#1 Atlanta Hawks vs. #5 Washington Wizards
The Wizards had a week of rest before starting this series against while Atlanta, while the Hawks had just one day of rest. It showed late in yesterday's game when Washington pulled away from Atlanta late to take Game 1 on the road and immediately wrest homecourt advantage away from the Hawks.
Atlanta received balanced offense from their starters in Game 1, but almost nothing from their bench. Drew Gooden and Otto Porter Jr. have been magnificent for Washington coming off the bench in these playoffs and continued that yesterday. The Hawks are known for being a good defensive team but yesterday only were able to force six Wizards turnovers. The Wizards managed to win yesterday despite getting 0 points from Nene as Bradley Beal led the way with 28 points. Beal and Wall both battled through injuries yesterday and their health is obviously tantamount to the Wizards continuing their strong play. Paul Pierce continued to be brilliant for Washington, scoring 19 points even if he was jacking up a few too many threes yesterday. Marcin Gortat struggled to keep up with Al Horford on the boards and that is something to watch as the series progresses.
Washington also can't continue to count on Kyle Korver to struggle like he did in Game 1, shooting just 3 of 11 from three point range. Jeff Teague had his moments in Game 1 but will need to play much better the rest of the series for Atlanta to overcome Washington. All of the Hawks struggled with their shot yesterday, and while some of that might have been heavy legs, credit has to be given to the Wizards defense, which has been superb all year. Pierce had no answer defensively for the Hawks DeMarre Carroll yesterday and Carroll has been Atlanta's best player in these playoffs. Randy Wittman will try to find more ways to put Porter on Carroll, as he has a much better chance of keeping up with him than Pierce.
The Wizards are about equal to Atlanta when it comes to starting five talent. Atlanta's regular season record was much better, and a lot of that has to do with the edge in coaching the Hawks have with Mike Budenholzer over Wittman. However, to Wittman's credit, he is on a pretty hot streak right now when it comes to coaching decisions and he has Washington playing their best basketball at the right time. With Pierce in tow and with how shaky Atlanta has looked in the playoffs, I think the Wizards take a leap from next year and reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Prediction: Wizards over Hawks, 4-3
#2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. #3 Chicago Bulls
Cleveland got past the upstart Boston Celtics in four games in Round 1 but it came with a heavy price. They lost Kevin Love for the rest of the season with a separated shoulder and JR Smith is suspended for the first two games of this series after a dirty play he committed in the Game 4 clincher. Chicago beat Milwaukee in six games, and you never knew which Bulls team would show up from game to game. They laid a huge stinker at home in Game 5, then came back and obliterated Milwaukee on the road in Game 6 to close out the series.
This is easily the best series of the Conference Semi-Finals, mostly due to the insane amount of talent that each team has. The Cavs Kyrie Irving will do battle with Derrick Rose at point guard. For the first two games it will likely be Iman Shumpert starting in place of Smith, going against the incredibly improved Jimmy Butler. LeBron James and Mike Dunleavy will theoretically match up, but I expect Tom Thibodeau to throw many different players on LeBron throughout the series. Tristan Thompson will see his minutes jump with the absence of Love and hell, maybe even Kendrick Perkins' corpse will be exhumed for this series as the Cavs try to fight the size of Chicago's bigs Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Cavs center Timofy Mozgov will likely rotate defensively against Noah and Gasol.
You can't tell me that not having Love for this series or Smith the first two games won't have an affect on Cleveland. James is easily the best player in the league and obviously his presence is most important, but Love and Smith aren't chopped liver. Chicago shows signs of easily being the best team in basketball and then other times looks completely average. A main reason for that inconsistency is Rose's inconsistency. Rose has struggled when he gets a lack of rest between games, and his will is going to be tested in this series that is mostly one night on, one night off. But what has changed about Chicago is that it isn't just Rose anymore. Butler can score and Gasol can score, not to mention their bench options like Kirk Hinrich, Aaron Brooks, Taj Gibson, and Nikola Mirotic.
With Love and Smith available for all potential seven games, I would probably pick the Cavs. But I think the Bulls will steal a game in Cleveland to start the series and then make Cleveland play catch up the rest of the way, before ultimately stealing another game in Cleveland in the deciding seventh game, and causing the city of Cleveland another torturous sports moment.
Prediction: Bulls over Cavaliers, 4-3