Eastern Conference Playoff Preview
(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) New Jersey Nets
Why the Heat Will Win: The Heat have dominated the Eastern Conference all season (41-11, .790) and especially the Nets, sweeping New Jersey 3-0 and by a hefty margin (98.7-77.3) at that. The Nets have no one inside to defend Shaquille O’Neal and certainly not enough depth once Nenad Krstic gets in foul trouble. This entails the Nets having to double-team O’Neal, which translates to either Eddie or Damon Jones stroking 3’s or Dwyane Wade completely taking over. Either way it’s not good news for the Nets and the Heat will be advancing to the second round.
Why the Nets Will Win: New Jersey is currently the NBA’s hottest team at 7-1 to end the season including 15-4 (.790) over their last 19. Over the last month, Vince Carter (32.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.4 APG) and Jason Kidd (19.2 PPG, 9.7 APG, 9.3 RPG) have found their rhythm together, helping outscore opponents 101.7-91.5. Even rookie Center Nenad Krstic has found his niche, averaging a respectable 14.1 PPG and 7.3 RPG in April. With role players such as Brian Scalabrine, Jason Collins, Travis Best, and Rodney Buford scrapping and clawing each night, the Nets will be able to wear down the Heat (especially O’Neal) and advance to the second round.
Anthony: Heat in 7
Paul: Heat in 6
(4) Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Washington Wizards
Why the Bulls Will Win: Defense, defense defense. Under the tutelage of Coach Scott Skiles, Chicago emerged as one of the better defensive teams this season, holding opponents to just 93.4 PPG and a league-leading 42.2 FG%. Despite losing 2 of 3 this season to the Wiz, Chicago still managed to hold their opponent to just 92.7 PPG, when Washington averaged 100.5 PPG for the season. Skiles will look to mercilessly tire out the Wizard guards Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes and in turn prevent them from scoring in transition. Then, just as Arenas and Hughes think they’ve had all the Bulls can give them, in comes 4th quarter nightmare Ben Gordon (17.7 PPG vs. WAS). Players like Gordon live for the playoffs, witnessed first hand during his National Championship run at UConn. In a tight series such as this, defense and clutch shooters such as Gordon and Kirk Hinrich almost always prevail.
Key to the series: Areanas’ ability to score efficiently
Why the Wizards Will Win: The Wiz have the series’ best three offensive players in Arenas (25.5 PPG), Hughes (22.1 PPG) and Antawn Jamison (19.6 PPG). Arenas torched the Bulls this season for 30.3 PPG in three games and Coach Eddie Jordan will look for his young point guard to do the same in this series. This three-headed monster will be too much for the Bulls to handle, especially when missing starters Eddy Curry and Luol Deng (1 and 4 respectively in PPG). Whichever component is better, Chicago’s D or Washington’s O, will most certainly be the victor of the series. Thus, in the end the “Big Three” of the Wizards will be a bit too strong for the youthful Bulls.
Anthony: Washington in 6
Paul: Chicago in 7
(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Indiana Pacers
Why the Celtics Will Win: Boston has been in this situation before, in fact this will be the third straight year the C’s will be facing off against the Pacers in the first round (1-1). Coach Doc Rivers and Gang Green possess one of the league’s most versatile offenses led by veterans Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker and Ricky Davis. To add to that core, playoff veteran PG Gary Payton is leading the way, with an obvious chip on his shoulder from last year’s collapse with the Lakers. And when that’s not enough for opponents to handle, Doc will throw in his hub of youth (Marcus banks, Delonte West, Al Jefferson, Tony Allen and Kendrick Perkins) to swarm Indy at all angles. Before these last two defeats to end the season (two games in which Rivers tanked) the Celts had won 6 of 7 including a win over the Conference-leading Heat. While most experts are picking the Pacers to advance, that just the motivation Boston needs to sneak into the second round.
Why the Pacers Will Win: Indiana has been facing adversity all season, highlighted of course by the suspensions of Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal after the “Malice at the Palace” incident. Next came the array of injuries to starting point guard Jamaal Tinsley and finally the shoulder injury to O’Neal that caused him to miss over a month of action towards the end of the year. However, these unfortunate stretches allowed other Pacers to step up and perform, in particular veteran Reggie Miller, playing in his final NBA Playoffs before retirement. Miller has averaged 19.2 PPG since the beginning of March, including performances of 39, 34, and 31 points respectively, causing us to reminisce back to the old Reggie. With O’Neal now back from injury and Reggie stroking the ball like its 1994 again, Boston doesn’t stand a chance. Add to it that Anthony Johnson is becoming very comfortable with starting point guard duties and role players such a Stephen Jackson and Austin Croshere are playoff vets and Indiana should cruise into the semis.
Anthony: Celtics in 6
Paul: Indiana in 7
(2) Detroit Pistons vs. (7) Philadelphia 76ers
Why the Pistons Will Win: Detroit’s the NBA’s defending champions for a reason and it showed over the last month of the regular season (10-1 in April). The Pistons would have gone undefeated for the month had Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace dressed for last night’s game at Charlotte or if they actually gave a crap. Not only does Mo-Town possess one of the game’s stingiest defenses (holding opponents to just 89.5 PPG and a 43.0 FG%) but they get it done on the other end with an unstoppable inside (Wallaces)/outside (Rip, Billups, Prince) scoring attack. With Chris Webber nursing an injured everything, the Sixers don’t stand a chance in any of these games, nevermind the series. Despite ‘Sheed’s bum hamstring, the Pistons, led by a rested Rip are on a mission to repeat and should easily return to the Conference semis.
100% or not, ‘Sheed and the Pistons will advance
Why the Sixers Will Win: Allen Iverson has put his heart and soul into every game this season while turning in perhaps his best season yet, averaging 30.7 PPG, 8.0 APG and 2.4 SPG. Now that he has Webber to take some of the big game pressure off his shoulders, maybe he can lead this team back to the Finals, ala 2000. With Kyle Korver stroking 3’s like a madman, it gives Philly a potent compliment to Iverson’s slashing and C-Webb’s low-post game. If the Pistons elect to double-team AI, Korver’s knocking down 3’s or Webber’s getting excellent looks down low. We all know Coach Jim O’Brien has gone deep into the playoffs before and he’s going to have to bring that same defensive mentality from 2001 to the hardwood in Auburn Hills come Saturday afternoon.
Anthony: Pistons in 4
Paul: Pistons in 5