Monday, May 5, 2014

2014 NBA Playoffs - Eastern Conference Semi-Finals

#1 Indiana Pacers vs. #5 Washington Wizards

The Pacers inexplicable free-fall at the end of the regular season carried over to what many thought would be an easy First Round series against the Atlanta Hawks. After being embarrassed at home in Game 5, the Pacers had to go to Atlanta to save their season. They were trailing late in Game 6, when David West put the team on his back, leading them to victory. Then at home in Game 7, the Pacers controlled the game and looked more like the dominant team they had been for the first half of the season. Now the question is, did that come from behind series win over Atlanta reignite the Pacers, or did they just luck out against an overmatched opponent? They will find out quickly when they take on the Wizards, the newest "it" team in the NBA. The Wizards took out the Chicago Bulls in five games and have many calling them a bigger threat to the Miami Heat than even the Pacers are.

The Wizards will have the edge for sure at point guard with John Wall going against Indiana's George Hill. Hill is serviceable, but the question is will he be able to keep up with the speed of Wall? The Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson is in a contract year and sometimes that shows as he attempts to play hero ball. Bradley Beal is mature beyond his years on the basketball court and quickly becoming one of the better shooters in the NBA. The Pacers will have the best player on the court, Paul George but George will be facing off with an excellent defender in the Wizards Trevor Ariza. The big man battle should be fascinating to watch as David West goes up against Nene and Roy Hibbert and Marcin Gortat face off. Nene has been key for the Wizards all season and he proved to be a matchup nightmare for Joakim Noah in the First Round. As mentioned above, West came up huge for the Pacers in their series with the Hawks. A lot was asked of West because of how miserable Hibbert was for most of that series. Hibbert did have his best game in Game 7 and Indiana has to hope that he has snapped out of whatever funk he has been in. If he isn't, Gortat could have a huge series. Gortat should be able to get Hibbert in foul trouble as Gortat is much more of a threat offensively than any big man Atlanta could throw against Hibbert.

The Wizards mostly employ Andre Miller, Trevor Booker, and Martell Webster off the bench, while veterans like Al Harrington and Drew Gooden could see spot duty. Ian Mahimi and C.J. Watson are employed by Pacers coach Frank Vogel, and Mahinmi outshone Hibbert in most of the First Round. Luis Scola fell out of the rotation the last two games of the series against the Hawks, but with the Wizards throwing a lot of players out there, I expect him to see some more time. Evan Turner has seen his minutes reduced drastically as that trade the Pacers made earlier in the season looks worse and worse.

I certainly underestimated the Wizards in the First Round but don't plan on making that mistake this time around. I still think the Pacers are a mess and got lucky that they played such an atrocious team in the Hawks. The Wizards have much more talent than Atlanta, and unless Indiana gets back to early season form, they are going to have their hands full with Washington. I believe the Wizards will make the Conference Finals for the first time in 36 years. I believe the edge they have at point guard with Wall and what Gortat should be able to do to Hibbert will carry Washington past Indiana.

Prediction: Wizards over Pacers, 4-2

#2 Miami Heat vs. #6 Brooklyn Nets

The Heat wrapped up their series against Charlotte in four games, which feels like weeks ago. The Nets grinded out a seven game series victory over the Toronto Raptors. Once again, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will get a chance to try to take out LeBron and the Heat. The Nets beat the Heat in all four regular season meetings this year, so that does give them some added confidence coming into this series.

The Nets have the advantage at point guard with Deron Williams being superior to the Heat's whipping boy Mario Chalmers. Even at 60% or whatever he is these days, Dwyane Wade is superior to the much traveled Shaun Livingston. Joe Johnson played excellently for the Nets in their Game 7 win over Toronto, and is becoming the Nets go to scorer and ball handler late in games. But the focus for him will have to be on the defensive side of the ball as he attempts to not let LeBron James go crazy. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are far removed from their prime and play far less minutes than they used to, but their playoff experience has proven invaluable so far. Shane Battier is out there for the Heat to play solid defense and hit the occasional three pointer. Chris Bosh should be able to outmuscle and outhustle Garnett but might have some problems facing Andray Blatche when he comes off the bench,

Jason Kidd likes to employ his bench as much as possible, meaning you should expect to see guys like Mason Plumlee, Alan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic, Marcus Thornton, and even Andrei Kirilenko could see some time. For Miami, regulars off the bench include the ageless Ray Allen, the high energy Chris Andersen, Norris Cole and James Jones has somehow found his way back in the rotation.

I wouldn't read too much into Brooklyn sweeping Miami during the regular season, that will be thrown out the window once these two tip off tomorrow night. The Heat become a different, more focused team on the playoffs and if anything, those regular season losses will ensure that the Heat are ready to play the Nets. I think the Nets can defeat the Heat once or twice, but overall, don't have the skill to beat the Heat 4 times in a series.

Prediction: Heat over Nets, 4-2

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