(1) Chicago vs. (8) Philadelphia
Jack Winter (editor):
- Who wins/How many games? Chicago will advance after a tougher than expected six games.
- Why? It’s easy to dismiss these 1/8 first round matchups as just a tune-up for the regular season conference champion, but in this series the public would be wise to pay attention. This is going to be a long, physical, and demanding series, not unlike Chicago’s battle with Indiana last season. The Bulls are clearly the superior team, but the first several weeks of the season were evidence enough that the Sixers should not be taken lightly. Until an unforeseen collapse began in mid-February, this was a team that was the talk of the league for their elite defense and unorthodox, jumper-based offense. And even better than that, they were winning – Philly was 20-9 on February 13. This is certainly an interesting matchup – two teams built on elite defenses that sometimes struggle on the other end. When it comes down to it, though, Chicago combines better discipline and superior high-end talent with quality depth that equals Philadelphia’s, and should emerge from the first round – with bumps and bruises – after a hard-fought six games.
Vijay Shravah (staff writer):
- Who wins/how many games? Bulls move on in five games
- Why? This is only slightly contingent upon Derrick Rose’s health. The next round, however? Completely up in the air. For now, I think they’ll be fine; even if Rose isn’t at 100%, I can’t see a 76ers team – who has gone through a free fall in the standings over the last quarter of the season – being a threat to upset the Bulls in Round 1. I know Evan Turner had no ill intent in sharing his preference to play Chicago rather than Miami. But the Bulls are going to use that as motivation, and Turner is going to get what he wants. Kinda.
Vincent Ginardi (staff writer):
- Who wins/How many games? Chicago in five.
- Why? What happened to the Sixers? Midway through the season they looked like a lock to win the division title before unraveling in the final two months. Philadelphia’s defense is still one of the best in the NBA, but the offense has struggled and going up against one of the league’s best in Chicago. The Sixers actually matchup fairly well against the Bulls because they have multiple bodies they can throw at Derrick Rose, but their inability to win close games will continue to Haunt them (just one win in games decided by three points or less).
(2) Miami vs. (7) New York
- Who wins/How many games? Miami takes out the Knicks with the first round’s only 4-0 sweep.
- Why? Call this a hunch. Miami, obviously, hasn’t been locked in mentally since the All-Star break and their record suffered as a result. After the Heat were anointed the clear title favorite after a very good first half, the narrative shifted over the last several weeks of the season and new teams were anointed the status Miami feels is theirs. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade could not have been happy with that, knowing they had little to play for in the regular season and were saving their best for April, May, and June. Well, early Summer is here now and they will make a statement to the rest of the league by dispatching of the Knicks in four games. New York is too inept offensively to match a Heat attack that’s had little trouble scoring against Tyson Chandler and the New York defense. Miami has the league’s only defender who can match and outdo Carmelo Anthony in terms of size and talent, and the Knicks’ ancillary parts – Amare Stoudemire included – just won’t be good enough to offset his likely struggles as he tries to force shots. Anthony, Steve Novak, and J.R. Smith could get hot from deep in a game or two to keep things close, but a locked-in and focused Heat team is too much for even the NBA’s best to handle, and the Knicks are a far cry from that distinction. Miami wins in the rare entertaining four game sweep, emerging with fresh legs to continue their quest for a title.
- Who wins/How many games? Miami in four.
- Why? I know everyone’s poking holes in Miami after a mediocre 2nd-half of the season. But isn’t that exactly what we said about them last year before they turned on a switch and made a run to the Finals? I think the Knicks, who still struggle trying to figure out how to play Melo and Amare together. As I’ve said all along, it’s a failed experiment, and I think getting swept by Miami will hammer that point home.
- Who wins/How many games? Miami in five.
- Why? The Knicks are certainly a better team than the one that started the season, but they aren’t on Miami’s level. Carmelo Anthony has been
scoring at will, but will he be able to with LeBron James guarding him? Probably not. The Knicks also don’t have enough defensive weapons to match up against Miami’s big three. But what is most frightening for New York is that the team averages 16.2 turnovers per game (29th in the league) and we all know what the Heat can do in the open court. If the New York has a chance to prolong this series, it will have to get hot shooting from J.R. Smith and Steve Novak.
(3) Indiana vs. (6) Orlando
- Who wins/How many games? Indy in five.
- Why? This is certainly the least provocative and could easily prove to be the least competitive of every first round series. So goes life for the Magic without Dwight Howard. Quite frankly, if this motley Orlando crew wasn’t coached by the brilliant Stan Van Gundy this certainly could have been projected as a sweep for the Pacers. Looking at the matchups in this series individually, it’s hard to see where the Magic have a single advantage. They’re physically dwarfed by Indiana at every position on the floor and can’t match the Pacers talent, either. One suspects they’ll get hot from three point range in a game or two to make things interesting, but expecting anything other than that is asking too much of the Dwight-less Magic. It should be noted that even if Howard was in the lineup the Pacers would have a great chance to advance. They rank in the top 10 in efficiency on both ends of the floor, and have been playing some of the league’s best basketball since George Hill took over for Darren Collison at point guard. They won’t only push Orlando aside with relative ease, but prove a tough out for Miami in round two.
- Who wins/How many games? Pacers in five.
- Why? Let’s get this one over with. I think a fair majority of basketball fans will think this is probably going to be the most lopsided series in the playoffs – and they’re probably right. I do think the Magic will put one great performance together, where Ryan Anderson, JJ Redick and co. will hit a ridiculous number of 3’s to avoid a clean sweep. Stan Van Gundy, in what is widely seen as his last season with the Magic, should maximize the little talent remaining after season-ending injuries to Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu. But the Pacers have peaked at the right time, and this momentum should carry through and help them dispense the turmoil-ridden Magic relatively quickly. I think the Pacers are the most overlooked team in the playoffs, but they will absolutely give Miami, their likely 2nd round matchup, some problems that may brew a long series.
- Who wins/How many games? Indiana in a 4-0 sweep.
- Why? The Pacers were the perfect team for a condensed schedule. They are deep, athletic, and young, so it’s not that surprising that they were able to capture the three seed. Their ideal season continues as they start the postseason against the stumbling Orlando Magic (lost 10 of last 15) who will be playing without Dwight Howard. Without Howard, Orlando doesn’t have one starter who is an above-average defender. The Magic might be able to steal a game if they get hot from three, but expect this to be a short series.
(4) Boston vs. (5) Atlanta
- Who wins/How many games? Boston advances after a back-and-forth six games.
- This series is wrought with fascinating positional match-ups and yields many questions as a result. Does Avery Bradley have enough size to check Joe Johnson? How will Atlanta defend Garnett and Bass? Can Jeff Teague slow Rajon Rondo? And many more. The interesting thing, though, is that all those queries are rooted with the offensive side of the ball while all indications are this will be a series that’s played in the 80s. And no team in the league likes that more than Boston. The Celtics have been rolling of late and know this Atlanta team as well as any other in the league. The core of each squad has been in place since Boston’s seven game victory over Atlanta in the first round of 2008, so there won’t be many surprises on either side. But Boston’s cohesion on both ends of the floor and Doc Rivers’ superior in-game adjustments are feathers in the cap of a Celtics team that simply has more talent than the Hawks. That’s not to say Atlanta will lay down easy (especially if Al Horford returns from injury to make an impact), but Boston’s historically dominant defense and veteran-laden offensive attack should be enough to dispatch of the Hawks.
- Who wins/How many games? Boston in six.
- Why? Atlanta shocked the basketball world last year by upsetting the Orlando Magic in the first round – a year after getting swept by the Magic (losing by an average of 20+ points each game) in one of the worst beat-downs in playoff history. They also gave the 1st-seeded Chicago Bulls some trouble in the 2nd round. This season, they are going to have to do it without their All-Star F/C Al Horford, who is expected to still be out with a dislocated shoulder. Still, I expect a competitive series. In the end, I anticipate the Celtics using their suddenly rejuvenated lineup and veteran savvy to come out on top. But I will say this: this series is by no means a gimme for the Celtics. Remember 2008, when the Celtics were the heavy favorite top seed, yet the Hawks extended the series to 7 games? Joe Johnson and Josh Smith have given Boston fits over the past few seasons. The Hawks clearly can win – I just don’t think they will against what could be the Celtics’ last stand (yes I know, we say that every year). The Celtics Big Three might not be as good as they were in 2008, but Rajon Rondo’s vast improvement since more than makes up for that.
- Who wins/How many games? Celtics in six.
- Why? As always, the Hawks have gone the entire season pretty much unnoticed. Many expected them to fold after Al Horford went down with injury just eleven games into the season, but Atlanta found other ways to win games (thanks largely to Josh Smith). It’s a shame that Horford has been ruled out for this series because if the Hawks can take advantage of Boston’s inability to rebound (ranked last in the league) then they might have a chance to take this series. They key to Boston’s success this postseason could be the health of Mickael Pietrus. If Pietrus is healthy, he and Avery Bradley can take almost all defensive responsibility off of Paul Pierce’s shoulders, allowing him to concentrate more on offense. Boston is playing as well as any team in the league heading into the postseason, so it would be surprising to see a slip up in the first round.