2011 NBA Playoffs Preview (Eastern Conference)
by Mike Maloney(NBA)
Posted on April 15, 2011, 9:46 PM
Welcome to Part 2 of our NBA Playoff Preview, where we'll be looking at the Eastern Conference matchups. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.
(1) Chicago vs. (8) Indiana
There isn't too much to say about this matchup. The Pacers could pose some problems for the Bulls as they're a smaller, more athletic team which can be tough for the Bulls to handle at times. That being said, the Pacers are 37-45 and allow over 100 points per game. Plus, there's this gem from Danny Granger when discussing the prospect of facing either the Celtics or the Bulls:
"Boston's a different monster," he said. "They don't have the best record in the East, but they won championships; they know how to do it. They have four, five guys you have to worry about.
"Chicago, they go as Derrick Rose goes. If you make a concerted effort to stop Derrick Rose, you have a better chance of beating them."
Now, Derrick Rose is no Michael Jordan. He's not going to spend all series shutting down Granger single-handedly or dropping 50 points in Game 1 to prove a point. However, he does bear a resemblance to Jordan in that he remembers slights like that. It doesn't take much, but you want to throw out any disrespect in his direction, he'll take it in, and use it as motivation to beat you the next time you play. The Pacers don't need any help to lose this series, so it was a somewhat foolish comment on Granger's part.
By now everyone knows the story of the Bulls. After winning 42 games last year, the team brought in a new head coach (Tom Thibodeau), a new All-Star caliber forward (Carlos Boozer), and a bunch of role players (Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Keith Bogans, CJ Watson) to complement the existing core of players (Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson). 62 wins later, they have the best record in the NBA, the probable NBA MVP (Rose), potential Coach of the Year (Thibodeau), and lead the league in defensive efficiency and are second in rebounding per game (44.2) behind Minnesota while leading in rebounding differential (+5.8). While Rose is the clear leader of the team, scoring 25.0ppg, they also have secondary scorers in Deng and Boozer scoring 17.5ppg, and Noah also averaging double digits at 11.7ppg. They are also a deep team, with eight players averaging over 20 minutes a game, and another three playing at least 12 a game. It should be interesting to see how this plays out in the postseason, as teams generally stick to a seven or eight man rotation and put more minutes on their starters.
One of the big criticisms of the Bulls right now is their lack of playoff success. In the past two years Rose's Bulls have gone out in the first round, although they took the Celtics to seven games in a memorable series in 2009 and falling to the top seeded Cavs in five games last year, so the odds were stacked against them in both years. They should be able to overcome that issue this year with an easy matchup against the worst team in the playoffs, getting them some confidence heading into the second round, as well as some more time for Joakim Noah to fully recover from his sprained ankle. The Pacers may be able to sneak in a win in Indiana, but don't be surprised to see a flat out sweep either.
Bulls in 4
(2) Miami vs. (7) Philadelphia
The Heat went through a rough stretch in late February/early March where they lost six of seven games to the Bulls (twice), the Knicks, the Magic, the Spurs, and the Blazers. Since then, they've gone 15-3 including a big win over Boston to take over the #2 seed in the playoffs. Watching them the last few weeks, it looks like they might be figuring it out. However, their success could also be a little over-inflated considering their last ten games, only two (Boston and Atlanta) were against actual playoff teams. But watching them, it seems as though Wade and James might be getting it a little bit better. At the very least they should have it together enough to dispatch the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Sixers are a bit of a feel good story, overachieving their way to a .500 record with new coach Doug Collins and a relatively unheralded cast of characters. Elton Brand (15.0ppg, 8.3rpg) and Andre Iguodala (14.1ppg, 5.8rpg, 6.3apg) are the two main talents on this team, and they're surrounded by role players like Thaddeus Young and Jrue Holiday. However, unfortunately for the Sixers, the Heat's main weakness (size in the frontcourt) is not something the Sixers are able to take advantage of, with the plodding Spencer Hawes starting at center (Sharing time with Marreese Speights and Tony Battie), and an effective but not overly big Elton Brand in the frontcourt.
Miami's defense will also wreak havoc on the Sixers, as the Heat come into the series fifth in defensive efficiency while Philadelphia is only seventeenth in offensive efficiency. Miami is sixth in the league in points allowed per game (94.6) and second in field goal % allowed (43.0%). With Lebron James on Iguodala the Sixers will be very dependent on Elton Brand to put up big numbers, as he's their main offensive threat that will have a favorable defensive matchup against Chris Bosh. The Heat won the season series 3-0 and each game was won by at least 9 points. Look for Miami to have similar success in the playoffs and Philly would be fortunate to even win a game.
Heat in 4
(3) Boston vs. (6) New York
Well, this is certainly one of the more intriguing first round matchups. There are quite a few different storylines to look at in this series. There is the sharp contrast in styles, with New York's high-flying offense (while little-to-no defense being played) compared to Boston's commitment to being a defense-first team, while struggling at times on the offensive end. There's the question mark surrounding Boston's struggles lately, specifically Rajon Rondo. There's Amare & Carmelo on a team that is on paper inferior to the Celtics, but at the same time are true bonafide superstars capable of winning games for the Knicks. The expected result is that Boston will end up defeating the Knicks, but there are enough question marks to at least make it interesting.
Now, there's not much too the Knicks. They score a conference best 106.5ppg. They also give up a conference worst 105.7ppg. Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Chauncey Billups, Shawne Williams, these guys are not really leading candidates for the All-Defense Team. Their best defender might be Ronny Turiaf, and he plays 18 minutes a game. That being said, they have Amare averaging 25.3ppg and 8.2rpg while shooting 50.2% from the field. Carmelo Anthony is averaging 26.3ppg with 6.7rpg and shooting 46.1% from the field and an impressive 42.4% from three. Anthony is also arguably the most dangerous shooter in end of game situations, so if the Knicks can keep it close with the Celtics he could be a huge asset for them in a game.
Then there's the Celtics. Some analysts are trying to cling to the idea that the Celtics struggled down the stretch in 2010, the turned it on in the playoffs and never looked back. But that was a different team. They struggled to find cohesiveness down the stretch and they had the characteristics of a veteran team that struggles to play at its peak in the regular season. This year? The team looked fine, they looked cohesive. They can't blame injuries, as Paul Pierce and Ray Allen both played 80 games, Kevin Garnett played 71, Rondo played 68. The problem? Kendrick Perkins. Yes, he only played in 12 games for them this season after tearing his ACL in the NBA Finals last season. But, as has been discussed in the media ad nauseum, he was an integral part to the team's chemistry. Perkins, Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett, that was their starting five, that was their strength. That was the lineup that Doc Rivers proclaimed never lost a playoff series. Then he was traded to the Thunder. And what changed in the Celtics was anything specific on the court. Again, he only played in 12 games. It was deeper than that. It affected the other Celtics players personally. And none more than Rondo. Perkins was Rondo's one good friend on the team. It can't be sheer coincidence that the noticeable decline in his numbers coincides with Perkins' trade. His April stats are terrible, shooting 40.3% from the field, 9.5apg, 1.8spg, and he hasn't made a three pointer since February (0-7 in March, 0-5 in April). Compare this to his pre-All-Star break numbers, he was shooting 50.2% from the field, averaging 12.2apg, 2.4spg, and was at least shooting 30.0% from behind the arc.
It's clear from watching him that his game is a complete mess, his head is totally out of it, and his issues have plagued the rest of the team. Rondo doesn't get enough credit for helping the Celtics win the title in 2008, and he has been the team's best player the last two years. He is the point guard, he sets the tempo and flow for that team. Whatever he was doing earlier this season, it's completely gone right now, and it shows when watching the Celtics' offense. Their defense is still very effective, and because of that they should be able to stop the Knicks enough to win the series. However, it's not out of the realm of possibility for the Knicks to cause trouble for the Celtics, especially if Rondo continues to struggle.
Boston in 6
(4) Orlando vs. (5) Atlanta
There is this fantasy world where some of us would like to live in, where the Atlanta Hawks can utilize the immense talents of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, and Jamal Crawford, and put together a scary team that can compete in the Eastern Conference. However, in the real world, instead there is the dysfunctional Hawks that have all the talent in the world, and not a single clue on how to actually take that talent and put it into a team. They don't try hard, they don't listen to their coach, they don't play with an identity. It's possibly one of the most frustrating things to watch in the NBA, because everyone is so blatantly aware of their underachieving, and yet no one on the Hawks seems to care or want to do anything about it. Josh Smith puts up 16.5ppg and 8.5rpg, but settles too much for long jump shots instead of using his power to take the ball to the rim. Joe Johnson averages 18.2ppg with 4.0rpg and 4.7apg, but seems to be somewhat lethargic now that the Hawks are paying him $120 million. Al Horford scores 15.3ppg to go along with 9.3rpg and is one of the most dynamic big men in the league, but should really be playing power forward and doesn't always get to play his true position. Jamal Crawford is a great burst of energy off the bench but can be inconsistent and takes ridiculous shots at times and needs to be reined in. Kirk Hinrich is a solid defender but is not a great scorer. And so on. The team is an unfortunate mess, and instead of being one of the top teams in the conference, they stumbled to a 44-38 record. There is Jason Collins to think about, who had a lot of success guarding Dwight Howard this year and helped the Hawks take the season series 3-1, but they need more than that if they're going to win a best-of-seven series.
Now, the Magic are not without their dysfunction. They had an aging Vince Carter starting for them, and an overpaid Marcin Gortat rotting away on their bench, along with a struggling Rashard Lewis really hurting the team offensively. They traded these pieces away, and added a solid scorer in Jason Richardson, a backup point guard in Gilbert Arenas, and the return of Hedo Turkoglu after walking when the Magic wouldn't give him the contract he wanted. But after bombing in Toronto and Phoenix, he's back with Orlando. Dwight Howard is still the center of the team, putting up ridiculous numbers, 22.9ppg, 14.1rpg, 2.38bpg. Jason Richardson gives them a nice second scoring option, averaging 13.9ppg and shooting 38.4% from three. Hedo Turkoglu has filled in the void Rashard Lewis left, averaging 11.4ppg and shooting 40.4% from three. Jameer Nelson averages 13.1ppg and shoots 40.1% from three. Off the bench Ryan Anderson shoots 39.3% from three. JJ Redick shoots 39.7% from three. See a trend developing here? Orlando lives, and dies, by the three point shot. They can absolutely murder teams with a barrage of three point shooting. But on the flip side, if the shot's not there, they are a very vulnerable team.
Again, in theory it would be nice to see Atlanta show up with a chip on their shoulder, some kind of attitude or edge, or really any kind of anything that would make you believe they have a shot in this series. But instead they'll probably treat us all with their usual messy inconsistent play while Orlando moves on to the next round.
Orlando in 5
No big surprises in Round 1, all the favorites should win with relative ease. Round 2 would give us Chicago/Orlando and the much anticipated Boston/Miami matchup. With Orlando's perimeter shooting prowess, they have the ability to beat anyone, but Chicago's ability to throw big men onto Dwight Howard without having to focus too much attention on double teaming him should be able to limit their offensive ability enough to win that series, probably in six games. Boston might be able to struggle their way past the Knicks, but Miami will present too great of a challenge, especially with home court advantage. Miami steals one in Boston and takes all their momentum to close out the Celtics in five. Miami/Chicago is an appropriate conference final matchup, as those two teams have clearly been the top two teams in the East. Chicago has history going against it as teams that didn't win a playoff series the year before generally do not make it to the NBA Finals. However, the Bulls have the best defense in the NBA, they have the league's MVP, they have a deeper team than the Heat, and they have more focus and determination to win, and do it as a team, than anyone else in the conference. Either team could win this series, but ultimately the Bulls will win in seven.
So, to recap:
Bulls over Pacers in 4
Heat over 76ers in 4
Celtics over Knicks in 6
Orlando over Altanta in 5
Bulls over Magic in 6
Heat over Celtics in 5
Bulls over Heat in 7
And, for the NBA Finals, I think the Bulls' determination only takes them so far. The Boozer vs. Bynum/Odom matchup will be the downfall of the Bulls, and their lack of experience will definitely play more of a factor against a veteran, polished team like the Lakers. Lakers win another three peat in six games.