First things first, let me channel my inner Rock…
“FINALLY, THE RESIDENT NBA EXPERT HAS COME BACK TO B-S-O!”
Feels great to be writing again, and wouldn’t you know it just in time for the NBA playoffs.
With quite possibly the greatest regular season in NBA history coming to a close, it’s time to turn our attention to what should be one hell of a postseason. There are intriguing storylines everywhere you look, which of course only causes more excitement for the playoffs to finally kick off.
In the East you have a one-seed trying to arrive a couple of years earlier than expected with the Derrick Rose-led Bulls. You’re two-seed? Only what might be the most hated team in NBA history (outside of Miami of course) being lead by the three-headed monster of Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and occasionally Chris Bosh.
The rest of the bracket shakes out with the defending yet aging conference champs (Boston), a contender who had a major in-season roster change (Orlando), a meddling team who probably won’t make any noise (Atlanta), a proud franchise on it’s way back up from the depths of despair, otherwise known as the Isaiah Thomas era (New York), and two surprise over-achievers looking to make some noise (Philadelphia and Indiana).
So what should we expect to go down in the first round? Let’s take a look at each match-up and make some predictions!
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (8) Indiana Pacers
In the 1/8 series we have two teams in seedings that most people didn’t really expect. We all know the story of the Bulls, with Derrick Rose having an MVP season and keeping his squad afloat despite injuries to Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah before leading them to the best record in the NBA and what could quite possibly be the biggest surprise of the season.
The Pacers are a team that many believed would be a lottery squad yet again. Despite acquiring Darren Collison from the Hornets to compliment Danny Granger, Indiana still had two lottery picks inside who were nothing more than underachievers in Tyler Hansborough and Roy Hibbert. But as the season wore on, suddenly Hansborough was dropping 30 points on the Knicks and Hibbert was helping lead the Pacers to their first win at Staples Center against the Lakers. The Pacers surprised a lot of people by getting to the playoffs, but they also have a strong foundation for the future.
Chicago Bulls – Derrick Rose, Derrick Rose, Derrick Rose (oh and Tom Thibodeau)
It’s simple really, Derrick Rose is playing at an unstoppable level right now and could very easily win four games in this series by himself. The Bulls have taken on the persona of their hard-working star and their hard-nosed coach. Those two advantages are enough to put the Bulls over the top in this series.
Indiana Pacers – Playing care-free basketball
The Bulls are in the playoffs as the one-seed nobody expected, but now have to deal with expectations they as a team haven’t had to carry before. The Pacers are expected to lose as the 8-seed, and can play loose and free as the team just happy to be there. This could be an advantage for them in situations where the Bulls might become tense because of the pressure building on them.
Pacers Bigs vs. Chicago Bigs
D-Rose is going to get his points, there’s no arguing that. Right now, you can slow him down but cannot completely contain him. So to beat the Bulls you need to be able to contain his teammates, specifically Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, and to an extent Taj Gibson inside. If Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansborough can successfully frustrate the Bulls inside-game, they have a chance to steal a couple of games from Chicago by forcing Rose to do it all himself.
Bulls 4, Pacers 1
The Pacers may be able to steal a game, possibly evening the opening game of the series, but Chicago is simply too good to lose a series this early. Eventually, the Bulls advantage in roster-depth and coaching will allow them to advance to the Conference Semis.
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) Philadelphia 76ers
Finally, the Heatles as they like to call themselves, will show everyone if they can be successful in the playoffs. After all, this team was built for postseason success, and after a roller-coaster regular season, it’s time to back up the talk. The Heat are a team that must be on a mission to accomplish their goal, because anything short of a title is a failure for this squad.
The Sixers are another surprising playoff team. While many viewed them as not being a playoff-caliber roster, Philly was able to buy into the strategy of first-year head coach Doug Collins and make a leap from bottom-feeders last season to postseason this year. Despite lottery pick Evan Turner struggling for most of the season, the Sixers have been able to make a strong playoff push behind Andre Iguoadala and Elton Brand, as well as youngsters Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams making a great progress this season.
Miami Heat – Lebron James, Dwyane Wade
Despite having one of the best wing-defenders in the NBA in Iguodala, the Sixers face the same problem most teams have when going up against Miami, they can’t stop James or Wade. You can slow one down, but probably not the other, and if they’re both on at the same time, look out.
Philadelphia 76ers – Roster Depth
It’s pretty well known that the Heat have had their share of roster issues this season, and have had to heavily lean on their Big Three to win. The Sixers are a much deeper team than Miami, and have plenty of bench players who can get hot at the right time, as well as multiple shooters waiting to light it up.
Andre Iguodala vs. Lebron James
The way the Heat are built, one wing player is definitely going to get his points. In this series, you can count on Dwyane Wade going for 25+ per game based on match-ups, because unfortunately for Philly, Jodie Meeks can’t guard him. The key to the Sixers staying close is going to be Iguodala slowing down James. If you can take one of the dynamic duo out of the picture, then you have a shot at beating Miami.
Heat 4, Sixers 0
I may be giving them too much credit, but I think Miami will come out trying to prove something this postseason. They have gotten so much criticism all season long for their roster moves, their cockiness and celebrations and how they are trying to take a short-cut to a title as some people put it. While Philly is a nice feel-good story, I think Miami is ready to show what they can do and will start by taking the Sixers apart.
(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) New York Knicks
Easily the best first-round series in the East, the struggling Celtics face the suddenly resurgent Knicks. Since the trade deadline, the Celtics have been a team struggling to find an identity and struggling to deal with injuries. After trading away starting Center Kendrick Perkins, the Celts felt they had enough size inside to still compete. But with Shaq still out because of injury and Jermaine O’Neal struggling to return to form, Boston has faltered down the stretch for the second consecutive regular season.
Meanwhile, after struggling to adjust to a big acquisition in Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks are suddenly playing great basketball, offensively that is. While they are still the same sorry team on defense, they now have enough fire-power with Melo and Amar’e Stoudemire to make some real noise. The Knicks are in the post-season for the first time in what seems like decades, and they definitely do not want to go down in the first round.
Boston Celtics – Experience
The Celtics have been there, done that. As mentioned above, this is the second consecutive season they have struggled heading into the playoffs, and what did they do last year? Only come within one quarter of winning the NBA Title. So the Celtics have confidence that they can get it going once the playoffs start, regardless of who they are missing, because their key players have the experience they need to win in the postseason.
New York Knicks – Confidence
The Knicks are riding a wave of confidence right now. After finally making basketball relevant again in the Big Apple, these guys have become something like rockstars. And we all know how rockstars are, they never want to leave the spotlight. The Knicks feel they made the right moves to help them start winning in the playoffs THIS season, even if they only have two dependable scorers and a complete lack of defense. They have the confidence that they can hang with anyone, and in the post-season that is key if you want to win anything.
Chauncey Billups vs. Rajon Rondo
While there is probably a lot more fire-power at the match-ups between the small-forwards (Melo/Paul Pierce) and the power-forwards (Amar’e/KG), this series can and probably will be decided by what the point-guards can do. Rondo is the motor that makes Boston go, and not surprisingly a recent slump by him has coincided with the Celtics recent slide. Billups is the savvy vet and former Finals MVP who has the playoff experience and patience needed to help a team like the Knicks without many playoff veterans. If Billups can contain Rondo defensively while hitting some shots offensively, the Knicks have a great chance at stealing this series.
Celtics 4, Knicks 3
This series is as close as you’re going to get to seeing an update in the East in the first round. The Knicks and Celts are two of the leagues most storied franchises, and should hook up to give fans everywhere one of the more exciting first-round series we’ve seen in a while. Ultimately, the Celts experience (and home-court) will help them move on.
(4) Orlando Magic vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
One of the more interesting series in the first-round, and not because it pits elite teams. The Hawks are stuck in the middle of the East, not quite good enough to be elite, but not quite bad enough to miss the playoffs. They have a nice chunk of their salary committed to Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and Josh Smith for the next couple of seasons, guys who are pretty damn good, but not exactly great. And they have zero hope of becoming a title contender in the next couple of seasons barring a miracle trade a la Pau to the Lakers.
The Magic are trying very hard not to become like the Hawks. They made some major moves before the deadline to completely overhaul their roster in hopes of making another push to the NBA Finals. This roster gelling could hold the key to whether or not their franchise center, Dwight Howard, bolts to sunny LA or the bright lights of New York when he becomes a free-agent rather than staying in Orlando. Needless to say, the Magic have to make some noise if they want to keep Howard around.
Orlando Magic – Outside shooting
Dwight Howard is obviously a huge mismatch inside for anyone, but the Magic’s biggest advantage is the fact that they can put shooters at the other four positions around Howard. In 2009, Orlando made a run to the Finals because their shooters got hot and combined with Howard’s play inside, they were nearly unbeatable. This season they will need a similar recipe to make another run. Howard has added more to his post-game and is more dangerous than ever, but he can’t do it alone, especially in the top-heavy East.
Atlanta Hawks – Athleticism
Atlanta is a team filled with athletes who love to run and fill the highlight reel, while Orlando is a team that plays slower and is in the bottom half of fast-break points. If Atlanta can get out and run, they effectively take out the threat of Dwight Howard in the paint because the big man is not going to be getting back very often on the fast-break. Running as opposed to playing a half-court game could be the difference in this series for the Hawks.
Hawks Role-Players vs. Magic Role-Players
Both of these teams need their non All-Stars to show up to win this series. Marvin Williams and Josh Smith need to play big and help Al Horford and Joe Johnson out. For Orlando, guys like Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, Brandon Bass and Jameer Nelson need to play well if the Magic want to make a sustained playoff run. Shooters need to heat up and guys need to step up for their team to win this series, period. The stars won’t win it themselves.
Magic 4, Hawks 2
At the end of the day, the Magic are too deep of a roster and should have enough fire-power to beat the Hawks, despite losing the regular-season series to Atlanta 3-1. Dwight Howard has taken his game to another level, and with nobody on Atlanta really capable of guarding him, he will open things up for his role players who I think will step it up, for this series at least.