#1 Chicago Bulls vs. #8 Philadelphia 76ers
The Bulls are tops in the Eastern Conference for the second straight year under coach Tom Thibodeau. They one of the league’s top defenses, arguably the league’s best bench, and a starting lineup that includes reigning league MVP (at least for a little while longer) Derrick Rose, an All-Star in Luol Deng, and one of the top centers in Joakim Noah. Chicago has had it’s share of injury problems, with that very same Derrick Rose, and starting shooting guard Richard Hamilton both missing a significant number of games (27 for Rose, 38 for Hamilton.) Yet, even while missing two of their starting five for long stretches, Chicago has managed to have the best record in the entire league (tied with the Spurs.) This is due to their style of play; they play team defense, they’re always active in getting rebounds, and they share the ball on offense. If this team can remain healthy, they will be tough to overcome.
The 76ers have been on a steady decline since the All-Star break. They once sat at third best in the Eastern Conference, but their play has since fallen way off (partially due to their tougher schedule in the second half of the year.) It’s their offense that’s really the problem, with the biggest, and most consistent knock against the team being that they do not have a guy who can reliably score, and take over the end of games. Leading scorer Lou Williams only averages 14.9 points a game, but his ability to score (like his ability to sit down) has gotten worse as the season has progressed. Their “best” player Andre Iguodala is not a reliable scorer, and is really more of a second, or third option on a team kind of guy, rather than a team’s go-to-guy (on offense at least, he’s a great perimeter defender.)
The Verdict: Philadelphia took one game out of three against Chicago in the regular season, so by that same logic, they would take two games in a seven game series. Their win however, took place in the first half of the year, “pre-the team playing so poorly,” so they’ll realistically only end up getting one game. Their stagnant offense can only be propped up so far by their solid defense, especially against a team that is as talented on both ends as the Bulls.
Bulls in 5.
#2 Miami Heat vs. #7 New York Knicks
There is a ton of pressure on the Miami Heat to win it all this year (some joker predicted they would win like eight championships.) Lebron James will probably win his third Most Valuable Player award, but it won’t mean a damn thing if Lebron can’t deliver in the clutch, and Miami can’t win the title. All of that aside, the Heat have looked rather unbeatable, at times this year. In transition, there has probably never been a better team. It probably doesn’t hurt that Lebron and Dwyane Wade could throw alley-oops to each other in a medically induced coma. Lebron is having one of the best statistical seasons ever, and Wade… well he’s a top ten player in the league, and one of the most clutch players in the league. Oh, and the Heat have a pretty nice third option in All-Star power forward Chris Bosh. Beyond those three is where the Heat’s issues lie. If they can get somewhat consistent contributions from the likes of Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, and Shane Battier (I say somewhat as the “Big 3” can go off for like 80 combined points,) they will ultimately be able to succeed. If and when this team gets on a roll, they’ll be very tough for anyone to compete with.
This Knicks season has been a roller coaster one (to outline: the arrival of Tyson Chandler creating a “big 3” with him Carmelo Anthony, and Amar’e Stoudemire, a nice start, a god awful losing streak that prompts them to bring the last guy on the bench in at starting point guard, Linsanity happens, Linsanity bottoms out into another losing streak, Mike D’Antoni resigns, Mike Woodson becomes the coach, multiple injuries to key guys, Carmelo Anthony finally becomes the man in New York,) finding the Knicks on a bit of a roll going into the playoffs. The Knicks have surprisingly become a top 5 defensive team, due in no small part to the addition of Chandler at center. As sort of stated above, Carmelo Anthony has recently been the guy for the Knicks, playing to an MVP level this past month, but the Knicks also get good contributions from Chandler, rookie Iman Shumpert (an especially great defender,) three-point specialist Steve Novak, and tattoo specialist J.R. Smith. The recently returned Amar’e Stoudemire will be a big factor in the success of the Knicks offense going forward in these playoffs.
The Verdict: This rivalry is a storied one, to say the least. As much, as I am a diehard Knicks fan, Miami (that is Lebron, Wade, and Bosh) are just too damn good to be beaten in a seven game series by this Knicks team (would LOVE to be wrong about this.) New York will need great performances across the board, particularly from Stoudemire, Novak, and the extremely streaky Smith, in every game, to have any sort of chance in this series. They’re going to get killed on the boards (as they generally do,) and if they can’t keep the turnovers down (looking at you Amar’e and Baron Davis,) they’re going to get killed in transition.
Heat in 6 (go Knicks!)
#3 Indiana Pacers vs. #6 Orlando Magic
Indiana is really the surprise team of this truncated season. Last year, they started off not so great, until Frank Vogel became head coach. The Pacers got into the playoffs as the #8 seed, and ended up having a surprisingly good series with the top-seeded Bulls. This year, they’ve improved to third best in the East, and are on a bit of a hot streak coming into these playoffs. While the Pacers don’t have a bonafide “superstar” they do have 1) Guys who score, rebound, and share the ball, and 2) a legit clutch player to close out games, in Danny Granger. Their cast also includes an All-Star 7 foot center in Roy Hibbert, a literally still growing Paul George, a can-still-be-great David West, and a good point guard in Darren Collison. The pacers even have depth coming off the bench, with guys like George Hill, Leandro Barbosa, and even Tyler Hansbrough.
This season for the Orlando Magic has been… tumultuous? It all revolves around the team’s six-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of Year, and now heel center, Dwight Howard. Let me bring you up to speed: At the beginning of the year it was a forgone conclusion that Howard would opt out of the final year of his contract, to sign with some other team and try to create a super-team, ala the Miami Heat. That turned into him wanting to be traded (but only to a certain few lucky teams.) Then, he said he wanted to stay in Orlando, and waived his right to opt out. THEN, he wanted coach Stan van Gundy fired, then didn’t want him fired, and finally, after being injured, said he would not return if he had to play for van Gundy. As it turns out, Howard’s injury was severe enough that he needed surgery, so he’s out for the playoffs. This leaves the Magic with not much of a team, and kind of screwed for the playoffs.
The Verdict: Without Howard, the Magic’s offensive strategy is really just take the outside shot, or (I guess) get in inside to Glen Davis, who is good, but nowhere near the force that Howard is/was. Unless the Magic get hot from downtown and hit say, seventeen three-pointers in a game (which they can do/have done with shooters in Ryan Anderson, JJ Reddick, and Jason Richardson,) I can’t see them winning a game in this series. They are going to get beat on both ends (especially on the inside with the 7-foot Hibbert on the 6-foot 9-inch Davis.) Indiana plays good defense, while Orlando’s defense, with no Dwight Howard to clog the middle, is just not the same.
Pacers in 4.
#4 Boston Celtics vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks
Because of the age of their “big 3” many thought the Celtics would take a step back this year (especially due to being “old” and having to play a lot of games over a smaller window.) Early on, this seemed to be the case. But, in true Celtics fashion, they have flipped the script. Paul Pierce was an All-Star, Kevin Garnett is playing great at the center position, and Rajon Rondo gets a triple double every time he’s on national television. So yeah, the Celtics have ended being pretty great, and this is despite a lot of injuries to their top guys as well. No matter how banged up they get, Paul Pierce will still hit crazy shots, Ray Allen will still hit a three like nobody’s business, Kevin Garnett will still threaten your life before hitting a mid-range jumper, and Rajon Rondo will look like the best player in the game (until he misses the free throw) by constantly getting to the rim. Avery Bradley has been huge for Boston as well, playing great defense, and hitting a high percentage of his shots on offense.
Atlanta is a weird team. They’ve been consistently in the playoffs for a few years now, but whenever the elite Eastern Conference team are discussed it’s always, “The Hawks? Pshh, whatever.” For some reason, it always seems that, even though they’re good, the Hawks secretly kind of suck. And it’s odd, because they’ve got a top-flight (albeit overpaid) scorer in Joe Johnson, and a “should’ve been an All-Star” in the “athletic-on-both-ends” Josh Smith. Oh wait, I get it! It’s because their two best players have extremely generic names! Anyway, Jeff Teague is a good point guard for these Hawks, and they’ve got some other guys (Kirk Hinrich, Marvin Williams) that are ok players, so I’m sure they’ll make a series out of this.
But how much of a series? Atlanta will need either Zaza Pachulia (has been out with a sprained foot ligament,) or Al Horford (still out with a torn pectoral,) to come back at center to have any sort of shot at winning this series. Otherwise, Garnett will dominate the position against the likes of Jason Collins, and Erick Dampier. The Hawks are still good enough to win some games, especially with the home court advantage, but I think the top guys on Boston want this last run too much to bow out in the first round. It’ll be cool to see two of the best guys at making ridiculous shots in Johnson and Pierce go at it though. Also sort of cool, the potential for Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Tracy McGrady, and Jerry Stackhouse to be on the floor at the same time (the latter two are on the Hawks.) That could have been an All-Star starting five once upon a time.
Oh yeah, Celtics in 6.