By now I’m sure you’ve read my Western Conference round one predictions and are eager to dive into the East, so lets do it.
(1) Indiana Pacers vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks
The hot topic in the NBA since the All-Star break has been “What the fuck is wrong with the Pacers?” The reason for Indiana’s recent struggles are complicated and involve a mediocre offense playing as it really is and a stellar defense perhaps losing focus in games that ultimately do not matter. It may have something to do with the heavy workload that the Pacers starting five has been forced to shoulder on their quest to get the top seed in the East. It may even have something to do with the team bringing in Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner to shake up the Pacers previously rock solid chemistry.
Whatever it is that ails the Pacers, it doesn’t matter in round one. Quite simply, the Hawks suck so bad that it doesn’t matter what kind of internal turmoil the Pacers are going through. Since losing Al Horford to a pectoral injury, the Hawks have slipped from the third spot in the east all the way to eighth, nearly falling completely out of the playoff picture. The Hawks simply are not built to be good this season, especially with their best player and All-Star center on the shelf for the year. New GM Danny Ferry even acknowledged in an interview that he didn’t care one way or the other if the Hawks even made the playoffs, as having a couple of ping pong balls in this loaded lottery would be better than the intrinsic value of “playoff experience.” Especially when that playoff experience is being experienced by guys like DeMarre Carroll (32 minutes a game), Shelvin Mack (20 minutes a game), Elton Brand (19 minutes a game) and Mike Scott (18.5 minutes a game).
One of the curious issues that have plagued the Pacers down the stretch has been the lackluster play of Roy Hibbert. Hibbert, a 7’2″ behemoth and defensive force has struggled to pull down rebounds and score from the post. Hibbert’s prolonged funk, combined with Paul George’s descent back to earth, has put a strain on the team that was previously thought to be impervious to internal struggle. With the Pacers drawing the Hawks in round one, Hibbert should have plenty of opportunities to work himself back into form. While Pero Antic’s shooting may present a challenge defensively for the plodding Hibbert, the majority of Atlanta’s bigs don’t have a prayer of keeping up with the Parks and Rec star.
Prediction: Indiana in 4
(2) Miami Heat vs. (3) Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats have been the feel good story of the Eastern conference this year, jumping from perennial doormat to Eastern Conference mediocrity, a status Michael Jordan and the Bobcats dreamed of when they signed Al Jefferson last summer. The Bobcats have built a stingy defense this year, despite a lack of rim protection from Jefferson, thanks largely to the development of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and first year head coach Steve Clifford. The Cats finish the season ranked sixth overall in defensive efficiency, five spots ahead of their first round opponents.
I’m not going to waste your time with a detailed analysis of why I think Miami is somehow going to pull off a win. Lebron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are by far and away the best three players in this series, and sometimes that’s all you need to know. Miami is going to score in transition, they are going to ramp up their defensive intensity that has operated with an on-off switch all season, and they are simply going to overwhelm the upstart Bobcats. Miami’s aggressive pick and roll scheme, which calls for an all out blitz of the ball handler, is going to put a strain on the undersized Kemba Walker. Walker, who has made great strides this year as both a passer and a finisher, is not a high enough caliber point guard to consistently navigate Miami’s athleticism and aggression.
This final season of Bobcats basketball has been a fun one, and points to good things to come for the new Hornets era. But I would be absolutely shocked to see this series last six games.
Prediction: Miami in 4
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets
The Nets, in one of the most cowardly moves in recent memory, tanked their way into this matchup so as to avoid the Bulls. Their motivation may also have been to get a crack at Miami in the next round, as Brooklyn went 4-0 against the defending champs this season. Brooklyn’s eagerness to fall into the six seed is peculiar to me simply because it seems that they are underestimating the challenge of going against Toronto.
The Raptors, after trading Rudy Gay many moons ago, seemed ready to pack it in and head to the lottery. But swapping out the inefficient shooting and ball stopping that Gay brought to the offense has allowed Toronto to flourish since the trade. Kyle Lowry, long considered to be an ornery fellow, has really come into his own this season and is averaging 18 points and 7 assists a night while shooting 38% from deep. DeMar DeRozan (four capital letters in one name!) has made his 4 year, $40 million extension from last season seem far more reasonable than it did at the time of its signing. DeRozan is never going to be a serious threat shooting the ball, but he has learned how to capitalize on the skills he does possess. DeRozan is averaging a career high 22.7 points a game thanks largely in part to his career high eight free throw attempts per game. DeRozan, averaging 7.2 drives per game, has grown as a decision maker in his fifth year in the league.
Brooklyn began their season in an absolute tail spin, with new head coach Jason Kidd appearing to be very overwhelmed and under qualified to lead this veteran team that has been built to win not next year or the year after, but NOW. When offensive centerpiece Brook Lopez went down with a broken foot, it seemed like a fine time to write a eulogy for this Brooklyn squad. But with the Lopez injury, the Nets were forced to play a unique style that has been incredibly successful the last two thirds of the season.
The loss of Lopez meant that Kevin Garnett would have to move over to the center spot. His move up triggered a chain reaction that has seen Paul Pierce, 6’6″, playing more power forward than ever before in his Hall of Fame career. Pierce’s move allows Joe Johnson, 6’8″ to slide over and play small forward full time. With a hole to fill at shooting guard, Shaun Livingston, 6’7″ has filled in superbly as a secondary ball handler alongside Deron Williams. That fivesome, of Garnett, Pierce, Johnson, Livingston and Williams, has been insanely good (in only 129 minutes together), posting a defensive efficiency of 89.9 and scoring at a rate of 107 points per 100 possessions. Swap out Garnett for Mason Plumlee, and the Nets continue to have success. That lineup has a net rating of +6.6.
Why have the Nets been able to succeed with these strange groups? A lot of it has to do with their ability to switch on pick and rolls. By essentially playing three small forwards and a rim protector, the general confusion and difficult rotations that most NBA teams have to deal with do not apply to the Nets. 1 through 5, those lineups are capable of guarding every man on the floor.
The Nets very loudly wanted this matchup, benching basically their entire rotation the last two games of the regular season. That type of move is likely to infuriate the often disrespected Raptors. But rage alone cannot carry a team to victory, and I suspect that the Raptors lack of any type of playoff experience will harm them against the most experienced team in the league.
Prediction: Nets in 6
(4) Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Washington Wizards
While I’m sure this is the matchup you’ve all been waiting for, I regret to inform you that I will not be diving deeply into this series. The good folks at DRaT have decided to devote an entire post that really digs into the nitty gritty of the Bulls’ first round matchup.
Similar to the Nets-Raptors series, this one pits a team with plenty of postseason experience against a squad that may just be happy to be there. John Wall has taken a bit of a leap this season in terms of distributing the ball and understanding how to generate good looks for his teammates. But the Bulls play the best defense in the NBA and are so disciplined on both sides of the ball that I would be shocked if the Wiz make any real noise in this series.
The Bulls obviously do not possess any offensive fire power to blow a team like Washington away, making it likely that this series seems close on paper. But I predict that if anyone pays close attention, they will see a dominant Bulls victory.
Prediction: Bulls in 6
And allow me to finish on a side note. My girlfriend is a native of our nation’s capital and we have a bet for this first round series. If the Bulls win, she has to buy herself a Bulls shirt and if the Wizards win than I must do the same. While I am not concerned about losing this wager, it will make the games that much more exciting.
Feel free to comment with shirt ideas for my lovely girlfriend!