Playoff seeds were ultimately decided Wednesday night, the final of the 2008-'09 season.
The Denver Nuggets sowed up the two seed, after watching the Mavericks beat the Rockets, and subsequently lost all focus on the game at hand and lost handily to the Trailblazers. Denver had to wait though, until after overtime of a thriller between the Spurs and Hornets to learn they would be playing New Orleans in the first round.
In the final few weeks of the season, there were many possible for the Nuggets, including the Utah Jazz, and Dallas Mavericks, but neither team ended up drawing Denver, both on their own separate paths. Utah finished the season tanking, losing 3-7 in their final ten games, while Dallas finished strong, winning seven of their final ten.
Much like Utah, New Orleans has struggled down the stretch, going only 4-6 in their final ten games, and slipping from the fourth spot and home court advantage, all the way to seventh.
Denver, who was set to play Dallas until they beat out New Orleans at the last minute, matched up well with the Mavericks, but have seemingly dodged a bullet by not having to play Dallas while they are hot.
Though, the Nuggets, who are deeper this year than any Denver team in 25 years (1984-85), should have an imbalance of talent overall in this series.
Let's take a look at the marquee player v player matchups that will take place in this should-be exciting series.
Chris Paul vs Chauncey Billups
Chris Paul is arguably the best point guard in the NBA today, and with less deliberation, the most exciting one by far.
Paul is a master of his art, as he has molded his absolutely gifted body into a sculpture, and has refined his skills well.
Paul is fast, quick, and will blow by almost any defender in the NBA to the hoop for an easy lay-up. Likewise, he can use those quicks to separate from anyone guarding him (or attempting to) and pull up for an open jumper, which is another strong point in his game. He can definitely fill it up as he leads the Hornets in scoring at 22.8 per game.
Chris Paul though, is certainly not a one-dimensional player, as he was No. 3 in the league in double-doubles, and was second overall in triple-doubles!
He leads the NBA in assists, at 11 per game, and steals at 2.77 per. Paul also rebounds well, at 5.5 per game, third on his team.
Whether it be Billups, Jones, or Martin on Paul, he will get his points, and dish top of the line dimes. Even at only 23 years old, CP3 will unquestionably be a huge player in this series, win or lose for the Hornets.
Chauncey Billups on the other hand, is a veteran leader, methodical in his approach to the game, not explosive like Paul.
Billups always has the appearance of being calm and collected, coaching his teammates to make the right cuts or play the correct defense. He talks to referees, yes talks not yells at them, and has earned their respect in that way.
Billups likes to explain the Nuggets' side of a story to the refs, and has helped keep their total technical foul numbers down.
Billups is at his best facilitating teammates, making perfect passes that allow them to score effortlessly on defenders. His assist numbers, while only at 6.4 per game, are up since he arrived in Denver in November.
Also, "Mr. Big Shot" Billups can score when needed. His signature shot is the pull-up three-pointer on a fast break, at times sticking daggers into the opponent's heart. Like assists, Billups' scoring, at 17.7 per game, is up over five points than what he was averaging in Detroit.
Chauncey Billups has been huge to the Nuggets during the regular season, and will be even bigger in the playoffs for them. His playoff experience looms large as he will draw free-throws driving, ride his teammates to play defense, and converse with the refs to get Denver some calls.
This is not only the best match up of the Nuggets/Hornets series, it may be the best point guard battle in all the playoffs this year.
Advantage: Chris Paul for his explosive offense, and superb passing abilities. The man is a leading candidate for MVP, he has to win this one, although Billups could be considered an MVP also.
Carmelo Anthony vs Peja Stojakovic
'Melo, although missing 15 games early this season, was still the Nuggets' leading scorer, and is their best all-around player.
Anthony is the Nuggets best scorer by far, putting up 22.8 points per game, eerily equal to that of Chris Paul. 'Melo's best when he has the ball, facing the basket, bent over, jab-stepping repeatedly to throw off any defender's game.
He can go from the jab-step to an easy, and lightning quick jumper, or blow past a guy while laying the ball up. One flaw in Anthony's game is not taking the ball hard enough to the hoop, getting hacked but not receiving many calls.
Even though Carmelo's scoring numbers are actually down this year, he has made up for the lacking points with rebounding, which is up over his career average at 6.8 per game, and his passing has been better of late, assisting 3.4 times a game in 2008-09.
Peja Stojakovic, now an aging veteran in his tenth year, still has some firepower left in the tank. He is still one of the best three-point shooters in the game (.374 3p%), and can score well from there hitting 13.3 points per contest.
Overall though, Stojakovic is having a down year, with his scoring, rebounds (4.3 per), assists (1.2 per), and steals (0.9 per) all under his career averages.
When you really step back and look at this match up, both Anthony and Stojakovic are liabilities on the defensive end. Neither want to put forth too much effort trying to guard a guy that they can't hoist shots up later.
Both should be able to score at will on the other, although, 'Melo's defense has been better of late and he may have a slight advantage on D.
Advantage:Carmelo Anthony scores close to double what the older, slower Peja does, and his points per game should go up against the Hornets, especially if Stojakovic is guarding him. 'Melo is too smooth, shooting beautiful jumpers that barely caress the net, and using his dynamite quicks to shoot past defenders and drive the lane well.
David West v Kenyon Martin
David West was named to his first All-Star game this season, and is showing why he was a deserved candidate.
West is the Hornets second leading scorer, at 21 per game, which is five points better than his career average. He loves the mid-range game, shooting well from 10-20 feet. West is also an accomplished rebounder, grabbing 8.5 boards a game, and had a career best 20 rebounds in a game this March against Atlanta.
Kenyon Martin is the Nuggets biggest defensive presence, and will have a tough task in West, and probably some CP3 as well. K-Mart plays physically, at times intimidating opponents, and uses his quick ball swipes to his advantage.
All in all, Martin has had a solid 2008-'09 campaign, with 11.7 points, and six rebounds a game. He has an aura while in the game, often wanting to guard the opposing team's best player, and will likely match up with West, but also help on Tyson Chandler and CP3.
Advantage: David West's numbers are much better than K-Mart's, so he has the advantage here. Although, it will be interesting to see how well West does against Martin's strong, pestering defense.
Nene vs Tyson Chandler
Nene, as the Nuggets full time center now, has been huge in Denver's success this season. After battling a torn ACL two years ago and testicular cancer last year, Nene played in all but five games in 2008-'09.
He is having his best year statistically and is the Nuggets fourth leading scorer at 14.6 per game, and best rebounder at 7.8 per. Both numbers are up from his career averages, and is second in the NBA in field goal percentage (.604), just behind Shaq.
Nene is Denver's best player posting-up, and he usually plays against bigger, slower players, which allows him to spin off them for a dunk. Also, Nene is the Nuggets most agressive player, not afraid to battle against any center in the league, throwing tomahawk jams down often.
Tyson Chandler is the biggest looming question mark for New Orleans as he missed game action from Mar. 15-Apr. 16. The last time Chandler played against Denver was January of 2008, so he is like an unknown entity for the Nuggets.
Chandler is not a great scorer, at 8.8 per game this season, but is an exceptional rebounder gobbling up 8.7 per. He is a traditional center, using his size to his advantage.
Advantage: Nene has been one of the most dominant centers in the NBA this year. He will score, and needs to get more touches according to George Karl. Also, Chandler may be a question mark for Denver's D, but he will also be one for New Orleans coming off injury.
Denver has been one of the deepest teams in the NBA in 2008-'09, and their bench is a reason they have propelled themselves to the two seed overall. Two names come to mind right away when thinking of the Nuggets bench, J.R. Smith, and Chris Andersen.
J.R. Smith is playing at a career high right now, at 15.2 points per game, and shooting almost 40 percent from the three-point line (.397), he is among the talks for sixth man of the year. Sadly for Smith, Jason Terry of the Mavericks is having a slightly better season and will likely win the award.
Chris "The Birdman" Andersen lights up the court when stepping off the bench. Andersen finished the year second in blocks (2.46 per), and only plays 20 minutes a game!
The Hornets on the other hand, have great talent starting, but their depth leaves something to be desired. Hilton Armstrong is New Orleans best big man backup, but only averages 4.8 points and 2.8 rebounds per game.
Devin Brown is probably the Hornets best bench player, able to play at guard or forward, scoring just over five points per game.
Advantage:Denver's bench is clearly better. When the starters go out, look for the Nuggets to make runs, and spread leads as "Instant Offense" Smith, and Birdman come in to breathe life into the Denver team and the Pepsi Center.
Denver is sixth in the NBA in scoring (104.3 per) and 18th overall on defense (100.9 allowed), while New Orleans is 26th in scoring (95.8 per) and fifth in defense (94.3 allowed).
The Nuggets are second in the league only to the Lakers in wins when scoring 100 points or more, at 44, while the Hornets have only 28.
The Nuggets score almost ten points per game more than the Hornets, and may end up blowing them out in a game or two, unless New Orleans' touted defense can slow down Denver's attack. New Orleans did hold Denver to only 97 points per game in their four meetings this year, in which both teams spit two victories a piece.
The Nuggets not only have a better overall record (54-28, 49-33), but also better conference, division, and home records than the Hornets.
Advantage: Denver is the better of these two teams, although they are close. Though, with the Nuggets tieing their NBA franchise best 54 wins this season, and the fact that if they get to 100 they will likely win, gives the advantage to the Nuggets.
All in all, this will be a great series. There are superstars in CP3 and 'Melo, stars in Billups and West, and other great players throughout. Both teams will be hungry for a series win, and both match up well against one another. This will be a close one overall, but the Nuggets should win out in the end.
The Nuggets will go out in the Pepsi Center and win the first two of the series. After that, as long as they can steal one in New Orleans, which they will, they will only need one more home win for the series victory.
The Denver Nuggets will win this series over the New Orleans Hornets in six games, 4-2.
The series' opening game is Sunday night, 10:30 ET on TNT.
Rich Kurtzman is a syndicated writer for B/R.