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NBA playoffs preview capsules

EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEWS

5 ATLANTA HAWKS VS. 4 ORLANDO MAGIC

Why the Hawks could win: Atlanta took three of four against the Magic this season, holding them under 83 points in those wins. The Hawks are athletic enough to defend the three-pointer and limited Dwight Howard to just under 17 points per game in those victories.

Why the Magic could win: After a Jekyll-and-Hyde season, Orlando enters the playoffs looking to shed that underachieving tag. They have the best big man in the game in Howard, and they did sweep the Hawks last year in the playoffs.

Regular-season series: Hawks won 3-1.

Key player of the series: Howard worked with Hakeem Olajuwon in the offseason to become more dominant with his footwork — and while the regular-season pretest went well, it’s time for Howard to pass his finals.

The winner is: Magic in six.

3 BOSTON CELTICS VS. 6 NEW YORK KNICKS

Why the Knicks could win: Point guard Chauncey Billups is healthy, Carmelo Anthony is the best offensive player on the court and Amare Stoudemire had a 39-point game against a Celtics team that might be ready for an AARP membership.

Why the Celtics could win: The Celtics limped into the playoffs last season with a 27-27 record and then flipped the switch to make it to the NBA Finals. Can they turn on that switch one more time before the window closes?

Regular-season series: Celtics won 4-0.

Key player of the series: As Rajon Rondo goes, so goes Boston. Rondo was superb in the playoff run last season, but he has been inconsistent this year. Still, he makes the Celtics a threat with his play at point guard.

The winner is: Celtics in seven.

2 MIAMI HEAT VS. 7 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Why the 76ers could win: There was a point in early March when the Heat seemingly couldn’t get out of their own way. They played tight, especially in crunch time. Philadelphia has to hope the pressure of the postseason smacks Miami back to that time.

Why the Heat could win: They have been hated, they have been mocked when things weren’t going well — and now with the playoffs starting, they just might be the most dangerous team out there. Unfortunately for the 76ers, they just don’t match up well in most spots on the floor.

Regular-season series: Heat won 3-0.

Key player of the series: It’s all about LeBron James now. As soon as he muttered the infamous “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,’’ the eyes of the NBA world shifted to “The King’’ and what he would do in the playoffs.

The winner is: Heat in five.

WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEWS

1 SAN ANTONIO SPURS VS. 8 MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Why the Grizzlies could win: Memphis crawled more than strutted into the postseason, but they do face a Spurs team they beat twice during March. Even better news for the Grizzlies? Spurs guard Manu Ginobili could miss some time with an injured right elbow.

Why the Spurs could win: They still are the Spurs, still have Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, and have one of the best coaches in the league in Gregg Popovich. That’s more than enough to get past Memphis.

Regular-season series: Tied 2-2.

Key player of the series: Forward Zach Randolph had his way against the Spurs in both regular-season wins, averaging 22 points and 10.5 rebounds. He will need to be spectacular if Memphis wants to shock the top seed. The problem is, he’s Zach Randolph.

The winner is: Spurs in five.

2 LOS ANGELES LAKERS vs. 7 NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

Why the Hornets could win: Never say never. There is a chance that the Lakers’ team charter accidentally stops off in Cabo and breaks down for a few days, there’s a chance that Kobe gets suspended for gay slurs, or maybe Chris Paul plays Superman like he did in the playoffs three years ago. But none of it is likely.

Why the Lakers could win: Don’t let the No. 2 seed fool you, this is the top team in the league that’s ready to flip the switch. Boredom is their biggest foe.

Regular-season series: Lakers won 4-0.

Key player of the series: Andrew Bynum’s hyperextended knee is fine, which was great news for the Lakers. His presence on the floor makes them better defensively and keeps Lamar Odom in his role as a dominant sixth man.

The winner is: Lakers in four.

3 DALLAS MAVERICKS VS. 6 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Why the Trail Blazers could win: Portland could be the most dangerous team in the Western Conference playoffs, featuring a star-in-the-making with LaMarcus Aldridge as well as a lot of athletic bigs to throw at the Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki. There is something soft about Dallas that Portland can expose.

Why the Mavericks could win: Nowitzki once again had an MVP-type season while Jason Kidd still is giving Dallas solid play from the point despite being maybe 65 years old. Dallas did make an early departure from the playoffs last year and can’t dwell on that.

Regular-season series: Tied 2-2.

Key player of the series: Nowitzki is one of four players in the league’s history to average 25 points and 10 rebounds per game — but until he can carry the Mavs beyond their underachieving tag, he will remain a 7-foot enigma.

The winner is: Trail Blazers in seven.

4 DENVER NUGGETS VS. 5 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Why the Nuggets could win: The long-awaited departure of ’Melo in the Knicks trade actually made Denver a better team. With Nene and Kenyon Martin inside, the defense is much better, and there is a certain nastiness they bring to the court.

Why the Thunder could win: Kendrick Perkins seems to finally be settling in since the trade from Boston, and the duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook might be the best 1-2 combo in the West. There’s also some bad blood between these two teams.

Regular-season series: Thunder won 3-1.

Key player of the series: Post Carmelo, the Nuggets and Thunder played twice, with Durant torching Denver for 32 points and then 28. Durant did all he could to carry Oklahoma City last year against the Lakers in a first-round departure — and now it’s time for Act 2.

The winner is: Thunder in six.



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