Erick Blasco's Eastern Conference First-Round Preview

Erick BlascoSenior Writer IApril 18, 2009

MIAMI - DECEMBER 12:  Mario Chalmers #6 of the Miami Heat fouls Josh Smith #5 of the Atlanta Hawks at American Airlines Arena on December 12, 2008 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

After such an exciting regular season, the 2008-2009 NBA playoffs should be one of the best ever.

The playoffs are always the epitome of drama as heroes and villains are forged through stellar or lackluster play, and this season’s edition features nothing but the most talented casts of characters and the most intriguing storylines.

No matter what the outcome of any playoff game, the true winners are the fans—who will be rewarded with nothing but fantastic basketball from now until June.

Here’s what to look for in the East.

1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 8) Detroit Pistons

In the past, this would have been a rock ‘em, sock ‘em series, but after trading away Chauncey Billups, Detroit’s punches have dulled.

Since Rasheed Wallace no longer ventures into the paint, Detroit’s only organized offense is to run Rip Hamilton off baseline screens.

Since Cleveland won’t have to worry about defending the pivot, they can show and extend their defense out to Hamilton so he won’t be able to beat them with open looks.

If Rodney Stuckey may have a slight edge over Mo Williams’ defense, Delonte West will hang tough on Hamilton’s isolations, LeBron James will rough up Tasyhaun Prince, and Anderson Varejao will hug Antonio McDyess preventing him from opening up for his automatic 20-footers.

Will Bynum will provide some punch off the hoop, but with Cleveland’s strong, sturdy defense and powerful offense, the Pistons will be hard pressed to generate any easy baskets to offset a rather anemic halfcourt offense.

Prince has never been strong enough to be more than a minor nuisance in James’ quests to get to the cup, and now that James has developed a respectable jump shot, LeBron can punish the Cavs from both inside and outside.

Also, with the aging Wallace no longer wearing a proverbial “beware of dog” sign frightening penetrators away from the rim, Williams and West should be able to wreak havoc should they get into the paint.

Indeed, Hamilton and Stuckey won’t be able to stay in front of either of Cleveland’s guards off the bounce, and the duo, plus James, will dissect the Pistons from the inside out.

Cleveland’s X-Factor: How many spectacular dunks will LeBron throw down?
Detroit’s X-Factor: Rasheed Wallace’s three-point shooting and shot-blocking.

Prediction: A somber headstone for a terrific run. Cavs in 4.

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2) Boston Celtics vs. 7) Chicago Bulls

Even without Kevin Garnett, the Celtics shouldn’t expect too much of a challenge from the up-and-coming Bulls.

Rajon Rondo should be able to blow by the Derrick Rose’s rookie defense. If Rose is quick and tough at that end, he isn’t wise.

Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich will give up on chasing Ray Allen through screens, and Chicago’s rotations aren’t coordinated enough to make up for it.

And while John Salmons is willing and able, even the best defenders have trouble defending Paul Pierce’s powerhouse drives, tricky jab steps, and accurate jumpers.

Down low, Kendrick Perkins and Leon Powe should muscle around Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas, while both are more athletic than Brad Miller.

If Boston’s bench lacks punch, Eddie House can light up the scoreboard in a pinch, and Glen Davis has become a reliable shooter and a strong finisher.

In short, Boston’s offense will call its own shot.

When Chicago has the ball, Rondo’s wingspan will wilt Rose’s thorns. Salmons will score a little from here and a little from there, but his impact will be diminished by Pierce’s  presence defending him.

Gordon has always been streaky and mistake prone, and it’s a mystery as to how well he’ll shoot it. Either way, Boston will show out to him up high taking away his catch-and-shoot game.

Are Noah and Thomas prepared for the playoffs?

The only place Chicago has an advantage is off their bench. If Kirk Hinrich and Brad Miller are scoring the ball and finding open teammates, then Chicago’s bench can make up whatever difference their starters will give up.

Boston’s X-Factor: Bench play.
Chicago’s X-Factor: Salmons’ scoring.

Prediction: The Celtics are tough and battle hardened, while the Bulls are soft and mistake-prone. The Celtics will impose their muscle over time. Celtics in 5.

3) Orlando vs. 6) Philadelphia

The Sixers have nobody to contain Dwight Howard under the basket. Sam Dalembert is slow to react, Theo Ratliff doesn’t have the athleticism, Reggie Evans doesn’t have the size, and Mareese Speights doesn’t have the strength. Simple dive cuts will lead to Dwight devouring the basket.

And he could have more boards in the series than the Sixers’ quintet combined.

Not all is lost for Philly, though. Thaddeus Young and Andre Iguodala are athletic enough to hang with Rashard Lewis’ baseline explosions and Hedo Turkoglu’s tricky drives, and Willie Green can limit Courtney Lee’s effectiveness.

If Andre Miller doesn’t have the speed to hang with Rafer Alston, he can hang back to protect Alston’s drives and force him to simply be a shooter.

If the Sixers can force the Magic’ perimeter players to cough the ball up, their non-stop fast break can leave the Magic in the dust.

In the halfcourt though, the matchup is completely one-sided. Andre Miller is magical at creating something out of nothing, but Orlando’s defense is talented and well-coordinated.

The Magic will lay off of Andre Iguodala and dare him to beat them with his jumper four times out of seven.

Speights and Lou Williams can fill the cup off the bench and should be able to put up points against Marcin Gortat and Anthony Johnson. If Philly’s bench can dominate Orlando’s, the Sixers may be able to steal games at the end.

Orlando’s X-Factor: Rafer Alston.
Philadelphia’s X-Factor: Forcing turnovers.

Philly will try to run, run, run, but they can't hide from Howard. Magic in 5.

4) Atlanta Hawks vs. 5) Miami Heat

The only Eastern Conference first round series where the underdog won’t need divine intervention to pull off an upset.

In the frontcourt, neither Jermaine O’Neal or Al Horford are physical players, but O’Neal’s length and Horford’s strength should cancel each other out. And if O’Neal’s the better shot blocker, Horford’s the better rebounder.

If Josh Smith is a fearsome swat blocker and shot maker in Atlanta, he’s much more docile away from Atlanta’s friendly energies. Udonis Haslem will make Smith work for everything, which may throw Smith off his game.

Marvin Williams and Jamario Moon are each able shot blockers, but Williams is the more dangerous offensive player. Should Mo Evans get the start, he’d be assigned to Dwyane Wade because of his in-your-grill defense, and to keep Joe Johnson’s chops fresh.

Mike Bibby has no quickness anymore, but he can still stroke jumpers, while Mario Chalmers’ gambles sometimes result in steals and sometimes result in open looks for opponents.

Wade and Joe Johnson is the main event, with each supremely gifted two-way players, though Wade is the better passer, finisher, and defender.

Neither Zaza Pachulia, nor Jamaal Magloire are difference makers off the bench, while Evans has the defense to neutralize Michael Beasley. Flip Murray’s a professional scorer and more dangerous than any combination of James Jones, Chris Quinn, and Daequan Cook.

Atlanta’s X-Factor: Josh Smith’s energy.
Miami’s X-Factor: Three-point shooting.

Prediction: The Hawks feast at home, but don’t play with the same fearlessness on the road. That should lead one to believe that the series will go seven games. With all the chips on the line, can you bet against Wade? Heat in 7.

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