After a long and sometimes boring 82 game regular season the playoffs are finally here. After a huge free agent summer where some of the biggest names in the game shifted teams changing the dynamic of the league, the playoffs are actually intriguing. For the first time in a long time the field is open for four or five teams to win the championship. With the consolidation of star power there are actually legitimate good teams with star players. In looking at the east the first round may not be exciting but there is a series that is compelling in looking at the Knicks vs. Celtics. The East is headlined by the upstart Bulls led by probable MVP Derek Rose. Then there is a storyline of the Miami Heat and the big three’s first playoff run together. Can the veteran led Celtics make another run at it? These three teams all have a chance of winning the east and the star match-ups make this playoffs one of the most viable in a long time. The thing that is most compelling about all these teams is the glaring weaknesses that they have. The Bulls led by Rose have never won a playoff series with this group of players. The Heat have had late game struggles and don’t have the greatest record against over .500 teams. Meanwhile, the Celtics are faced with age and how much did the Perkins trade affect them. Over the next couple of months these questions will be answered, but first we have to start with the first round.
1. Chicago Bulls vs. 8. Indiana Pacers
This series is a no brainer and I’m not going to waste anyone’s time by construing some way that the Pacers could win this series. The Pacers already won their title this year in the annual “Sub .500 8th seed in the East”. This is a prestigious title in which the East manages to have some team win every year and then get crushed. I know the Hawks at 37-45 took the Celtics to seven games but that was an anomaly. The Pacers have nice young nucleus in Hansborough, Hibbert, Granger, and Collison, but are a superstar away from really having a chance to win in the playoffs. That’s really all there is to say about the Pacers because the best they do in this serious is win game 3 and lose in five. The Bulls on the other hand are a legitimate title contender this year. They ended this year with the NBA’s best record at 62-20. They have the probable NBA MVP in Derek Rose who takes over games in the last four minutes and the Pacers have no answer for this. They also have the look of a team on the verge of doing something special. Each player has a specific, defined role in which they have accepted which is part of the reason they are so good. They also play tenacious defense and this combination along with Rose leads them to having a chance at the title. This series is the best thing for them to get their feet wet in the playoffs and for Rose to get his first playoff series win.
Prediction: Bulls sweep 4-0 with defense and Rose being too much.
2. Miami Heat vs 7. Philadelphia 76ers
After all the hoopla and hype of the big three and Miami Heat the real test is here. After the “decision” and everything the Heat have gone through including “Crygate” the only real measuring stick that matters is how they perform in the playoffs. For everything that was expected of James, Wade, and Bosh they actually had a really good season. When you think about the pressure that was on them all year and the microscope that was on every game a 58-24 record is actually quite impressive. Then when you think about the fact they played offense 3 on 5 every night with no help around them and then having to defend the other teams best player these three have truly been remarkable. They have no bench which blow their leads, and no help offensively outside each other. I know people aren’t going to give them credit and expect this but to actually go out and do it is quite an accomplishment. The scary thing about this team is the fact they are getting better and are just coming into their own. They have finally began to play as a team and have began to define roles for one another. Wade has kind of become the man at the end of the game while James runs the offense. Bosh has finally become comfortable in the offense and has begun to establish himself in the post. The only thing that could hold them back is the lack of a presence in the paint on defense. They will have no trouble with the 76ers in the first round and look to be headed for a clash against rival Celtics.
This is my favorite team in the NBA and I have actually enjoyed watching this team. Coach Doug Collins has done an amazing job and has led with great passion. I don’t think there is any team that plays harder night in and night out then the sixers. They don’t have any great player and don’t really have a scorer but they play with passion and are a tight knit group. They didn’t have a guy average over 15 points this year and use a bullpen by committee approach. They aren’t going to win this series but I think they are going to give the Heat tough games. This team is so close to being good if they just had a legitimate star who could score at the end of games. Iguadala gets criticized for not being that guy but that’s not who he is and you can’t expect someone to be something they’re not. Andre is actually really, really good with intangibles that are conducive to winning basketball. He is in my opinion the best perimeter defender in the league and is extremely versatile filling the stat sheet every night. They have one of the best benches in the league with Young and Lou Williams having the ability to throw up 20 on any given night. They just aren’t quite good enough to pull of the upset of a team as talented as the Heat.
Keys to the Series
The Heat have a terrible bench while the 76ers have one of the best benches in the league. If there is one major advantage the 76ers have it is in this area. If the 76ers can get off to good 1st quarter starts and have the bench build a lead against the Heat’s bench. This could lead to putting pressure on the Heat in the second half of games. The only problem here is that with the playoff format as it is the Heat don’t really have to use a bench and can play the big three huge minutes taking away the main advantage the Sixers have.
End of Game
The Heat may have struggled at the end of games this year but they do have proven guys who know how to finish games in James and Wade. Watch Game 5 of the Cavs vs. Pistons or Game 5 of the Cavs vs. Magic and you will see that James can do it and trust me he hasn’t all the sudden forgotten. Or you can watch Wade against the Mavs in the 06 Finals and tell me he can’t close. Meanwhile, the Sixers were terrible at the end of games and went 2-8 in overtime this year. This is the major flaw of this team and is the reason that they aren’t really good. The don’t have a guy to give the ball to in a tie game with three minutes left. Time after time Andre has been given the ball and failed cause he just isn’t that guy. If the game is close at the end the advantage is huge for the Heat and will lead to an easy series win.
Prediction: Heat win in 5 games with too much star power for the tough Sixers.
More After the Jump
3. Boston Celtics vs. 6. New York Knicks
Ever since the Perkins trade this team has not been the same limping into the playoffs with an 11-11 record for the final 22 games. What made this team so good was the defensive end and their size and now it is gone. Worse than that is the fact that this team still seems to be feeling bad for themselves. They seem to be wining and crying about the fact a good friend and brother left the team. Unfortunately for them this is a business and it is time to stop being little babies crying about something that happens all the time. This is a business and people get fired from jobs or take other jobs all the time and sever ties with friends. So Rondo stop feeling bad for yourself and not having your buddy around to hang out with and start playing again. Even Doc looks like he still hasn’t gotten over the loss. The weird thing about the Celtics post trade is that they have been struggling on offense which isn’t Perkins strong suit. That is more troubling than anything because it means that they just aren’t focused as of now and are coasting. So the question with the Celtics is are they just coasting like last year or is there actually something wrong here. Coming into this playoffs there are more questions surrounding the Celtics then answers and that is not what you want when trying to win a championship. Are they tough enough on defense without Perkins and relying on a thousand year old, 400 pound Shaq isn’t exactly settling to a Celtic fan. They have the experience and players to make a long run it’s just is their head into it and is Perkins gone that big a difference. They have an intriguing first round match up with offensively talented New York which I will discuss the keys to the series below.
It is good to have the Knicks the playoffs and relevant again. I’m not a big Celtics or Knicks fan so I’m not exactly invested in this series but I’m surprisingly intrigued as to where this series is headed. The Knicks made the big mid season trade acquiring Carmelo Anthony and Chauncy Billups building big expectations along side Amare. The only problem with all this is that these guys don’t play defense to begin with and their coach doesn’t exactly have a track record of preaching defense. They can beat any team in a single game and have as much offensive talent as any team with Amare and Carmelo. These two are two of the top 10 natural scorers in the entire league. If they can manage to play some defense I think they can actually give the Celtics a tough series and scare them. If I had to predict one team to pull of a huge upset it is in this series. The Knicks played well down the stretch and seem to be getting used to playing with one another. They are really weak down low but the Celtics don’t have low post threats in center Jermaine O’Neal and a KG who doesn’t really look for his offense. This is the best possible match up for the Knicks in my opinion and there are a couple of reasons why I think they can win and those are the keys to the series.
Keys to the Series
Stars in the NBA are not something that can be overlooked and always have a chance in winning in the playoffs. Everybody always says in order to win in the NBA you need to star players. Well the Knicks definitely have that in Carmelo and Amare. The Celtics have the big four and these four players are really good there is no denying this. However, I think the best two players offensively on the court are on the Knicks side. You can’t tell me that doesn’t give them a chance at winning. By the way Chauncy isn’t bad himself. Now trust me I understand that basketball is much more than just individuals playing as individuals. It is about having a team with defined roles who play defense and get along off the court. I just see a situation where Amare goes circa 2007 scoring 40 points a game against Duncan who isn’t a chump on defense and Carmelo dropping 35 a game. If these two can be on the same page and use their star power for 4 games they have a shot of pulling off the upset.
Off the Court
It can’t be overstated how much things off the court and in the locker room impact the game itself. Basketball is more about off the court issues and team chemistry than any other sport. The Celtics seem to be more interested in what has happened in the past then what is happening now. They seem to let the Perkins trade become more than just losing a player. It has affected them mentally and affected their team chemistry. They just seem to have this self fulfilling prophecy that once Perkins left they aren’t the team they were. It appears that they are just as unhappy about the trade as everyone in the media was. This doom and gloom attitude has taken away from their confidence, attitude, and chemistry. These factors aren’t something that can be overlooked and really do affect a team on the court. If they can’t get over this Perkins trade and accept the fact he is gone then they just might let the Knicks slip by them. The other off the court thing is the health of Shaq. Hard to believe they are so dependent on Shaq at his age but they truly are. Shaq actually makes them way better when he plays and if he can’t come back a 100 percent then they are in trouble if not here then against the Heat. If you ever need evidence of off the court issues losing a team a series look at the 04 Lakers vs Pistons in the finals where Kobe managed to single handily destroy that team with his undermining of both Phil Jackson and Shaq.
Prediction: As much as I think the Knicks might win I’m going with the championship pedigree of the Celtics in 7 games.
4. Orlando Magic vs. 5. Atlanta Hawks
The Magic might have the most dominant player in the entire league in Dwight Howard. Unfortunately for the Magic that is where it ends as well. Howard is good enough where he can manage to lead them to a series win over a team like the Hawks but that is as far as they are capable of going. Jameer Nelson is a solid point guard but what else does this team have. Hedo isn’t the same ever since he got traded from the Magic originally. Arenas is so far from the player he use to be it is scary. He looks like an old man out there with terrible knees. Jason Richardson is a solid player but that doesn’t cut it in the playoffs. So the Magic have one top 50 player on their roster in Howard. So how is this team expected to make a long playoff run? I think Howard is on the verge of being truly great and this playoffs could be is coming out party. He seems to hold back a little bit every night he is out there and in the playoffs I think we might see the best of Howard. There is no one player in the league that can guard him and he is capable of being just as dominant as Shaq was. I think you could see a barrage of 30-20 games from Howard especially against the Hawks who are going to him with Jason Collins you kidding me. Howard is going to get his but who is going be there to support and help him and unfortunately for them the answer is no one.
The good old Atlanta Hawks. Everybody always talks about how they are talented enough to beat anyone and yet two years in a row they have been swept in the second round in embarrassing fashion. No team quits on their coach and manages to lose games by 30 then these great Hawks. Oh and they also thought this year in the off season that they would pay Joe Johnson 20 million dollars a year. Yeah Joe Johnson is as good as James, Wade, Howard, and Kobe so we should pay him just like them. Forget the fact his numbers have been declining over the past 3 years and he does nothing in the playoffs. But hey that’s why the Hawks are the Hawks. By the way this the exact reason that the NBA needs the CBA in the off season. There is one good thing for the Hawks and that is the fact they actually match up well with the Magic. They were 3-1 against them in the regular season and the Magic don’t have the best perimeter defenders to match up with Johnson, Josh Smith, and Jamal Crawford. Also besides Howard the Hawks are far more athletic than the Magic and should be able to get out on the break on them. The Hawks actually have a chance at winning this series and then if they do can embarrass themselves for a third year in a row against the Bulls.
Key to the Series
Stopping the 3 point Line and Tempo
Howard is going to get his and I think the Hawks are going to let him do his thing. For the Hawks the best idea is just to single cover Howard and smother the 3 point line and shooters of the Magic. The Magic are at their best when they are hitting 3’s and if you can stop this you can stop them. The Hawks can let Howard score 40 a game as long as they shut everyone else down. The Magic have the best player on the court but the Hawks have the next best three in Horford, Johnson, and Smith. This series will hinge on the three point line and not Howard. If the Hawks defend the 3 point line and get out on the break they will win. If the Magic can make their patented threes and feed Howard they will win. This series will also be about pace where the Magic want a half court game while the Hawks want an up and down track meet. Whoever can control the tempo of these games will have the major advantage.
Prediction: Magic win in 7 just because Dwight is that good contradicting everything I just said oh well.