NBA playoff first-round predictions

NBA playoff first-round predictions
April 18, 2013, 11:45 am
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The NBA's second season begins this weekend and there are questions to be answered.

Will the Miami Heat, coming off a dominant regular season, be challenged along the way or even be dethroned as they pursue a repeat title?

Does a veteran San Antonio Spurs team have what it takes to get back to the Finals or are the younger Oklahoma City Thunder runaway favorites in the West?

Can teams like the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers emerge as true contenders?

How will the Los Angeles Lakers fare without injured superstar Kobe Bryant?

And of course, will Derrick Rose return in the playoffs?

[RELATED: Bulls-Nets playoff schedule]

These things will reveal themselves as April turns into May and May becomes June, but for now here are some predictions about what will happen in the first round of the playoffs:

Heat-Bucks: Heat, 4-0
In the most lopsided first-round matchup in either conference, Miami should make quick work of Milwaukee as LeBron James alone, let alone All-Star sidekicks Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, can't be stopped by the weakest of all postseason qualifiers. Although the backcourt trio of Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick and the inside duo of the versatile Ersan Ilyasova and shot-blocking force Larry Sanders could make it entertaining for stretches.

Knicks-Celtics: Knicks, 4-3
This series could be closer than expected, as New York doesn't have a major size advantage and even without Rajon Rondo, the experience of Boston veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett could steal a game or two. NBA scoring champ Carmelo Anthony has been on such a roll lately that paired with the additional firepower of J.R. Smith, a geriatric Knicks squad should prevail over a slightly less elderly Celtics team.

Pacers-Hawks: Pacers, 4-0
Indiana gets an easy tuneup series against Atlanta. While the likes of Al Horford, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague have the talent to do damage, the Pacers -- now postseason veterans -- have their sights set on bigger goals and shouldn't look past the Hawks. Indiana's stifling defense and the frontline of Roy Hibbert, David West and All-Star Paul George will be too formidable.

Nets-Bulls: Bulls, 4-2
Although Brooklyn has been playing better basketball of late, the rugged Bulls' defensive focus, offensive balance and the newfound combination of good health and solid depth will wear down the Nets, resulting in a second-round showdown with the defending champions.

[MORE: A look inside Bulls-Nets first-round matchup]

Thunder-Rockets: Thunder, 4-1
Oklahoma City simply has too much firepower and the duo of All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant should overwhelm Houston, though former teammate James Harden could singlehandedly stave off a sweep by replicating one of his monster performances from his breakout season.

Lakers-Spurs: Spurs, 4-1
If San Antonio was healthy, this would probably be a sweep, but the big-man tandem of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard have the ability to dominate inside enough to steal at least one win. But the Spurs' collective weapons, even with mainstays like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard hobbled, will put the Lakers' soap-opera season out of its misery.

Nuggets-Warriors: Nuggets, 4-2
Denver's depth, athleticism and relentless transition game has a worthy foe in fast-breaking Golden State, but despite the Warriors' defensive improvement this season, the Nuggets' onslaught will prove to be too much. 

Clippers-Grizzlies: Grizzlies, 4-3
A rematch of last year's playoff matchup, each team has made some changes -- Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin, among others are gone; Tayshaun Prince, Jerryd Bayless, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes are among the new faces. And while Clippers floor general Chris Paul will still be the best player on the floor, given a second bite at the apple, the Grizzlies' defense and a healthy version of the Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol pairing should be the difference in the most evenly-matched first-round series.