The playoffs this year should be much more interesting than those in recent years. Huge off-season moves have been made, and big mid-season trades have drastically changed teams. If you paid attention to the NBA last year but ignored this year, then you'd probably be totally lost when looking at this playoff bracket. In addition, the massive amount of moves has given teams a lot of flux, so a team at the top might not be as good as you think they are, giving a much larger potential for an upset.
Accordingly, as I did last year, this year I will be giving a general preview of the Western and Eastern Conference playoffs. These are just general previews to give you a general feel as to how good each team is, and they also serve as a way for me to get my predictions out there.
First up, the Eastern Conference. (Western Conference Predictions to come later today.)
The Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals
In all of the mystery, there is one constant. The eight seed in the East still sucks. The Pacers would be in 12th place were they in the West, and would not even come close to sniffing the playoffs. To the Pacers credit, they did beat the Bulls on March 17th, and they did finish the season reasonably hot (though reasonably hot for them is about .500). The Bulls, meanwhile, are the best they've been since Jordan, finally able to get young talent to mesh together into an excellent team. And, unfortunately for the Pacers, they just have too much talent on their roster. The Pacers match up reasonably well with Granger, Collison, and Hibbert being similar to Deng, Rose, and Noah, but their frontcourt falls apart defensively without Hibbert, and that's exactly where the Bulls excel. Their bench is either too old or too young, and really seem more like a random mish-mash compared to Chicago's complimentary pieces. I'll say the Pacers steal Game 4, but that's it.
Bulls in 5.
This matchup is perhaps the most mystifying of all. Both of these teams have hung around the Eastern Conference playoffs for the past couple of years, but neither of them can seem to turn from pretender into contender. The Magic have always lacked a complimentary post presence for Howard, and the Hawks have relied too heavily on high-scoring wings. They both made risky moves this year, with the Magic gambling on better wing players and the Hawks trying to get more defensively sound with Kirk Heinrich. Neither team came out stunning, but the Magic have looked very impressive at times. The Magic do hold an eight game regular season advantage over the Hawks, and the Hawks finished the season on a six game losing streak. That gives most people the impression that the Hawks will be walked over, but the Hawks rested their starters for the last two games of that streak, and were missing defensive staple Jason Collins for nearly the entirety of that streak. Collins and Pachulia will be the key to defeating the Magic in the first round. They don't do a whole lot on the stat sheet, but they do a great job of limiting Dwight Howard to the free throw line for most of his scoring. This chokes Orlando's offense, forcing them to rely on their streaky guards a lot more, and allows Al Horford to run wild on Brandon Bass. Heinrich also does a good job of limiting Jameer Nelson. It'll be close, but the Hawks will pull this one out in 7.
Hawks in 7.
A Superstar throw down if I ever saw one. The Knicks have a nice trio in Anthony, Stoudemire, and Billups, but the rest of the team just is not there. They have a rookie starting at shooting guard, and Shelden Williams....that's right, Shelden Williams is starting at center. The talent carries the Knicks through some games, and, at times, the Knicks have their random collection of players pull out a win. But the team is still trying to figure things out. Sure, the Boston Celtics gave up Kendrick Perkins and haven't nearly been the team that they were before the deadline. But all of the problems they experience by not having a legitimate big man in the paint don't really matter against the Knicks, because they don't have one, either. Not to mention the fact that the Celtics bench is much more experienced and complimentary of the starters, and the fact that Boston destroyed New York on their home floor on March 21st.
Celtics in 4.
Coach Doug Collins has led the 76ers from the depths of the lottery back into the promise land. Wait, check that, he just brought them back to being a mediocre seven seed again. But the 76ers are much more deceptive than they appear. They started off the season 2-10, but had a remarkable revival, with legitimate wins over teams like the Nuggets and Good Jazz. It culminated in an excellent February, where they went 9-3 and won against San Antonio and Atlanta. They've settled off since then, but their better play has piqued the interest of basketball minds everywhere. Are they good enough to defeat the Heat? Well, not really. They are defensively sound, but they're not especially good at shutting down specific stars, and they aren't sure if Louis Williams or Andre Igoudala will play in the first game. They'll be in trouble from the get-go, and the Heat will probably pull through.
Heat in 6.
Below: The Semi-Finals and Finals.
The Eastern Conference Semi-Finals
1. Chicago Bulls vs. 5. Atlanta Hawks
The Bulls get an absolute gift here with a matchup against the Hawks. The Hawks have had an atrocious performance against the Bulls, and will be coming off of a much more exhausting playoff series. The only real way for the Hawks to win would to keep the game at a snail's pace, Al Horford would have to outscore both Noah and Boozer, and Jamal Crawford would have to provide a serious scoring boost off of the bench. It's entirely possible for this to happen, but the Bulls can't be held back for long, and the Hawks just don't have star power that leads to 30 point games. The Bulls win a relatively easy series.
Bulls in 5.
2. Miami Heat vs. 3. Boston Celtics
Probably the most exciting matchup of the Eastern Conference. The New Big Three versus the Old Big Three. Stars in their prime without a supporting cast versus aged stars with a strong supporting cast. The two historically best franchises in the east going at it once more. The Heat are unbeatable when they want to be, but are prone to emotional breakdown. Additionally, James and Bosh haven't historically performed well in the playoffs. The Celtics are very injury-prone, not good at defending big men, and were cold at the end of the season. And Garnett, Pierce, and Allen aren't nearly as good as Bosh, James, and Wade. But the Celtics make up for it with their superior defense and high-scoring supporting cast. Yes, the Heat did looked good against the Celtics in the late regular season, but this is the playoffs. The Celtics will be bringing their A-Game.
Celtics in 7.
The Eastern Conference Finals
1. Chicago Bulls vs. 3. Boston Celtics
As much as I'd like the Celtics to win here, the Bulls excel at precisely what the Celtics lack: Aggressive post big men. You can rant to me all day about how young teams progress in steps and that the Bulls aren't ready to go to the finals, but the fact is the Bulls just came off of two very easy playoff series, while the Celtics had to battle the Heat for 7 games. The Bulls also have the inside presence that the Celtics lost when they traded away Kendrick Perkins, which means they can be exploited there all day. It will be a tough series, but the Bulls will return to the finals for the first time since 1998.
Bulls in 6.
How do you think the East will shake out? Vote in the poll or post a comment! The NBA Finals prediction will come out with the Western Conference prediction later today.