Start your engines
They did it. In the East, every team in the playoffs has at least a .500 record. You cannot say that often. Good for them. However, simply having all eight teams at .500 or better does not make the conference as strong as its counterpart where all eight teams have at least 50 wins. Nonetheless, a team from the East has just as much of a chance at winning the NBA Championship as one from the West. Everybody is equal for now, on Saturday this will change.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 8. Chicago Bulls
I wrote some time ago that the Bulls would make the playoffs because Toronto was not good enough to win the games they needed down the stretch to make it. What was not foreseen was the injury sustained by Chris Bosh sidelining him for the remainder of the regular season. The Raptors did not prove me wrong and sputtered to a finish. C’est la vie, Toronto. Chicago put the fate of their playoff lives in the hands of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Noah stoked the flames when he returned from injury and was a catalyst to get the Bulls into the playoffs. They are in now and they face the team that Rose referred to as simply “LeBron” when he said the Bulls would make the playoffs. It would be improper, despite the other quality players surrounding the Cavaliers’ central figure, to correct Rose’s notion of who the Bulls face.
To congratulate the Bulls the man who is responsible for Chicago’s six championships personally paid them a visit after the Bulls defeated the Charlotte Bobcats to get the last playoff spot. Michael Jordan was in the Bulls locker room after the game giving the team his well wishes. It is not every day that His Airness personally expresses a message of luck to a team that just beat his. This should serve to boost and motivate the moral of an already fired up group.
During the regular season the Bulls beat the Cavaliers twice. This scrappy team knows how to play them. The Bulls also have history on their side going into this matchup as they have never lost a postseason series to the Cavaliers. Will history repeat itself? Noah has stated that he wants “to try to shock the world” and beat the Cavaliers in the first round. If the Bulls were to accomplish this it would be the biggest upset since the Golden State Warriors defeated the Dallas Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs. Waiting for the Bulls, however, is a “different monster” who will stop at nothing until his post season dream is realized. For the Bulls, it will be an uphill battle.
Chicago’s backcourt matches up favorably with their counterparts in Cleveland. Rose and Kirk Hinrich are a good combo set with Rose exhibiting the flash and get to the cup quickness and Hinrich being able to hit from all points on the floor as well as create off the dribble. Luol Deng has the potential to score at will from the three spot and at 6’9” can shoot over Cleveland’s guards, but it is unlikely that he will get that mismatch often. Chicago’s best players are Rose and Noah. They rely on them to fight and scrap. Noah is especially talented with his ability to score and rebound in buckets. However, he, along with the other Bulls centers, is going to have his hands full.
Shaquille O’Neal is returning from his thumb injury for the playoffs. His size and physical presence will likely disrupt every play that comes near the paint for the Bulls. Brad Miller, Taj Gibson, and Noah will have to alternate shifts against the big Aristotle and avoid foul trouble. Shaq, however, is not the top concern for the Bulls. Their main concern is to try and contain a force of nature. LeBron James presents matchup problems across the board. Committee defense and switching on screens may be the Bulls only option if they hope to slow him down. A healthy Hakim Warrick would also serve the Bulls well in their defense of James. Warrick’s size and length are enough to hamper James’ abilities but probably not enough to stop them all together. If Warrick is not healthy, duties will fall to Deng who is one of the Bulls best defenders. It will be interesting to see what strategy Vinny Del Negro employs to stop the Cavaliers attack, either try and stop James or let James run free and shut down the rest of the Cavaliers.
Series Prediction: For some reason this series has an eerie feel about it. On one side you have the team that prognosticators and analysts have fawned over all season and on the other you have a tough never say die team that took matters into their own hands and won when they need to most. Do not be surprised if this series plays itself out over the course of seven games; conversely do not be surprised if it lasts a mere four. Could Lebron’s rest become an issue? Doubtful. Will any of Cleveland’s guards slowdown Derrick Rose? Probably not. To be safe, Cleveland wins in five too close for comfort games.
2. Orlando Magic vs. 7. Charlotte Bobcats
Nobody expected the Bobcats to make the playoffs this season. Yet, here they are. Snagging Stephen Jackson this season was a steal for them as he almost instantly clicked with his new squad and propelled them toward the playoffs. The Bobcats also have a new face higher up in the team ranks. Well, in all reality his face is not so new to the team but his position is. Michael Jordan became the majority owner of the NBA’s second youngest franchise this year. This will be the Bobcats’ first trip to the NBA’s second season and greeting them are the defending Eastern Conference Champions. Roll out the welcome mat.
(Much of the following has been taken from a previous article I wrote to save time and my fingers.) The matchup of the Bobcats and Magic has the potential to be the lowest scoring series in the modern playoff era as these teams rank number one and two in team defense and defensive efficiency with Charlotte being first in team defense and Orlando being first in efficiency. Orlando has been the league’s best team since the All Star break and looks to continue this trend into the Playoffs. Maybe the Bobcats have been planning this matchup all season because they five players listed as centers on their roster and that does not even include Tyrus Thomas who is listed as a power forward. Larry Brown will of course have to shrink his roster down for the playoffs but it can be taken for granted that he will have plenty of bodies to throw at Dwight Howard throughout the series. Having many bodies to wear down Howard is a key to this series for the Bobcats. If they can get Howard into foul trouble or simply get him fatigued and force him to the bench it will open up lanes that Charlotte can use to get high percentage shots and not run the risk of seeing the ball in the third row. Honestly, teams must get really annoyed when Howard gives them the ball right back.
Simply put, Orlando is good, real good. (I cannot believe I admitted it but circumstances forced my hand.) They will be heavy favorites to return to the Eastern Conference Finals coming into the playoff but they should not get that far ahead of themselves just yet. Charlotte stands in their way. Orlando does not match up well against the likes of Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace. Vince Carter is not a noted defender and will have his hands full with Jackson. It is possible that Matt Barnes, Jackson’s former teammate in Golden State, will be called upon by Stan Van Gundy to guard him but then this likely gives either Carter or Rashard Lewis defensive duties against Wallace. Mickael Pietrus factors to play a large role in the series with his efficiency and the defensive end of the court and his ability to stretch the floor on the offensive end with the three-point shot.
What should be the biggest factor in this series is the Magic’s penchant to fire up the long ball. This season they set the NBA record for made three-pointers with 841. The previous record was 837 set by the seven seconds or less Suns during the 2005-06 season. It is rather astounding that a team considering that this season’s Magic team is the complete antonym to D’Antoni’s doctrine in Phoenix when the Suns set the previous record. Orlando does, however, live and die by the three. If it is not falling they have little hope of winning a game. Jameer Nelson will be key in this regard. He has been heating up of late and if this trend continues he could propel the Magic forward with his outside shooting. J.J. Redick has also been playing well this season displaying that he is no longer just the face up jump shooter he was at Duke. He now has the ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the lane. (Kid has also beefed up like crazy.) It will be a tall order to stop the Magic’s outside shooting but it should be the number one priority of the Bobcats.
Series Prediction: Charlotte has brought in playoff veterans to help guide the team to where it wants to be in players, their head coach, and their owner. This wealth playoff knowledge should serve the Bobcats well as they enter their first ever test of the postseason. Stephen Jackson, Larry Brown, and Michael Jordan all have rings which is more than anyone in the Magic’s organization can say (except White Chocolate). These rings will undoubtedly be on display around the Bobcats’ locker room to motivate the team. Motivating Orlando is their sense of failure and an unfinished business from last season. Charlotte will surprise many in this series, but a surprise is only just that. It does not translate to the second round. The Magic will win the series in six games.
3. Atlanta Hawks vs. 6. Milwaukee Bucks
This would have been a great series. It could have gone seven games and been a knockdown, drag out, slugfest. Sadly it will not be. The loss of Andrew Bogut has completely curtailed any belief that the Bucks could pull off a first round upset. It is rather unfortunate that this had to happen too. Milwaukee was hitting stride and clicking on all cylinders after the acquisition of John Salmons from the Bulls. They were poised to be the dark horse, err…deer rather, in the Eastern playoff picture. With Bogut anchoring a stingy Skiles coached defense and a proven offensive attack even with Michael Redd out for the season (again) they were scary. “Fear the Deer” the saying went. But then Bogut came crashing down. Since the injury to Bogut the Bucks are 6-7 after going 40-29 with him in the lineup. This does not bode well for a team looking for its playoff series win since losing in the Eastern Conference finals in 2001.
Atlanta has played with the big boys in the playoffs before and they expect to do better this year than they did last after going home in the second round. They have added fire power to their lineup this season with the addition of (the Kobe Beef’s sixth man award winner) Jamal Crawford and have watched as Josh Smith (our DPOY runner up) has grown into a statistical monster who eats up boards, hounds the ball, and swats shots like flies. Offensively the Hawks have the second most efficient attack in the league with a rating of 111.9. Their offense will be tested by the Bucks defense but without Bogut clogging the middle they pose little threat to Atlanta.
Expect Joe Johnson to put on a display worthy of saying, “Hi, I’m Joe Johnson and this summer I become an unrestricted free agent. Here is what I am good at. Wouldn’t you like me on your team?” The Hawks would certainly like to keep Johnson right where he is. Johnson is the main weapon in the Hawks arsenal and will pace the team throughout their playoff run. Any potential wild cards that may appear this season for Atlanta does not seem like a likely occurrence as each player knows their role and performs it to a T.
Series Prediction: The “if only’s” abound for Milwaukee but without Bogut their playoff aspirations have become mere dust in the wind. Atlanta will win the series in five games.
4. Boston Celtics vs. 5. Miami Heat
On paper the Boston Celtics should run away with this series. On paper the Boston Celtics have a stingy defense that shuts down opponents with ease. On paper this is a team that was built for the playoffs. On paper this is a team of champions who know how to win. On paper I can draw a picture of myself with hair like Aaron Eckhart surrounded by Scarlett Johansson, Alicia Keyes, Hillary Duff, Mandy Moore, Rachel McAdams, and Beyonce in a harem on my own tropical island. What the hell, let me pencil in Megan Fox too as a cheap gimmick. Oh, and while I’m at it lets throw in Salma Hayek and Carmen Electra. What a lovely drawing. Ah, the joys of paper potential. Boston has stumbled into the playoffs tripping over their own feet. This is not the same team that people said could challenge the Cavaliers for the Eastern crown at the start of the season. Their last good defensive performance came against the Mavericks on 20 March and their defense has looked anemic since. In their last meeting with Cleveland the Celtics blew a 22 point lead which would have cost them the game if LeBron James could have made a few more free throws down the stretch and not taken an ill advised three on a fastbreak. This month the Celtics have lost to Houston, New York, and Washington. Last time anyone checked none of these teams were postseason bound. They are playing for lottery positions. FDR once said that they only thing we have to fear is fear itself. In the Celtics case they need to fear themselves, their ineptitude on the court, their age, and a certain player who will face them in the first round.
(Some of what is included in this paragraph is reprinted from an earlier article.) Dwyane Wade is the Miami Heat. He has them playing at a high level and streaking at the right time. Miami is 18-4 since the start of March and has its eyes set on the second round. Wade will not let the frail and withered Celtics stop him. What this series will turn into is Dwyane Wade’s audition tape for free agency. Expect him to slice through Boston’s feeble and aging defenders, scoring frequently and at will. The only player the Celtics have on their roster that is capable of keeping up with Wade is Rajon Rondo. However, Rondo is too small and lacks the strength to guard Wade. Certainly guard duties will not fall to Jesus Shuttlesworth; he has never been known for his defensive capabilities and will likely see little time guarding him. The task of defending Wade will fall to Paul Pierce. Pierce has somehow molded himself into a serviceable defender since the acquisition of Kevin Garnett but will remain a step behind the slashing Wade who is expected will make mincemeat of the Celtics lethargic frontcourt when getting into the paint. If Kevin Garnett wants to complain about fouls he should have saved his breath for this series. Sources have just informed me that Dwyane Wade has just purchased a new condo on the foul line for this series and plans to make it his permanent residence. In every series that Wade plays in during the playoffs the spectral calls of 2006 follow him. This series should be no different.
Outside of Wade, the Heat matchup rather nicely with their aging blunder counterparts. Their frontcourt consists of Jermaine O’Neal, Udonis Haslem, and Michael Beasley. Expect this trio to out rebound the hapless Celtics in almost every game of the first round. But what the series will come down to essentially is the scoring duel between Wade and Pierce. Both players look to be their respective teams leading scorers each game and this will not change. Boston’s bench is a joke other than Tony Allen and Big Baby when it comes to actual contribution.
Series Prediction: The most anticipated part of this series will be how quickly Boston loses its cool. I’m going to guess either ‘Sheed or KG is assessed a technical foul around three minutes into the second quarter of game one. Boston and its management might want to reassess the win now policy that they enacted several years ago. Sure they won a title but in all reality what did it truly cost them. Their team is so old (how old are they?) that they have destroyed their future and may lose many of their players in free agency this summer. Miami might also lose its best player this summer too. Dwyane Wade sold his property in south Florida last month so the outlook is grim for the Heat. However, they do have the ability resign Wade, add a max player and another player at $9-10 million this off season with the cap room they will have available. As for now they will have one last hurrah with Wade firmly at the helm. Miami wins in seven.