- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2016

EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (57-25) vs. No. 8 DETROIT PISTONS (44-38)

Season series: Pistons, 3-1. That’s right, Detroit won the series. The teams split two games in Auburn Hills, and the Pistons were winners in both of their trips to Cleveland - though the last one was on the final day of the regular season and neither team was using anything remotely similar to what will be their playoff lineup. All four games were close, average score Pistons 105, Cavaliers 103.

Story line: Is this the year? LeBron James carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals last season, even while losing Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving along the way, and wound up falling to Golden State in another ultimately futile attempt to end Cleveland’s half-century title drought. There’s so much at stake for Cleveland in this postseason, especially since the team could take on a very different look next year if this postseason run isn’t a success. Detroit has zero pressure, especially because it has been seven years since its last postseason appearance.

Key Matchup: Irving vs. Reggie Jackson. Point guard play will set the tone in this series, even with James still being a dominant force. Irving will be tested by Jackson’s speed; Jackson will be tested by Irving’s explosiveness, and neither can even think about getting into foul trouble without his team potentially looking at some serious consequences.

X-Factor: The coaching matchup. Tyronn Lue’s postseason debut comes against Stan Van Gundy, who has now taken a third franchise to the playoffs and is 5-2 in first-round series. And some of the Van Gundy-James chess matches in the past have been delightful to watch.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 5.

No. 2 TORONTO RAPTORS (56-26) vs. No. 7 INDIANA PACERS (45-37)

Season series: Raptors, 3-1. Toronto got 24.3 points per game from DeMar DeRozan and 23.7 from Kyle Lowry in extending its success against Indiana to seven wins in the last eight games, including five straight at home. The Pacers won 106-90 on Dec. 14 at home when Toronto was on the second night of a back-to-back. “They spanked us really good at their place,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey recalled.

Story line: The Raptors put together the best regular season in franchise history and now it’s time to get working on some postseason failure. Toronto has been ousted in the first round as the higher seed in consecutive seasons, getting swept by Washington last year.

Key Matchup: Lowry vs. Monta Ellis. Lowry was banged up and appeared on fumes by the time the playoffs arrived last year, and his struggles in being outplayed by John Wall doomed the Raptors to their quick exit. He got some rest down the stretch - he and DeRozan sat out the Raptors’ victory over the Pacers on April 8 - and is ready to go. Ellis averaged 13.8 points in 81 games and Casey called him a “human scoring machine.”

X-Factor: Norman Powell. The second-round pick capped a surprisingly strong April with a career-best 30 points in the Raptors’ season-ending victory in Brooklyn. But he’s made just 24 starts and now may find himself matched up against seasoned playoff veterans such as Paul George and George Hill.

Prediction: Raptors in 5.

No. 3 MIAMI HEAT (48-34) vs. No. 6 CHARLOTTE HORNETS (48-34)

Season series: Split, 2-2. Both teams went 1-1 on the others’ home floor, with the Heat winning in Miami to start the season on Oct. 28 and at Charlotte on Feb. 5. The Hornets blew out Miami at home in December by 18 - the lead was as much as 30 - and won on the Heat floor on March 17, overcoming a 15-point deficit.

Story line: The four teams in the middle of the East bracket - Miami, No. 4 Atlanta, No. 5 Boston and Charlotte - finished with identical 48-34 records, so how perfect is it that they’re going against each other in the opening round of the playoffs? For the Heat, it’s a redemption year after missing the playoffs a year ago and for the Hornets, it’s a chance for a long-awaited postseason breakthrough.

Key matchup: Goran Dragic vs. Kemba Walker. Dragic has surged since the All-Star break, averaging 17.3 points and 6.7 assists (as opposed to 12.2 points and 5.3 assists before the break, when the Heat were playing at a dramatically slower pace and had Chris Bosh in the lineup). Charlotte has touted Walker as a most improved player candidate, and it’s easy to see why after he finished with career bests in scoring (20.9) and 3-point shooting (37 percent).

X-Factor: Dwyane Wade. Miami’s franchise player is a three-time champion, and when games get tight in this series - both sides expect them to be that way - it’s going to be on Wade to either get it done on the floor or be that proverbial coach on the floor, a role where he’s flourished at times this season. With Bosh not expected to be back after being sidelined over All-Star weekend by a blood clot, Wade’s role is even more important.

Prediction: Heat in 6.

No. 4 ATLANTA HAWKS (48-34) vs. No. 5 BOSTON CELTICS (48-34)

Season series: Hawks, 3-1. Atlanta won twice at home, by 24 on Nov. 24 and 11 on April 9, and once in Boston, 109-101 on Dec. 18. The Celtics got their lone win in the series at home on Nov. 13, 106-93.

Story line: This series should be as closely contested as the matching records indicate. Two hard-nosed defensive teams that feature under-the-radar stars in Atlanta’s Paul Millsap and Al Horford and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas and up-and-comer Jae Crowder. Bring your brass knuckles.

Key matchup: Mike Budenholzer vs. Brad Stevens. Two highly respected coaches matching wits in a series that could go the distance. Adjustments from game to game will be crucial to try and find ways to score against each team’s defense.

X-Factor: Jeff Teague. The Hawks point guard was an All-Star last year, but got off to a slow start and was involved in trade rumors around the deadline in February. He’s picked up his game down the stretch and the Hawks have responded around him.

Prediction: Hawks in 7.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (73-9) vs. No. 8 HOUSTON ROCKETS (41-41)

Season series: Warriors, 3-0. Golden State won at Houston twice, first by 20 in October and then by four (without Stephen Curry) on New Year’s Eve, and beat the Rockets by 13 in their only regular-season trip to Oakland this season on Feb. 9.

Story line: The season was an ultimately successful quest for an all-time regular-season record 73 wins by the Warriors, and now it’s a quest for 89 - that total plus the 16 wins needed to claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Warriors don’t need to be told that being the best regular-season team of all time would ring hollow without a second straight title.

Key matchup: Curry vs. James Harden. The two top scorers in the league this season make this an obvious pick. Curry won the scoring title averaging 30.1 points and making an absurd 402 3-pointers. Harden was right on his heels, averaging 29.0 points per game. And in a weird stat nugget, Harden finished with one more point than Curry in the regular season - 2,376 to 2,375 (the difference being Curry played three fewer games).

X-Factor: Draymond Green. Golden State’s best defender will probably have to deal with Houston’s Dwight Howard quite a bit down low in this series, and if he even holds his own in that matchup the Warriors shouldn’t have much trouble. And on a team where leadership seems to be present in bunches anyway, Green appears like he’s gotten better in that department this season - which will make the defending champs that much tougher to beat.

Prediction: Warriors in 5.

No. 2 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (67-15) vs. No. 7 MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (42-40)

Season series: Spurs, 4-0. The Spurs won a pair early in the season when the Grizzlies were mostly at full strength, then won two more over a four-night span in March when both were missing players. LaMarcus Aldridge averaged 31.5 points in the latter two victories, which both came without Kawhi Leonard. Leonard averaged 23 in the two he did play in, making seven 3-pointers in a 27-point performance during a 103-83 victory. The Spurs have won five straight meetings.

Story line: The Spurs couldn’t catch the record-setting Warriors for the best record in the league but the consolation prize might be a better first-round matchup against a depleted Grizzlies team that might be the weakest in the postseason. Memphis held on for a while after the injuries to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, but dropped four straight and nine of 10 to end the season, falling from the No. 5 seed to No. 7. Still, the Spurs won’t overlook them after being upset by the Grizzlies as the No. 1 seed in the West five years ago.

Key matchup: Aldridge vs. Zach Randolph. Different settings, same first-round matchup in the first round for these power forwards. Randolph and the Grizzlies beat Portland in five games last year, sending Aldridge into free agency and eventually back home to Texas in the Spurs’ frontcourt. Randolph played only once against the Spurs this season, managing nine points.

X-Factor: Lance Stephenson and Matt Barnes. With so many of their most reliable players unavailable, the Grizzlies are forced to rely on a pair of wild cards. Either can occasionally get hot, but the problem for Memphis is they would likely be guarded by Leonard and Danny Green, two of the top players on the league’s best defense.

Prediction: Spurs in 4.

No. 3 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (55-27) vs. No. 6 DALLAS MAVERICKS (42-40)

Season series: Thunder, 4-0. It may seem like a lopsided matchup at first blush, but two of OKC’s four victories were by just three points, a 117-114 win at home in November and a 109-106 win at Dallas on Jan. 22.

Story line: The Thunder are finally back at full strength for the playoffs after missing the postseason last year thanks to a litany of injuries. With Kevin Durant back to his unstoppable self, the Thunder are trying to reclaim their spot as a Western Conference elite in a critical postseason for them ahead of Durant’s free agency this summer.

Key matchup: Serge Ibaka vs. Dirk Nowitzki. Ibaka has been very good against the Mavericks this season, averaging 15.8 points as the third wheel for the Thunder. His defense will be big against the Mavericks’ ageless star, who remains one of the league’s most reliable shot-makers.

X-Factor: Rick Carlisle. One of the league’s very best coaches has a history of strong performances in the postseason. He’s done one of his best coaching jobs this year to help the Mavericks overcome injuries and the summer disappointment of losing DeAndre Jordan to get back to the playoffs. His game plans against rookie head coach Billy Donovan could be a difference maker.

Prediction: Thunder in 6.

No. 4 LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (53-29) vs. No. 5 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (44-38)

Season series: Clippers, 3-1. Los Angeles won twice at home - 102-87 on Nov. 30 and 96-94 on March 24 - and once in Portland, 109-98 on Jan. 6. The Blazers won at home on Nov. 20, 102-91.

Story line: The Clippers bent over backward to convince DeAndre Jordan to change his mind and pull out of an agreement with Dallas last summer to stay in Los Angeles and keep the band together. After a tumultuous season dominated by Blake Griffin’s injuries and fight with a team employee, they are back for another push against the Blazers, who came out of nowhere to get the No. 5 seed.

Key matchup: Chris Paul vs. Damian Lillard. Two of the game’s very best point guards will go head to head. Paul is one of the best defensive point guards in the game and will have his work cut out for him chasing around Lillard, a dynamic offensive force who has willed the Blazers into the playoffs.

X-Factor: Griffin. The Clippers played very well in the months that Griffin was out, but they need him desperately to give them an offensive center point in the playoffs. In a twist, Portland’s only win in the series came with Griffin on the court.

Prediction: Clippers in 6.


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