NBA

2011 NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference 1st Round Preview

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The interminable NBA regular season has been going on for what seems like three years, the last month of which became utterly unbearable. It’s all over now and we finally get our reward: the NBA Playoffs. This year’s edition figures to be one of the best in recent memory. There are contenders and compelling stories all around.

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While the first round of the playoffs may be a little boring at times and a couple games too long, there are compelling matchups. First up, we’ll be taking a look at the Eastern Conference and later today the West will be up.

#1 Chicago Bulls vs. #8 Indiana Pacers, Game One – Saturday, 1 PM

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For all the talk about the Heat and Celtics coming into the season, it’s the Bulls that are sitting with the best record in the NBA. They missed out on LeBron and D-Wade this off-season, but it turns out they are doing just fine with Carlos Boozer, Tom Thibodeau and a next level edition of Derrick Rose.

Chicago has been in the playoffs numerous times over the past few years, but they have yet to win a series since Michael Jordan’s departure. This year, though, they enter as overwhelming favorites against the up-start Pacers.

As brilliant as Derrick Rose has been in positioning himself for an MVP, defense is the reason why the Bulls will enjoy home court throughout the playoffs. Thibodeau has transformed Chicago into one of the toughest teams in the league. They’re physical, they protect the basket and they rebound.

The Pacers, on the other hand, are just average defensively. They actually score more points per game than the Bulls, but the Bulls allow about 10 fewer points on average. Indiana has some nice young pieces, led by Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, Darren Collison and a much-improved Tyler Hansbrough.

PREDICTION – BULLS IN FIVE

I think the Pacers will steal a game at home, but the Bulls will overwhelm Indiana with their defense. The Pacers have bright days ahead, but not quite yet.

#2 Miami Heat vs. #7 Philadelphia 76ers, Game 1 – Saturday 3:30 PM

After the way they started the season and all the flak they got for their difficulties against the leagues top team, the Heat will have home court until at least the Eastern Conference Finals.

We know about the Heat. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are as good as ever and have learned little by little how to play with one another. Playing in their first post-season together, you have to figure they’ll be taking things up a notch. The problem is that they guys around them might not be able to follow suit.

Their holes are also well-known: no defensive post presence, poor rebounding and point guard play. Although the Heat are big first round favorites, the 76ers are a team that I believe can expose some of Miami’s flaws. The Sixers are deep and they have Andre Iguodala, the players who is perhaps best suited to guard LeBron one on one.

Miami easily swept Philly in the regular season, but the two teams have played just once since November. Since then, former Wildcat has, in spite of recent shooting woes, steadied the shooting guard position and Philly has played arguably the best ball in the East outside of the top three in the conference. They have six guys who average double figures eight that play over 20 minutes a game, plus two quick point guards in Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams that could give the Heat fits.

PREDICTION – MIAMI IN SIX

I think Philly will steal a game or two, but Philly’s lack of a clear go-to guy is going to keep them from really competing.

#3 Boston Celtics vs. #6 New York Knicks, Game 1 – Sunday 7 PM

How’s this for a first rounder? Tons of history, tons of tradition and two cities that care very little for one another.

Boston enters the post-season much like last year: stumbling. This time feels a bit different though with the team playing terribly since trading Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder for Jeff Green. Even still, this veteran group knows how to put it together when the playoffs get started.

New York won seven straight toward the end of the regular season before being dismantled by the Bulls and Celtics in the final two games. However, it’s hard to put any stock into Boston’s win since it was essentially a JV game with both team’s starters resting.

PREDICTION – CELTICS IN SIX

I would really like to pick an upset here, but I just can’t do it. Madison Square Garden will help carry the Knicks, but the Celtics are not the best matchup with their experience and defensive prowess.

#4 Orlando Magic vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks, Game 1 – Saturday 7 PM

I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. The Magic and Hawks have a regular season ‘rivalry’ (with the Hawks winning three of four this year), then the two meet in the playoffs and Orlando pounds them.

These two teams are largely the same as previous years, with Orlando making some minor changes and Atlanta a couple years older but really no better.

PREDICTION – ORLANDO IN FIVE

I see no reason why it will be any different this year.