The Pacers and Heat get early tune-ups, the Nets go for broke against a young Raptors team, and the Bulls try to ground John Wall and the Wizards
#1 Indiana Pacers vs. #8 Atlanta Hawks
Three years after barely making the playoffs as an 8 seed with a losing record under then-interim head coach Frank Vogel, the Indiana Pacers have now improved to the top of the Eastern Conference standings for the first time since 2004. Vogel is still the head coach along with a stifling defense and an emerging superstar in small forward Paul George. George is obviously not alone as he is helped by teammates from a variety of backgrounds. Do not forget about the young fireball Lance Stephenson, the gritty constant David West, and the sturdy stopper Roy Hibbert. The 56 wins this season was more than earned.
While the Pacers have steadily risen in the Eastern Conference over the past four seasons, the Atlanta Hawks have made a slow and steady descent. The only Eastern Conference team to have made the postseason every season since 2008 is Atlanta, but the results have usually been the same. The Hawks have only gotten past the first round three times in the last six consecutive tries and haven’t won a playoff series since 2011. Their regular season record also exhibits their downhill trend, winding up with less than 40 wins for the first time since 2008. Under the new direction of GM Danny Ferry, the Hawks are much different from the days of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford.
With Horford out due to injury and the other two gone, the new faces this year for the Hawks are All-Star forward Paul Millsap, three-point master Kyle Korver, emerging point guard Jeff Teague, and a multitude of forgotten role players. Their new head coach is former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, who saw his limited pieces and turned the Hawks into one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league. Thanks to good shooters like Korver, Lou Williams, Millsap, and even big man Pero Antic, the Hawks average 9.4 three’s made per game, second best among all playoff teams. Outside of that category and their 24.8 assists per game, however, the Hawks are either in the middle of the pack or outright bad at everything else.
The Pacers do not have as much margin for error as you would like to think, either. They still won the 1 seed, but Indiana were pitiful since the month of March, going 12-13 and playing at their worst all year on defense and offense. The defensive numbers will hold, but it is no secret that the Pacers are one of the worst scoring teams in the postseason and Vogel has had no remedy to the woes so far. These two teams played one another last year, and although the Hawks were in a severe case of limbo from coach to player, they still managed to push the ascending Pacers to six games. I don’t envision that this year, but remember that the last time the Hawks had a losing record and an 8 seed going into the playoffs, they unbelievably pushed the eventual 2008 Champions, the Boston Celtics, to seven games. That was when the Hawks were just about to take off as a franchise. Let’s see how much damage they can do on the way out against Indiana.
#2 Miami Heat vs. #7 Charlotte Bobcats
For the third time in their four seasons together, the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh had to settle for 2nd place in the Eastern Conference regular season. The previous two times, it was Chicago behind MVP Derrick Rose that took away the top spot. Now it is the Pacers that the Heat are looking to get unseat as Eastern Conference Champions, which the Heat have won three years in a row. While I just talked about the Pacers’ late struggles in closing out that 1 seed, the Heat have had quite a few struggles of their own all season long. After an epic 26-game winning streak in the regular season and hard-fought wins over the Pacers and Spurs to win the title, the Heat slipped from 66 wins last season to 54 this season.
The Heat’s road record was one of their main troubles, devolving from 21-12 to 22-19. With Wade physically breaking down, Miami would play 30 games this year without Flash as part of an elaborate plan to not wear down their superstar in twilight. Chris Bosh had an All-Star individual season, but role players such as Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, and Ray Allen have gotten progressively worse over the course of the season while other teams are stacking up their benches desperately trying to take the Heat down. Thankfully for Erik Spoelstra’s team, you still have LBJ, an MVP candidate every season with a stat line as intimidating as Chris “Birdman” Andersen’s tattoo list.
LeBron and company will take on a Southeast Division rival in the Charlotte Bobcats. This is only the second time in franchise history that the Bobcats, owned by His Airness himself Michael Jordan, have made the playoffs, and they have never won a single playoff game. It has been way too easy over the past decade to mock the Bobcats from their name to their losing ways to even their ugly uniforms. However, you have to take into account the fact that the Bobcats under new head coach Steve Clifford have improved dramatically since their depressingly morbid 7-59 record in 2012. They now sit with a 43-39 record, thanks in large part to the large backside of center Al Jefferson.
Big Al doesn’t leave his feet often, but the Bobcats have soared in the weak East because of his incredible double-double skills, averaging nearly 22 points and nearly 11 rebounds. Everyone remembers when a masked LeBron went for a career-high 63 on Charlotte back in March, but don’t forget that Jefferson carried Charlotte with 38 points and 19 boards. While his former teammate Shabazz Napier won another title for UConn, mighty mite Kemba Walker has opened some eyes in the pros with a career best season in all categories, including 6.1 assists per game. Former Spurs star for a day Gary Neal somehow wound up in Charlotte along with former #2 overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, shot blocker Bismack Biyombo, uber-bouncy Josh McRoberts, and steady hand Gerald Henderson.
While nearly no one expects the Bobcats to upset the defending champions, there are some stats to ponder. The Heat and Bobcats are nearly even in points allowed while the Bobcats only turn the ball over 11.7 times per game, the least amount among all playoff teams. Charlotte is also better than Miami at getting to the all-too-important free-throw line and this Heat regime has always struggled with great low-post players like Jefferson. The Heat still beat the Bobcats all four times in the regular season this year, and I see a five-game series with Charlotte getting at least one playoff win for the Bobcats. That would prove to be the Bobcats’ only win if it happens, because Jordan is changing the team name back to the iconic Charlotte Hornets starting next season.
#3 Toronto Raptors at #6 Brooklyn Nets
Although the two teams seem to be from completely different worlds, the Raptors and Nets do share a lot of history. The Raptors have won only their second Atlantic Division title this year with a 48-34 record. The only other time the Raptors won their division in 2007, they lost in the first round in six games to the then-New Jersey Nets. The Nets’ leader on the court at that time was Jason Kidd. Flash forward 7 years later, and Kidd is back with the Nets, only they now play in nearby Brooklyn and he is now the team’s unlikely head coach. Kidd is used to being a leader on his team anyways, but adjusting to being a coach had some hardship to go with it in the beginning.
In December, the Nets’ record was on par with that of the neighboring Knicks and after demoting top assistant Lawrence Frank, all seemed lost for Brooklyn’s team. But thanks to the leadership of playoff hero Paul Pierce, a sudden resurgence from the still-overpaid Joe Johnson, Deron Williams’ willingness to surrender control of the offense, and Kidd losing his tie from his sideline attire, the Nets went 33-13 from January 1 to April 8, the best record in the league during that period. The Nets curiously rested their starters and lost four of their last five games in what many have called a successful attempt to draw the Raptors in the playoffs instead of the thriving Chicago Bulls. The Raptors might use that backhanded move by Brooklyn as motivation, even though the playoff experience tilts quite heavily in favor of the Nets.
The only starters with any type of playoff experience on Toronto’s team are Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson. Both have had career years, especially Lowry as a two-guard with a lot of heart to go with that smaller frame. He is an excellent three-point shooter along with high assist numbers, and many times he is dishing it off to All-Star small forward DeMar DeRozan. He may not be as well-known as departed Raptors Vince Carter or Rudy Gay (whose dumping by Toronto in a trade was the team’s turning point this season), but he has a great all-around game filled with jumpers and eye-popping dunks. Don’t forget about the young exuberance of Lithuanian energy guy Jonas Valanciunas along with Terrence Ross, whose ceiling is high and defies gravity at times.
The deepest ties between the two are on the coaches’ seat, where Kidd will face off against Toronto’s third-year head man Dwayne Casey. Casey was a defensive assistant for Kidd and the Dallas Mavericks when they defeated Miami to win the NBA title in 2011. Kidd was an extension of what Casey wanted to teach on the court, and now it is the teacher facing off with the pupil of sorts with playoff survival at stake starting in Toronto. The Nets are a putrid rebounding team due to Brook Lopez’s absence and the Raptors have been clutch late in games, but you can never count out experience, and Brooklyn has oodles of it between Johnson, Deron, Pierce, Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko, and even traditional point guard Shaun Livingston.
Alan Anderson was a Raptor before signing with the Nets, so with the backcourt being their strong suit, it will be interesting to see which team wins out as Toronto can throw Lowry, Ross, and Greivis Vasquez at them. Amir vs. Andray Blactche, who had a career year this year, is almost a push.There is the battle of pale long-armed bigs as Valanciunas faces off with rookie Mason Plumlee and oil vs. water garbage man Tyler Hansbrough might match up at times with stretch four Euro Mirza Teletovic. The X factor for me is the leadership of Pierce and Garnett, and there is just enough left in the tank to take out the young and rising Raptors and face off with Miami in the second round.
#4 Chicago Bulls vs. #5 Washington Wizards
Like any 4-5 match up, this is the only one in the Eastern Conference in which neither team won their own division. It seemed highly unlikely for the Wizards, who are in the Southeast with the Miami Heat. But for the Bulls, there was reason to believe at the start of the season that the Bulls could take out the Pacers and win back the best record in the East. That was due to the return of Derrick Rose from a horrific knee injury, but just a few games into the regular season, Rose tore his meniscus in his other knee and was lost for the season once again. The Bulls were punch drunk in the first couple of months after Rose was out, and like the Nets, they seemed doomed to fail come Christmas time, going 3-13 from 11/21 to 12/19.
Slowly but surely came the turnaround, thanks to a top-ranked defense coached by Tom Thibideau and unconventionally deciding to run the Bulls’ offense through center Joakim Noah. With this added responsibility, after years of being a complementary guy, Noah took the leap into superstardom as Chicago’s point center of sorts. While only fifth on the team in scoring, Noah was the savior, leading the team in rebounds, assists, and blocks. He recorded four triple-doubles this season and led the Bulls to an inspiring overtime win in Chicago over the Heat on national television in early March. Noah and Thibideau have gotten loads of effort from teammates like Jimmy Butler, Sixth Man of the Year candidate Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Kirk Hinrich, Carlos Boozer, rookie Tony Snell, and journeyman D.J. Augustin.
Augustin was only signed by the team after Rose’s injury, but he has made the most out of his Midwest stay by having his best season so far in the NBA. Butler is a defensive stopper in the same vein as Patrick Beverley or Tony Allen, and no feat is too dirty for the Bulls to dive headfirst into for the sake of the team concept. Their opponent is Washington, who have been waiting for this season to come along since they drafted John Wall out of Kentucky with the #1 overall pick in 2010.Although he is a human highlight reel with his behind the back moves and lightning quick mode, Wall seems to wind up being the forgotten one in the eyes of many. In his solid rookie year, the ROY winner was Blake Griffin. The Kentucky teammate that everyone talks about these days is the Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins. He was spectacular in the Slam Dunk Contest this year, but he was also second in the league in assists.
I can envision a postseason in which John Wall, with his max contract talents, proves to a worldwide audience how good he really is in the same way Chris Paul did in 2008 and Steph Curry did last year. Wall’s Wizards were not overtly impressive this season at any point, but their team stats are solid along with being the third best playoff team in field goal attempts and third best in three-point field goal percentage. The second stat is thanks in large part to a career year from Trevor Ariza, who is playing for his next contract in the summer. After a rookie year just as solid as Wall’s was, Bradley Beal has taken a sophomore leap as the Wizard’s next best player and a back court to die for in the coming years. The front court might not win a beauty contest, but Marcin Gortat and Nene have been around the block enough times and are really nice big men to feed the ball to as a plan B.
Throw in older hands like Al Harrington, Martell Webster, Andre Miller, and Drew Gooden to go with young guns like Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin, and Chris Singleton, and you have yourself a nicely etched team in the short-term coached by Randy Whitman. The Bulls will look first to double team Wall and not give too many open looks to Beal or Ariza in the corner pocket (The Bulls are the best team in the league at not giving up the corner 3). I would not be shocked if in the fourth quarter of games Thibs throws Butler on Wall in an attempt to squeeze him out in a close game. Inside pressure will come down to Noah, Boozer, and Gibson’s inside presence against the steady play of the not-as-talented Gortat and Nene. Physicality will definitely come into play here as the Wizards would like to play fast while the Bulls are more than glad to keep things grounded for the duration of the series. If the whistles start flaring up, tempers might follow suit. It all comes down to how Wall handles Thibideau’s defensive master plan and if he is ready to take that next step into NBA lore by taking out Noah and the playoff-rich Bulls. I say close but no cigar for Mr. Wall and company. The Bulls win in seven games.