The NBA lockout-shortened regular season has come to a close and the playoff teams have been decided. Let's take a look at the Eastern Conference matchups to give you insight into who we think will come out on top.
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (8) Philadelphia 76ers
Bulls win the top seed in the conference, despite last season's MVP Derrick Rose missing chunks of the season with various ailments, proved to many that the Bulls are not a one-man show and include formidable players such as Joakim Noah and Loue Deng. Yet, many assume that for the franchise to capture a title without Michael Jordan in uniform, Rose must revert to some super hero 2010-11 version.
The 76ers, however, have been cast all season as the no-man show with no one particular player being the focal point. Their sixth-man, Lou Williams, leads the team in scoring with 14.9 ppg, which is the lowest average for any team leader in the league.
But these teams are more alike than not. They are both defensive minded teams as the Bulls finished the season ranked No.1 and the 76ers were No. 2. Neither team possess great offensive firepower either as the Bulls finished 18th and the 76ers finished 22nd. Thus, the games should be close and decided within the last few minutes. If Andre Iguodala, one of the best on ball perimeter defenders in the league, can challenge Rose at critical moments, the 76ers have a chance to make this a competitive series. Bulls in 6
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) New York Knicks
This is a made-for-TV series with two glamorous locales and teams abounding with mega stars and bigger dreams of championships. The hallucination that the Heat would just waltz into multiple titles may be long gone, but the pressure to win one mounts. The Knicks have had their own share of drama including the changing of coaches, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire injuries and re-acclimation, but most notably the rise and fall of Jeremy Lin.
LeBron James, likely to win his third MVP, along with Dwayne Wade creates a match-up difficult for any opponent. The Knicks counter with the most eclectic offensive player in the game in Anthony and an interior defensive dynamo in Tyson Chandler.
Despite the glitzy nature of the matchup, the reality is that the Heat have handled the Knicks pretty easily in their three regular season games. The Heat won all by at least 10 points. The Knicks need Stoudemire to be the force that he was signed last season to be, and hope that his matador defense does not allow Chris Bosh to have a huge impact in the series. Heat in 6
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Orlando Magic
The Pacers all season beat up on the lesser teams while treading water against top teams. The Magic used to be a top team and its 3-1 record in the regular season against the Pacers was evidence of that. However, as the season wound down, the Magic loomed as easy prey in the playoffs in light of Dwight Howard's season-ending back surgery. And point guard Jameer Nelson recently suffered a calf injury that could, if not sideline him, dramatically effect his play.
The Pacers come into the playoffs rolling by finishing the month of April with a 12-3 record. Former San Antonio Spur George Hill has taken over the starting point guard from Darren Collison providing more scoring. Although the team has no superstars, all its starters are talented and versatile led by small forward Danny Granger and center Roy Hibbert.
On the other hand, as alluded above, the Magic enter the playoffs in a mess. The season-long drama of Dwight staying or leaving by a trade has been replaced by his departure via injury almost crushing the chance for the theory to even be tested, if they could rally for a finals push. The head coach Stan van Gundy has aired Howard's attempts to fire him and appears to be asking to be relieved of his duties. That leaves a bunch of three point shooters in Ryan Anderson, Hedo Turkoglu, JJ Redidck and Jason Richardson bound by nothing more than their similar uniform. Pacers in 5
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
In another weird NBA playoff system oddity (much like its policy to not reseed after the first round like other team sports) the higher seed Celtics will not have home court advantage over the Hawks. This is due to the fact the division winners (Celtics) can be seeded no lower than fourth, but a lower seed team (Hawks) with a better record wins the favorable home court advantage.
However, the sense is that the Celtics, as a veteran playoff tested team led by future hall-of-famers Paul Pierce and the rejuvenated Kevin Garnett, know they can win on the road and harbor no dread in going to Atlanta, which is not viewed as an intimidating place for visitors. The Celtics rested players (and due to injuries) also found more contributing players on their bench most notably in guard Avery Bradley.
The Hawks battled all year without center Al Horford who had hoped to return for the first round, but that was recently ruled out. But the Hawks with its talented core led by Joe Johnson and Josh Smith continue to play in a slow down style foregoing a faster tempo and minimizing its athletic advantage.
The Hawks postseason highlights are two vaunted but losing series against the Celtics. Four years ago, in 2008, the Hawks as the No. 8 seed forced a game 7 on the No. 1 seed Celtics. That series ended with the Celtics crushing the Hawks 99-65. Also, back in 1988, the Dominique Wilkins-led Hawks forced a game 7 against the Larry Bird-led Celtics in the conference semifinals. Wilkins scored 47 points, but the Hawks fell short in overtime 118-116 to the Celtics led by Bird's 34 points. Celtics in 5
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