Kevin Cunningham Blog: Eastern Conference NBA Playoffs First-Round Predictions

 

April 23, 2014

By Kevin Cunningham

At the beginning of the season, if someone were to say the Eastern Conference playoff picture would look the way it does today, a few questions would be asked. For the most part, however, from an outsider’s perspective, things held true to form.

The Indiana Pacers landed the No. 1 seed, with the Miami Heat trailing right behind. Not many people foresaw the Toronto Raptors grabbing the No. 3 seed, and Chicago playing Charlotte in the first round wouldn’t have been a completely far-fetched idea six months ago.

Heck, even two months ago, the Eastern Conference seemed like it would be easy to pick series by series, before diving into the monstrous Indiana-Miami matchup. Breaking it down this very moment, though, appears a lot more difficult than anticipated.

(1)  Indiana Pacers vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks

Everybody knows Indiana has been slipping as of late. Two Sundays ago, Atlanta went into Indianapolis and thrashed the Pacers. The Hawks were up by 32 points going into halftime.

The Pacers have to take Atlanta by the throat early, and impose their will. The home team has the better roster, but its chemistry is surely shaking at the moment. Game one will be very telling, because if the Pacers can display early that they truly are the better team between the two, Atlanta should have no business being in this series.

One player to look for is the Hawks’ rookie center, Pero Antic. In the games played between these two during the regular season, Antic was a key factor, bringing Hibbert away from the basket because of his ability to shoot the three-ball.

If Atlanta can make Indiana uncomfortable, this series could go longer than the Pacers want it to, which is exactly what the Hawks need.

In the end, the Pacers aren’t exactly playing their best basketball at the moment, but they still do possess a 35-6 home record during the regular season and do have home-court advantage here. The Pacers should move on, but will they continue to struggle? Or will head coach Frank Vogel be able to put the pieces together at just the right time?

Pacers in 6

 

(2)  Miami Heat vs. (7) Charlotte Bobcats

Again, this is a first-round matchup that could have been predicted to take place six months ago. Like Indiana, however, Miami isn’t playing up to snuff. Charlotte also possesses a lethal big man in Al Jefferson, who could be a nightmare for the Heat.

During the regular season, the teams played four games and the Heat came away victorious in each of them. LeBron James put up 61 points the last time these two teams met and how James does in this series will indicate where it goes.

The Bobcats will not stop James. That’s not a question. Can they slow him down? If they can, players like Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers won’t get open looks.

The Heat are great at getting high-percentage looks on the offensive end, which is one of the many reasons why they’ve won back-to-back titles. Again, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist doesn’t have to stop James, he just has to contain him to 30 points, if that even makes sense.

If Kidd-Gilchrist can limit the reigning MVP, the Bobcats have Jefferson to look toward in their quest of taking down the Heat. The one stat that many don’t know when looking back at James’ 61-point performance is what Jefferson did to the Heat that game. The big man recorded 38 points and 19 rebounds in the Bobcats’ 124-107 loss.

What can be taken from that game are many things, one of which being Jefferson can have a historic night and the Bobcats still can fall 20 points short of Miami. The Heat are playing Indiana-type basketball right now, but don’t look too much into this series. There’s a reason why the defending champs swept the Bobcats during the regular season.

Heat in 5

 

(3)  Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets

This should be an interesting series. Six months ago, a Toronto-Brooklyn first-round matchup appeared likely. The catch is, 99 percent of the country likely would have stuck the Nets in that third spot, not the Raptors.

When breaking the series down piece by piece, the Nets have more overall talent, but the Raptors are younger and more explosive. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have had great seasons and realistically, should be able to matchup against the Nets’ Deron Williams and Joe Johnson.

But again, the Nets are the older group between these two teams and with the playoffs being stretched out so that no games fall on back-to-back nights, Brooklyn should be favored. The Nets have been playing better than just about any team in the NBA over the last few months and it should show here. If the series gets to a game seven, Toronto should be favored because they will be at home, but Brooklyn still should not be overlooked because of their veteran team.

Maybe I’m underestimating the Raptors and they could very well march on to the second round to play the Heat, but going against Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett this early just isn’t in my blood.

Nets in 6

 

(4)  Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Washington Wizards

Washington point guard John Wall has become an elite player this season. Coupling that with the fact that Derrick Rose is out yet again during the playoffs and Chicago could be in a world of hurt, right?

Wrong. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau is one of the best in the business and his team’s defense alone shows that year in and year out. Wall will have his way at the point guard position, but he will have to carry his team to four victories if they want to overtake Chicago.

Because of Thibodeau, the Bulls play outstanding defense. One of those reasons is because of center Joakim Noah. Noah’s always been a good player. Nobody can deny that. But what he’s done this season marks him as the league’s most improved player in my eyes.

When mentioning Noah alongside the names of Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol, maybe he still does come up short. But the gap isn’t nearly as far as what it was once imagined to be. Statistics can be skewed, but one that should be brought to attention is this – Noah has recorded 207 assists in the 30 games since the All-Star break.

That means he’s averaged nearly seven assists per game during that span. Another little side-nugget – Noah has six 11-assist games since Feb. 6. In the past 30 years, all NBA centers combined have had 27 such games.

Noah is now an elite center in the NBA. That cannot be questioned.

In this series, the Noah-led Bulls have home-court advantage and possess the better overall team. Look for their defense to show just that.

Bulls in 5

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