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First round of NBA playoffs offers intriguing matchups

LeBron James, a tremendous weight lifted from his shoulders, clutched the Larry O’Brien Trophy last June as if it would be his forever. Will the scene be repeated this season? » James and the Heat finished with the best overall record in the NBA and will have homecourt advantage through the postseason. Miami opens defense of its championship at 7 p.m. Sunday against Milwaukee (TNT). The New York Knicks, who captured their first Atlantic Division title since 1994, are seeded second in the East behind the Heat and open the playoffs against Boston at 3 p.m. today (Ch. 7). » The Oklahoma City Thunder, who posted the best record in the West, will try to make the Finals for the second time in as many seasons. The Thunder open against former teammate James Harden and the Houston Rockets at 9:30 p.m. Sunday (TNT). The Kobe Bryant-less Los Angeles Lakers open against the San Antonio Spurs at 3:30 p.m. Sunday (Ch. 7).

Here’s a look at the first-round matchups (seeding in parentheses):

Eastern Conference

Miami (1) vs. Milwaukee (8)

Story line: The Heat led the East from the start and finished 66-16. Although the Bucks are the worst team to make the playoffs, they gave the Heat problems in two of their four meetings.

Key matchup: Mario Chalmers vs. Brandon Jennings. Chalmers has good size and quick hands and has stepped up his game defensively the last two seasons. Jennings enjoyed his best season offensively and utilizes his speed to blow by defenders.

Outlook: This should be a nice first-round test for the Heat. Young, fast guards give Miami problems and the Bucks have two of the most pulsating scorers in the league in Jennings and Monta Ellis. James is playing the best basketball of his career, and Dwyane Wade has come on since the All-Star break after starting slowly with injuries. The Heat will be tested but Milwaukee lacks the tools for the upset.

Prediction: Heat in four.

New York (2) vs. Boston (7)

Story line: It can be argued that the Knicks have been the NBA’s best team since the All-Star break and that Carmelo Anthony has been the league’s MVP. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett play at a higher level in the postseason but the Celtics are playing without their best player, Rajon Rondo.

Key matchup: Anthony vs. Pierce. Anthony produced his best season as a pro – league-high 28.7 ppg., 6.9 rpg. and 2.6 apg. – because he worked more in the low post where he can overpower smaller defenders. Pierce was close to his career averages across the board and at 35 has shown he can still put up points.

Outlook: This is the sexiest of the eight first-round matchups. Anthony has advanced out of the first round just once in his career and would love to prove his critics wrong. The aging Celtics can still defend and if the Knicks don’t share the ball and revert to running isolations for Anthony and J.R. Smith, Boston has a chance. But if the Knicks stick to the plan offensively, the Celtics don’t have enough on offense to keep up.

Prediction: Knicks in six.

Indiana (3) vs. Atlanta (6)

Story line: With their rugged defense led by All-Star Paul George, the Pacers are a good bet as a sleeper in the East. The best way to rattle a good defensive team is with jump shots, and the Hawks have shooters in Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson and John Jenkins.

Key matchup: Roy Hibbert vs. Al Horford. After a slow start, Hibbert has rediscovered his shooting touch and is once again one of the league’s best back-to-the-basket weapons. Horford will have difficulty guarding Hibbert one-on-one, and Atlanta will likely double him, but Horford’s mid-range jumper will pull Hibbert away from the basket. That will allow for more layups for Jeff Teague and Devin Harris.

Outlook: The Pacers are a team that can win with balance, defense and depth, something the Hawks are ill-equipped to counter.

Prediction: Pacers in five.

Brooklyn (4) vs. Chicago (5)

Story line: This would be so much more delectable with point guards Deron Williams and Derrick Rose going mano-a-mano, but Rose’s return from a torn ACL is unlikely, so we’re left with a meeting of evenly matched teams. Chicago center Joakim Noah (plantar fascitis) could miss the entire series.

Key matchup: Joe Johnson vs. Jimmy Butler. This looks like a huge mismatch in favor of Johnson, but while Butler isn’t much of a scorer he is a strong, physical defender for the Bulls. Johnson is not the player he was in Atlanta for seven seasons and his shooting percentage (42.3) and scoring average (16.3) are his lowest in 10 years.

Outlook: After a disappointing start to the season, Williams is once again playing at an All-Star level and the Nets played well the last month of the season. Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau deserves Coach of the Year after milking the most from his team in Rose’s absence, but losing Noah is too much to overcome.

Prediction: Nets in seven.

Western Conference

Oklahoma City (1) vs. Houston (8)

Story line: The Rockets and Thunder ranked second and third in the league in scoring, which means there won’t be much halfcourt basketball until the final few minutes of each game. Intensity will be high with Harden playing against his old teammates although the Thunder don’t seem to miss him much.

Key matchup: Kevin Durant vs. Harden. These are two of the top five scorers with Durant missing out on another scoring title while Harden will be out to prove the Thunder made a mistake by trading him.

Outlook: Durant and Russell Westbrook are premier scorers, and the Rockets play defense as an afterthought. It should be fun to watch but enjoy it while you can.

Prediction: Thunder in five.

San Antonio (2) vs. L.A. Lakers (7)

Story line: No Kobe Bryant means few are giving the Lakers even a remote chance to win this series, but San Antonio is banged up. Tony Parker is battling a sore ankle while Manu Ginobili has been bothered by a hamstring injury. The Spurs picked up Tracy McGrady this week, which would have been a bold move if this were 2003.

Key matchup: Tim Duncan vs. Dwight Howard. Duncan, who turns 38 next Thursday, put up his best scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking numbers since the 2009-10 season and remains a force on the low blocks. Word around L.A. is that with Bryant on the sidelines, Howard has become more assertive in the locker room and will show the full range of his ability in the playoffs.

Outlook: The Lakers, who could be without Steve Nash for at least Game One, have to pound the ball inside to Howard and Pau Gasol to stand a chance. The Spurs’ role players – Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Gary Neal – are young, athletic and disruptive defensively.

Prediction: Spurs in five.

Denver (3) vs. Golden State (6)

Story line: The Nuggets lack a legitimate superstar but have one of the NBA’s best records because of their depth and veteran coach George Karl. Mark Jackson isn’t as experienced as Karl, but he has productive, aggressive guards in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and is growing as a strategist.

Key matchup: Curry vs. Ty Lawson. Curry, who set the single-season record for three-pointers, is a gifted scorer and hard to defend because he’s deceptively quick. Lawson is quick and good at keeping opponents out of the lane. He makes the Nuggets’ fastbreak purr and will make Curry work defensively.

Outlook: Denver would be a bigger threat in the West if Danilo Gallinari wasn’t out with a knee injury but Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler, Corey Brewer and Evan Fournier more than make up for the loss.

Prediction: Nuggets in 6.

L.A. Clippers (4) vs. Memphis (5)

Story line: A rematch from last season’s playoffs won by Los Angeles in a grueling seven-game series. The Clippers want to run with Chris Paul at the point while the Grizzlies want a slower pace and dump the ball inside to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

Key matchup: Randolph vs. Blake Griffin. Randolph had been consistent offensively until April when he shot just 39.8 percent in seven games. Never a quality defender, Randolph did a good job against Griffin in four games this season, holding the athletic big man to an average of 13.7 points, five under his season average. He shot better than 50 percent just once.

Outlook: Deep, physical and athletic, the Clippers revolve around Paul but he could find himself matched up against Tayshaun Prince, who remains a quality defender. That might be able to slow down the Clippers but it won’t stop them over the long haul.

Prediction: Clippers in seven.