NBA Playoffs Preview: Eastern Conference

After slogging through one of the least suspenseful seasons in a long while, playoff time is finally here.  As thankful as we are that the regular season is done, the playoffs are fairly intriguing.  In the East, we’re all waiting for the outcome of Cavs-Magic, while out West it’s not clear what’s going to happen.  Let’s jump in with our annual playoff preview.  Today we’ll start in the East: 

1.    Cavaliers v. Bulls:   The interesting story coming into the series is the state of the Bulls.  Yes, it’s nice that they were able to rally to a playoff spot (thanks to Chris Bosh’s broken face).  But there is still an overall sense of chaos with the Bulls.  After all of Chicago’s changes the last few years, they are essentially the team they were before.  They dumped defensive whiz Scott Skiles in hopes of having a more balanced team.  They let Ben Gordon go and replaced him with Jannero Pargo.  The end result?  A 41-41 record and a team with a bad offensive efficiency (27th in the NBA) and a solid defense (11th).  Then you throw in the Vinny Del Negro-John Paxson rumored altercation and you wonder why Paxson hired Del Negro to begin with, considering that there have been apparently internal murmurs questioning Del Negro’s coaching ability since day one.    

Of course, none of this matters for the purposes of assessing this series.  The Cavs are better at nearly every facet of the game.  The Bulls can point to the fact that they are 2-2 against the Cavs but one of the wins happened last week without LeBron playing and the first win was a one point game.  I expect the Cavs to have a field day here.  Prediction:  Cleveland win 4-0. 

When they last met:  We all remember the old Michael Jordan Bulls breaking the hearts of Cleveland’s promising teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s (cue MJ’s shot over Ehlo in your mind).  In fact, Jordan’s crew beat the Cavs four times in six years from 1987-88 to 1992-93, all of which had memorable moments and were highly anticipated series between two potential title contenders.  The last meeting, in 1993-94, was much less anticipated.  At that time, Jordan was retired, Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance had already played their final games, Lenny Wilkens was gone to Atlanta, and Mark Price was also close to finished.  This was the Cavs’ first season as the non-descript, slowdown Mike Fratello version.  Cleveland was solid (47-35) but without Daugherty, Nance, and an injured Hot Rod Williams, they didn’t have the horses to compete with the Bulls, who had Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in their primes. The Cavs played hard but had a washed up Rod Higgins and a fringe big guy Tim Kempton playing major minutes.  The end result was a Bulls sweep and Pippen dominating the series. 

2.    Magic v. Bobcats:    Did you know that the Bobcats ended up having the best defensive efficiency in the NBA?  I sure didn’t.  I knew they were a tough defensive team that played an ugly offense at a slow pace that Larry Brown always finds to be the “right way.”  Just as impressive is that Charlotte manages to limit points without giving fouls or foul shots (they had 470 more free throws than their opponents and over 200 fewer personal fouls).  Another interesting fact about the Bobcats is that they continue to improve their win total each year since their inception in 2004-05, albeit at a slow pace.  This will make an interesting match up with the Magic, who draw a ton of fouls and free throws.  Had Charlotte been able to move up to draw Boston, they might’ve had a shot at an upset but Orlando is just too good for that to happen.  The Bobcats are a bad road team (13-28) but a good home team for such a low seed (31-10 in Charlotte) and this combination means that Charlotte’s main goal is to get its first playoff win, and that’s about it.  Prediction:  Orlando wins 4-1. 

When they last met:  Since this is the Bobcats’ first time in the playoffs, it’s safe to say there is no playoff history here.  The old Charlotte Hornets did meet the Orlando Magic in the first round of the 2001-02 playoffs in the 4-5 match up.  It was a battle of well-rounded Charlotte team (a young Baron Davis, David Wesley, Jamal Mashburn, P.J. Brown, Elden Campbell, and Jamaal Magloire) against the one-man band of Tracy McGrady in his prime.  Charlotte won the first game by one and the teams split the next two games (both of which went to overtime) before the Hornets trounced Orlando by 17 in Game 4 to clinch. 

3.    Hawks v. Bucks:    This could’ve been fun.  Atlanta is the second best offense in the NBA and is going up against the second best defense.  At full strength, the Hawks would probably have won a tough series that would be decided by Atlanta’s home court advantage.  Without Andrew Bogut, this series will be a bit of an afterthought.  Bogut, the Bucks’ best player on offense and defense, is replaced by 37-year old Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric against Josh Smith and Al Horford.  That’s not good for Milwaukee.  The Bucks will compete hard but the talent just isn’t there.  Prediction:  Atlanta wins 4-1. 

When they last met:  You have to go back all the way to 1988-89 to find the last playoff match up between these franchises.  Back in 1988-89, the teams met in the 4-5 match up.  At the time, the Bucks were a declining power.  Don Nelson had already left town and Sidney Moncrief was a shell of his former self.  Still, they had Jay Humphries, Jack Sikma, and Terry Cummings and won 49 games.  The Hawks were a 52-win team and considered a rising power behind Dominique Wilkins (they had taken the Larry Bird Celts to seven games the previous season).  Atlanta also had acquired Moses Malone and Reggie Theus to help put them over the top.  Well, it didn’t work.  The Bucks won the series 3-2, snatching two victories in Atlanta including the deciding game.  The Hawks, who were considered potential heirs to the Celtics, were not contenders again for another half a decade. 

4.    Celtics v. Heat:    This is, by far, the most interesting match up of the first round in the East.  Boston has limped badly through the second half.  It’s clear that title contention is over for now.  Still, Boston is a formidable defensive team and have the pieces to be dangerous in spurts.  Miami, is a much younger team but its numbers are very similar to Boston’s overall: 

Team               Off. Eff.    Def. Eff.       Pace Factor

Boston         107.7 (15th)    103.8 (5th)   91.6 (22nd)              

Miami          106.6 (19th)    1041. (6th)   89.6 (28th) 

How the teams amassed these numbers if very different.  Miami is Dwyane Wade or bust offensively, while Boston has a more balanced attack. Despite this balance, the Celts’ weak finish is quite disturbing (30-28 finish after a 20-4 start), given the collective age of their key players.  The series is essentially a toss up but the Heat front court is active enough to annoy Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, while I doubt that Ray Allen can stay with Wade.  Prediction:  Miami wins 4-2.

 When they last met:  The Celts and Heat have never met in the playoffs before.

 Round 2 Predictions

 -Cavaliers over Heat, 4-1

-Magic over Hawks, 4-3

 Conference Finals

 -Cavaliers over Magic, 4-3

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