Preview capsules for the NBA first-round playoff series:
No. 1 MIAMI HEAT (53-29) vs. No. 8 ATLANTA HAWKS (43-39)
Series of the season: Heat, 3-1.
Plot: Miami went out and added Kyle Lowry to the mix last summer, pairing him with Jimmy Butler and an assortment of shooters with their sights set on contending for a title. So far, so good, but the Heat’s season won’t be measured by anything that happened in the regular season. Atlanta has already won a couple of Game 7-type games, beating Charlotte and then beating Cleveland in the entry tournament to earn the No. 8 seed. Clint Capela’s knee injury is going to be a big question for the Hawks. , who have not had John Collins either. The Hawks have won 19 of their last 28 games, so they should be bursting with confidence. The Heat have been off for a week, a lucky time for them as they were without center Bam Adebayo while he was under NBA health and safety protocols.
Key matchup: Lowry vs. Bring Young. Atlanta’s point guard is explosive and he showed last season, and again in the second half against the Cavaliers, that the postseason lights aren’t too bright for him. Lowry has the intelligence of a point guard who has led his team to a championship, and the Heat need him to play with that poise.
Prediction: Heat at 6.
No. 2 BOSTON CELTICS (51-31) vs. No. 7 BROOKLYN NETS (44-38)
Season series: Celtics, 3-1.
Plot: Boston and Brooklyn meet for the second consecutive season, although this time with opposing seeds. The Celtics got off a rocky start and ascended to the Atlantic Division title thanks to scoring from Jayson Tatum and solid defense, while the Nets are a dangerous team with explosive scoring from Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Key matchup: Marcus Smart vs. Irving. Irving can warm up as quickly as anyone in the NBA with his ballhandling and deep shooting of his, as he showed when he made his first 12 shots in the Nets’ play-in victory over Cleveland. But in Smart, the Celtics have one of the toughest defensive guards in the league, possibly good enough to earn defensive player of the year honors.
Prediction: Celtics at 7.
No. 3 MILWAUKEE BUCKS (51-31) vs. No. 6 CHICAGO BULLS (46-36)
Season series: Bucks, 4-0.
Plot: The defending champion Bucks will play their closest rival in Round 1, with Milwaukee and Chicago only about 90 miles apart. Reigning NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo found a new level in last season’s playoffs, and now Milwaukee begins the task of trying to come back. The Bulls were 28-15 when the Bucks’ Grayson Allen took out Chicago’s Alex Caruso on a play at the rim, causing the Bulls shooting guard to break his wrist. The Bulls went 18-21 the rest of the way, playing without Caruso for much of those contests.
Key matchup: Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton vs. Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan. Both are good enough to just take over games on their own, and the Bulls need DeRozan to be great in this series to stand a chance.
Prediction: Bucks at 5.
No. 4 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (51-31) vs. No. 5 TORONTO RAPTORS (48-34)
Season series: Raptors, 3-1.
Storyline: Philadelphia won’t have standout defender Matisse Thybulle available for the Toronto games due to his vaccination status and Canadian rules regarding the virus. That obviously won’t help the 76ers’ cause. The Raptors don’t have anyone who can stop Joel Embiid, because no one does, but the big man from Philly might have to be exceptional in this series. Raptors coach Nick Nurse showed during Toronto’s run to the 2019 title that he’s not afraid to take risks. He expects some.
Key matchup: Philadelphia’s James Harden vs. Toronto’s Fred VanVleet. They are the dominant guards, they are the quarterbacks and they will likely dictate how things go for both clubs.
Prediction: Raptors at 7.
No. 2 MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (56-26) vs. No. 7 MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (46-36)
Series of the season: Tied, 2-2.
Plot: A couple of big storylines collide in Round 1. Memphis’ season defied most expectations, probably by a wide margin, and it wasn’t just Ja Morant all along, either. The Grizzlies were great for long stretches, even without him. The Timberwolves started 4-9 and were still under .500 in mid-January, but have been flying ever since. And the emotional win over the Los Angeles Clippers in the opening game surely did nothing but help Minnesota’s confidence.
Key matchup: Morant vs. Minnesota’s Patrick Beverley. A budding superstar facing off against a veteran plague, and Beverley wears that title with pride. It would be a lot of fun to listen to and it will be almost as much fun to watch.
Prediction: Grizzlies at 6.
No. 3 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (53-29) vs. No. 6 DENVER NUGGETS (48-34)
Season series: Nuggets, 3-1.
Plot: Current (and possibly repeat) MVP Nikola Jokic of Denver leads his team against former MVP Stephen Curry and the Warriors. Curry is set for Game 1, albeit on a minute restriction as he returns from a bone contusion in his foot. Denver had a fantastic season considering missing Jamal Murray and, for much of the year, Michael Porter Jr. The Warriors also struggled with injury, but they have Curry back and Klay Thompson ready to finally appear in a game. playoffs again.
Key duel: Jokic vs. Golden State’s Draymond Green. Elite offensive player vs. elite defender. Green will enjoy this challenge. Jokic too.
Prediction: Warriors in 6.
Series of the season: Tied, 2-2.
Plot: Luka Doncic’s injured calf is the big question for Dallas entering this series. It’s unclear if he’ll play in Game 1, and if he does, it’s also unclear how effective he’ll be. The Jazz were 26-9 at one point this season, but have been deadly ever since, particularly down the stretch, losing seven of their last 11 games. Talent hasn’t been the question in Utah. The chemistry has, and what happens in this series could say a lot about what Utah will do in the future.
Key matchup: Dallas shooters vs. Utah’s Rudy Gobert. If Dallas doesn’t shoot 3s, the Jazz will allow one of the best rim protectors in the world, Gobert, to hang around the basket and interrupt the series. If Dallas makes shots, Gobert walks away from the basket. That would be a huge advantage for the Mavs.
Prediction: If Doncic isn’t seriously injured, Mavericks at 7.
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