(1) Indiana Pacers (56-26) vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks (38-44)
Regular Season Series: Tied 1-1
This is a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference 3-6 match-up. In a competitive series, the Indiana Pacers edged the Atlanta Hawks, 4-2. The Hawks and Pacers have faced off twice this year with their current starting lineups. On both occasions, the Hawks won by 10 and 19. The Pacers have been able to hold the Hawks below their scoring average. The problem is, the Pacers can’t score. When these teams battled less than two weeks ago, Indiana put up just 23 points in the first half. They finished with a more respectable 88 points, but still lost by 19.
The personnel on both teams are similar to last year, although Atlanta lost Al Horford to injury and let Josh Smith walk in free agency. Their current team matches up a bit better against Indiana with the additions of Paul Millsap, Pero Antic, Demarre Carroll and Elton Brand. Kyle Korver guarding Paul George has proven to be disastrous for the Hawks. Carroll does a better job containing the All-Star. Antic can hit the three consistently when left open. Surely, with Roy Hibbert on him, he’ll get plenty of open looks. He averages better numbers against the Pacers than any other team. In two games, Antic put up an average of 17 points on 72.2 per cent shooting, three three-pointers on 60 per cent from beyond the arc and five rebounds. Indiana’s defensive anchor has been an afterthought so far in this series. Hibbert recorded five points on 28 per cent and 3.8 rebounds in four games against the Hawks. Atlanta has been the 7-foot-2 Hibbert’s worst Eastern Conference match-up because their big men spread the floor with their shooting. They draw the league’s best rim protector outside which opens things up inside.
Indiana opened the NBA regular season on a nine-game winning streak. They established themselves as the best defensive team in the league and have topped the Eastern Conference. Paul George was a legitimate MVP contender and Hibbert locked up the Defensive Player of the Year Award in the first three months of play. However, George’s scoring numbers took a hit after the All-Star break when off-court controversy dragged his name through the mud. Hibbert’s numbers have declined as well. He went from tallying 12.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in November to 5.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game this month. Granted, Pacers head coach Frank Vogel has been resting his starters as the regular season wound down. But there is really no excuse for a centre who doesn’t venture far from the basket to shoot 23.5 per cent from the field. The team regressed, lost games and relinquished first place to the Miami Heat. Despite these struggles, the Pacers managed to finish first in the conference with the league’s stingiest defence.
Unlike Hibbert, Atlanta’s Jeff Teague has caught fire at the perfect time. In April, Teague is averaging a season-high 18.8 points, shooting 52.7 per cent from the field and 42.9 per cent from beyond the arc. He’s dishing 5.8 dimes and only turning the ball over twice per game. He will dominate George Hill if he remains aggressive. He will be the one capitalizing on drives with Hibbert stepping away from the basket. If Hibbert stands pat, there will be shooters left open. Should their shots fall, the series will get interesting.
Prediction: Pacers in 7
With all due respect to the Hawks, the number of games this series reaches depends on which Indiana team shows up. If the Pacers played like they did early in the season, this series will be over quick. Otherwise, and more likely, the series will drag out a bit. To Atlanta’s credit, they have a multitude of offensive weapons. Sharpshooter Kyle Korver could easily win a game by himself. The Hawks take 25 3-pointers per game, shooting 40.6 per cent against the Pacers. This is well above their season average of 36.3 per cent, despite the fact that Indiana is fourth in the NBA in defending the long ball. Atlanta has also upgraded their bench and coaching staff from last year. They’ll win at least one game at home, but I see the well-rested Pacers taking this series in seven games.
(2) Miami Heat (54-28) vs. (7) Charlotte Bobcats (43-39)
Regular Season Series: 4-0 Heat
The Charlotte Bobcats are in the playoffs for the second time in their franchise’s decade-long history. As a reward, they’ll get to face two-time defending NBA champions, the Miami Heat. It’s a tough break for the Bobcats, who haven’t defeated the Heat in the Big Three Era. That’s zero regular season wins in 15 games over the past four seasons. To Charlotte’s credit, half their losses to the Heat this season were tight. The Bobcats fell to Miami by one point on Dec. 1, 2013. However, Dwyane Wade rested two of those games. Their ability to dominate is a testament to their significant edge over the Bobcats in talent, experience, coaching and, dare I say, culture. Miami is simply the most efficient scoring team in the league. There is minimal room for error against this team. They stretched and exploited Charlotte’s defense. LeBron James attacked and scored at will off the dribble while Chris Bosh poured in three-pointers. In their last meeting on March 3, James dropped a career- and franchise-best 61 points in a 124-107 victory. The game’s best player averages 37.8 points (highest against any team) on 62.9 per cent shooting, six rebounds and 5.5 assists against Charlotte. It’s a trend that doesn’t bode well for the Bobcats.
The Bobcats were able to keep games close by utilizing their well-coordinated defence to disrupt some of Miami’s sets. It is imperative they remain within striking distance, as they’ve shown they can close out games. Long and athletic players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson will be able to contest the well-rested Wade. On offence, Charlotte puts up a plethora of points from Al Jefferson post-ups. Kemba Walker also plays well against Miami, averaging 15.5 points, six assists and 1.3 steals. He will need to keep his turnovers down in order to keep games close. The Bobcats have proven they can take care of the ball and average the fewest turnovers in the NBA.
Two words: Big Al. Jefferson has given the Heat some trouble in the regular season. The big man averages 25.3 points on 57.4 per cent shooting, with 15.3 rebounds (against most any team). In LeBron’s big game, Jefferson scored 38 points (two shy of his career-high). He dominates the paint and will draw a double team from the Heat. Miami doesn’t like to double players, so they may sub in Greg Oden to guard Jefferson one-on-one. The odds are in Jefferson’s favour.
Prediction: Heat in 5
The Heat don’t let first round series drag out. They swept the Milwaukee Bucks last year, took out the Philadelphia 76ers in five the year before, and the New York Knicks in five the year before that. Miami takes care of business so they are well-rested for the semi-finals and beyond. There’s a drastic gap on both ends between them and the eighth-seeded Bobcats. At their best, the Heat will suffocate Charlotte on defence, forcing them to rush sets and miss many shots. Then they’ll make them pay on the other end. I predict Jefferson and Walker lead the Bobcats to squeeze out one win on their homecourt. The battle inside against Jefferson will serve as useful prep work for the Heat, who will face an All-Star centre in the second round, whether it be Chicago’s Joakim Noah or Indiana’s Roy Hibbert.
(3) Toronto Raptors (48-34) vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets (44-38)
Regular Season Series: 2-2
Soda-gate didn’t quite work out for the Nets, but a recent ploy has. Head coach Jason Kidd rested his starters in the team’s regular season finale, presumably in an effort to fall to six and meet the Raptors in the opening round. This is a rematch of the 2007 first-round series, where Kidd led the New Jersey Nets (as a player) to take the series, 4-2, over the Atlantic Division-winning Raptors. Seven years later, with a whole new team and their second Atlantic Division title, the Raptors are once again considered the underdogs despite finishing with the higher seed. The 15 players on Toronto’s roster combine for 158 playoff games. Paul Pierce alone has 136. Brooklyn is a veteran team with a bounty of postseason experience that is sure to pay dividends. The ancient Nets are horrible in back-to-back situations, so they will benefit from having days off to rest in between each game. They have essentially been built for the playoffs. In contrast, this will be the first taste of the postseason for a trio of Raptors starters in DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. While they haven’t learned how to manage a series, they are the bigger, faster, superior-rebounding and more athletic team.
On the court, this has translated to a fairly even match-up. The Atlantic Division foes tied their regular season series, 2-2. Toronto snapped two of Brooklyn’s five-game winning streaks in January. The first happened on Drake Night, when the Raptors treated Drizzy and the crowd to a 16-point blowout. The other three games were decided by an average of two points. Even though the team personnel and coaching philosophies differ drastically, these teams have a tendency to play each other down to the wire.
The Raptors are the only team in the Eastern Conference with a top-10 offence and defence. They tend to find themselves in tight contests, leading the NBA in games within five points in the last five minutes. To their credit, they are the league’s best fourth quarter team, outscoring opponents by an average of 11.6 points per 100 possessions. Patrick Patterson is a Nets killer, finishing with a plus-75 in three games against Brooklyn (two as a Raptor, one as a Sacramento King). He scored the gamewinner at the Barclays Center on January 27. All that said, Brooklyn has battle-tested veterans like Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Deron Williams who can be relied on to make winning plays down the stretch.
Series X-Factor: Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry has been Toronto’s leader and MVP this season. The feisty point guard is lethal driving to the hole and pulling up beyond the arc. He gets his teammates involved with his energy and hustle. He’s down on the floor more than anyone else, either diving for the ball or drawing charges. Lowry affects the game in so many ways and will give the Nets a headache. Lowry scored 38 points in 34 minutes during the regular season while he was guarded by Deron Williams or Shaun Livingston. Lowry averages 8.5 points in the paint against Brooklyn, which is more than he records against any other Eastern Conference challenger. Brooklyn will lose games if they fail to contain Lowry. They will also need more from Deron Williams in order to nullify Lowry’s impact.
Prediction: Raptors in 6
The Nets are the superior team in small ball. The Raptors should take advantage of their size in the front court. However, if recent history is any indication—Toronto has taken the fewest shots of any team in the NBA in the restricted area—they could miss a golden opportunity. The Raptors can still win games by keeping up the same defensive pressure that has helped them win 48 previous games. They’ll use their fresh legs to outrun the Nets. Both teams are capable of claiming a game or two with streaky outside shooting, but my money’s on Toronto’s dynamic backcourt to get the team over the hump against Joe Johnson and his herd of overpaid dinosaurs. I’m calling another six-game series between these rivals, with Toronto’s young guns coming out on top.
(4) Chicago Bulls (48-34) vs. (5) Washington Wizards (44-38)
Regular Season Series: 2-2
The Bulls enter their sixth straight postseason as one of hottest teams in the NBA. They’ve won 36 games in the new year, the most of any Eastern Conference squad. Meanwhile, the Wizards won 44 games to lock up the fifth seed and a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Washington was the only team that beat the Bulls during the first three weeks of January, and they managed to do so twice. Chicago took the most recent meeting two weeks ago. The Bulls laid down the defensive hammer in a 96-78 pounding at the Verizon Center.
The Bulls have solidified themselves as an elite defensive team. They clog lanes, get up on shooters, and do everything they can to apply pressure and make it tough for opponents to get the ball through the hoop. As a result, the Bulls give up fewer points than any team in the association. However, their offence is different story. Chicago’s two leading scorers this season are no longer playing for them: Derrick Rose is out indefinitely with yet another knee injury, and Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland. They have had contributions from Jimmy Butler and D.J. Augustin, but are overall so ill-equipped and desperate on offence that they enlist a 6-foot-11 centre to be their main facilitator. Sure, they have shown plenty of heart, but when the goal is to finish with more points than the other team, this club that finished dead last in scoring is bound to drop games.
The NBA’s first Dunker of the Night will be the difference in this series. John Wall can beat the Bulls using his speed. He has scored 34 points in 29 minutes against Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin. It is the first playoff appearance for the first-time All-Star who leads the league in total assists, but also in turnovers. The Bulls need to exploit that by pressing the 23-year old, even if it takes two defenders, in order to pry the ball away from him and give themselves more scoring opportunities. Wall has improved on his long-range shooting, but he still only shoots at a 35 per cent clip. The Bulls would be wise to give him the three, while taking away his driving and dishing, because Wall is much more dangerous when he operates inside the paint.
Prediction: Wizards in 7
Washington’s success depends on two things: the frontcourt matchup and three-pointers. Nene played in the two games the Wizards won over the Bulls. When he missed the last one, Joakim Noah had his way on both ends and his team cruised to an 18-point victory. If healthy, the duo of Nene and Marcin Gortat can give Noah and Carlos Boozer a run for their money. Chicago yields the fewest three-pointers in the league. If they are able to take that away from the Wizards, they have a great chance of winning this series. However, that’s easier said than done. John Wall’s penetration and kick outs lead to plenty of clean looks behind the arc. The Wizards have four players—tops in the league—who have hit at least 100 three-pointers this season. Chicago can slow down some of these attacks, but they won’t be able to fend them all off. I like the Wizards because they have proven they can put points on the board.