No. 1 Atlanta Hawks (60-22) vs. No. 8 Brooklyn Nets (38-44)
Can Atlanta do it in the playoffs? Much has been made of the culture change coach Mike Budenholzer has engineered, but note this — the Hawks haven’t won two playoff series in the same year since 1958, when they were in St. Louis. But the Hawks not only won all four games vs. the Nets this season, they led by at least 14 in every game, once by as much as 39. Atlanta’s Kyle Korver shot 49 percent from three-point range this season; he’s only a 39 percent shooter from beyond the arc in his playoff career. For Brooklyn, PG Deron Williams saw his scoring drop for the third consecutive year, and he struggled with his shot in his three appearances against Atlanta this season. The Nets’ best hope at an upset might be for Joe Johnson to get sizzling hot against his former team.
No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29) vs. No. 7 Boston Celtics (40-42)
LeBron James, back with the Cavaliers, back in the playoffs, back against the Celtics. Of course. Boston ended James’ first run with Cleveland in 2010, remember. So how perfect is it that James’ second quest to deliver a title to championship-starved Northeast Ohio starts with Boston? Boston is a big long shot in this series, but if rookie PG Marcus Smart can find a way to keep Kyrie Irving in some sort of check, the Celtics will give the Cavs some headaches. Both Irving and PF Kevin Love are making their long-awaited postseason debuts for Cleveland and will have to learn fast what this time of year is all about. The teams tied the season series 2-2, but both of Boston’s victories came in the final days of the season when Cleveland’s spot on the East bracket was already secured.
No. 3 Chicago Bulls (50-32) vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks (41-41)
Welcome back to the playoffs, Derrick Rose. The Bulls star guard blew out a knee in Game 1 of Chicago’s 2012 loss to Philadelphia and hasn’t seen the floor in a postseason game since. He has shown flashes of great things since coming back late this season. The Bulls absolutely need him at a high level, or else. The Bulls also have Jimmy Butler, who has been great all season and is a true Most Improved Player candidate. Chicago has lost eight of its past nine playoff games under coach Tom Thibodeau, whose job security might hinge on Chicago going deep in these playoffs. The Bucks have already overachieved under first-year coach Jason Kidd, getting big contributions from players such as Khris Middleton, who was part of a 15-win team last year and now is a go-to option.
No. 4 Toronto Raptors (49-33) vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards (46-36)
This is matchup of two of the elite point guards in the game in Toronto’s Kyle Lowry vs. Washington’s John Wall. Lowry could have left Toronto last summer and didn’t; Wall shot only 37 percent in last year’s playoffs for Washington and needs to improve that number. The Wizards also have 37-year-old SF Paul Pierce, who helped Brooklyn win a Game 7 at Toronto last year, and his recollections of that series should be invaluable to the Wizards now. Toronto won the season series 3-0, but one of the victories was in overtime and another went down to the buzzer. Still, out of the first 103 minutes where the teams went head-to-head this season, the Raptors trailed for all of 23 seconds. Toronto is seeking a playoff breakthrough, having never won a best-of-seven series.
No. 1 Golden State Warriors (67-15) vs. No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans (45-37)
Leading league MVP candidate Stephen Curry goes against the league’s unquestioned budding megastar in New Orleans’ Anthony Davis. And the Pelicans, who didn’t qualify for the postseason until the final day of the regular season, will play like they have nothing to lose. The Pelicans lost three of four meetings this season but did win at home in their last meeting earlier this month, and New Orleans actually did OK against the Warriors’ starry backcourt of Curry and Klay Thompson, holding them to a combined 43 percent shooting. The Pelicans will have to do that again, or even better. The Warriors will turn to Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut to try and slow down Davis. If Davis gets rolling, the Warriors will have cause for worry. Some cause, anyway.
No. 2 Houston Rockets (56-26) vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks (50-32)
Houston’s James Harden missed out on the scoring title and will likely miss out on the league MVP as well, but now he gets a chance for something better. Harden has yet to get Houston past the first round, and his postseason career to date has been erratic at best. There’s serious star power in this series between Texas rivals, with players such as Harden, Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki and others. But the matchup of centers between Dallas’ Tyson Chandler and Houston’s Dwight Howard will be vital. Some guys can get on scoring streaks; these two 7-footers can get on rebound streaks. The Rockets won the season series 3-1, but the combined score of those four games: Rockets 402, Mavericks 398. Dallas had double-digit leads in three of the games.
No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs. No. 6 San Antonio Spurs (55-27)
The best of the eight first-round matchups could very well be this one, pitting the defending champion Spurs against a Clippers team that is still looking for that big postseason breakout. The teams split four meetings this year. San Antonio rolled through the last third of its schedule but missed out on a chance to finish No. 2 in the West, falling to the 6 spot instead. Point guards Chris Paul of the Clippers and Tony Parker of the Spurs have gone head-to-head 43 times, and Paul has had the better stats — but Parker and the Spurs have won 28 of those matchups. The power forward matchup sees a pair of former No. 1 picks, the Spurs’ Tim Duncan from 1997 and the Clippers’ Blake Griffin from 2009. Duncan’s next playoff game will be the 235th of his career, while Griffin has played in only 30.
No. 4 Portland Trail Blazers (51-31) vs. No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies (55-27)
Portland gets the higher seed by winning the Northwest Division, but it doesn’t have home-court advantage because the Grizzlies had the better record. And both of these teams have serious injury concerns. Memphis also swept the four-game season series, holding the high-octane Trail Blazers to 91.3 points per game — more than 12 points below their average output against everyone else. Still, Blazers stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard have been able to get their numbers against Memphis this season. The Dave Joerger-coached Grizzlies are hoping for the return to health of defensive ace Tony Allen, who hasn’t played since late March because of a bad hamstring. ASSOCIATED PRESS