#6 RAPTORS (41-41) AT #3 MAGIC (52-30)
SEASON SERIES: MAGIC WON 2-1.
Orlando beat Toronto 105-96 on the road five games into the season behind Hedo Turkoglu's 24 points and 15 rebounds.
The Raptors responded with a 127-110 thumping Feb. 20 at home, one of their finest offensive performances. Chris Bosh had 40 points on 14-of-16 shooting.
Turkoglu came through again March 4, as Orlando crushed the Bosh-less Raptors 102-87 at home. Turkoglu had 24 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.
TORONTO WINS IF:
- Bosh continues to play out of his mind against the Magic. In five previous meetings, Bosh averaged 33.8 points and 9.8 rebounds. The franchise player struggled in his first taste of playoff action last season and must rebound against one of his favourite opponents.
- Point guard duo of T.J. Ford/Jose Calderon exploits its considerable skill advantage over Jameer Nelson, Carlos Arroyo and Keyon Dooling. Dooling is a solid defender, but Nelson and Arroyo aren't quick enough to keep up with Ford or Calderon.
Deeper bench led by Calderon, Andrea Bargnani and Carlos Delfino steps up.
ORLANDO WINS IF:
- League's best rebounder, Dwight Howard, continues to have his way with one of the NBA's worst rebounding clubs. Howard has hit 66% (59 of 89) of his field-goal attempts in his past seven meetings with the Raps and grabbed 12.2 rebounds a game.
- Hit more threes than the Raptors. Magic loves to bomb away almost as much as Toronto. Sharpshooters Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and Keith Bogans hit 40% of their three-point attempts against the Raptors this season.
PREDICTION: Raptors in six. Point-guard play the difference.
#8 ATLANTA (37-45) AT #1 BOSTON (66-16)
SEASON SERIES: BOSTON WON 3-0
BOSTON WINS IF:
- Defensive player of the year shoo-in and title-hungry Kevin Garnett shines. Atlanta's athleticism would scare many teams, but not one with Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce playing at the top of their games. The Celtics lead the NBA in point differential and lowest opponents' field-goal percentage.
ATLANTA WINS IF:
- Pierce, Ray Allen and Garnett go down with injuries. Out of the playoffs this entire decade, the young Hawks are just happy to be here.
PREDICTION: Boston in five. Eventual champs coast.
#2 DETROIT (59-23) AT #7 PHILADELPHIA (40-42)
SEASON SERIES: SERIES TIED 2-2
DETROIT WINS IF:
- The Pistons realize the Sixers are a worthy opponent. Philadelphia was one of the NBA's top clubs in the second half of the season (22-11 since Feb. 5) and won its past two meetings with Detroit, though the Pistons starters largely were rested in the most recent game. The Pistons have more talent and are playoff tested, having gone to the Eastern final six years in a row.
PHILADELPHIA WINS IF:
- The 76ers can score consistently on Detroit's vaunted defence. The Sixers have the size and strength to frustrate Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince defensively. However, on the other end, the Sixers are not a high-scoring team, are one of the few teams in the league without a 20-point scorer and will be up against one of the NBA's elite defensive clubs.
PREDICTION: Pistons in five. The lack of scoring does in Philadelphia.
#4 CLEVELAND (45-37) AT #5 WASHINGTON (43-39)
SEASON SERIES: SERIES TIED 2-2
CLEVELAND WINS IF:
- LeBron James does his thing. James took an inferior outfit to the final last season, putting together several games for the ages. He basically beat the Pistons single-handedly in the Eastern final and these Wizards aren't as good as those Pistons. James led the NBA in scoring at 30.0 points per game and also is the league's top performer in pressure situations.
WASHINGTON WINS IF:
- Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler shake off the rust. The Cavs knocked out the Wizards easily last season with both Arenas and Butler out. Arenas has missed most of this season but is starting to find his form. If Arenas and Butler equal LeBron's output, the Wizards have a chance, thanks to Antawn Jamison, who is far better than anything the Cavs can throw out after James.
PREDICTION: Cavs in five. Would be different if Arenas or Butler were 100%.
#8 DENVER (50-32) AT #1 LA LAKERS (57-25)
SEASON SERIES: LOS ANGELES WON 3-0
LOS ANGELES WINS IF:
- Kobe Bryant doesn't try to win games by himself. The MVP candidate has bought into team ball more than ever and has his most-talented supporting cast since the three-peat squads. The Lakers will have to work centre Andrew Bynum back in if he returns from his knee injury. Bynum and Pau Gasol have yet to play together.
DENVER WINS IF:
- Carmelo Anthony uses his recent legal woes as motivation to reach a new level and Allen Iverson plays like he did in Philadelphia's stirring 2001 playoff run. Even if the NBA's most lethal scoring duo goes off, though, it's doubtful the Nuggets have enough defensively to shut down the Lakers.
PREDICTION: Lakers in six. L.A.'s star power trumps Melo-AI.
#7 DALLAS (51-31) AT #2 NEW ORLEANS (56-26)
SEASON SERIES: TEAMS SPLIT 2-2
NEW ORLEANS WINS IF:
- David West matches Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki, the reigning MVP, had a sub-par year and has a sketchy playoff resume. West, a first-time all-star this year, continues to improve and will look to get Nowitzki into foul trouble. West and Nowitzki had nearly identical numbers this season and if that holds up in the post-season, Dallas could be in trouble.
DALLAS WINS IF:
- Jason Kidd matches Chris Paul. Kidd's play has been up-and-down since joining the Mavs, but he has a strong playoff pedigree, including the clinic he ran on the Raptors last season. Paul may win MVP (fifth player to lead the league in assists and steals), but Kidd has a huge edge in experience. The Mavs went just 16-13 after Kidd arrived and were 35-18 before, but the trade wasn't made for regular-season results. If Kidd can come close to matching Paul, the deeper, more talented Mavericks can pull off the upset.
PREDICTION: Mavericks in six. Kidd has one more great series in him.
#6 PHOENIX (55-27) AT #3 SAN ANTONIO (56-26)
SEASON SERIES: PHOENIX WON 3-1
SAN ANTONIO WINS IF:
- The Spurs frustrate the Suns again. Last year a Robert Horry hip check on Steve Nash cost Phoenix the series as Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended for coming off the bench. Bruce Bown and Manu Ginobili can agitate with the best of them and Tony Parker has the size and speed to neutralize Nash better than most. The Spurs won't be able to manhandle the Suns again though, because Shaquille O'Neal is on board.
PHOENIX WINS IF:
- Shaq can slow Tim Duncan. Duncan has carried the Spurs to four titles in eight years and O'Neal was brought in with a matchup against Duncan in mind. If the gargantuan O'Neal can control the boards and wear down Duncan throughout the series, the Suns can advance. There is a history there. O'Neal and the Lakers bested Duncan repeatedly earlier this decade.
PREDICTION: Suns in seven.
#5 HOUSTON (55-27) AT #4 UTAH (54-28)
SEASON SERIES: UTAH WON 2-1
UTAH WINS IF:
- Deron Williams/Carlos Boozer continue to run the pick and roll like a new age John Stockton/Karl Malone. The Jazz runs one of basketball's simplest plays to perfection. Boozer and Williams are two of the league's best offensive players, combining for 39.9 points and 13.4 assists per game.
HOUSTON WINS IF:
- Tracy McGrady can get the gorilla off of his back. McGrady never has won a playoff series and now must try to do so without Yao Ming. McGrady doesn't have much to work with, but the team did rally to inexplicably win 22 in a row, so winning four more is possible, if unlikely.
PREDICTION: Jazz in six. Jazz, 38-12 since acquiring Kyle Korver, continues to roll.