LeBron James and Dwyane Wade Overpower Pacers

Ever since Chris Bosh went down in Game 1, I’ve been saying this series would be a battle between two elite superstars and a team with overall balanced scoring. In Game 4 between the Heat and Pacers, the two superstars won out. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined for 70 points, 27 rebounds and 15 assists to lead the Heat to a 101-93 win. Danny Granger scored 20 points for the first time in the series, but LeBron and Wade rattled off 38 consecutive points for the Heat during one stretch and tied the series at 2-2.

For Indiana, this was a prime opportunity to take a commanding 3-1 lead with three chances to finish Miami off. Unfortunately for the Pacers, that opportunity was wasted by mediocre performances from Roy Hibbert, David West and George Hill. Hibbert finished with an uninspired 10 points and nine rebounds while Hill and West could only muster eight each. It was Indiana’s bench that kept the Pacers in the game, with Darren Collison scoring 16 and Leandro Barbosa and Tyler Hansbrough adding eight each. But without decent offensive outings from three key Pacers starters, Indiana wasn’t able to take care of business at home and put real pressure on the Heat. Now the momentum has shifted back to Miami for the upcoming Game 5, and the Pacers will be hard-pressed to fend off LeBron and Wade with this sense of renewed confidence.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade completely took over and carried Miami to a Game 4 victory.

Although Danny Granger led the Pacers in scoring, some of the blame for LeBron and Wade’s resurgence in Game 4 has to fall on him. LeBron was rolling early on, but Wade started the game 1-for-8 before a confrontation with Granger (which resulted in a technical on Indiana’s leading scorer) fired Wade up for the second half. Now I defended Granger’s tough guy act at first, because the Pacers needed that “never back down” attitude in this series, which is what he was providing. Indiana doesn’t have the star power that Miami has, but a team with balanced scoring that finds its rallying cry is especially dangerous, and I think Granger’s standing his ground set an example for his teammates. Granger’s confrontations with LeBron seemed petty and pointless on the surface, but since he wasn’t exactly giving his team stellar shooting nights, the macho routine was establishing the tone for the Pacers. Unfortunately for Granger and Indiana, that plan backfired and shook Wade out of his mediocre state of play. Wade came alive after that, scoring 22 of his 30 points in the second half. Adding that to LeBron’s 40-point performance and it’s no wonder the Heat came out on top.

I’ve been saying that without Bosh, it would take a Herculean effort from both LeBron and Wade to overpower the balanced scoring of Indiana. It turns out Game 4 was exactly that. However, Miami also got a big fourth quarter boost to maintain their narrow lead from Udonis Haslem, who knocked down a few open jumpers when the Pacers started double teaming Wade and LeBron whenever they touched the ball. Haslem finished with 14 off the bench, eight of which came in the fourth. The Heat definitely benefitted from subpar performances from Hill, West and Hibbert, but LeBron and Wade showed a great amount of leadership as they put on a complete two-man clinic in the third quarter to reclaim the lead. I still believe Indiana’s balanced scoring and team play will give Miami problems, (even if LeBron and Wade have more prolific nights like this) but they’ve lost momentum and now that the Heat have home-court advantage for two out of three potential games, we could have an extremely competitive series on our hands.

Danny Granger had a better scoring night, but may have been the spark that ignited the Miami Heat in the second half.

Resilient Pacers Take Game 2 On The Road

It wasn’t pretty, but the Indiana Pacers found a way to win on the road against the Chris Bosh-less Heat and evened the series at one game apiece with a 78-75 victory. Although the Pacers didn’t gain a huge advantage in the middle with Bosh on the sidelines, they kept their playoff hopes alive by taking care of business and splitting games on Miami’s floor. Now the series heads back to Indiana where the Pacers will try to take advantage of playing at home and possibly take a lead in the series.

When Chris Bosh went down in Game 1 with a low abdominal strain, the sports world seemed to be divided: half (including me) thought the Heat’s chances of winning a title or even winning this series were seriously hurt by Bosh’s injury, while the other half believed it would just clear the way for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to shine. Game 2 was a little bit of both, but only because both teams shot the ball so poorly. The Pacers shot under 38 percent and the Heat were even worse at just under 35 percent. The Heat were also an appalling 1-for-16 from downtown, so even though LeBron finished with 28 points, nine rebounds, six steals and five assists to complement Dwyane Wade’s 24 points, six rebounds and four assists, the Heat couldn’t get anything out of their supporting cast to beat the better all-around team effort from Indiana.

The Pacers limited the Heat’s scoring to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade with Chris Bosh out.

The Pacers had a serious scoring drought in the second quarter before putting a run together to head into the locker room down by five. In the third quarter, however, Indiana came to life thanks to David West and Danny Granger, who picked up the offensive intensity. West led Indiana with 16 points and 10 rebounds while Granger, who had another poor shooting night but found open shooters and played quality defense on LeBron, pitched in 11 points and six rebounds. The Pacers outscored the Heat 28-14 in the third and took a nine point lead heading into the fourth. Miami battled back in the game’s final minutes and it could have gone either way, but neither team seemed ready to seize control of the game by making their free throws. LeBron James missed three free throws in the fourth, including two back-to-backs that would have given the Heat the lead with 54 seconds to play. George Hill could have put the game away for the Pacers with 14 seconds left, but only made one of two and gave Mario Chalmers a chance to erase Indiana’s three point advantage at the buzzer (which was a really bad decision on Erik Spoelstra’s part). Fortunately for Indiana, it didn’t fall and the Pacers took Game 2 on the road.

Indiana winning this game was huge not only because they gave themselves a chance to compete in this series, but also because they did it without Roy Hibbert having a big impact. Hibbert has really struggled on the offensive end in the postseason, which is inexcusable considering the vast size advantage he’s had on opponents so far. At some point, the Pacers won’t be able to contend without Hibbert having a few prolific scoring nights, but for now, being able to win without Hibbert putting up big numbers was a huge accomplishment despite the fact that Miami blew numerous chances to finish them off at home. With no Chris Bosh, Frank Vogel needs to find a way to exploit Miami’s weakness down low and get both Hibbert and West involved. Danny Granger still needs to shoot the ball better and 17 turnovers is way too many to give a Heat team that thrives off transition buckets. But Indiana’s defensive strategy of focusing on shutting down Wade worked for the most part and showed the world that a Miami Heat team without Bosh is very vulnerable against a complete team with multiple contributors (side note: that no-call when Wade looked like he was fouled by Dahntay Jones was a great no-call. Stop flopping, Wade. You’re better than that). George Hill and Paul George both stepped up, Granger’s contribution was slightly improved and Leandro Barbosa had a solid game off the bench, as opposed to the Heat, who had no one score more than five points other than LeBron and Wade. With home court advantage, Indiana needs to capitalize and get big games from Granger and Hibbert while only allowing LeBron and Wade to hurt them on the other end. If they do these things at home, Miami will have their hands full against this dangerous Indiana squad.

Danny Granger had a better game but Indiana still needs more out of him.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade And Indiana Foul Trouble Gives Miami 1-0 Lead

Even with Chris Bosh on the sidelines for the majority of the game, the Miami Heat gutted out a 95-86 Game 1 win over the Pacers thanks to elevated performances from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Indiana’s foul trouble. Bosh suffered a lower abdominal strain late in the second quarter and did not return, but Miami was able to capitalize with a few of the Pacers’ key players on the bench to grab a 1-0 lead on the series.

The Pacers came out swinging and opened up a 13-4 lead early on, but the Heat battled back and were down by just six at halftime. A lot of credit has to go to Mario Chalmers, because although he only had four points, he drew a huge charge on George Hill that shifted momentum in Miami’s favor. As the Heat were making a run and Hill had three fouls, the Pacers tried to get the ball past half court to call a timeout. However, Chalmers stepped in front of Hill’s path right before Indiana could call the timeout and Hill barreled right into him, sending him to the bench with four fouls in the first half. Darren Collison stepped in and finished with 10 points, but with such limited playing time, Hill was never able to fully establish a rhythm and help his team compete in Game 1. Dwayne Wade also had a big night, finishing with 29 points (13 of which came from the free throw line). I’m not a big fan of a few of Wade’s flops that earned him trips to the foul line and Frank Vogel looks like a prophet now after saying the Heat flop and that how the officials call the game would have an effect on the outcome (foul trouble hurt the Pacers), but Wade’s effectiveness was unquestionable either way you look at it.

Chris Bosh went down early, but LeBron and D-Wade carried the Heat to victory.

The most credit has to go to LeBron James, however. James won the game for his team by taking over in the fourth quarter after Danny Granger had done a decent job of limiting him in the first half. James scored half of his points in the fourth quarter and he and Wade outscored Indiana’s entire team 42-38 in the second half. He finished with 32 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, two steals, a block and just one turnover. James also did another stellar job of shutting down Granger, who is Indiana’s leading scorer. Although Granger is not a superstar or a crunch time hero, he is still the Pacers’ biggest offensive contributor, and without him putting up points, Indiana doesn’t stand a chance in this series. Granger could only muster seven points on 1-of-10 shooting with LeBron guarding him, which effectively secured the win for Miami with so many Pacers in foul trouble. Even though Chris Bosh was out, the Pacers weren’t able to exploit Miami’s disadvantage in the post because Roy Hibbert was in foul trouble early and missed a considerable amount of time in the second half. Hibbert finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds, but when he was out in the fourth quarter, Miami made their run and didn’t look back from there.

Bosh had 13 points before he was challenged on a dunk by David West, which caused his shoulder to snap back as he was at the peak of his jump. Bosh landed and immediately went to the ground before making his way to the locker room a few plays later. With Bosh out, Hibbert began to excel on offense and defense before getting into foul trouble. West was also able to capitalize on Bosh’s absence with 17 points and 12 rebounds. Unfortunately for Indiana, foul trouble to Hibbert, Hill and Paul George kept them from really being effective, and with LeBron taking Granger out of his game and shutting him down, it was impressive the Pacers were even in the game. Indiana’s bench contributed, with guys like Collison, Leandro Barbosa and Tyler Hansbrough pitching in crucial points off the bench. If Bosh is out, Indiana has to do three things to stay competitive in the series. First, they must exploit Miami’s posts with Hibbert and West. If Bosh’s MRI reveals that he will miss extended time in the series, Indiana has to pound the ball in down low, because Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony can’t stop the Pacers’ frontcourt for an entire series. Second, they have to get better performances out of Danny Granger. Granger is averaging just 12 ppg against the Heat in five games, a testament to LeBron James’ defense. Granger scored 25 in Indiana’s one win over Miami during the regular season and he had 19 when they lost by two at the beginning of March. In the other three games, Granger put up just over five points a game. Granger has to find a way to score despite LeBron’s stifling defense. Finally, the Pacers’ bench needs to continue to contribute. Staying out of foul trouble goes without saying, but if Indiana’s role players (Collison, Barbosa and Hansbrough) can keep up this production, the Pacers will be tough to beat. I still believe the Heat will advance, but the Pacers have been my sleeper team all year and I hope I’m right when I say this team will give the Heat more problems than most people think.

David West and Roy Hibbert have an advantage down low, especially if Bosh is out for awhile.

Second Round Preview: Miami Heat Vs. Indiana Pacers

After knocking their opponents out of the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs in five games, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers will meet in the second round in a matchup between the two hottest teams in the Eastern Conference. LeBron James, who was named the league MVP yesterday, is coming off a particularly dominant series against the New York Knicks, not because he outscored Carmelo Anthony, but because he was more efficient and took over games when he needed to. However, James and the rest of the Heat face a much better all-around team than the injury-depleted Knicks. In what is sure to be a competitive and physical series, the Heat are favorites to win, but don’t underestimate the Pacers.

Indiana has been my sleeper team all year, and now is their time to show whether or not they have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the best player in the world and a defensively intimidating Miami squad. The Heat bested the Pacers three out of four times during the regular season, winning two in routs and one in overtime before losing their final meeting by 15. Indiana will have to improved their defense to have a chance, as Miami is averaging almost 102 points per contest against them. They will also have to make sure everyone comes ready to score, since they Pacers averaged just over 92 ppg against the Heat. The Pacers don’t have a designated crunch time scorer or an elite superstar, but Danny Granger absolutely has to put up points as Indiana’s best offensive weapon. How he matches up with LeBron James, Shane Battier or whoever else Miami throws at him could very well be the difference between competing and being swept. Granger had a tendency of disappearing against the Heat this season, averaging just 13 points per game, a whole eight points below his average for the season. If Granger can’t produce night in and night out, Miami will have no problem here.

This is the first key matchup: Can Danny Granger score on LeBron James? And can Granger have any hope of stopping LeBron on the other end?

There are a few other key factors that will determine who advances to the Eastern Conference Finals. The first is how effective Roy Hibbert is down low. Hibbert has a huge size and talent advantage over Miami’s post players, but against the Magic (with no Dwight Howard), Hibbert was pushed around and outplayed by the shorter, more physical Glen Davis. None of Miami’s centers are talented enough to score on Hibbert, but if they are able to push him around on defense, the Pacers will be at a huge disadvantage. The matchup between David West and Chris Bosh will also be important to watch, as West is more physical but Bosh has more skill and length. Indiana needs West to convincingly win this matchup, because if Bosh starts putting up big numbers, the Pacers will not be able to stop LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Bosh. The final deciding factor will be how Indiana’s guards perform up against D-Wade. George Hill and Darren Collison certainly have to outplay Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller, who have been seen as thorns in Miami’s side all season. If Hill and Collison consistently put up points and prevent the Heat’s guards from getting open looks from beyond the arc, the Pacers will have a chance in the series. LeBron and Wade are going to get their 20-30 points a night, but if Indiana can find a way to limit Bosh, get a few big nights out of Hibbert and have Granger lead in scoring, they will be competitive. Finally, a huge X-factor for the Pacers could be Leandro Barbosa. Believe it or not, Barbosa is Indiana’s leading scorer against the Heat this season. Okay, so maybe it was only one game, but he put up 14 points in that game, and after being practically silent for the first round, the Pacers would love to get something out of him off the bench again. Barbosa and Collison will need to score off the bench to ensure their starters get some time to rest without worrying about falling too far behind.

However, even if Indiana’s guards outplay Miami’s and even if Hibbert and West beat up on the Heat’s bigs, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade could be too much for the Pacers. George Hill and/or Danny Granger will be able to use some length to bother LeBron’s jump shot, but as soon as he starts attacking the basket, the Pacers’ defense is in trouble. Indiana is a much better overall team than the Knicks (and to be honest, the Heat weren’t truly dominant against New York) and they’ll give Miami a battle, but I don’t have enough confidence in Indiana to pick them over LeBron and the Heat.

Prediction: Miami over Indiana in 6 games

If Roy Hibbert can’t take advantage of his size and skill set, the Pacers are in trouble.

Indiana Back on Pace

An all-around team effort and a third quarter surge gave the Indiana Pacers a much-needed 93-78 win at home in Game 2. The Pacers looked more like the hot team that entered the playoffs winning 12 of their last 15 games instead of the tentative and weak team that took the court in Orlando’s Game 1 victory. Indiana had three players score 18 points (Danny Granger, David West and George Hill) and five players score in double digits, including Leandro Barbosa, who was one of many role players to disappear in the playoff opener. They looked like a much more coherent unit and got a crucial home win, tying the series, 1-1.

However, the Magic still have a few reason to keep their heads up and Indiana should definitely not feel too comfortable. Because even though the Pacers returned to balanced scoring and played better defense, Roy Hibbert is nowhere to be found so far in the postseason. Hibbert pulled in 13 rebounds, but scored only four points on Orlando’s center Glen Davis, who is five inches shorter. In fact, Davis dominated Hibbert on both sides of the floor again in Game 2, finishing with 18 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Magic. If Orlando’s perimeter shots had been falling, this would have been a much more competitive game. Hibbert will need to show up and be an advantage down low for the Pacers at some point, especially with the series going back to Orlando now.

Glen Davis had outplayed Roy Hibbert so far. Indiana needs that to stop.

Another factor that could be troubling as this series plays out is how Indiana plays in a close game on the road. Granger and the rest of the Pacers looked mortified down the stretch of Game 1 and that was at home. So if Indiana becomes locked in a close game with this dangerous 3-point shooting team, the third-seeded Pacers could have problems. Finally, shooting better shots is a definite issue for this team. Granger had 18 points, but went 1-for-10 from 3-point range. When the shots aren’t falling, you’d like to see your team’s leading scorer figure it out quicker and start attacking the basket.

All things considered, Game 2 was an expected win for the Pacers after being upset and embarrassed by an undermanned Magic team at home in Game 1. However, it’s significance shouldn’t be downplayed; this was an extremely important game with the series going back to Orlando. Indiana really needs to win both games in Orlando coming up so they can put the series away at home, but the Magic have too much pride, the city of Orlando has too much to cheer for, and now Glen Davis and company have had a wakeup call that they can’t win on raw emotion and playing for their coach alone. Expect them to be more focused and protect their home court for at least one game. It’s surprising that this series could potentially go to six or seven games after Indiana dropped its home opener, but give Orlando credit for competing. I picked Indiana as my sleeper team a long time ago and I still stand by that prediction, but so far, the Pacers have not been playing good enough basketball to go anywhere beyond the first round.

George Hill had a solid performance for the Pacers. If Hibbert continues to disappear, Indiana will need more from him.

Van Gundy Works His Magic

Derrick Rose’s ACL tear and Miami’s blowout on the Knicks were big headlines today, but the Indiana Pacers losing Game 1 at home to the Howard-less Magic should make its own major headlines. I predicted the Pacers would sweep, but Stan Van Gundy and the Magic had other plans. After listening to how guaranteed Indiana’s victory was over the past few days, it’s no surprise Orlando came out fired up. They’ve had a tumultuous season dealing with Dwight Howard’s melodrama and the disunity between him and their coach, but with Howard out, this team has galvanized and now play for each other. Which is probably a big reason why they rallied from a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 81-77.

But the biggest reason the Magic won is that the Pacers looked like they took this game, and possibly even the whole series, for granted. Indiana was outscored 11-0 in the game’s final minutes and they blew their lead and the game. Nobody could hit a shot, the offense went stagnant and they left shooters like Jason Richardson wide open. But worst of all was Danny Granger completely falling apart. I picked Granger as a top player to watch in the playoffs this year as he became the driving force behind a hot Pacers squad. But when his team needed him most, he not only disappeared, he actually made them worse. He couldn’t get shots close to the rim to go, he missed two critical free throws, he had two terrible turnovers at the worst possible times (a backcourt violation and a travel with the game on the line) and none of this would have been completely terrible if he didn’t look completely timid and indecisive the whole time. Granger turned into a deer in the headlights during the entire fourth quarter, especially when Orlando started to make its run.

Glen Davis outplayed Roy Hibbert as the Magic shocked the Pacers at home.

The Pacers need Granger to score more than 17 points a game, especially when Leandro Barbosa and Roy Hibbert score a combined 11 points. Hibbert has a ridiculous size advantage on Glen Davis and Ryan Anderson, so scoring 8 points is absolutely pathetic, especially when you throw in the fact that Davis pushed him around all game and the Pacers barely won the rebound battle, 35-34. Hibbert absolutely needs to regroup and come out with a vengeance in Game 2, regardless of his 9 blocks. In fact, David West is the only player on the Pacers who looked okay, but he disappeared down the stretch too. Paul George missed critical wide open 3-pointers down the stretch and George Hill didn’t have much of an impact after looking so impressive when he was moved into the starting lineup. But even with everyone else disappearing, the majority of the blame should still be placed on Danny Granger for this awful performance. Until Granger learns how to take control and be a crunch-time player in close games, the Pacers will never be the dark horse in the East they could be.

Granted, the Magic did have to play exceptionally well to get the win. Jason Richardson hit five 3-pointers, which doesn’t happen every day. The entire Pacers team had to completely collapse and miss all of their shots over the last few minutes for Orlando to have a chance to come back. And while Orlando’s heart in playing for each other and for their coach to defy everyone’s expectations is inspiring, I can’t say with certainty that this team can play at this level over the course of a seven-game series. The Pacers shot 34.5 percent from the floor and finished with 77 points. The Magic only scored 81 points. This was Indiana’s game to lose and they lost it in extremely underwhelming fashion. But I don’t think any of these things will happen again. So even though my prediction that the Pacers would sweep looks pretty bad right now, I’m still picking Indiana to win the series in 5 or 6 games. But they’re definitely on upset alert right now.

If this shot was in the 4th quarter, Granger probably missed it. Indiana can't afford for him to disappear.

Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions

The 2012 NBA Playoffs kick off tomorrow morning so that means it’s time to break down the first round matchups. I gave my Western Conference playoff predictions earlier today, so now let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference. Here are my picks:

#1 Chicago Bulls vs. #8 Philadelphia 76ers – A few weeks ago, the Bulls were the best team in the league (even without Derrick Rose on the court) and looked like favorites to contend for the East. Now I’m not as confident. Because while Chicago has locked up the top spot and faces a paltry Sixers team, chemistry between their starters could be an issue. A myriad of injury problems for Derrick Rose, Richard Hamilton and Luol Deng has prevented this Bulls team from truly gelling over the course of the season and the last few game not enough time to do so for the postseason. Fortunately, they’re up against Philly in the first round, who can’t score to save their lives. Andre Iguodala was showing signs of life before slipping back into lower numbers, and Lou Williams and Elton Brand are too inconsistent. Then you throw in Evan Turner’s comments about matching up better with the Bulls and you’ve got a motivated Chicago team. The fact is, Philadelphia is not the same team that convincingly beat Chicago back on February 1. The Bulls have beaten the Sixers twice since then and the only thing that will stop them from sweeping this series is the chemistry issue.

Prediction: Chicago in 5 games

Can Derrick Rose stay healthy and get the Bulls to the second round? I say yes.

#2 Miami Heat vs. #7 New York Knicks – Believe it or not, this could shape up to be the best first round playoff series in the NBA this year. The Knicks will probably fall short and they might not even make it a competitive series, but with the way LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have been playing this month, we’re going to be treated to at least one high-octane scoring battle between these two superstars. Without Jeremy Lin back and with Amare Stoudemire still trying to get fully acclimated, the Knicks don’t have a good shot of winning this series. Unless Melo goes absolutely bonkers and drops 45 a game, the talent of Miami’s big three will eventually overpower New York, but not without a scare or two. Madison Square Garden is a tough place to play when the Knicks are good and with Miami in town, you can bet those fans are going to make it as tough on the Heat as possible. The Knicks have a small advantage in their supporting cast (if only because Miami’s is so terrible), meaning that if J.R. Smith and Steve Novak can knock down some threes, this series could stay competitive. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are also dealing with minor injuries, so if those develop into anything serious, this series could get ugly pretty quick for Miami. Fortunately, LeBron James is finally embracing his role as the Heat’s alpha dog, so it’s tough to bet against Miami here.

Prediction: Miami in 6 games

Probably the marquee matchup of the first round: LeBron James vs. Carmelo Anthony.

#3 Indiana Pacers vs. #6 Orlando Magic – When you pair one of the hottest teams in the East up against the easiest first-round opponent in the playoffs, you get a pretty one-sided series. Orlando will really miss Dwight Howard not only in stopping Indiana’s penetration, but also in handling Roy Hibbert. The Pacers have won 12 of their last 15 and while Glen Davis has put up decent numbers as the man in the middle, the defensive impact of losing Howard will prevent them from giving this hot Indiana team any problems. The Magic might win a game at home because of the pride they have in playing together under Stan Van Gundy (especially after all that Howard has put them through this season), but the Pacers could potentially sweep here. Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson really won’t be enough, especially now that Danny Granger is a true leader in Indiana. Then you throw in that Hibbert and David West are playing well, along with Paul George and George Hill stepping up their game. Finally, with Leandro Barbosa coming off the bench, Orlando doesn’t have a great chance of winning more than one game, and the game they do win would be out of pride and as a bi-product of the Pacers’ youth.

Prediction: Indiana in 4 games

Nobody gives Danny Granger and the Pacers love. Is it their time?

#4 Boston Celtics vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks – Every year we see Boston get a little bit older and we see a Hawks team that should be getting better, but really doesn’t improve much. Atlanta has been a force in the East for years now, but just can’t quite get over the hump to contender status. Meanwhile, the Celtics know what it takes to advance in the playoffs and are entering the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the East. They’ve been faced with adversity all year: at the beginning of the season, they were old and washed up; Rajon Rondo was reported as being a cancer in Boston’s locker room; there were talks of trading Rondo and possibly even breaking up the big three. But somehow the Celts defied expectations and rallied to reclaim the Atlantic division title and the four seed that went with it. Their confidence and team unity gives them a big edge over the Hawks, who are entirely dependent on Josh Smith and Joe Johnson. With Al Horford still sidelined, Atlanta will need Jeff Teague, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia and Kirk Hinrich to consistently score. I don’t see that happening, especially considering Boston’s stifling interior defense. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo usually perform well in the playoffs, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen will come to play and without home-court advantage, the Hawks don’t have much of a chance.

Prediction: Boston in 6 games

Paul Pierce and Josh Smith will put up big numbers, but the Celtics have a better all-around team along with home-court advantage.