Now that we’ve taken a look at the Western Conference, it’s time to take a look at the all-but-determined Eastern Conference. Nobody is predicting anyone but Miami coming out of the East, but I wouldn’t be so sure if the Knicks reach the conference finals. LeBron is on another level right now, but the Knicks are stubborn enough to believe they can win and if they reach that stage, a week or two of hot shooting could unseat the defending champs if they don’t stay motivated.
(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks:
Despite Brandon Jennings’ super-inspiring prediction that the Bucks will beat Miami in six games, I’m going to err on the side of realism here and not-so-boldly predict that Milwaukee is in for a quick first-round exit. Even though they’ve been resting their starters for a while now, which raises concerns about rust, the Miami Heat are a clear favorite in this series and the East in general. Rust or not, LeBron James is on top of his game and Milwaukee has no one that can even remotely slow him down. Dwyane Wade’s health is an area of concern, but as long as he can play, the Bucks have their own lingering injuries to worry about. As much as I love Jennings’ confidence, I’d be surprised if this series lasts longer than five games.
Keys to the series: Injuries and taking care of business. The only thing that can stop the Miami Heat from dominating the East is the Miami Heat or injuries. If the Heat get complacent or Dwyane Wade goes down again, this matchup may be more competitive. But as long as they stay healthy and keep the goal in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an incredibly boring sweep here. Jennings hasn’t played well in over a month, Monta Ellis is not good enough to beat Miami’s defense by himself and Jennings, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders may not even be fully healthy. Tune in if you want to watch LeBron James be LeBron James, or if you’re interested in Brandon Jennings’ trying to advertise himself to teams looking to pick him up in the offseason. But other than that, this series should be over quickly.
Prediction: Miami Heat in 4 games
(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics:
The Knicks are simultaneously being pegged as the only resistance the Miami Heat will face in the East and a potential first round upset. So which is it? I believe it’s the former, but a matchup with the Boston Celtics certainly isn’t favorable. The Knicks rely primarily on Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith’s new-found efficiency and 3-point shooting to win games. At least two of those three things aren’t guaranteed with the playoffs rolling around, especially against Boston’s lockdown defense and veteran savvy. The Celtics are known for making unexpected playoff runs on the shoulders of defense, experience and Doc Rivers’ superior coaching. And with the recent tragedies in Boston this past week, it’s impossible to deny that the Celtics are playing for something greater now. This kind of unity makes them a very dangerous squad that is very capable of pushing the Knicks to the brink, especially for the games in Boston if Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett aren’t hobbled. However, I still think New York is the better team and that unless Jeff Green goes beserk on both ends of the floor, Carmelo Anthony and Smith will be too much for the Celtics to handle.
Keys to the series: Kevin Garnett, Carmelo Anthony and Jeff Green. We start with KG, who is essential to the Celtics’ hopes of a first round upset. Garnett anchors Boston’s defense and provides the leadership and experience needed for this team to pull it off. But he hasn’t played 30 minutes since March 10 and has dealt with lingering injuries over the past month. Can he really log playoff minutes and perform late in games after missing so much time? Garnett’s ability to perform while dealing with fatigue down the stretch in close games will be a factor here. Then we have Carmelo Anthony. As long as Melo continues to score at will as he has for the past month, the Knicks should take care of business. Even though TD Garden is already a tough place to play without the entire city having something to rally behind, I don’t know that the Celtics can stop New York’s ball movement that starts with Melo’s superb passing out of double teams. Finally, there’s Jeff Green, who must have a big series. He will be responsible for trying to slow Melo down and has to contribute points on the other end as well. Although New York appears like they are primed for the upset, I don’t think Melo’s lack of playoff wins will be a factor anymore.
Prediction: New York Knicks in 7 games
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks:
This Pacers-Hawks series joins the Nets-Bulls matchup in a tie for “most boring and ultimately meaningless first round playoff series.” Nothing against the Pacers and their stifling defense, but even if they do advance past the Hawks and the Knicks/Celtics in the following round, I don’t believe they have it in them to take out Miami without Danny Granger. Paul George has started to truly develop into a star this season, but Indiana would need him to shoot the lights out in a series against the Heat. I still believe New York is the only team built to contend with Miami and a lot of that is due to Roy Hibbert’s offensive woes and Indiana’s overall inconsistencies on that end. The Hawks are athletic and Josh Smith and Al Horford make up a formidable frontcourt, but Atlanta always hits their ceiling too early and aren’t built to make a playoff run. Roy Hibbert and David West should be able to limit Smith and Horford to some capacity, meaning Indiana’s advantage in the backcourt will give them an edge. The Hawks are too inconsistent to upset the Pacers and I expect this series to be a drawn out victory for Indiana.
Keys to the series: Backcourt production. As I’ve said already, Josh Smith and Al Horford will get theirs on the offensive end. But Roy Hibbert and David West make up a frightening interior defense and will limit them from taking over games and really hurting the Pacers in a seven-game series. So where else will the Hawks get production? Can we really expect Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Devin Harris to score the points the Hawks need to contend in this series? Or is it reasonable to believe that George Hill, Lance Stephenson and Paul George make up a superior backcourt? Unless Horford and Smith torch the Pacers’ defense (which won’t happen), the Hawks will be going home early once again.
Prediction: Indiana Pacers in 6 games
(4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls):
All year long we’ve had to hear about how good the Brooklyn Nets are. We’ve put up with the hype of a new team, the new logo, the new colors, the new arena, Jay-Z’s presence and the Brooklyn-New York rivalry. We’ve had to hear about how good a defender Gerald Wallace is, how Deron Williams is a great point guard and how popular the Nets are with their own television series. Well, enough is enough. Brook Lopez deserved an All-Star spot and Reggie Evans is a rebounding machine, but other than that, the Nets are one of the most overrated teams in the NBA. Deron Williams has only recently revived one of the worst seasons in his career. Joe Johnson has always been overpaid in my book. And Gerald Wallace’s numbers have deteriorated every year for the last four years. Nothing against Brooklyn, but the Bulls are fully capable of knocking this team out in the first round. There are some key factors that will ultimately decide whether they can pull it off, however.
Keys to the series: Joakim Noah, Deron Williams and Derrick Rose. People are desperate for Derrick Rose’s return and rightfully so. But I think that realistically, Joakim Noah’s return is much more important at this point. Noah is the anchor of Chicago’s interior defense and without him, the Bulls will have a hard time slowing down Brook Lopez in the scoring column or Reggie Evans in the rebounding column. If Noah can play in this series, I expect the Bulls to advance since they won the season series convincingly (3-1). The second major key to this series is whether or not the Bulls can slow down Deron Williams. This former All-Star was having one of his worst years until he revived his season after the All-Star break. But if Chicago’s perimeter defense of Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler can slow him and Joe Johnson down, the Nets won’t beat Chicago with Lopez alone. Finally, it has to be said: If Derrick Rose returns, interest in this offensively crippled series will be instantly revived. The odds are that he won’t return, but if he does, Chicago has a huge advantage on the offensive end. There are a LOT of “ifs” in this series, but for now I’m going with the defensive squad that will be a tough and scrappy team to face either way.
Prediction: Chicago Bulls in 7 games