NBA playoff preview

Associated Press • Apr 20, 2007 at 10:09 AM

Season series: Pistons won 4-0, including a victory last week in Detroit that gave them home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs. Chauncey Billups shot 63 percent and averaged 26 points against the Magic.

Story line: Top-seeded Detroit opens against a sub.-500 team for the second straight year, welcoming former Pistons Grant Hill and Darko Milicic back to the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Key matchup I: Chris Webber vs. Dwight Howard. Howard has become nearly an automatic double-double, sort of like Webber was in his prime. Now Webber, who helped jump-start the Pistons after signing with his hometown team, will have to use his smarts to slow the Magic's All-Star center.

Key matchup II: Tayshaun Prince vs. Hill. Hill has struggled with injuries ever since leaving Detroit, but had a nice game at the Palace in the most recent meeting, scoring 22 points. It's up to the versatile Prince to prevent him from doing it again.

X-factor: Hedo Turkoglu. Had a strong April, and is one of the few Magic players with playoff experience from his years in Sacramento.

Season series: Cavaliers 2-1. Only one meeting came after the Wizards lost All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, with Cleveland winning 99-94 in Washington on April 6. LeBron James shot only 39 percent while averaging 23.7 points against the Wizards.

Story line: Cavaliers clinched No. 2 seed on final night of the regular season to earn what many consider the easiest first-round opponent. The Wizards have stumbled badly since losing Arenas and Butler to injuries.

Key matchup I: James vs. Antawn Jamison. The Cavs ask James to do everything because he can. The Wizards are now forced to do the same with Jamison because they have no choice, since he's the only member of their Big Three still playing.

Key matchup II: Larry Hughes vs. Antonio Daniels. Washington needs someone else to score, and Daniels, a playoff veteran, has the quickness to do it. Hughes, the former Wizards star, is a strong defensive guard who will try to prevent it.

X-factor: DeShawn Stevenson. With so much scoring missing, the Wizards need to make up for it with defense. That's what Stevenson is in Washington for, and will get some turns at stopping James.

Season series: Tied 2-2, with each team winning twice on its home floor. All four games were decided by double digits.

Story line: The surprising Atlantic Division champions against the team that was the preseason pick to win it. The series sends former Raptors star Vince Carter back to Toronto, where he will likely be booed every time he touches the ball.

Key matchup I: Chris Bosh vs. Mikki Moore. Bosh, a first-time All-Star starter who averaged 22.6 points and 10.7 rebounds, is capable of scoring on the blocks or from the outside. Moore capitalized on the absence of Nenad Krstic to have the best season of his career, shooting a league-best 60.9 percent.

Key matchup II: T.J. Ford vs. Jason Kidd. The acquisition of the speedy Ford in an offseason trade with Milwaukee was one of the catalysts for Toronto's improvement. Kidd, one of the NBA's best defensive point guards, will try to slow him down.

X-factor: Anthony Parker. With the Raptors having such little postseason experience, the former star in Europe could be a calming presence, especially if he's knocking down his jumpers.

Season series: Bulls 3-1, highlighted by a 108-66 rout on opening night in Miami. The Heat's lone victory was a 103-70 romp in Chicago, where Miami is just 1-9 all-time in the postseason.

Story line: Loss at New Jersey on final night of the regular season leaves the Bulls with rematch of tense first-round series with Heat. Miami won in six games last year to start its run to the NBA title.

Key matchup I: Dwyane Wade vs. Kirk Hinrich. Hinrich defends and frustrates his USA teammate about as well as anyone. The Bulls will surely bump Wade around to see if his shoulder and knee can handle the punishment.

Key matchup II: Ben Wallace vs. Shaquille O'Neal. No matter what teams they are playing for, this matchup in the pivot is becoming an annual occurrence. Both players had below-average regular seasons for their standards, but the Bulls didn't throw $60 million at Wallace for that, and this is the only time of year that matters to Shaq.

X-factor: James Posey. Missed the regular-season finale with an injured shoulder, but Heat expect him to be ready. He'd likely be called upon to slow Luol Deng or Andres Nocioni, Chicago's aggressive swingmen.

Season series: Warriors 3-0, though throw out the last one after Dallas rested just about anybody important in the second-to-last game of the season.

Story line: A familiar face is the Mavericks' first obstacle in their quest to return to the NBA finals. Former Dallas coach Don Nelson has the Warriors back in the playoffs for the first time since 1994, when he was in his previous stint in the Bay Area.

Key matchup I: Josh Howard vs. Stephen Jackson or Al Harrington. A first-time All-Star, there are some who say Howard is the Mavs' best all-around player. Part of that is because of his strong defensive play, which he'll be called upon to show off against one of the Warriors' versatile forwards.

Key matchup II: Devin Harris vs. Baron Davis. Davis played superbly this season when healthy, and he has the strength to overpower Harris, who must take advantage of his quickness edge.

X-factor: Erick Dampier. Nellie loves to play small, but may have to alter his plans if the Mavs leave their center out on the floor and he controls the area around the rim.

Season series: Suns 3-1, giving them 10 victories in the past 12 regular-season meetings. Kobe Bryant averaged 27.3 points, more than four below his league-best average, in three games against Phoenix.

Story line: Rematch of a first-round series from last year, which Suns won in seven games. But circumstances are different this time. Suns have Amare Stoudemire, and the Lakers don't have the momentum they did after a strong finish a year ago.

Key matchup I: Raja Bell vs. Bryant. Bell isn't afraid to challenge the league's leading scorer, getting hit with a one-game suspension in last year's series for taking Bryant down with a hard foul. Bryant shot only 40.5 percent against the Suns this season.

Key matchup II: Stoudemire vs. Kwame Brown. Lakers coach Phil Jackson has said this series will be tougher this time because of Stoudemire, who missed the 2006 postseason while recovering from knee surgery. Brown played well on both ends of that series for the Lakers, who need him to do it again.

X-factor: Kurt Thomas. If the Lakers are successful in slowing the tempo and pounding it into the post, Thomas will likely get a shot to guard one of the opposing big men.

Season series: Spurs 2-1. Denver won easily in the season finale while both teams rested their top players. The first meeting came during Carmelo Anthony's suspension for fighting, and the Spurs held Anthony and Allen Iverson to a combined 24 points while winning the second one.

Story line: Two teams with plenty of momentum heading to the postseason. San Antonio had the NBA's best record after the All-Star break, and is much healthier than it was at this time last year. The Anthony-Iverson pairing took some time, but it paid off down the stretch as the Nuggets surged to the No. 6 seed.

Key matchup I: Tony Parker vs. Iverson. Perhaps the NBA's two fastest players with the ball. Iverson was slowed by an ankle injury in the second matchup, so the Spurs have only seen that speed from him once since he joined the Nuggets.

Key matchup II: Bruce Bowen vs. Anthony. Bowen, one of the league's best 1-on-1 defenders, tries to shut down one of its top scorers. Anthony averaged 19.2 points while being played by Bowen when these teams met in the first round of the 2005 playoffs.

X-factor: Marcus Camby. When healthy, he has been a dominant shot blocker and defensive rebounder. Now he needs to make things tough for Tim Duncan and help negate the penetration by Parker and Manu Ginobili.

Season series: Jazz 3-1, though the Rockets rested Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming in a meaningless season-ending game Wednesday. Houston has scored 100 points only twice in the past 13 meetings.

Story line: A pair of former Western Conference powers return to the postseason, with Houston All-Star McGrady trying again to get out of the opening round for the first time.

Key matchup I: Mehmet Okur vs. Yao. Two All-Star international centers who play the game in different ways. Okur is a terrific perimeter shooter who came through with a number of clutch baskets this season. Yao has been dominant down on the blocks when healthy.

Key matchup II: Andrei Kirilenko vs. Shane Battier. Excellent team defenders who can block shots, get steals and guard players at multiple positions. Kirilenko had a disappointing season and missed five games down the stretch with a thumb injury, but this is a chance to forget about that.

X-factor: Chuck Hayes. The Rockets know they'll get offense from Yao and McGrady, but need somebody to defend and rebound against Jazz All-Star Carlos Boozer. Hayes, only 6-foot-6, might be the best hope.

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