Prior to the All-Star break, the East as a whole looked dismal. And the lack of respect afforded to the conference by the media was well deserved. For the first half of the season, every team not dressed in Pacers or Heat jerseys was underachieving at best.
But let’s give credit where credit is due. During the last couple months we’ve seen quite a few squads crawl their way back from the depths of despair into the realm of not only respectability, but of possibility.
Now, just days away from the start of the 2013-14 playoffs, we’re not so convinced that it’s a two-team race with six clubs acting as “warm-up” fodder.
Here’s a taste of what you might expect to see from each Eastern Conference Playoff series:
#1 Indiana Pacers vs. #8 Atlanta Hawks: Which Indiana team can we expect to see this post-season?
The Pacers are a team that lost their identity somewhere in an Indiana corn field. If they rediscover it in time, they’ve got the talent to go all the way. If they don’t, they could be exiting the playoffs as early as the opening round.
Lord only knows which Pacers team will suit up against the Hawks, and by “Lord” I am not referring to Larry Bird.
Bird built this team flawlessly since taking over as president, but he may have screwed the pooch by trading away Danny Granger for Evan Turner. Statistically the move looks innocuous, but ever since the 6’7” wingman was thrown into the mix, the team’s chemistry just hasn’t been the same.
I’m not saying that Turner is solely to blame for Indiana’s late season struggles. There are just times that one combination of players gels better than another, and this is certainly one of those situations.
That being said, the Pacers found a way to win their last two games and recapture the top seed. Not only are they more than capable of righting the ship, they’ll also enjoy home court advantage along the way. On the season they are an impressive (35-6) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. They’re the #1 team for a reason. Bumps in the road or not, they still remain one of two teams to beat.
So what about the Hawks? What are their chances here?
Well, for starters, throw their (38-44) record right out the window. They’ve won 7 of their last 10 games, which included victories over the Pacers, Heat, and Nets (Indiana won 4 of 10 over the same stretch.) They’re playing with an incredible level of confidence and like any other #8 seed have absolutely nothing to lose.
Here’s the icing on the cake … the Hawks may have a losing record but they split their season series with both the Heat and the Pacers.
Plus, they love to pop the trey.
Pero Antic, Shelvin Mack, Mike Scott, Kyle Korver, Cartier Martin and Lou Williams all shot 30%+ from beyond the arc versus the Pacers this season.
While dropping bombs is hardly a road map to long-term success, it’s a great way to pull off an upset.
But as relevant as the deep balls might be to Atlanta’s dreams of knocking off the number one seed, the series may very well be decided down in the paint.
Roy Hibbert has struggled of late to produce on offense, but he matches up well down low against Pero Antic. Hibbert does best against players he can outmuscle against the glass, and for a center Antic spends a lot of time away from the rim.
For Antic’s part, on defense he’ll try his best to push Hibbert out of the key and force him to shoot mid-range jumpers. On offense pulling Hibbert out should be a lot easier; he’ll simply take a lot of shots from the perimeter. In the two games where the Hawks beat the Pacers, Antic shot 72% from the field and went 6-for-10 from beyond the three point line.
When the Pacers were playing their stingiest defense they relied on overpowering their opponents. The Hawks have just the right playing style to negate this advantage and make Indiana’s size work against them. Of course this relies on hitting jump shots—lots of them.
#2 Miami Heat vs. #7 Charlotte Bobcats: Can the red-hot Bobcats de-throne King James?
Miami will be beginning their title defense with a serious lack of momentum. They went a dismal (4-6) over the final 10 games of the season, including a 3-game slide to close out their schedule. Over the same time frame the Bobcats were busy winning 8 of 10.
What does this mean? Honestly, next to nothing. Except for the fact that Charlotte’s got to believe they have a much better shot to make it to Round Two than they did a couple months ago.
Unfortunately this shot relies heavily on former #2 overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist slowing down LeBron James. Notice I said “slowing” and not stopping. James dominates basketball games. Period. The end.
While Miami has proven to be fallible at times this season, King James steps it up come playoff time. A big part of the Bobcats’ defensive strategy will be a heavy dose of finger-crossing and prayer.
And we all know that Miami’s firepower hardly ends with #6.
Here’s what Charlotte does have going for them. They’ve been playing desperate, playoff-type basketball for weeks on end now. They’re full of confidence and at the top of their game. (Even if being young and “scrappy” is a big part of their game plan.)
They center their offense around an often dominant Al Jefferson and move the ball around the front court with a high level of athleticism and quickness. The truth is, Miami doesn’t really have a player who matches up well with Jefferson. If Kemba Walker gets hot, the inside-outside combo could give the Bobcats a fighting chance.
Most likely we’ll be looking at the Heat advancing here, but don’t be surprised to see Charlotte push the series all the way to the end.
#3 Toronto Raptors vs. #6 Brooklyn Nets: The Raptors are new to this, but Kyle Lowry is the real deal.
Youth versus experience. This is a sneakily awesome match-up.
Toronto’s line-up offers up a little taste of everything. They’re young, and fast, but they’ve also got size. They play with energy and they play as a team. And they’re highly motivated to prove that they belong here.
On the other side of the court will be a very talented Nets roster. At times Brooklyn was very good this season. Between January 1st and April 8th they went (33-13). They stumbled a bit at the end there, but not enough to be a cause of great concern.
Record-wise Brooklyn’s the underdog, but they’ve got two guys who know a thing or two about going the distance as playoff underdogs. Combined Pierce and Garnett have 267 games of playoff experience. That’s a lot. Plus they won a championship together.
Speaking of Pierce, the Raptors don’t really have a guy that matches up well against him on D. He’s quicker than Amir Johnson and bigger than Terrance Ross. He could cause the Raptors fits with his versatility.
But Toronto’s got a player of their own that’s got the capability of taking over games, and who knows, perhaps an entire series. Kyle Lowry is a player on the rise. He’s gritty. He’s hungry. And he plays with an intensity that will only be elevated in a playoff atmosphere.
Lowry leads the Raptors’ point of attack on both sides of the ball, which is evident by the fact that he leads the NBA in charges taken and always has the ball in his hands at the end of the game when Toronto really needs a basket. 17.9 PPG, 7.4 APG, and 4.7 RPG may not scream “Superstar”, but he absolutely is a Superstar in the making.
#4 Chicago Bulls vs. #5 Washington Wizards: If defense truly does win championships then the Bulls could make quite the run.
If Tom Thibodeau worked in any other industry he’d be up for human rights violations. This is a guy who cracks the whip and pushes his team to give everything they’ve got in pursuit of defensive perfection. But the thing is … his players have finally bought 100% into his system and the system is churning out victories.
Ironically, Thibodeau creates offensive production by maintaining a low set of expectations. He believes that playing top-notch defense will lead to easy baskets. Instead of instilling aspirations of coming out of the gates and scoring triple digits, he insists on stopping baskets as opposed to creating them.
The low expectations make Chicago dangerous. Opponents don’t plan on the Bulls putting up a lot of points, but they also don’t plan on how suffocating the Bulls’ defense can really be. They are intense and surely we’ll see an even higher level of intensity the deeper we get into the playoffs.
Look for Joakim Noah to manage the Bulls’ offense from the center position. As I mentioned last week, he’s the first center to lead his team in assists in over a decade.
But for as well as Noah has played, the Bulls are lacking a true offensive difference maker, something the Wizards have got in John Wall.
Wall’s quickness allows him to get open looks at the basket, as well as open looks for his teammates. Plus, his ability to snatch a steal and sprint down the court for a solo fast-break lay-up is astonishing. Chicago’s tight defense breaks down in the transition game, and so if Wall can get the Wizards running they’ll be a great shape. It’s well documented that Chicago’s #1 defensive weakness is the inability to guard star point guards.
Pacers in 5. Playing at home is often the remedy for a stagnant offense, and as long as Indiana lights an even moderately small fire under their ass they ought to be able to outshine the Hawks with their superior talent.
Heat in 6. The Bobcats are too hot and play with far too much intensity to be swept. But they won’t win in Miami and the Heat’s playoff experience will take over when the series is on the line.
Nets in 7. Brooklyn’s record is not indicative of their level of talent. The Raptors will outhustle the Nets throughout the series, but they’ll wilt under the pressure of a Game 7.
Chicago in 6. The Bulls have got the ability to control the pace of the game. They don’t score enough points to win every night, but their ability to frustrate the Wizards in the half-court game will be the difference.
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