Friday, April 18, 2014

2014 NBA Playoffs - Eastern Conference, First Round

#1 Indiana Pacers (56-26) vs. #8 Atlanta Hawks (38-44)

The Pacers started off the year hot, and then fizzled down the stretch, but still managed to hold off the Miami Heat for the number one seed in the East. Their leader is Paul George, and the team's dip in play has coincided with George's own struggles. The Pacers aren't an exceptional offensive team, but they make up for it with their defensive toughness led by David West and Roy Hibbert. Hibbert has come under some fire recently as his offensive performances have been dreadful and his toughness has been questioned. Somehow Lance Stephenson is the team's leading rebounder over the monstrous Hibbert. George Hill is solid but not spectacular at point guard, and off the bench the Pacers have Luis Scola, Evan Turner, C.J. Watson and Ian Mahinmi to spell their starters.

The Hawks squeak into the playoffs with a horrible record, and have changed from the perfectly average team to the just slightly above bad team. The Hawks are the only team in the Eastern Conference to allow over 100 points per game and make the playoffs. It is slightly commendable that they still managed to make the playoffs despite being without their best play Al Horford for the majority of the season. Also, when you look at a starting lineup that consists of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Milsap, Cartier Martine, and Pero Antic you realize just how terrible the New York Knicks were that they couldn't make the playoffs over this team. Shelvin Mack, formerly of Butler, and Elton Brand, formerly a player of consequence in the NBA are the Hawks main bench contributors.

The Pacers should use this series as a chance to gain back some of the confidence they may have lost over the past month. The Hawks might be able to steal a game in Atlanta, but otherwise this series should be smooth sailing for the Pacers.

Prediction: Pacers over Hawks, 4-1

#4 Chicago Bulls (48-34) vs. #5 Washington Wizards (44-38)

This is a matchup I would prefer was not happening as I like both teams. The Bulls once again overcame an injury to Derrick Rose, traded away Luol Deng and still managed to win 48 games. Tom Thibodeau is clearly one of the best coaches in the league. The Bulls have a ton of trouble scoring, but win games because they never take plays off and play suffocating defense. Their leading scorer si a guy that doesn't even start for them, D.J. Augustin. However, the biggest reason for the Bulls success this season has been the play of Joakim Noah. Noah led the team in rebounds, assists, and blocks, and averaged a double-double this year. The Bulls are likely parting ways with Carlos Boozer and his massive contract this off-season but for now they will hope that he can string together some good offensive showings to make up for his lack of defense. Jimmy Butler epitomizes the Bulls will as a team and their toughness on defense. Kirk Hinrich provides veteran leadership and steady play at the point guard position. Mike Dunleavy can be dangerous when his shot is hitting, especially from three point land. Taj Gibson isn't always consistent but he is another large component of the Bulls toughness on the defensive end.

The Wizards are back in the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, and their faith in John Wall is starting to be rewarded. Wall led the Wizards in scoring, steals and assists. He continues to improve his outside shooting, and he was reliable, playing in all 82 games this season. Another reason for Washington's return to the playoffs is the play of big men Marcin Gortat and Nene. Gortat played in 81 games this year, and almost averaged a double-double. Nene is injury prone as always but with him healthy going into the playoffs he will provide Washington a huge lift both offensively and defensively. Bradley Beal continues to look like a future franchise player, and Trevor Ariza looks a lot like the Ariza that helped the Los Angeles Lakers to a title in 2009. The Wizards also have a lot of veterans at their disposal off the bench, including Andre Miller, Al Harrington, and Drew Gooden.

I don't like this matchup for the Wizards. While the Bulls can be beat because of their trouble scoring, I believe their defense is going to frustrate some of the Wizards younger players and give someone like Wall fits. I also think that Thibodeau will outcoach Randy Wittman and that edge will be the difference in the close games that I expect to see in this series.

Prediction: Bulls over Wizards, 4-2

#2 Miami Heat (54-28) vs. #7 Charlotte Bobcats (43-39)

The Heat have struggled down the stretch but haven't exactly been trying to win. They decided to rest LeBron James and Chris Bosh for the last few games and basically conceded the one seed to the Pacers. Dwyane Wade did play in the last few games but has been dealing with injuries all season long and is definitely on the tail end of his career. The Heat are looking for the three-peat and whether they get it or not chances are this is the last season of the Big Three of James, Bosh, and Wade. The story is the same for the Heat as it has always been, teams kill them on the glass but they win with their defensive intensity and the fact that they have the best player on the planet in James. Ray Allen continues to defy aging and can still hit a clutch three when you need it. The Birdman, Chris Andersen provides a ton of energy off the bench, and other big men that might see some time are Greg Oden's corpse and the formerly highly touted Michael Beasley.

Michael Jordan was crushed by the media when the Bobcats were the laughing stock of the league, but strangely hasn't received much credit for the Bobcats resurgence this season. Charlotte is one of the better defensive teams in the league and has a nice nucleus of young talent. The addition of Al Jefferson has made a huge difference, and Jefferson is having one of the best seasons of his career. Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson give the Bobcats a nice scoring punch in the backcourt, while forward Josh McRoberts and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are solid. Off the bench, Cody Zeller has had a promising rookie year and Bismack Biyombo led the Bobcats in blocks this season. Gary Neal is another strong player off the bench and he had a good series against Miami last year in the Finals as a member of the Spurs.

Charlotte comes into the playoffs playing their best basketball of the year but I expect the Heat to quickly regain their dominant form. I think Charlotte has the players to be competitive with Miami, but not the experience to ever make the Heat feel any real danger. I think Charlotte can steal a game at home but otherwise, it will be smooth sailing for Miami.

Prediction: Heat over Bobcats, 4-1

#3 Toronto Raptors (48-34) vs. #6 Brooklyn Nets (44-38)

The Raptors are one of the bigger surprise stories of the season. Not that anyone really gives a crap about divisions in the NBA but the Raptors did win the Atlantic division. Despite this achievement, the rumor is that the Nets basically tanked their final two games so they would face the Raptors in the First Round. The Raptors don't have a ton of sizzle or household players but they play very well together as a team. DeMar DeRozan is Toronto's leading scorer, and Kyle Lowry is one of the bestter point guards in the league that you probably haven't heard of. Center Jonas Valanciunas is a force on the defensive end and glass and also scored in double figures this season. PF Amir Johnson was the team leader in blocks. Depth is not Toronto's strong suit but Grievis Vasquez brings a ton of energy and can light up the scoreboard when he comes off the bench. The Raptors pulled off a lot of trades this year and after a slow start and specifically when they shipped off Rudy Gay they seemed to find themselves as a team.

Brooklyn came into the season with a ton of expectations after trading for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, but then got off to a dreadful start. Seems seemed even bleaker when they lost Brooke Lopez for the season, but after the All-Star break the Nets righted the ship. The Nets are a team with balanced scoring as Joe Johnson led the team with just 15 points per game. Garnett is no longer the scorer he once was but he can still grab rebounds with the best of them. Pierce picks and chooses his spots but is a far cry from the electrifying player he once was. PG Deron Williams has taken a ton of criticism in recent years and injuries have curtailed his game but he can still find the open man as good as anyone in the game. Mason Plumlee has been a real bright spot for Brooklyn this year and played very well coming off the bench. Andray Blatche has also seemed to find a home in Brooklyn, providing the Nets with reliable scoring off the bench.

I don't think the Raptors are going to take too kindly to the Nets basically tanking to set up a matchup with them. While Brooklyn did play much better basketball in the second half of the season, I still am not sold that they have the cohesiveness as a team to make a run in the playoffs. Just because the Raptors don't have a lot of big name players doesn't mean they aren't a strong team. I expect DeRozan to have a huge series and the Raptors to come out on top in a hard fought seven game series.

Prediction: Raptors over Nets, 4-3

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