Friday, April 16, 2010

NBA Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference

With the playoff matchups finally set, I figured I would take a break from my Season in Review series and give a quick rundown on what to expect in the first round.  Today, the Eastern Conference.

#1 Cleveland Cavaliers (61-21) vs. #8 Chicago Bulls (41-41)

Season Series: Tied at 2-2.
Playoff History: Chicago has eliminated Cleveland all five times they have met in the playoffs, the last time being a (Jordan-less!) sweep in the first round of the 1994 playoffs.
Key question for Cleveland:  Can LeBron and Shaq get into playoff mode despite missing a large chunk of games at the end of the regular season?
Key question for Chicago:  Can the Bulls avoid the sweep by stealing one of the first two games in Cleveland?
Cleveland wins if...LeBron makes it to the arena in time for tip-off.  The Cavs will sweep if they can contain Derrick Rose and answer Joakim Noah's feistiness with some of their own.
Chicago wins if...LeBron breaks his leg and/or Michael Jordan circa 1989 somehow gets on the playoff roster.  Since neither of those things are likely to happen, the Bulls' best-case scenario is to compete in every game, steal one of the first two in Cleveland, and showcase the talents of Rose and Noah to the crop of upcoming free agents (LeBron included).
PREDICTION:  In my dream scenario, the Bulls lead each of the first four games by one in the closing seconds, only to have LeBron hit four game-winning buzzer-beaters, finally exorcising the demons of Michael Jordan and The Shot.  In reality, Rose's vast superiority over whoever the Cavs may have defending him and Noah's relentless obnoxiousness should keep the games entertaining (if not close), but the pick has to be Cleveland in four.

#2 Orlando Magic (59-23) vs. #7 Charlotte Bobcats (44-38)

Season Series: Orlando won 3-1.
Playoff History:  This is Charlotte's first playoff appearance.
Key question for Orlando:  Can Vince Carter produce some big moments and shed his underachiever label before the Magic face stiffer competition in the later rounds?
Key question for Charlotte:  Will Nazr Mohammed, Tyson Chandler, Theo Ratliff, and Desagana Diop be able to combine for enough fouls to slow down Dwight Howard?
Orlando wins if...They play as well as they're capable of playing, or even 3/4 of that level.  The Magic have a clear talent advantage, so as long as they avoid any prolonged lapses in execution or effort, they should dominate this series.
Charlotte wins if...Stephen Jackson averages 30 points per game, Gerald Wallace puts up double-nickels every night, and Chandler, Ratliff, and Tyrus Thomas combine to block 12 shots per game.
PREDICTION:  Charlotte plays a scrappy, clawing-style that is sure to get under the skin of a Magic team that can get testy at times, but the Magic's overwhelming talent advantage (especially when it comes to scoring the ball) will be too much for Larry Brown's future former team.  The pick is Orlando in a dominant four.
#3 Atlanta Hawks (53-29) vs. #6 Milwaukee Bucks (46-36)

Season Series:  Atlanta won 2-1.
Playoff History:  Milwaukee and Atlanta played three five-game series in the first round in the 80s, with the Milwaukee twice winning the deciding game five (1989 and 1984) and Atlanta prevailing once (1988).
Key question for Atlanta:  Can Al Horford take advantage of the absence of Andrew Bogut and dominate the interior?
Key question for Milwaukee:  Can Dan Gadzuric and Kurt Thomas provide enough of an inside presence to deter the athletic attacks of the Hawks on defense and free up the Bucks' perimeter scorers on offense?
Atlanta wins if...they establish Horford down low and attack, attack, attack and avoid settling for jumpers.  Without Bogut, the Bucks don't have the offensive firepower to outscore the Hawks (the Bucks put up 104.9 points per 100 possessions, good for 23rd in the league, while the Hawks ranked 2nd with 111.9 points per 100 possessions) , but Scott Skiles will still have his boys challenging every possession.  The Hawks can't get lazy on offense, and should try to push the tempo as much as possible to take advantage of their clear athletic superiority and to prevent the Bucks from slowing the pace to a crawl.
Milwaukee wins if...Brandon Jennings plays like it's early November and John Salmons plays like it's last April.  Without Bogut, the scoring burden falls on Salmons mostly, but Jennings is going to have to step his game up, too, and 37% shooting isn't going to get it done.  While the Bucks actually played at a faster pace than the Hawks this season (91.7 possessions per game compared to Atlanta's 90.1), it would be to Milwaukee's advantage to slow things down and try to grind Atlanta's will down.  While the Hawks have shown toughness in past postseasons, it's hard to imagine that a Mike Woodson team is going to out-slug a Scott Skiles team.
PREDICTION:  With Andrew Bogut, I think the Bucks could have given the Hawks a hell of a series.  Without him, though, the Hawks are just too much better at too many positions, and while I think this will be an ugly series full of clutching and hard fouls and 89-84 games, I like Atlanta in five.

#4 Boston Celtics (50-32) vs. #5 Miami Heat (47-35)

Season Series:  Boston won 3-0.
Playoff History:  This is their first postseason meeting.
Key question for Boston:  Are they done, or can they regroup and show the same resolve they showed in last season's playoff run to the game 7 of the East semis?
Key question for Miami:  Can Dwyane Wade get enough help on offense to make what should be a stout defensive effort by the Heat stand up?
Boston wins if...Rajon Rondo becomes the focal point of the offense, Ray Allen knocks down open 3s, Kevin Garnett plays at a defensive level that's at least 75% of what he was at in 2008, and Paul Pierce remains his steady self.  The Celtics don't need to be the 2008 team again to beat an inferior Heat team, but they can't be the team that limped into the playoffs, either. 
Miami wins if...Jermaine O'Neal and Michael Beasley provide enough of a scoring boost to ease the burden off of Dwyane Wade's shoulders.  No matter what the Celtics do defensively, Wade is going to get his; the key is if the rest of the Heat can take advantage of the open shots and single coverages they are going to see with #3 drawing so much attention to himself.  The Heat's defense (104.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, 6th in the NBA) should be able to keep the offensively uneven (15th in offensive efficiency at 107.7 points per 100) Celtics within reach, especially with Eric Spoelstra's spiffy new zone that is sure to disrupt whatever game plan Doc Rivers may have.
PREDICTION:  The Celtics appear to be on their last legs, while the Heat come into the playoffs as the hottest team in the league (winners of 12 of their last 13 regular season games) and boast Wade, a talent that the aging Celtics no longer have an answer for.  Still, the current Boston roster is too prideful to just roll over and die, and while Wade will indeed go off, the old-timers will stick around long enough to force game 7 at the new Boston Garden.  With the crowd behind them and the refs swayed in their favor, the pick has to be the Celts in 7 (yet again denying everyone of the first Wade-LeBron postseason showdown).

Semifinals Picks

Cleveland over Boston in 6.
Orlando over Atlanta in 6.

Conference Finals Pick

Cleveland over Orlando in 7.

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