(Home team in Caps, each series is best of 7)
Matchup: (1) CHICAGO v. (8) Philadelphia
Chicago has the best record in the Eastern Conference, an upgrade in talent from the team that went to the Eastern Conf finals last year, and the reigning Most Valuable Player in Derrick Rose. But they are not the runaway favorite to make the finals. Why? Rose is hurt. He’s missed time with injuries to his back, his groin, his foot, etc. He even sprained his lip attempting to grow a 1980’s mustache. He’ll play, but his effectiveness is still an open question, and the playoffs can get awfully physical. As the games grow more important, the refs increasingly don’t see nothing wrong with a little bump and grind.
Philadelphia meanwhile has a great defender in Andre Iguodala, some nice young players, and a pretty deep team with Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young coming off the bench, playing well, and competing strongly for “Most Old-Timey Name.” (Winner: Detroit Pistons Forward Jonas Jerebko). This team has been sliding a bit as of late, however, and Chicago has shown they can win tough games even without Rose, as long as backup point guards John Lucas and CJ Watson continue to step up in big moments.
Prediction: Chicago in 6.
I’m only giving Philly 2 games in anticipation of Rose needing time to get back into the swing of playoff basketball. If he’s totally ready to go, it’ll be hard for the Sixers to win a game.
Player To Watch: Derrick Rose (Bulls)
As in, watch to see if he is on the court.
Player to Watch: Derrick Rose
Matchup: (2) MIAMI v. (7) New York
Disclosure: I’m a total Heat apologist, so take my review with a grain of salt. But really, people love to hate on Miami for assembling an ersatz allstar team, with LeBron as the poster child for selling out. Well you know what? If I was a 25-year-old multi-millionaire I’d rather play in South Beach with Dwyane Wade in a state with no income tax versus toiling in Cleveland with all-YMCA talent like Boobie Gibson and Sideshow Bob Varejao. No disrespect to the city of Cleveland. Actually, screw it, even Clevelanders know that city is the worst.
As for New York, they have had more ups and downs this season then a Coney Island rollercoaster. (Note to Editor: Check if Coney Island still has rollercoasters). After upgrading with Carmelo Anthony and near-consensus Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, the Knicks played some pretty uninspired ball to start the season. Then Coach D’Antoni inserted Jeremy Lin into an injury-plagued backcourt and the world exploded. Linsanity was awesome, and for all the hype, Lin can really play (despite playing basically a quarter of the season, he’ll finish as the Knick’s assist leader). Too bad he got hurt. So then D’Antoni got fired. Which apparently was just fine with Carmelo, he’s been tearing it up since. Still, the issues this team had at the start of the season have not been resolved. The two stars, Carmelo and Amar’e, both need the ball to be effective, and neither likes to share. That, and the fact the Knicks point guards in charge of getting the stars the ball, Baron Davis and Mike Bibby, haven’t had a memorable basketball moment since the aughts, does not augur well for New York.
Prediction: Miami in 5.
This could end up being a really good 7 game series. 4 of the top 5 picks from the 2003 draft will be in action (RIP, the career of 2nd pick Darko Milicic), and hopefully we get at least one game where Carmelo and LeBron play the “who can get 50 points first” game. Still, the Heat starters SHOULD be able to work over the Knick starters. Both teams are currently accepting applications for bench players who know how to play basketball.
Player To Watch: LeBron James (Heat)
James should end up winning the MVP for what has been a pretty amazing statistical season. None of that matters now, though. In the playoffs the focus will be on one thing: Can James take over and dominate a close game in the 4th quarter. Despite the fact James has had many clutch moments throughout his career, including this regular season, we saw last year that when the lights were at their brightest, James retreated to the shadows. (Pulitzer Prize voting is closed? What a waste of a metaphor.). In the finals against Dallas, towards the end of the game, James would drift to an outside wing, content to distribute then take himself out of the play. This despite being the best basketball player in the world and basically unguardable driving to the rim. If James can show a killer instinct when it matters most, no other team stands a chance. If not, well, thats how the DeShawn Stevensons of the world get championship rings they can sell on ebay in 10 years.
Player to Watch: Dwyane Wade, the most stylish player in the league.
Matchup: (3) INDIANA v. (6) Orlando
Indiana has really done a great job developing this squad; they are basically a team without stars (No, Danny Granger does not count), that relies on great team play, and hard play, from all of its guys. Like every Indiana team throughout history they boast a bunch of unknown White guys who bang around and get rebounds, but this year those guys are actually pretty good. And Roy Hibbert is a pretty legit center. Their coach, Frank Vogel, is in the running for coach of the year. In the context of this team, that means: wow great job winning so many games with those guys.
Teams like to talk about establishing a rythym and peaking as they enter the playoffs. Orlando is doing the opposite. They have the best defender in the NBA and a guy who is always a threat to score 30 points while pulling down 30 rebounds in Dwight Howard. Oh wait, make that past tense. They had that guy. But he is injured and out for the playoffs. Before he went down though, he made sure to publically lobby for the firing of head coach Stan Van Gundy. So that’s not good.
Prediction: Indy in 6.
Despite their inexperience and lack of a true star, Indiana’s team of nobodies has played better and longer together than Orlando’s nobodies. I see Orlando winning maybe a couple games at home, but that should be it. Plus if the Pacers get in trouble, they can just call their team president, Larry Bird, out on to the court.
Player To Watch: Ryan Anderson (Magic)
Anderson is on a lot of Most Improved Player lists. He’s gone from being the guy who hits some corner 3s to a legit rebounder and scorer. He could potentially get hot, put this Magic team on his back and steal a game. Probably not a series though.
Player to Watch: J.J. Redick
Redick played college ball at Duke, so he starts off with 2.5 strikes against. But look at the smirk. He doesn’t even care that you think Duke basketball players are the worst. J.J. is basically the cocky rich kid you hate yourself for being attracted to, but you just can’t help it. Um, theoretically.
Matchup: (4) BOSTON v. (5) Atlanta
Boston has been playing inspired basketball as of late. They are Bizarro Orlando, rolling into the playoffs with stars healthy, playing great, and not undermining their coach. Their allstar center (Kevin Garnett, but don’t tell him I called him a center, he likes to think of himself as a power forward) has been on fire after looking washed up earlier in the season, and Rajon Rondo is the best point guard in the league who can’t shoot to save his life. Still, when he’s recording triple-doubles or handing out 18 assists in a game, that’s just fine.
Atlanta….ugh. I’m so sick of this team. They always make the playoffs in the middle of the pack, they always get their playoff games relegated to NBAtv, and I always could not care less. Josh Smith has been really good this year, I hear. Jeff Teague has played well for them, I also hear. This whole team could get lost at sea and I wouldn’t notice for months. To be fair, neither would anyone in Atlanta. I went to a Hawks home game when they played the James-Wade-Bosh Heat for the first time ever, early last year when that team was new and super-hyped. The arena was maaaaayyybe half-full. Atlanta is a really pretty town. It is not, however, a basketball town.
Prediction: Boston in 7.
Despite my being sick of them, this Hawks team is good enough and athletic enough to give the older Celts problems. I’m still not watching this series, though.
Player To Watch: Avery Bradley (Celtics)
Bradley is a 2nd year player who played most of his minutes with the Maine Red Claws last year; he is starting alongside 2 to-be-hall-of-famers and a perennial all-star. And he is playing the best defense out of all of them. In fact, he may be the best on-ball defender in the playoffs not named Lebron. MAY be. He’s still a young guy, and the Celtics are going to be relying on him in high pressure situations to guard the best the league has to offer. Lets see if he can step up to the challenge.
Player to Watch: Al Horford
Unfortunately, Horford is recovering from a torn pectoral muscle (one-handed push-ups: the silent killer), so he probably wont play until the second round, if the Hawks can sneak by the Celts. Still, you can check him out looking fresh in street clothes on the bench.
Ok, that’s it for the East! If you’re playing along, I have all the high seeds going through, how boring. That leaves second round match-ups of Chicago v. Boston and Miami vs. Indy. Again, I’m going straight chalk and say we end up with a repeat Finals of Chicago-Miami. So many variables in that match-up, its almost not worth trying to pick. But I still will because who cares: Miami to the Championship game.
If you’ve read this far, congratulations you deserve an award! Unfortunately, all you’ll actually get is a War & Peace length tome on the Western Conference manaña.