There’s no secret that the Western Conference presents better quality first round matchups over the Eastern Conference. Just let this sink in, the Denver Nuggets at (36-46) finished only two games behind the (38-44) Atlanta Hawks, who hold the eight seed in the east. The disparity between the two conferences is great, but that’s not to say there isn’t any intriguing matchups in the east.
(1) Indiana Pacers vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks
3-point shooting: Atlanta averages 9.4 made three pointers a game, which ranks first among eastern conference teams. In their four games against Indiana, they averaged 10.2 made baskets from distance. The three ball is the main reason they were able to split the season series. Korver alone shot 50% from long range against Indiana. He’ll need to do more of that if they have any chance to knock off the top seeded Pacers.
Pacers woes in Atlanta: The Pacers are nearly unbeatable at home, but the road is a different story. They finished (21-20) on the road and Atlanta is one of their worst nightmares. Indiana has lost 12 of their last 13 games in Atlanta. They just snapped the losing skid on February 4th.
Where is Roy Hibbert?: Hibbert has struggled for the majority of this season, but he’s been just completely dreadful against Atlanta. He’s averaging 6.6 points on 32% and 3 rebounds a game against Atlanta this year. That just simply must change if Indiana wants to be a serious threat.
Key Matchup: David West vs. Paul Millsap.
Prediction: Pacers in 5. The Hawks would have a legitimate shot of winning this series if Al Horford was playing, but with the lack of size inside it’s going to be very challenging. Even though 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert only averages 6.6 rebounds a game, Indiana has Stephenson, George and West who all averaged 6.8 rebounds or better. While Atlanta only has one guy grabbing over six rebounds a game, which is Paul Millsap. Pacers are too big and too deep for the little Hawks.
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) Charlotte Bobcats
LeBron owns Jordan’s team: King James dominates against everybody, but he adds a little extra when playing against Jordan’s Bobcats. LeBron averaged a cool 26 points on 57% shooting from the field this season. When playing Charlotte however, LeBron just took it to a whole different level. He averaged 37.7 points on 62% shooting, 5.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game vs. Charlotte. Oh yeah, LeBron dropped a career high 61 points against them on March 3rd.
Big Al: This guy might be the most underrated player in the world. Yes, I’m talking about Al Jefferson. He has the entire package offensively. Face up, post up and he’s capable of beating his man off the dribble. Although Chris Bosh is taller, he still won’t be able to handle Al 1-on-1. Jefferson averaged 25.3 points and 15.3 rebounds against Miami this year.
16 straight: Miami has defeated Charlotte 16 straight times. Yes, 16.
Key Matchup: Dwyane Wade vs. Gerald Henderson.
Prediction: Heat in 4. Outside of Al Jefferson, Charlotte doesn’t have anybody that can consistently put the ball in the basket. Ideally, you would like Kemba Walker to be that guy, but he’s shooting a dismal 38% from the field against Miami this season. The Heat will be too much for the young Bobcats.
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets
Tempo: The team able to control the tempo in this series will most likely advance. Brooklyn would like to play methodical and execute in the half court set, while Toronto wants to run the older Nets team out the gym. It’ll be essential for Deron Williams and Kyle Lowry to put their respective team in good scoring opportunities.
D-Will time: Many national pundits (including me) have said the best days are behind Deron Williams. The 29-year old is having his worst year statistically since his rookie campaign, only averaging 14.3 points and 6.1 assists a game. He’ll be matched up against a very formidable opponent in Kyle Lowry.
Rebounding: Brooklyn is ranked second to last in rebounding, while Toronto is near the top half of the league. During their four meetings, Toronto outrebounded Brooklyn 163 to 144. With Lopez out, Brooklyn is really thin on the front line.
Key Matchup: Kyle Lowry vs. Deron Williams.
Prediction: Raptors in 7. I’m going with the young and athleticism over the old and experience here. DeMar DeRozan made his first all-star appearance this year and he’s in prime position to make life hard for Joe Johnson. Toronto tied for 7th in 3-point field goal percentage in the regular season. Combine that with their rebounding and homecourt advantage, I think they’ll get it done.
(4) Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Washington Wizards
John Wall a superstar?: Mr. Wall was an all-star this year and it was very deserving. He’s solidified his all-star vote by leading his Wizards to the postseason. Now it’s time to see if he can take that next jump. Washington is more talented than Chicago, but the Bulls have been here plenty of times. Washington needs Wall to be Superman to pull off the shocking upset. Wall averaged 20.6 points on 50% shooting, 8 dimes and 3.3 turnovers a game vs. Chicago this season.
Bulls defense: Chicago gives us the fewest points in the NBA at 91.8 per game. Their defense is anchored by Joakim Noah, who could end up being the defensive player of the year. They take away your strengths by forcing you to play with your weaknesses.
Heart and hustle: There’s guys who play as hard as Noah, but nobody plays harder than Noah. The guy literally does it all. Noah averaged 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 dimes, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals per game this season.
Key Matchup: Jimmy Butler vs. Bradley Beal.
Prediction: Bulls in 6. Although Washington is more talented and better offensively, you just can’t ignore the experience and chemistry Chicago has. They value every possession and you’ll rarely see them beat themselves. Coach Thibs will come up with a way to neutralize Wall and force others to beat them. Expect every game in this series to be decided in the 4th quarter.