No. 2 Hornets vs. No. 7 Mavericks
Everyone expected the Hornets to compete for a playoff spot, but nobody anticipated them winning the Southwest Division and nearly the top seed. Point guard Chris Paul has evolved into a superstar and forward David West an All-Star, with Byron Scott another candidate for best coach. Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson add long-range shooting from the wings, while Tyson Chandler has become a force on the boards and in the post at center. But for them to succeed, they'll need some consistent productivity from Bonzi Wells and Jannero Pargo from the bench. The Mavericks are an interesting team right now, struggling all season after fashioning the league's best record a year ago. A mid-season trade for Jason Kidd shook things up, and then Dirk Nowitzki went down with a knee and ankle injury. But the injury seemed to galvanize the team, setting off Josh Howard and Jason Terry on scoring binges, and Nowitzki has returned with both barrels loaded. Jerry Stackhouse has been out with a groin injury, but is expected to play, and Erick Dampier must be solid rebounding and blocking shots. This is a big test for the fledgling Hornets, who split the regular-season series but lost their 11th in a row in Dallas Wednesday night.
Pick: Mavs in 7
No. 3 Spurs vs. No. 6 Suns
The Suns won the season series 3-1, and this figures to be a great one on the heels of last season's controversial Spurs' six-game win in the conference semifinals. The big change, of course is the Suns now have Shaquille O'Neal to man the middle, freeing Amare Stoudemire from guarding Tim Duncan while having a lot more room to roam on offense. Superb point guard Steve Nash now also has Grant Hill as a running mate in the backcourt, with Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell and Boris Diaw filling crucial roles as well. The defending champion Spurs are still built around their terrific trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and 2007 Finals MVP Tony Parker, with Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen as consistent as ever in their roles on the wings, and Fabricio Oberto in the post next to Duncan. They've added Ime Udoka and Kurt Thomas for depth up front, and Ginobili has been troubled by a strained groin lately, but they are for the most part healthy. The Spurs also have Matt Bonner for depth off the bench, with aging Robert Horry not healthy, and Jacque Vaughn and Damon Stoudemire behind Parker. The Spurs have homecourt, but the Suns are on a mission. I see it going the distance.
Pick: Spurs in 7
No. 4 Jazz vs. No. 5 Rockets
The Jazz won the season series 2-1 and have the confidence of having come back from down 3-2 to knock out the Rockets last year in the first round. Besides, the Rockets don't have center Yao Ming, out with a fractured foot, and have been leaning on ageless Dikembe Mutombo and forwards Luis Scola and Carl Landry for minutes in the middle. Shane Battier is a superb defensive small forward and clutch 3-point shooter, but the key is their backcourt, with Rafer Alston having a career year at the point, and the great scoring explosiveness of Tracy McGrady. But Alston has been out with a hamstring strain and he won't start the playoffs, so veteran Bobby Jackson will start in his place. And with the Jazz 37-4 at home this season, it will be a tall order for the Rockets, despite their record-setting 22-game winning streak. The combination of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer is one of the best in the game, plus Andrei Kirilenko is back playing at a high level, with Ronnie Brewer vastly improved and Mehmet Okur a dangerous shooter. Even more to the point is the Jazz depth, including not only Matt Harpring, but tough Paul Millsap for help up front, plus the key acquisition of sharp-shooter Kyle Korver. It's hard to figure why the Jazz have been 17-24 on the road, nonetheless, they are the better team.
Pick: Jazz in 6