The first round of the NBA playoffs is usually a formality, an opportunity for 55 win teams to show off how much better they are than 46 win ones. That probably won't be the case this year. I can readily see five of the eight series going deep into their second week.
The reason for this is fairly simple; the standings are unusually close. In the Western Conference, only seven games separate the #1 seed Los Angeles Lakers and the #8 seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In the 2-7 matchup between the Dallas Mavericks (2nd) and the San Antonio Spurs (7th), the lower seed has nearly twice the point differential of their higher seeded in state rival. The Western #4 vs. #5 matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz features two teams with identical records.
ESPN's John Hollinger, a writer I admire, noted this week that in the first round the higher seeded team with the better regular season record almost always wins these matchups, (41 of the last 41 times), but this season looks like its built for exceptions.
I think Cleveland, Orlando, and Phoenix will breeze into the second round, but the other five series will have the drama of a much later round.
The Utah Denver series will depend entirely on the health of Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin and Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko (Jazz power forward Carlos Boozer is also ailing but the team has a more than adequate backup in Paul Millsap); without knowledge on their availability, the series is too close to call.
The Lakers should find themselves in a tough series against the young, inexperienced Thunder. The Thunder's strength is their perimeter defense; they use their length to deflect passes and create turnovers. The Lakers weakness on offense is spreading the floor (they have no consistent three point shooters presently). I can't see an upset but I'd be surprised if this doesn't go six games.
In the latest edition of the battle of Texas, I can see the Mavericks overcoming the Spurs entirely due to the depth they picked up at the trade deadline when they added Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood from Washington. The Mavericks were one of the better teams after the break, though their opposition is somewhat underseeded due to a bad run of injuries.
The Atlanta Hawks won't breeze into the next round but they are significantly better than the Milwaukee Bucks, who are missing their starting center Andrew Bogut. With him, the Bucks could have taken this series seven games, instead it will probably be six.
The Boston Celtics of current vintage usually play a surprisingly dramatic first round series and this season should be no exception. Their matchup with the Miami Heat won't go several overtimes, but it should go seven games. The Celtics staggered to the finish, and the Heat who finished only three games behind Boston were one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch. Seeing how Boston defends Dwayne Wade will be the highlight of the first round. This series will only surprise if it doesn't go seven games.