NBA Playoffs: Predicting the Eastern Conference First Round
While many fans are ready to fast forward to a potential Kevin Durant and James rematch in the NBA Finals, the first round in the Eastern Conference will provide plenty of thrilling moments for hoop junkies across the country. From New York and Boston renewing their city rivalry on the hardwood to the will-he or won’t-he Derrick Rose headlines, the East is filled with early drama.
Read on to see how the four first-round matchups will play out.
Miami Heat vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee handled Miami by 19 points back in December, so this is clearly the Bucks’ series to lose.
Sarcasm aside, it is probably safe to say LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company will be a bit more engaged in the playoffs than they were in that early-season matchup. The predominant question heading into the postseason is Heat or the field for the NBA title, so it is difficult to see Milwaukee hanging in this series (that’s putting it generously).
The pressure that surrounded James last year is somewhat alleviated after winning his first ring, and it showed in the way he played this season. Look for that to continue and Miami to win this one in five games.
The reason it is five and not four is we are going to give the streaky combination of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis one “hot game” at home. With Larry Sanders controlling the lane, the Bucks can get one if their guards are hitting from the perimeter.
For what it’s worth, Jennings averaged 42 minutes, 23.8 points on 45.8 percent shooting from the field, 5.8 assists and 2.5 steals against the Heat this season.
New York Knicks vs. Boston Celtics
This may not have quite the sizzle as a New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox playoff series, but anytime these two cities matchup in the postseason fans are in for a treat.
Carmelo Anthony, the NBA’s leading scorer, may be under more pressure than any other player in the league entering these playoffs. Yes, he is a great talent, but can he make his teammates better in crunch time and pick up a playoff series victory in New York? In fact, Anthony has only made it out of the first round once in nine postseasons.
The Knicks are certainly the favorite in this series and should be able to win it if they continue to hit from three-point range and don’t let the Celtics get inside their heads with physical play and suffocating defense. That is easier said than done (you may have heard Kevin Garnett frustrated Anthony with certain breakfast cereal banter this year), but the veteran presence of Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby and Tyson Chandler will help.
Look for the Knicks to win in six games, but it would not be surprising if Garnett, Paul Pierce and role players such as Jeff Green give New York all it can handle.
Indiana Pacers vs. Atlanta Hawks
There was a time not long ago that the Indiana Pacers were seen as the most legitimate threat to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, after losing five of six and seeing the Knicks seize the No. 2 seed, Indiana is suddenly not the sexy upset pick it once was.
This series will be Paul George’s first chance to showcase to the rest of the league and fans who may not have tuned in to many Pacer contests how talented he is. David West and Roy Hibbert will certainly help, but Indiana is going to need George to make the big plays in crunch time.
The Hawks have plenty of talent, especially in the frontcourt with Josh Smith and Al Horford, but Indiana is the type of defensive-oriented squad that can drive an inconsistent team like Atlanta crazy over the course of a long series. Hibbert and West can contain Smith and Horford down low, and the Pacers will take this one rather easily in five games.
In fact, it is difficult to find any clear individual advantages the Hawks will have in any of the matchups on the floor.
New Jersey Nets vs. Chicago Bulls
Few teams, if any, faced the type of adversity that the Chicago Bulls did this season, and it wasn’t just because Derrick Rose never saw the court.
Joakim Noah has been saddled with plantar fasciitis for much of the second half of the year, Luol Deng has battled nagging injuries since the opening month, Kirk Hinrich couldn’t stay healthy, Taj Gibson had knee problems and Richard Hamilton looks approximately 75 years old most of the time. In fact, only Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler saw action in all 82 games.
That being said, the Bulls have shined through that adversity all season and clinched the No. 5 seed because of it. There is still plenty of talent (they did knock off the Heat multiple times), and Rose hasn’t officially been ruled out yet (although does anyone really expect him to suit up?).
Brooklyn knows all about Chicago’s toughness after losing three of four this season. The Nets’ biggest advantage may be Brook Lopez in the middle considering Noah may not see much action in this series (but don’t sleep on the suddenly resurgent Nazr Mohammed). Deron Williams also has a chance to exploit the Bulls backcourt (again assuming Rose doesn’t play).
That being said, we are going to give the nod to the Bulls in six games. They have the Nets' number this year (even with the injuries), will frustrate the New Jersey with physicality and will defend home court in all three games in front of a raucous United Center crowd. Assuming that happens, all it would take is one road win in New Jersey.