Eastern Conference First Round Predictions

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

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Western Conference First Round Predictions

Now that the playoffs are just a few hours away, let’s take a look at the high-octane first round matchups in the Western Conference and make some predictions about the keys to each series and who will advance to the next round.

(1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (8) Houston Rockets

The big headline here is obvious: James Harden, who has developed into a superstar for the Houston Rockets after being traded just a week before the start of the season, will face off against his old team in a potentially high scoring series in the first round. And most people are pretty excited about the way things worked out with the Rockets and Thunder squaring off while the Lakers moved up to the seven spot to play a long-time playoff rival in San Antonio. But I was actually really bummed the Rockets lost and dropped to the eighth spot in the West. Why? Because the Oklahoma City Thunder will likely advance in four maybe five games. This series will not be close. I know people fall in love with the stories that accompany playoff series, and I would love to see Harden come out firing and exact revenge for being given away so unceremoniously. But this is Harden’s first year being the go-to guy for his team, which he’s acknowledged himself. Just watch the last few minutes of the Rockets-Lakers game the other night if you have any doubts that Harden still has room to grow and needs to be more confident and clutch when his team struggles down the stretch.  Oklahoma City owns the season series against Houston 2-1, which makes it seem like Houston has a remote chance here. But in the two victories, the Thunder won by an average of 26 points. In the one defeat, OKC lost by three. That doesn’t leave me very optimistic that Houston has a realistic chance of unseating the top seed in the West.

Keys to the series: Defense. Since Kevin Durant and company actually play defense and lead the league in blocks, the Rockets’ high-powered offense won’t be able to overshadow their weak defense in a seven-game series. The Thunder have another advantage because they know how Harden plays and Thabo Sefolosha is perfectly capable of limiting him even if he does get hot. And we haven’t even mentioned Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook yet. Do the Rockets have anyone even remotely capable of stopping these two from averaging 30 points a game? Is Jeremy Lin going to be able to stop Westbrook’s penetration? Does anyone have the size on the wings to slow down KD? The answer to both those questions is no. Harden and the Rockets’ 3-point barrage may carry them to one fluke victory, but I fully expect this series to disappoint many people’s high expectations.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder in 4 games

(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers:

I wanted a Rocket-Spurs matchup. San Antonio is banged up and has had a hard time stopping James Harden this season, which could have extended the series and even lead to a possible upset if the Rockets caught fire and the Spurs continued to limp along. But I will say that a Spurs-Lakers postseason series is always good for the NBA’s ratings. Unfortunately, the Lakers’ recent hot streak doesn’t give me a lot of confidence they can knock off the Spurs in this first-round matchup. Yes Tony Parker hasn’t looked like himself lately and yes, Manu Ginobili’s health is as frail as a 70-year-old woman these days, but if they can manage these injuries, I don’t think the Lakers can compete here. As vulnerable as San Antonio seems right now, a Lakers team without Kobe Bryant has a very small chance of winning this series without help in the form of Spurs injuries and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol absolutely dominating the interior like we haven’t seen all season. Tracy McGrady may finally get his first playoff series win.

Keys to the series: Coaching, injuries and intangibles. Mike D’Antoni got coach of the month in the Western Conference for the month of April. I find that hilarious, because the Spurs have a HUGE advantage on the coaching front in this series. I’m calling this right now: Gregg Popovich will win a close game for his team (or Mike D’Antoni will lose one). As far as injuries are concerned, this series will hinge on whether or not Tony Parker and Tim Duncan can stay healthy. Steve Nash’s health may be a factor here, but if Parker and Duncan play like they have for the majority of the season, Nash’s presence won’t make much of a difference other than having a negative impact on the defensive end trying to stop Parker. As far as intangibles are concerned, this refers primarily to Steve Blake. Blake has been on fire recently, but can we expect that to continue against a quality team for a seven-game series? If LA wants to shock the world, Blake and guys like Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark have to step up and knock down threes. I don’t see that happening consistently enough to make up for Kobe’s absence though.

Prediction: San Antonio Spurs in 6 games

(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Golden State Warriors:

There’s legitimate concern that Denver is vulnerable with Danilo Gallinari out and Ty Lawson barely getting over that lingering heel injury just recently. But the Nuggets and all their interchangeable parts are built like Medusa: you cut one head off, three more take its place. They are the only team in the NBA that could challenge the Clippers for the title of “deepest bench in the NBA” and their up-tempo offense and home-court advantage will be too much for the young Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry may take a game or two on his own, but the Nuggets went 38-3 at home this year. THEY DON’T LOSE AT HOME. Denver won the season series 3-1 and the one game they lost was by one point on the road.

Keys to the series: Home-court, experience and shot selection. As well as Mark Jackson has done since taking over the Warriors and even though Golden State’s hot shooting may help them win a game or two, don’t forget that this is the first playoff series for Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Harrison Barnes. Denver has been here before and looks poised for a playoff run even without Gallo. Then add in the fact that Denver doesn’t lose at home and that they lead the league in scoring (106.1 ppg) and fast break points (20.1 ppg) and it’s hard to see Golden State pulling off the upset. The Warriors score in transition as well, but most of those buckets come from threes, which don’t always stay consistent in the postseason. Denver scores in the paint and plays defense, two areas that are huge in the playoffs.

Prediction: Denver Nuggets in 6 games

(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies:

This should be the best matchup of the first round, with the Grizzlies and Clippers going head-to-head for the second year in a row. Lob City advanced in a thrilling seven-game series last year and the teams are just as evenly balanced as they were last year. This is a classic matchup of offense vs. defense. The Grizzlies play stifling D and have an advantage in the interior with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but the Clippers are deep, fast and have the leadership of Chris Paul to guide them. I expect this to be a pretty close series and there will be plenty of lapses in scoring, but the majority of theses games will be exciting to watch down the stretch and come down to the wire.

Keys to the series: Tempo, bench production and turnovers. The Clippers want to get out and score in transition. The Grizzlies need to get out and score in transition. Chris Paul is a master of managing a game’s tempo and will play a huge role in this series against Memphis’ stifling defense. The Clippers have a lot of bench options for scoring like Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, but they need to score on the Grizzlies’ D for that to be an advantage. Blake Griffin also needs to do more than just dunk, but that will be difficult considering his limited post game and the dominating interior defense he’s up against. The Grizzlies need Jerryd Bayless to continue to play lights out on the offensive end and they need to turn the Clippers over so they can score on the fast break. If Lob City limits the turnovers and can score more than 90 points per game, this will be a tough series for Memphis.

Prediction: Los Angeles Clippers in 7 games