in this series.
Dwyane Wade is without question going to be the best player on the floor in this series all the way through, but I don't think he'll have enough help to take down the Hawks.
I think Atlanta wins this series in seven games.
The Utah Jazz picked the worst time of the season to play some of their worst basketball.
The Jazz lost home games to conference bottom-feeders Minnesota and Golden State in the last two weeks of the season, all but ensuring them with a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers.
With the return of Andrew Bynum, the Lakers (65-17) are at full-strength heading into the playoffs, where they're looking to make their second consecutive appearance in the Finals.
The Jazz are at full strength as well, after not having All-Star power forward Carlos Boozer for much of the season with an injury to his left knee.
Prior to the season, Utah was a trendy pick amongst experts to finish at the top of the Western Conference, with a good chance of winning the first championship in franchise history.
However, it appears that with their sluggish play during the last two weeks of the season, Utah's quest for that first title may end before it really has a chance to begin.
Los Angeles is arguably the deepest and most talented team in the league, with weapons all over the floor.
Kobe Bryant is the most dominating perimeter scorer in the league today, and the Lakers also boast a pair of seven-footers in Pau Gasol and Bynum that will be very difficult for Utah to match-up with on the inside.
The Jazz are amongst the best home teams in the league, but the Lakers are by far the best road team, with a record of 29-12 away from Staples.
Deron Williams should be able to have his way with the smaller guards that he'll be matched up against, but Los Angeles will just have too many playmakers across the board that the Jazz won't likely be able to contain.
I think the Lakers will win this series in five games.
The Nuggets-Hornets series is an intriguing matchup between teams that were expected by many to finish in opposite positions.
After an early season trade sent Allen Iverson to Detroit in exchange for Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets have taken off, surprising many with a Northwest Division title and the number two overall seed in the mighty Western Conference.
The Hornets, like so many other teams out West, have been battling injury problems to many of their top players all season long. This has made it difficult for New Orleans to play with any real stability or consistency at all this season, and now the Hornets face a daunting matchup with Denver in the first round.
There's no question that Billups' return to his hometown was the most important key for the Nuggets this season. Billups brings endless playoff experience, along with gritty defensive play on the perimeter, as well as his reputation of being a cold-blooded late-game player. He's a winner, and the centerpiece of the team along with the versatile Carmelo Anthony.
Anthony has fallen behind the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in terms of being a real superstar from the 2003 draft class, but the 2008-09 season has been arguably Melo's best as a professional. The 24-year-old averaged 23 points and about eight rebounds a game this season, and stepped up his effort on defense immensely. Anthony is a rare player with a superb post game to go along with an almost flawless perimeter offensive game. At 6'8", he's another player that opposing defenses will have a tough time defending anywhere on the floor.
The emergence of Chris "Birdman" Andersen and uber-talented guard JR Smith along with the return of Nene inside makes the Nuggets a very dangerous team.
While New Orleans struggled throughout the season, there is still plenty to like about their chances. Their unquestioned leader is 23-year-old Chris Paul, who is already the hands-down best point guard in the entire league. He's an absolute playmaker that is essentially unstoppable. He's listed at just 6'0", but still averaged 23 points, 11 assists, and almost three steals per game this season. He also averages nearly six rebounds per game, which is astonishing considering his size.
The Hornets also signed swingman James Posey this past offseason from the Celtics, a perfect player to match up with a player like Carmelo Anthony. Posey is 6'8" and an aggressive defender that has had success keeping opposing players off-balance and uncomfortable with his defense.
This is a series that has the potential to go either way, but I think the Nuggets will end up taking advantage of their mismatches inside, and should have an important edge on the boards.
I think it'll be a very competitive, well-played series, with Denver taking it in seven.
The Spurs and Mavericks have met several times in the playoffs in recent years, but this time around there's a different flavor to it.
The four-time champion Spurs were thrilled to earn the number three seed and a chance to avoid the Lakers until potentially the Conference Finals, but they'll have to get there without sixth man Manu Ginobili, who is done for the season with a stress fracture in his leg.
The Mavericks are coming into the playoffs playing their best basketball of the season, and were able to sneak into the number six position in the West on the last night of the season with a home win over Houston. Future-Hall-of-Fame point guard Jason Kidd has finally appeared to find his groove in Rick Carlisle's system, and has quietly had a great season for the Mavs. Dirk Nowitzki was fourth in the league in scoring this season at about 26 per game, and at times can be unstoppable from anywhere on the floor.
Both teams are entering the postseason with lots of confidence. They split the season series, with each team winning one of the games on the other's home court.
New acquisition Roger Mason has filled in decently for Ginobili, but he doesn't have the same ability to slash through the defense for easy baskets that has made Manu such a valuable asset for the Spurs' recent championship runs.
However, Tony Parker has had an MVP-type season, and has become arguably the most dangerous offensive point guard off the dribble in the entire league. He's insanely quick and it will be very, very difficult for the aging Kidd to be able to keep him out of the paint, where Parker is at peak effectiveness offensively.
Tim Duncan has started to play very well again, and always seems to save his best for playoff time, when it matters most.
This will be a very entertaining series between the rivals. Both teams are fairly evenly-matched and have oodles of playoff experience up and down the rosters. Both teams have deadly shooters (Jason Terry for Dallas and Mason for San Antonio), dominating big men (Dirk and Duncan), and experienced, talented point guards (Kidd, Parker).
I think the ultimate key to the series will be how the teams are able to perform and execute in late-game situations. Both teams had late-game victories in the last week of the season, and have several options to choose from to take a potential last shot.
I think the ability of Parker to slash into the lane and either finish himself or kick it to an open shooter is something that helps set San Antonio apart from the Mavericks, and I think he'll ultimately lead the Spurs to a seven-game series win over their in-state rivals.
This Rockets-Blazers series is perhaps even more interesting than the others.
On one hand, you have the NBA's second-youngest team, Portland, who many expected not to become a legitimate contender until at least next year at the earliest. However, the Nate McMillan's squad is playing their best ball of the season at just the right time.
They're led by third-year guard Brandon Roy, a 24-year-old that is mature far beyond his years. He's the unquestioned leader of the team, and GM Kevin Pritchard has done an exceptional job of surrounding him with immense young talent up and down the roster. Roy's most notable sidekick is the 6'11" LaMarcus Aldridge, a player with great range for his size and perfect shooting touch around the basket.
On the other hand, you have the Rockets. They're a team that was basically written off after losing Tracy McGrady for the season, as well as trading away starting point guard Rafer Alston in exchange for 22-year-old backup Kyle Lowry.
However, Houston has responded quite well to the critics, having recorded one of the best records in the league since the All-Star break. The key for the Rockets has been maintaining a healthy roster down the stretch, something that has been a well-documented issue for them over the past couple of seasons. Yao Ming is the anchor in the middle, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds this season.
Yao has had plenty of help with the absence of McGrady, from the likes of players like Ron Artest, Aaron Brooks, and Luis Scola. Houston is one of the deeper teams in the league, and run up to 11 players deep.
Don't expect much runnin-n-gunnin in this series, as these are two teams that like to slow it down and play half-court offense.
The Rockets will have to find a way to get their big man the ball, as the Blazers bigs are likely to be fronting Yao in the post, denying him the ball. It's been a problem all season for the Rockets, and if they can't find a way to get Yao involoved regularly on that low block, they will be in big trouble in this series.
One major advantage Portland has over Houston is the presence of a late-game closer. Brandon Roy is as clutch as any player in the league, and his abilities to shoot from distance, get to the rim, and get to the line puts him a level above any of the perimeter players for Houston.
Both teams flaunt a major home court advantage, the Blazers with a 34-7 record, the Rockets 33-8.
This will be a gritty, hard-fought series for sure. If the Rockets can find a way to get Yao Ming going, they will have enough to take a game on the road, and eventually win the series. If not, the TrailBlazers will be very, very tough to beat, despite their lack of playoff experience.
I think the Rockets will find a way to win this series in seven games.