The long road of the regular season and the playoffs are set to start on Saturday. TheSportsNotebook breaks down the four first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference. We’ll open with the three points that I’d consider the most important to remember for each series, expound with some analysis and then conclude with some type of historical tidbit, and a prediction. You can click here to read the Western Conference previews.
(1)Miami (66-16) vs. (8) Milwaukee (38-44)
IN A NUTSHELL
*Milwaukee’s perimeter-oriented offense renders them unable to exploit Miami’s vulnerability down low.
*Miami’s offense is the most efficient in the NBA, and while the Milwaukee defense isn’t bad, their rebounding is.
*The series will be a contrast of tempos, but despite what you may think, it’s the Bucks who will try and push the pace, while the Heat play a halfcourt game.
The above three points basically confirm the obvious, which is that there’s no way on earth Milwaukee can push this series past five games, and even getting that far would be something of a minor miracle. In last week’s NBA commentary, we broke down the Heat a little more extensively, so I won’t waste words here on a series no one thinks they’ll lose—but in a nutshell, Miami is an exceptionally disciplined offense and do a great job covering their weaknesses.
Milwaukee center Larry Sanders is a good young player, a rebounder and shot-blocker, who can have a solid series against the soft Miami interior. But there’s nowhere near enough of him. The most that’s worth wondering about is if the Bucks’ three-headed backcourt of Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and J.. Redick can get hot enough from three-point range to enable the team to cover pointspreads, if not win games. But if you’re not a gambler, and are only interested in whether the Heat can be made to sweat, the answer is quite obviously no.
HISTORICAL TIDBIT: There’s no real history between these teams or cities, but anytime the Heat come to Wisconsin, it’s a return home for Dwayne Wade, who led Marquette to the 2003 Final Four and is still highly regarded by the fans in the area where I live.
PREDICTION: Miami in four.
(4)Brooklyn (49-33) vs. (5) Chicago (45-37)
IN A NUTSHELL
*This series is a clear contrast between a star-oriented team in Brooklyn, and a less-talented, but perhaps more cohesive unit in Chicago.
*Both teams play a slower pace, neither one excels behind the arc and strengths and weaknesses match up—the Nets are good on offense, while the Bulls are solid on defense. When you flip that, neither is very good.
*Brooklyn brings strength in rebounding, while Chicago defends the three-point shot particularly well.
Brooklyn’s trio of Joe Johnson and Deron Williams in the backcourt, along with Brook Lopez at center, gave them a core of talent that can win a championship, much less a first-round series against a Rose-less Chicago team. But is the core adequately supported? On the boards, the answer is yes. Reggie Evans cleans up to the tune of 11 rebounds per game, and Andre Blatche chips in off the bench. There’s not as much help when it comes to distributing the ball or scoring. Gerald Wallace has had a disappointing year, and no one’s going to mistake Keith Bogans or C.J. Watson as role players on a championship team.
Chicago will have Joakim Noah healthy, and that gives them a defender and rebounder that can match up with Lopez. Carlos Boozer is averaging 16 points/10 rebounds per game at the power forward spot and Luol Deng has stepped it up to average 17 ppg. What the Bulls need to do is make sure that Deng doesn’t get carried away shooting the three-ball. The Bulls can win this series if they force it to be settled inside the arc and in a defense-first series, something that playoff basketball often turns into. Brooklyn launches a lot of threes (7th-most in the NBA), but the percentage (17th in the league) doesn’t justify the confidence. Johnson and Williams are the ones who need to be taking the big shots and if the Nets keep focused on their Big Three—go down to Lopez, kick back out to Johnson and Williams—then they can win the series.
HISTORICAL TIDBIT: Another matchup with little in the way of extraneous context. They last met in the playoffs in 1998, Michael Jordan’s final championship run.
PREDICTION: Brooklyn in seven.
(3)Indiana (49-32) vs. (6) Atlanta (44-38)
IN A NUTSHELL
*It’s a big battle down low, with Indiana having Roy Hibbert and David West, going up against Atlanta’s combo of Al Horford and Josh Smith.
*Indiana is the best defensive and rebounding team in the NBA, while Atlanta’s Kyle Korver is the league’s premier three-point shooter.
*Each team is hurt by injuries, with Indiana having lost Danny Granger, and Atlanta being without Lou Williams, along with backup interior player Zaza Pachulia.
The Hibbert/West vs. Horford/Smith matchup is one of the most intriguing personnel battles in the first round. Smith has a three-point shooting dimension—or at least tries to, though he only hits 30 percent from behind the arc. Hibbert brings a shot-blocking presence that Atlanta doesn’t really have, but what these teams have in common down low is more compelling then what’s different. Presuming that Smith’s three-point shooting efforts don’t decide the series—for better or worse—this will come down to the backcourts and the wings.
Paul George gives Indiana a big boost to their offense, as the small forward averages 17 points/8 rebounds/4 assist per game and is a competent shooter behind the arc. George Hill is a solid complementary player at the two-guard spot. I don’t see Atlanta’s guards matching up. Jeff Teague can run an offense and is a nice scorer, but Devin Harris is not as good as his Pacer counterparts. Then you add in the fact that Indiana’s defensive numbers suggest they play more cohesively, and it’s hard to find reasons to pick against the favorite.
HISTORICAL TIDBIT: Atlanta’s best chance at an NBA title came in 1994. They were the top seed in the East in a year where Jordan was on his baseball sabbatical and there was no dominant team in the league. It was Indiana who ruined the dream in the second round, as Reggie Miller’s Pacers came within one win of the Finals themselves.
PREDICTION: Indiana in six.
(2)New York (54-28) vs (7)Boston (41-40)
IN A NUTSHELL
*It’s a matchup of contrasts—the Knicks are offensive-oriented, while the Celtics still rely on their defense. New York lives on the three-point line, while Boston is in the top five defending the trey.
*New York averages a 4-point margin per game in free throw scoring, a byproduct of the ability of Carmelo Anthony to go down low and Tyson Chandler’s low-post presence. It’s unusual for a perimeter-oriented offense to enjoy an edge at the line.
*Boston can run a lot of quality guards on the floor, even without Rajon Rondo, but Kevin Garnett is going to be a lonely warrior down low against Chandler and an array of veteran inside talent that the Knicks appear to have healthy.
Carmelo Anthony is the scoring champ, averaging 29 ppg, while Paul Pierce put up a big year himself, averaging 19 ppg. Each small forward attacks the glass respectably, at seven rebounds per game. Anthony is clearly the better player at this stage of their careers, but the big intangible is that Melo has never done it in the postseason, while Pierce is a proud warrior.
Furthermore, while the Knicks have clearly been the better team this season, it’s hard to look at the rosters and say that New York should be a demonstrable favorite when everyone starts fresh. The biggest Knicks’ edge is inside, but to emphasize that part of their team would mean going away from the three-ball, where they lead the league in attempts. And what team in its right mind changes their personality at playoff time, especially when they’re the favorite? The matchup is a good one for the Celtics—Indiana could have exploited Boston’s lack of depth underneath, but New York either can’t or won’t.
HISTORICAL TIDBIT: It’s really just another chapter in the sports history between these two cities in general, this one coming right on the heels of the terror attack at the Boston Marathon and the fact that the city of New York’s sports fans were the most noble in reaching out to Boston (the Yankees sang Sweet Caroline to honor the Red Sox). I expect more of the same here, and this series should provide great basketball on the court and feel-good moments off it.
PREDICTION: Normally I eschew making a prediction on key games involving my favorite teams, of which the Celtics are. But I feel good about this series, and I’ll go out there and say Boston is going to win it in six.