By Evan Benton Staff Writer, Cody Norman Staff Writer, Brian T. Chan Sports Editor

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Oklahoma City Thunder
In the incredibly competitive West, young upstarts Oklahoma City are looking to bring the lightning to the defending champion Lakers and perennial overachiever Kobe Bryant. However, the Lakers look to defend their title with one of the top defenders in the league, Ron Artest. Los Angeles was rated in the top 10 this season, allowing just 96.3 points per game thanks to the suffocating defensive play from Artest.

The Thunder feature scoring title-winner Kevin Durant, who is the youngest to ever hold the vaunted award at 21, single-handedly giving birth to professional Oklahoma sports with a franchise-record 48 30-plus point games in the season. This looks to be a series with the possibility for upset around every corner — the perfect storm for young upstarts to unseat the champs.

No. 2 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio and Dallas lock longhorns for the second year in a row and the fifth time in the Tim Duncan – Dirk Nowitzki era. The Spurs went through an unusually slow season, but picked it up at the end, with the return of a healthy Tony Parker to complement future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan, Richard Jefferson and the baddest boy in the league, Manu Ginobili. Ginobili leads the team in 3-point shooting, assists and steals. The triple-threat athlete looks to penetrate a tough Dallas defense.

The Mavericks hope to continue their usual great season standing, supplemented by recently acquired Caron Butler and the unstoppable skills of 37-year-old Jason Kidd. Butler contributed 15.2 points per game in his 27 appearances since the trade. Brendan Haywood provides more depth to an already deep team, and with him, the team has an exceptional shot blocker. Haywood ranked fourth in the league with 2.1 blocks per game this year.

No. 3 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers
Scoring an average of 110 points a game, no team is hotter than Phoenix at the moment, having gone on a 23-6 firestorm since the All-Star break with Steve Nash and Grant Hill making shots and Amare Stoudemire announcing his return with a dunking display for the ages. Stoudemire continues to be a dominant force, leading the high-octane offense with 23.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.

Next on the warpath is Portland, a team looking to overcome the injury of its star player Brandon Roy. The Blazers have a highly energized young core with the 24-year-old forward LaMarcus Aldridge leading the pack. Aldridge averaged 17.9 points and eight rebounds per game. Behind him, Martell Webster, Nicolas Batum, Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez will hope to provide a spark for Rip City.

No. 4 Denver Nuggets vs. No.5 Utah Jazz
The Rockies are slated to get a whole lot hotter when Utah and Denver face off for the first time since 1994, when the Jazz won a hard-fought seven-game series. That team, however, did not have Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and massive Brazilian center Nenê. Anthony was third in the league with a scoring average of 28.2 points per game.

The Jazz boast standout point guard Deron Williams, but Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer are uncertain with their day-to-day injuries. Williams has already proven to be a potent passer and scorer, but the Jazz will need help to advance to the second round as this highly anticipated matchup has the making of a seesaw battle.

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Chicago Bulls
After electing to rest their starters for the last week or more of the regular season, the Cavaliers are going to need a tune-up series before they get down to the nitty gritty. With the return of Shaquille O’Neal, the Cavaliers look to dominate the Eastern Conference side of the field. LeBron James, the second leading scorer in the NBA, hopes to win his first championship ring.

The Chicago Bulls have gone through the drama with a disastrous loss to the Sacramento Kings, in which the Bulls surrendered a 35-point lead in the third quarter, to a confrontation between Vice President John Paxson and Head Coach Vinny Del Negro. But, with the emergence of point guard Derrick Rose, the Bulls provide a challenge for the NBA’s top team.

No. 2 Orlando Magic vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats qualified for postseason for the first time in franchise history, and Charlotte has not had a postseason since the Hornets moved to New Orleans in 2002. Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson provide the modern day Charlotte basketball team with a scoring combination that rivals any team in the East, but their lack of playoff experience could play an integral role in their possible downfall this season.

The Magic improved their roster with the addition of the electric Vince Carter. While Carter averaged 16.6 points per game during the season, the Magic are still led by their big man in the paint. Dwight Howard shot 61.2 percent from the field while putting up 18.3 points per game. Howard led the league with 13.2 rebounds per game.

No. 3 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks
The Hawks were once the laughingstocks in the NBA, but with their third consecutive playoff appearance, the Hawks are a stronger team since they valiantly pushed the Celtics to seven games two years ago. Atlanta is young like the Bobcats, but they have the playoff experience that forces them in as a possible contender this season. Joe Johnson led the team with 21.3 points per game, and Jamal Crawford added 18 points per game in his first year with the team since coming from the Golden State. The real threat is Josh Smith, who averages 15.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game.

A decade ago, the Bucks were on the rise with Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, and Sam Cassell, but that era has ended a while ago. Now, the team is depending on its young squad with rookie Brandon Jennings and former top overall pick Andrew Bogut. The team has been subpar in its recent history, but with its youth, the team is once again on the rise. The addition of veteran John Salmons has been a key move by the team’s front office in fielding a competitive roster. Salmons averaged a team-high 19.9 points per game since he was acquired in the trade with the Bulls. Despite the improvement over the past year, the Bucks are the huge underdog in this matchup.

No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat
The Celtics can no longer depend on the Big Three for its production on offense. The team has seen the emergence of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins this season. Rondo, who averaged 13.7 points per game, has gradually improved his shooting, posting a solid 50.8 field-goal percentage while continually playing exceptional defense. Perkins led the Celtics with 7.6 rebounds per game.

In a debate to whether a team should have an iconic player or a team-oriented lineup, the Heat depend solely on Dwyane Wade. Not to downplay the roles Michael Beasley and Jermaine O’Neal have played this season, but Wade, who averaged 26.6 points per game, is the player that will carry the Heat.