- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 18, 2009

It’s a wrap for the NBA’s regular season. Now for the playoffs, which, as anyone associated with the league will tell you, is a different experience.

There is no coasting, and the sense of urgency kicks into high gear.

The Lakers and Cavaliers enter the playoffs as heavy favorites over their conference competition.

But with three Western Conference teams owning identical records, the Eastern Conference boasting multiple young teams on the rise, plus a few unexpected injury-related twists, the road to the finals should feature some competitive matchups.

Here are five story lines to watch:

5. Houston vs. Portland: Two worthy challengers

NBA analysts bill this series as the most competitive and intriguing matchup of the early rounds. That’s in part because the teams are evenly matched yet polar opposites - Houston is a veteran squad with tenacious defenders Shane Battier and Ron Artest, while Portland is young, unproven, undaunted and versatile.

Another factor: The Blazers and Rockets have the best shot at giving the Lakers a legitimate fight.

“These are two teams who have the personnel to contend with the Lakers,” TNT analyst and former NBA coach Doug Collins said. “First of all, when you play against the Lakers, you’d better have size, and the Houston Rockets have size. … My big concern with Houston is they are very young at one of the most important positions in the game, that’s the point guard position. I know Aaron Brooks is very talented and Kyle Lowry has done a nice job, but that is my big concern with their team: What kind of play are they going to get out of that position?

“The Trail Blazers - they, have the size on the front line, they have been competitive against the Lakers,” Collins said. “In fact, at the Rose Garden, they’ve won [eight] straight, some very emotional games in there. When I look on paper, those are two teams to me, who have the personnel to make it tough on the Lakers.”

So which team survives this opening bout? The Blazers will find themselves at an experience disadvantage - this is the first playoff appearance for their young core of players. But Nate McMillan guided his team to 54 wins a year after it finished 41-41, and confidence is soaring.

The two-headed Portland center of Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden will have its hands full with Yao Ming, who has failed in four previous attempts to advance past the first round. And Artest and Battier are formidable foes for the Blazers’ young scorers. But how strong are the Rockets mentally? A fast start by Portland, which has homecourt advantage, and then what? Will the Rockets battle back, or crumble once again?

4. Dwyane Wade vs. the Atlanta Hawks

Wade averaged 30.2 points, 7.5 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 2.2 steals to leading the Heat to the fifth seed in the East a year after they mustered just 15 wins during an injury-riddled season.

But Wade’s supporting cast outside of fragile center Jermaine O’Neal is young and unproven. Rookies Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley are both talented, but the pressure of the playoffs are new to them.

“Dwyane Wade reminds me of my ‘88 Bulls team, when we had Michael [Jordan] and Charles Oakley and a lot of younger guys,” Collins said. “We played Cleveland in Game 1 and 2, and Michael had 50 and 55 and we won the first two games. Dwyane Wade is a guy who is capable of throwing up those kinds of numbers. It’s a very frightening thing for the opponent.”

How frightening will Wade be for a young but seasoned Hawks team making its second straight playoff appearance?

The Hawks don’t have a Dwyane Wade, but they do have more talent across the board. Mike Bibby is a veteran with playoff experience, and with Joe Johnson on the wing, Al Horford inside and Josh Smith’s versatility, Atlanta has a good shot at overwhelming Wade’s young bunch.

3. Are the Spurs too banged up to contend?

Tim Duncan’s knees are slowing him, Manu Ginobili is out for the playoffs with ankle problems, and it looks as if the odd-year mojo of the Spurs is at an end. A huge load will be placed on Tony Parker (22.0 points a game, 6.9 assists).

The good news for the Spurs is they have as deep a supporting cast as they’ve ever had, with Roger Mason Jr. and Drew Gooden leading the way. Another positive: Their first-round matchup is with the Mavericks, so travel won’t be taxing.

The Mavericks will struggle to contain Parker, but the Spurs will have just as much trouble defending Dirk Nowitzki if Duncan’s sore knee renders him ineffective. Josh Howard is the big injury question mark for the Mavericks; he is battling an ankle injury that likely will require surgery.

If the Spurs can find a way to top the Mavericks, they won’t see the Lakers until the conference finals. But by then, they’ll be running on empty.

2. Repeat dreams dashed for Boston?

Before Wednesday’s regular-season finale, Paul Pierce, wearing his gaudy championship ring from last season, took the mic and told the home crowd, “Here we go again, it’s that time of the year, it’s that time of the year! We’re getting warmed up to bring back another one!”

The next day, the Celtics learned that Kevin Garnett will miss their first-round matchup with Chicago and, according to coach Doc Rivers, likely the entire postseason. The quest for title No. 18 suddenly is much more difficult - now just reaching the conference finals could be a challenge.

“I hate to be so frank, but I do not believe they have a chance,” former Wizards and Kings star Chris Webber said. “KG, as far as how good he is and playing against him and seeing how he energizes the whole team, I don’t care who you are, you can’t do that from the bench. The toughness that he brings and the way that he’s on other players, I don’t see it. I also see everyone being more aggressive because they really don’t have that shot blocker inside. I really can’t see it happening if he doesn’t play in the playoffs.”

TNT colleague Reggie Miller disagreed: “As Rudy Tomjanovich said, ‘You never want to underestimate the heart of a champion.’ They had a bull’s-eye on their back all year and still found a way to win 60-plus games.”

The Celtics do still have Pierce and Ray Allen leading the way, and their supporting cast has the experience of last season. Still, there is no making up for the energy and defensive prowess they lose with Garnett sidelined. Barring a miracle and a magical return by Garnett, No. 18 likely will have to wait until another season.

1. Stars aligning for a Kobe-LeBron showdown

The Cavaliers already were favored to emerge out of the East, but their road got a little easier with Garnett’s injury.

The Pistons claim confidence, and the Magic argue that they deserve to be mentioned along with Cleveland, Boston and Los Angeles as title contenders.

But LeBron James, sharp-shooting sidekicks Mo Williams, Delonte West and Daniel Gibson and healthy big men Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao and Joe Smith present too overpowering a challenge for anyone in the East in a seven-game series.

And homecourt advantage will be big, too: The Cavs went 39-2 at Quicken Loans Arena in the regular season.

Only one opponent beat a fully loaded Cavaliers team in Cleveland: the Lakers. And with Los Angeles holding a clear advantage over the rest of the Western Conference field, the dream matchup of Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron looks like a safe bet.

The Lakers, playing without the injured Andrew Bynum, reached the finals last year because Bryant was dominant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom gave the team two long options as scorers and on the boards, and Phil Jackson could call on his bench for scoring.

Bynum has returned and appears stronger than expected following a torn MCL - making it hard for opponents to account for all of the Lakers’ many weapons.

“The Lakers have a frontline now with Bynum back, Gasol, and you come in with Lamar Odom,” Collins said. “You’d better have two or three guys who can run at Kobe Bryant that will compete against him and try to make his life as difficult as possible.”

One problem with that: Running three guys at Bryant leaves Gasol, Bynum, Odom - and don’t forget Derek Fisher - open to do damage.

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