This weekend marks the beginning of the best two months of basketball (outside of March Madness), the NBA Playoffs! In the Eastern Conference we have three top-seeds who are expected to move on with ease, meaning every series but one is fairly predictable. Let’s take a look at which teams should be moving on to the second round in the East.
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (8) Chicago Bulls –
Mo Williams vs. Derrick Rose
Joakim Noah vs. Shaquille O’Neal/Zydrunas Ilgauskus/Anderson Varejao
LeBron James vs. Entire Bulls Roster
Let the countdown begin. This is either the beginning of the end for LeBron James and the Cavs, or the beginning of James’ march to his first title. The Cavs will start off what could turn out to be the most important playoff run in NBA history against the eighth-seeded Bulls, trying to win a championship and assure that they don’t lose LeBron to free agency this off-season. They should have a pretty easy time in the first round against a Chicago team that is just happy to be here today, getting into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.
There are a few interesting match-ups in this series which will decide the winner, and in most cases they are emphatically in the Cavs favor. The most intriguing individual match-up has to be former All-Star Mo Williams against current All-Star and future MVP candidate Derrick Rose. Williams has displayed his All-Star ability when it was most needed this season, stepping up in big games when other Cavs were going down with injuries and LeBron needed support. Rose has been playing on a whole different level, leading his squad to the eventual eight-seed by capping a great regular season close with a career-high 39-point game against Rajon Rondo and the Boston Celtics a couple nights ago. Another key match-up will be going on inside the paint, where the Cavs have a decided advantage over the Bulls. Cleveland has Big Z, Shaq and Sideshow Varejao, while the Bulls have, well, Joakim Noah. The Cavs should dominate the paint in every game, pounding the boards and forcing the Bulls to beat them from the outside. Unfortunately for the Bulls, they don’t have the outside shooters to make the Cavs pay.
While the Bulls could give Cleveland fits if they get out and running, the Cavs are on a mission and won’t allow Chicago to steal more than a game. The Cavs march on to destiny within five quick games. Cavs in 5
(2) Orlando Magic vs. (7) Charlotte Bobcats –
Stephen Jackson vs. Vince Carter
Gerald Wallace vs. Rashard Lewis
Dwight Howard vs. Tyson Chandler
Has there ever been a defending conference champion as overlooked as the Orlando Magic? There have been some great stories this NBA season, but it seems like we are all focused on LeBron’s MVP march and the Lakers end of season struggles. The Magic opponent even got more playoff publicity, as the Bobcats surprised most folks and claimed their first playoff berth in franchise history. While the Lakers and Cavs get all the publicity, there is only one team in the NBA who beat every other franchise this year, and that was Orlando. Meanwhile, the Bobcats finally got the proverbial monkey off their backs and made it to the second season.
Unfortunately for Charlotte, it seems they have drawn the worst possible match-up in the first round. Dwight Howard is a player that gives all teams fits, and the one thing the Bobcats didn’t want to see was a center that dominates the paint. On second thought, that’s something no team wants to see come playoff time. With Tyson Chandler having a freshly injured arm after a fall in the last game of the season and Nazr Mohammed greatly falling off from his early season production, the Cats don’t seem built to contain Howard inside. This is all under the assumption that Howard can stay out of foul trouble of course, which will be a huge problem with Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace going hard into the paint all series long. The three-point shooting will be huge in this series; if Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter are on from outside, then Charlotte can’t pack it in and double Howard all series long.
It’s possible that the Bobcats could be a difficult draw that ends up dragging out this series longer than expected, but the Magic are way too deep and way too strong in the paint to be slowed down for more than a game. Orlando moves closer to a Finals return in five tough games. Magic in 5
(3) Atlanta Hawks vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks –
Mike Bibby vs. Brandon Jennings
Joe Johnson vs. John Salmons
Hawks deep front court vs. Bucks depleted front court
No team heads into the playoffs with more disappointment than the Milwaukee Bucks. After giving the proverbial middle finger to all the so-called experts who predicted the Bucks to finish last in the East, Milwaukee suffered a huge blow when they lost center Andrew Bogut to a gruesome arm injury. The Hawks, meanwhile, have spent the entire season trying to prove to everyone that they belong in the NBA’s elite, and for the most part greatly succeeding. It is not far-fetched to see them upsetting the Magic and taking on the the Cavs in the Conference Finals. However, like the Cavs, they face great uncertainty due to the impending free-agency of Joe Johnson, which makes this playoff run all the more important.
While there might not be much drama in this series, there definitely will be some great individual match-ups. In what might possibly be the highest-scoring one on one showdown in the first round, Joe Johnson and John Salmons will be trading buckets all series long. For Salmons, the Hawks might be just the team he wanted to see heading into his own impending free agency. The Bucks major trade-deadline acquisition averaged over 30 points per game in his three match-ups against the Hawks post-trade. Also, while not providing as much of a scoring explosion as the two-guards, the point men represent a match-up of the old guard taking on the new. Mike Bibby is a grizzled playoff veteran who has had countless battles with great teams, while the Bucks point Brandon Jennings is a rookie who has far exceeded expectations and is making his playoff debut. And while the back-court battles may be an even push, the front court edge swings hugely in favor of the Hawks. Atlanta is deep and athletic down low, and the Bucks will not be able to hang without Bogut.
The Hawks are out to prove that they are title contenders, and should make quick work of the Bucks. Milwaukee will have to settle for a regular season that proved everyone wrong and nothing more, as Atlanta makes quick work of them with a sweep. Hawks in 4
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Miami Heat –
Dwyane Wade vs. Paul Pierce
Dwyane Wade vs. Ray Allen
Dwyane Wade vs. Rajon Rondo
There is no series in the East that provides more uncertainty or possibility of an upset than the four versus five match-up. The Celtics are an aging, proud team who still strongly believes they can flip the switch and turn it on come playoff time. Boston has struggled all season long, starting off as a team who many thought could win another championship and now look like a squad whose championship window may have fully shut. The Heat are a team made up of Dwyane Wade, and pretty much nobody else. They are another squad who is trying to make a good playoff run to keep their free-agent-to-be superstar, as Wade can flee Miami for a deeper team this off-season.
Every major match-up in this series focuses around Wade and whoever is guarding him. It’s pretty simple for Boston; if they want to win, they need to stop number 3. Unfortunately for the Celtics, that’s much easier said than done. Much like Kobe a couple of years ago against the Suns, Wade is capable of taking over games by himself and completely swinging the momentum of a game in Miami’s favor. An offensive explosion by Wade can result in igniting a raucous crowd in Miami (if anyone actually shows up) or completely silencing the Boston fans (if they aren’t fully depressed already). Outside shooting will be a big key to the series – if Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are on, their outside touch could cancel out Wade’s big games.
Ultimately, this series will come down to whether or not D-Wade can outplay Boston’s Big 3. With KG still limping around, Ray Allen getting older, and Paul Pierce spending so much energy trying to stop Wade, the Celtics look vulnerable to an upset. Wade takes advantage and shows everyone exactly why he is on the same level as Kobe and Bron in a six game series win. Heat in 6
Belal Abdelfattah is BSO’s newest writer and comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can follow Belal on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/belal_a