1) Miami Heat (66-16) vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks (38-44)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Heat
If evidence was needed as to why the NBA should just scrap the conference system and let the 16 best teams make the post-season, here it is: the 38-44 Milwaukee Bucks are in the playoffs. The Jazz finished 5 games better than the Bucks—hell, even the 10th place Mavericks were better than the Bucks—but here we are, that’s an argument for another day. There’s no arguing, however, that this first-round match-up is a mismatch of epic proportions.
It’s taken almost 3 years, but the Miami Heat are now the kind of transcendent basketball team we all knew they had the potential to become back in 2010. As Grantland’s Zach Lowe has stated, the Heat just seem to have figured out offense—on that side of the floor they’re a machine, a monstrous machine of efficiency and flawless execution. Long gone is the aimless hero-ball of two years ago, gone are the ill-advised mid-range jumpers. It’s all about efficiency and high-percentage shots—corner 3s (no team hits more) layups, and dunks. At the wheel is the maestro, LeBron James. James is having one of the greatest statistical seasons ever and is playing like a man who’s longer weighed down by the burden of expectation, the burden of our collective scorn. Good luck Eastern Conference.
And the Bucks will need luck to simply win a game in this series. Milwaukee has limped into the playoffs—only winning 3 of their last 10—and are fortunate that the teams below them are so bad. A mid-season coaching change—Jim Boylan replacing Scott Skiles—seemed to have given them an initial boost, but it didn’t last. The Jennings-Ellis backcourt experiment is what we thought it would be: offensively explosive at times, and defensively porous. The main bright spots have been in the frontcourt. Rookie John Henson has shown a ton of promise, while shot-blocking sensation Larry Sanders has made a big jump this year and could win Most Improved.
Although Miami’s rim-protection has improved with the acquisition of Chris Andersen, it’s still their biggest weakness—maybe their only weakness. The Bucks have size in the frontcourt with the aforementioned Henson and Sanders, and could cause problems for Miami’s undersized frontline.
In all honesty LeBron James and Dwayne Wade could take this entire series off and the Heat would probably still win in 5. But Spoelstra’s side is unlikely to patronize their opponents, so barring a Monta Ellis ‘give me max-money’ type explosion, the Bucks won’t win a game. Heat in 4.
(2) New York Knicks (54-28) vs. (7) Boston Celtics (41-40)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Knicks
This is the Eastern Conference’s most intriguing first-round series, if only because of the Celtics—and Paul Pierce’s in particular—recent history of beating up on the Knicks. Just two years ago Boston swept New York, but much has changed since that time. We can examine past history and delve into the pop-psychology of certain playoff-hardened teams having a mental edge over others, but if we trust our eyes, and the statistics, there’s one very good team in this series (New York) and a mediocre one (Boston).
Mike Woodson’s very good team has surprised many this year. Much criticized for constructing a roster full of old men, complete with a point-guard coming off an awful season in Portland, and a volume-shooting head-case in J.R. Smith, Glen Grunwald is now having the last laugh. Felton has been solid, while Smith has been a revelation coming off the bench and accepting his role with a maturity not previously exhibited. The star of the show, of course, is Carmelo Anthony. Melo has put in an MVP-caliber season—illustrating during the Knicks’ late-season winning streak, that he’s the most natural scorer in the league. With Amar’e out, Woodson has Melo playing power-forward, his best position. And the game plan has been brutally simple, yet effective: spread the floor with shooters, and let Melo suck in the defense as he posts up on the block, or drives to the basket.
The Celtics (like the Knicks, to be honest) have been afflicted with the injury-bug all year. Garnett and Avery Bradley have missed games, but most importantly, their best player, Rajon Rondo, went down with an ACL tear earlier in the year. The Celtics soldiered on admirably when many expected them to fall out of the playoff picture entirely and/or blow things up. Doc Rivers being the great coach that he is still has his team playing hard-nosed defense, but as has been the story for years, they continue to struggle offensively—nothing comes easy, particularly without Rondo’s playmaking.
If the Celtics are to cause an upset in this series the enigmatic Jeff Green will have to lead the charge. There doesn’t seem to be too much of a middle ground with Green; he’s either been awesome, as he was in his 45-point showing against Miami, or completely forgettable (take your pick of those games). He has the shooting and speed off the dribble, to trouble the Knicks, and if he can force Melo to work hard at the other end, the Celtics may have a chance.
The Knicks aren’t going to make a barrage of 3s in every game, but when they do they’re practically unstoppable. Factor in the half-court offense of Melo and J.R. Smith and the Knicks will have just too much firepower for Boston. Knicks in 6.
(3) Indiana Pacers (49-32) vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
Regular Season Series: 2-2
Okay, let’s been honest, how many people are excited to see this series? Anyone? Judging by their recent respective attendance records, not too many people in Indianapolis and Atlanta. Should the NBA just simulate it on NBA 2K13, and save people the hassle of tuning in to witness it? Well, joking aside, even though this series will be buried on NBA TV, there’s still some very good talent on show…plus, I still have to write a preview, so let’s get pumped.
Frank Vogel’s Pacers finished the season with 5 loses in their last 6 games, and generally looked all kinds of bad. For much of the season they seemed destined for the 2-seed, but a combination of bad form, and a streaking Knicks team saw them drop to 3rd in the East. At their best Indiana is a formidable defensive team that can suffocate the life out of their opponents. The monstrous frontcourt tandem of Roy Hibbert and David West protect the paint, while Paul George and George Hill man the perimeter. Offensively they’re not so smooth, but in the absence of Danny Granger, George has taken on much of the burden and developed into a genuine star at both ends of the court.
Despite a roster overhaul in the off-season the Hawks are still kind of, well, the Hawks: talented, but entirely forgettable. After a great start to the year they fell off the pace and have settled into their customary spot in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff standings. They’ve been a better shooting team this year—the addition of Kyle Korver has helped with that—but their Achilles heel (sorry Kobe) is their inability to get to the line. Lou William’s season-ending injury was a big blow in that regard. The continued growth of Jeff Teague at point-guard has to please fans in Atlanta, however.
Indiana’s frontcourt is big and mean, but the Hawks, with Josh Smith and Al Horford, are more athletic and if they can play aggressive throughout the series (Hey Josh Smith, you want max money, this is your time!) they’ll stand a chance to upset the Pacers.
Indiana doesn’t have the firepower to steamroll the Hawks, or anyone for that matter, but they’re a deeper team than their first-round opponents. Their defense, and George’s shot making, should be good enough to grind out a series win. Pacers in 6.
(4) Brooklyn Nets (49-33) vs. (5) Chicago Bulls (45-37)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Bulls
This is easily the hardest series to call in the Eastern Conference, if only because it’s hard to predict what we’re going to see from each team—and perhaps in the Bulls’ case, who we’re going to see.
The Nets, after all the hype and Jay-Z-inspired fanfare at the beginning of the season, have morphed into the most forgettable 4-seed in recent years—wait, unless the Hawks had the 4-seed a few years back, in which case they’re not quite the most forgettable. But whether it’s because the team is full of players with little to no charisma—Joe Johnson immediately springs to mind—or that they’ve got a stopgap coach known only for being strangled by Latrell Sprewell, the Nets are a team that seems to be garnering little respect from fans and media alike. But this is a team that almost won 50 games—no small feat—and that now finally has a point-guard, in Deron Williams, playing to his potential, and the best offensive centre in the league, in Brook Lopez.
The running narrative for the Bulls this season has been whether Derrick Rose is going to return at some point and lead them to a showdown with Miami. The team has certainly teased us with their potential to make a run, if Rose returns—they hold a winning record over the Knicks and took two games off the Heat this season. Without Rose they’ve certainly done an admirable job of keeping their heads above water. Thibodeau has kept his team playing stifling defense, while Carlos Boozer, although an exception to that stifling defense, has provided a lot offensively. And perhaps the biggest surprise for the Bulls has been Nate Robinson’s production off the bench. For a team that struggles to create shots off the dribble, when the play breaks down, Robinson has been indispensible—still infuriating at times, but indispensible nonetheless.
Injuries have been Chicago’s undoing this season, but if they can stay healthy in this series, they have a chance to win. Joakim Noah is absolutely vital Chicago’s chances—he’s been their best overall player—but has missed games due to plantar fasciitis. If he can play, and be effective, he might mitigate some of Brooklyn’s advantages on the boards and in the paint.
Although a Chicago win wouldn’t surprise me—they’re good on the road after all—the Nets are coming good at the right time, and in Deron Williams, have the best player in the series. Home-court advantage and a banged-up Bulls team gives Brooklyn the edge. Nets in 7.