Cancel all social activities for the next two months, grow out your facial hair (or draw some on) and make sure you have a very comfortable chair, because the NBA playoffs begin this weekend. After a hectic 66 game regular season, we can wave goodbye to the likes of Washington, Detroit, Toronto and poor old Charlotte, and get ready to watch the big boys battle it out for the Larry O’Brien trophy. Reputations will be made, reputations will be destroyed, and only one team will emerge victorious as the 2012 NBA champions.
Here, in two parts, is a breakdown of the first-round match-ups:
Chicago Bulls (1) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (8)
Regular Season Series: 2-1 Bulls
After another stellar regular season from Tom Thibodeau’s men, the Bulls begin their quest for a 7th NBA championship against the plucky but severely limited 76ers.
It’s a match-up between the two best defensive teams during the regular season. Both teams managed to limit their opponents to less than 90 points per game and we might not see much in the way of free-flowing offense in this series. The Bulls and 76ers play stifling defense thanks in part to elite perimeter defenders like Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and Andre Iguodala. Unfortunately for Sixers fans, that is where the similarities end.
Chicago finished the year with the best record in the East and tied for the best record overall, despite missing last season’s MVP, Derrick Rose, for more than a third of the season. The fantastic play of Chicago’s other starters—Deng, Noah, and Boozer—and role players like John Lucas III have helped fill that void.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, has had a Jekyll and Hyde-type season: beginning the year extremely well, before going on an extended slump, which left them struggling to make the post-season. While the Bulls aren’t the most fluent offensive team in the league, the 76ers really struggle at that end of the court. They lack a genuine go-to scorer, with 6th man Lou Williams falling off after a good start, and are an awful 4th quarter team. Philly will struggle mightily to score against this Chicago defense.
A lot of things, and I mean A LOT of things, will have to go the 76ers’ way for them to stand the slightest chance of winning this series. Rose’s suspect health might provide a glimmer of hope for Philly fans. Rose is the one player on the Bulls who can create his own shot, and Chicago becomes easier to defend when he isn’t on the floor. That being said, Doug Collin’s men still need a miracle.
Prediction: Chicago will comfortably roll over a 76ers team who just can’t generate enough offense. Bulls in 5
Miami Heat (2) vs. New York Knicks (7)
Regular Season Series: 3-0 Heat
This is the most intriguing first-round series in the East by a wide margin. The big three of Miami, who will be under immense pressure to win it all this year, come up against a Knicks team who themselves possess some scary firepower.
For LeBron, Wade and Bosh, anything less than a NBA championship this year will be viewed as an utter failure, and may result in a premature end to the big three era in Miami.
Just like last season, Miami has looked unplayable some nights, and distinctly average on others. The same questions still remain for this team: Who’s going to take the big shots in crunch time? Is the bench good enough? Will LeBron take over in big games, or will he wilt under pressure?
There’s no question, however, that in the talent department the Heat are still the scariest team in the league. They’ve spent the latter part of the year in cruise control and should be raring to go against New York.
The Knicks, even by their usual standards, have had a bizarre season. In fact, you could argue that we’ve seen four distinct incarnations of the Knicks this year. First, there was the Knicks team that got off to a dismal start and desperately needed a point guard. That was followed by the emergence of Jeremy Lin and a Knicks team that triumphed against the odds, led by their undrafted Harvard floor general. Then Carmelo returned to the team, the energy and chemistry died, and Mike D’Antoni lost his job. Finally we have the current incarnation of the Knicks: the Mike Woodson Knicks—a team without Lin, playing great defense, and with Carmelo playing the best basketball of his career.
Whether this current Knicks team is good enough to stop the Miami juggernaut remains to be seen. They possess some good defenders in rookie Iman Shumpert and Tyson Chandler, but Carmelo and Amar’e Stoudemire are both liabilities defensively, and they’ve yet to prove they can play together.
If Carmelo can get it going in this series he’s going to take some stopping. At his best there isn’t anyone in the league that can guard him. Absolutely nobody. He’s a threat on the perimeter, a beast in the low-post, and will demand a double team. His scoring alone might be enough to steal a couple games in this series.
Prediction: The Knicks are a dangerous first-round match-up for Miami and have the potential to make this a tough series, but the Heat are the better team at both ends of the floor and the Knicks still have major issues at point guard. Expect LeBron to continue his MVP caliber play. Heat in 6
Indiana Pacers (3) vs. Orlando Magic (6)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Magic
If you don’t have NBA League Pass then you’ve probably missed watching one of the great stories of this year: the rise of the Indiana Pacers. Frank Vogel’s team is young, deep and a lot of fun to watch. Unfortunately, those of us outside of Indiana haven’t gotten to watch them too often. They play in a small market and lack a marketable franchise superstar, and therefore haven’t received the mainstream attention they deserve.
Indiana is a solid team from 1 through 12. They have a young and exciting backcourt led by Darren Collison and Paul George, a legitimate scorer on the wing/closer in Danny Granger, and an all-star centre in Roy Hibbert. Throw solid veteran David West and good role players like George Hill and Tyler Hansbrough into the mix, and it’s easy to understand why the Pacers are some people’s sleeper team in the East.
In stark contrast to the Pacers’ great year, it’s been an absolute nightmare season for the Magic. The entire year has been overshadowed by the drama surrounding Dwight Howard. For the first half of the season the will-he-won’t-he trade saga dominated the discussion and destabilized the team. When that appeared resolved, the news that Howard tried to have Van Gundy fired quickly killed any good feeling that might have been salvaged.
Now that Dwight has undergone back surgery and is done for the year, Orlando’s chances at winning the championship have gone from almost impossible to completely impossible. They still possess good three-point shooters, but with no Dwight to draw the double team, the likes of Reddick, Anderson and Richardson won’t find themselves open very often.
It was no secret that Dwight Howard’s attitude was beginning to irk his teammates. With him gone (He won’t even be on the bench) the team might feel like the pressure to succeed has evaporated. No one expects the Magic to get out of the first round. The Pacers are young and inexperienced and a loose Magic team, with low expectations, could take advantage of their greenness.
Prediction: Indiana has too many offensive weapons, and is playing too well on defense for the Magic to stand a real chance. An Orlando with Dwight Howard protecting the rim might have been a different proposition, but without him the Pacers will brutally expose the Magic around the basket. Pacers in 5
Boston Celtics (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5)
Regular Season Series: 2-1 Celtics
Aesthetically speaking, this series won’t be easy on the eye. Two of the three regular season clashes between these two teams went to overtime and were dour, low scoring affairs. Both teams play tight, scrappy defense and it’s difficult to see the games in this series being any different.
The Celtics have done a fantastic job turning their season around. At one stage they looked like a tired old team on its way out. Pierce and Garnett, in particular, appeared to be fading fast. Since the all-star break, however, the Celtics have been one the best teams in the NBA and look like outside championship contenders.
The rejuvenated play of Pierce and Garnett, on offense and defense, has been a major factor in their revival. Rajon Rondo has once again underlined his status as one of the best pure point guards in the NBA, and the most fun to watch. The surprise emergence of Avery Bradley in the backcourt has also been immensely valuable to the Celtics.
The Hawks, as always, have been consistently decent without ever being great. On defense they’ve been solid, but have struggled at the offensive end. Joe Johnson has been, well, Joe Johnson: at times a genuine clutch-time closer, but often anonymous. Power forward Josh Smith has had a career year and was robbed of an all-star place. Some of his stat-lines this season have been outrageous. Critically for the Hawks, number one centre Al Horford has ruled himself out of the first round, a big blow to their chances. Horford’s absence has hurt the balance of the team and his presence against a small Celtics frontcourt would’ve been very welcome.
At times Josh Smith looks like the best power forward in the league. He scores, he rebounds, and he can block shots. Then he’ll jack up a stupid 3, five seconds into the shot clock, and you’ll remember why he can be an infuriating enigma. That said, the Hawk’s chances in this series rest largely on his shoulders. His athleticism and rebounding could give the undersized Celtics fits in the paint.
Prediction: This is going to be a much closer series than many are predicting. The Hawks will fight the Celtics on every possession and have the athleticism to really bother them. Ultimately Boston possesses that extra guile on offense necessary to prevail in a tight series. Celtics in 7