Now that the compressed 66-game NBA regular season has ended, the NBA playoffs will begin Saturday. Here’s a look at the match-ups in the best-of-seven, first round of the NBA playoffs.

Eastern Conference

(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (8) Philadelphia 76ers

Bulls - Sixers

Despite several injuries suffered by last season’s MVP, Derrick Rose, that caused him to miss more than two dozen games this season, Central Division champion Chicago (50-16) tied for the NBA’s best record and captured the number one overall seed. Armed with the league’s best defense, the Bulls went 2-1 against Philadelphia in the regular season. The Chicago front court of Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah will be crucial in providing points and defense past what Rose can muster. After leading the Atlantic Division for much of the season, Philadelphia (35-31) had to scramble to make the playoffs after a late-season slump. Coach Doug Collins brings a very balanced team that was led in scoring by reserve Lou Williams at 14.9 points per game. The 76ers’ chances ride on how well they can defend against Rose and if Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand and Jrue Holliday can lift their offensive game to another level.

(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) New York Knicks

Heat - Knicks

Getting outstanding years from superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the defending Eastern Conference champion-Miami Heat (46-20) look like a team set on returning to the NBA Finals. Winners of the Southeast Division, the Heat were 3-0 against New York in the regular season, but they know this long-standing rivalry may mean a long series. Heat center Chris Bosh is nursing a hamstring injury, while Wade has a dislocated left index finger. Both players should be healthy enough to play regular minutes in this series. After stumbling early this season, the Knicks (36-30) rallied to make the post-season, thanks in part to a new coach (Mike Woodson) and a point guard phenom (Jeremy Lin). Out with a knee injury, Lin won’t play again this season, so the Knicks need Baron Davis or Toney Douglas to direct the offense if they are to compete in this series. New York forward Amar’e Stoudemire seems like he is past his back woes, while forward Carmelo Anthony scored 29.8 points per game in April. Some staunch defense will be needed to shut down Miami’s firepower.

(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Orlando Magic

Pacers - Magic

Though they do not have a superstar-laden team like others in the NBA, Indiana (42-24) has a balanced roster with a defensive-minded front court duo of Roy Hibbert and David West, both of whom make opponents work for baskets. Averaging 18.7 points per game, guard Danny Granger is the Pacers offensive star, but coach Frank Vogel’s team shares the scoring responsibility. Orlando (37-29) defeated the Pacers in three of the teams’ four meetings this season, but the Magic will be without center Dwight Howard, who will miss the playoffs after back surgery. Forward Hedo Turkoglu, however, should return from a facial fracture. Orlando will need him and Glen Davis to anchor the interior without Howard. Magic guards Jameer Nelson and J.J. Reddick can score on anyone, but each can be bothered by taller opponents.

(4)Boston Celtics vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks


Atlantic Division champ Boston (39-27) is experienced and talented, but not as deep as in recent championship runs. Center Kevin Garnett, point guard Rajon Rondo and small forward Paul Pierce can all take over a game. Even though Pierce sprained his big toe in the season finale, he is expected to be ready for the playoffs. The Celtics were 2-1 against Atlanta during the season, but the Hawks will have home court advantage in the series due to their better record. Atlanta (40-26) is led by a talented young front line of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, who will challenge the Boston defenders. Hawks center Al Horford is out for the first round, as he has missed the past three months with a torn pectoral muscle. If Atlanta can beat the Celtics, Horford’s return to the lineup could make things interesting in the East.

Western Conference

(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Utah Jazz

Spurs- Jazz

Rarely mentioned in the preseason conversation of the best teams in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs (50-16) finished tied with the Bulls for the NBA’s best record. With guard Tony Parker having an MVP-like year, the Southwest Division champs have won 24 of their last 27 games. In this series, Parker figures to try to exploit Utah’s guards often, as he did when the Spurs went 3-1 against the Jazz this season. Veteran San Antonio forwards Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are playoff tested. The Jazz (36-30) knocked out Phoenix on Tuesday to play their way into the postseason. Utah center Al Jefferson is a rare talent who has nearly defeated some teams by himself while averaging 19.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. Guard Devin Harris must provide another scoring threat to balance the offensive load and make the Spurs work.

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks

Thunder - Mavericks

Few would disagree that Oklahoma City (47-19) has incredible talent. With NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant averaging 28.0 points per game and teammate Russell Westbrook ranking fifth in the league at 23.5 points per game the Northwest Division champions can score. When Thunder forward Serge Ibaka and center Kendrick Perkins defend, dominate the boards and free up Durant and Westbrook, few teams can stay with Oklahoma City. As defending NBA champs, Dallas (36-30) knows what it takes to win, but the Mavericks have not been consistent in 2012. Dallas was just 1-3 against Oklahoma City this season. The Mavericks must get big post-season numbers from veterans like Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion and Dirk Nowitzki to advance past this tough first-round test.

(3) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (6) Denver Nuggets

Lakers - Nuggets

After winning yet another Pacific Division title, the Lakers (41-25) seem poised to make another deep playoff run. Even after the suspension of Metta World Peace for his flagrant elbow last weekend, guard Kobe Bryant and forward Pau Gasol possess enough veteran moxie and talent to guide this team through the first round. Lakers’ center Andrew Bynum could play a key role, having to help defend and score against the Nuggets’ front court depth. The Lakers were 3-1 against Denver (38-28) this season. Nuggets’ point guard Ty Lawson will be a tough assignment for the Lakers’ Ramon Sessions. Lawson’s 16.4 points and 6.6 assists per game helped lead the NBA’s most prolific offense.

(4) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers

Grizzlies - Clippers

Memphis (41-25) is deep and balanced with Zack Randolph easing his way into more minutes as he recovers from a knee injury sustained earlier this season. Forward Rudy Gay is Memphis’ scoring leader with 19.0 points per game. He must help the Grizzlies keep pace with the Clippers’ ‘Lob City’ antics. The NBA playoffs are foreign territory for the Clippers (40-26), who are making only the franchise’s fifth trip to the postseason since moving west from Buffalo in 1978. The team has flourished with the addition of point guard Chris Paul and the further emergence of forward Blake Griffin, who averaged 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. Paul has been bothered by a strained groin, but he will be ready for the playoffs. The Clippers’ athleticism allowed them to beat Memphis two of the three times the teams played during the season.

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