Indiana Pacers vs Atlanta Hawks
Season Series: 2-2
Indiana limps into the playoffs playing sub .500 basketball since the beginning of March, including one loss to the Hawks where they trailed 42-15 in the second quarter (universally looked at as rock bottom of Indiana’s slide). In fact, the only thing that could make this a series is the fact that the Pacers are going through this slide. A methodical team, the Pacers were grinding teams down with their slow play (20th in pace) and suffocating defense (1st in points per 100 possessions) when they were playing at their optimal level. During their skid, it was really their offense that let them down, failing to break 90 points 10 times (and going 0-10) over that span.
Atlanta should be applauded for fighting so ferociously; not just at the end of the season to secure a playoff berth, but for refusing to tank when their best player (Al Horford) went down for the season in December with an oblique tear. Jeff Teague and All-Star Paul Millsap have carried the Hawks all year. While Atlanta is thin offensively in the post, they were 2nd in the league in 3 pointers attempted and look to hoist it from deep to compensate for their lack of down low scoring.
Atlanta’s best chance is probably hitting a high percentage of those threes they always jack up, but the Pacers are 4th in defensive 3 point percentage in the league. I’d look for the Hawks to get some early offense in transition against the Pacers, it’s probably their best option for attacking the league’s best defense. When going down the lineup, Millsap and Teague are better than their counterparts (David West and George Hill) but Indiana holds the edge in the other 3 position matchups. Mike Scott for Atlanta is the best bench player in the series, but Indiana has more experienced depth. As mortal as Indiana has looked lately, I just can’t see them losing this series. Pacers win series 4-1.
Miami Heat vs Charlotte Bobcats
Season Series: 4-0 (Miami)
Miami looked to have the 1st seed sewn up as the Pacers came back to the pack after their hot start. After they were unable to beat Atlanta late, they were relegated to the 2nd seed. Part of the reason they’ve ended up behind the Pacers was their unwillingness to play Dwyane Wade any more than they felt that had to, pulling him out of 28 games this season due mostly to precaution. Miami’s defense has been the least efficient of the “Big 3” era, ranking 11th in defensive efficiency. Moreover, their 3 point FG% plummeted from 2nd last year to 12th this season with the departure of Mike Miller and Ray Allen’s decline. Despite them still boasting the most talented starting 5, this is a much different Heat team that will struggle mightily to go to their 4th finals in as many years.
The Bobcats were a surprise to many as they officially left the doldrums of the NBA to the posh pastures of postseason ball. Charlotte propelled themselves into the tournament because of their defense and Al Jefferson. Despite losing one of their best defenders in Jeffrey Taylor, head coach Steve Clifford cobbled together a 5th ranked defensive efficiency rating. Jefferson is having his best year in the NBA in his 10th season. While he has earned the player of the month and week awards he garnered, assistant coach Patrick Ewing has helped the big man immensely. Add Kemba Walker’s steady play and late game heroics, and the Bobcats outperformed many pundits’ expectations.
There’s a reason Miami is 4-0 vs this team. It’s simply a terrible matchup for the Bobcats. The Heat just have too many guns for a team that struggles to score (and I won’t mention that whole “LeBron dropped a 60 burger on the Bobcats” thing). I hate picking against my squad, so I think they’ll scoop a game at home but Miami wins 4-1.
Toronto Raptors vs Brooklyn Nets
Season Series: 2-2
I pride myself on seeing the truth in a player’s game, to accurately predict what their maturation will be. So I was extra shocked to see Kyle Lowry’s emergence this year. He should’ve been an All-Star as he had a career high in points per game, assists per contest, and 3 point percentage. DeMar DeRozen continued to hone his scoring ability, cracking 20 points for the first time in his short career. The Raptors have assembled a talented backcourt and an athletic frontcourt with Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. This is not some lucky team, the Raptors are a young talented group.
The most talented group may be in Brooklyn. They lost Brook Lopez and Deron Williams early in the season, and even after Williams returned Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko have both had problems staying healthy. No problem, this team has had several guys step up in different games all season; sometimes it is Williams, or Shaun Livingston, or Mirza Teletovic, or Mason Plumlee, or Andray Blatche. And that list doesn’t include their late-game heroes Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce—or for that matter their late season acquisition Marcus Thornton who has gone for 20+ points 5 times since his late Feb trade.
This series is going to be a good one, and the most entertaining of the East’s first round affairs. It will be highly contested and full of highlights. I’m picking the Nets to win in 7 because of their depth and experience. Picking a team based solely on intangibles is always a crap shoot, but no one on that Raptors team has won much of anything of note, and everyone says how different playoff basketball is from the regular season. While I think the coaching matchup favors Dwayne Casey (a Coach-Of-The-Year candidate this season) over Jason Kidd, the onslaught of championship-caliber talent will be too much for the surprising Raptors, and the Nets will win in 7.
Chicago Bulls vs Washington Wizards
Season Series: 2-1 (Wizards)
First, let us applaud Coach Tom Thibodeau for his coaching performance this year. The man loses Derrick Rose early to injury, and loses Luol Deng to a trade midseason that yields nothing in return. Two out of the 5 projected in the starting lineup are gone and Thibs still glided this team to homecourt in the first round of the playoff—impressive. Equally impressive has been the play of Joakhim Noah and Taj Gibson, the collective heart of this team. Gibson is a candidate for the 6th man of the year award, and Noah has done everything for this team; scoring, rebounding, and creating for his teammates in the most perilous of times. This Bulls team is based more on grit than talent, much like last year’s incarnation that beat the more talented Nets in the first round of the playoffs.
The Wiz Kids look to finally be living up to their prodigious talent. John Wall and Bradley Beal have both taken leaps and moved into contention for the “best backcourt in the league” contingent. It would be easy to think that because the face of this team is young and the franchise hasn’t experienced much success in the playoffs that the team is too green to do anything this postseason. Take a closer look at the roster and see Andre Miller, Trevor Ariza, and Al Harrington. With Nene coming back just in time for the playoffs, the team’s attack won’t just be from the perimeter. Their offensive balance will be important for a team that can struggle scoring the basketball.
It’s really hard to go against a team as tough as the Bulls, but eventually the talent will win out…right? Plus, I’m really excited to see Bradley and Wall in the postseason; I think both will elevate this team and make it an incredibly difficult out. Both teams rank in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, but the Wizards are better on offense with Nene’s return. Wizards in 6.