The playoffs are now upon us. Here’s a look at the first round match-ups. Here are now a look at the matchups which start on Sunday.
EAST
(3)    Orlando Magic v (6) Philadelphia 76ers
The Orlando Magic enter this post-season having gone just 5-5 in their last 10 games and pretty much handing over the number 2 seed (which guarantees home court advantage through the first two rounds) to the Boston Celtics. Nonetheless, this has been a banner year for Stan Van Gundy’s crew. They finished with a 59-23 record despite being without Jameer Nelson since the All-Star Break. The 76ers have had their ups and downs this season and played their best ball with off-season signing Elton Brand out of the line-up. With Rashard Lewis and and Hedo Turkoglu carrying knocks, this is the Sixers’ best chance of a potential upset. But unless they can find a way of slowing down Dwight Howard inside (and the combination of underachiever Samuel Dalembert, rookie Marreese Speights & defensive hound Reggie Evans isn’t it), this series is already over. Verdict: Magic in 5.
(4)    Atlanta Hawks v (5) Miami Heat

It’s been 10 years since the Atlanta Hawks last had home court advantage in the playoffs. Back in 1999, that proved to be the difference as Steve Smith edged his side past Grant Hill’s Pistons 3 game to 2 (back in the days when first round series were still played in the best-of-five format). Now they face MVP candidate and scoring champ Dwyane Wade and a young Miami Heat side. On paper it looks like the Hawks have the edge. After all this team (minus Josh Childress but plus Ronald ‘Flip’ Murray and Maurice Evans) pushed the Celtics to seven games in last year’s first round series. But you can’t rely on that especially when going against a Wade-led team. He does everything, quite literally, for the Heat – scores, finds the open man, defends (2nd in the league in steals and amazingly 16th in blocks at 1.2 a game despite being only 6ft 4in tall) and more importantly takes over when the game is on the line. Joe Johnson will have his work cut out in trying to stop him. Verdict: Heat in 7.
WEST
(1)    Los Angeles Lakers v (8) Utah Jazz

Last year these two teams battled it out in the conference semi-finals. And while the Lakers have been consistent in staying on top in the West, the Jazz have had to deal with injuries to their key players (Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko) while also battling it out with resurgent teams (Portland Trailblazers, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets).  The battle for 6th, 7th and 8th place between the Jazz, New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks went down to the wire but Jerry Sloan’s crew got the short end of the stick, having to go up against last year’s Western Conference champs. No one really gives the Jazz muc of a chance as the Lakers are back to full strength with Andrew Bynum back. Also, Kobe Bryant has pretty much been in cruise control all year and is now ready to step up his game for the stretch run. The Jazz though shouldn’t be discarded so quickly. They have one of the deepest teams with the likes of Paul Millsap, Ronnie Brewer, CJ Miles, Kyle Korver and Matt Harpring to support the trio of Williams-Boozer-Mehmet Okur. If anything they are as deep (if not as experienced) as the Lakers’ rotation. There has been talk of Kirilenko taking on the challenge of slowing down Bryant. That might work for a game or two, but the Lakers will outlast the Jazz. Verdict: Lakers in 6.
(2)    Denver Nuggets v (7) New Orleans Hornets

The Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups trade might have not worked out all that well for the Pistons, but it most certainly has been a Godsend for the Nuggets. Denver hasn’t been seeded this high since Doug Moe coached them to a 54-28 season back in 1987-88. With the 2004 Finals MVP running the show, the Nuggets look like a good bet to make it out of the first round of the playoffs since 1994 when as the No 8 seed, Dikembe Mutombo & Co beat none other than current head coach George Karl’s Seattle Supersonics. The Hornets have failed to build on last year’s promising post-season run. They have been hampered by injuries this year, they tried (and failed) to trade defensive anchor Tyson Chandler and are basically a two-man show with Chris Paul and David West. Chandler isn’t back to full health (he will suit up though) and Peja Stojakovic’s long-standing back problems make him a defensive liability when matched up against Carmelo Anthony.  Verdict: Nuggets in 5.

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