NBA Playoffs: Round 1 Matchup Predictions
Miami Heat vs. Milwaukee Bucks: Everyone knows who I'm picking here, right? No offense to the Bucks - they've had a nice season and have some quality players - but it's hard to make this seem like I'm on the fence in any way. LeBron James has played extraordinary basketball all season. On top of the experienced veterans (Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, etc.), the big three (James/Wade/Bosh) have now won a championship together.
The Bucks do have an explosive backcourt in Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings with sharpshooter JJ Redick coming off the bench. Larry Sanders can be a game-changing presence in the paint. Ersan Ilyasova has gone through stretches of sheer dominance (averaged 22.1 points and 11.8 rebounds during a nine game stretch in March/April). For those reasons, I'll give the Bucks one game.
Heat in 5.
New York Knicks vs. Boston Celtics: If scoring champion Carmelo Anthony keeps up what he's been doing so far this month (36.9 points per game), it's going to be tough for the Celtics to counter his scoring. Melo is also averaging 9.9 rebounds per game in April. In addition, the Knicks gave their bigs a lot of rest down the stretch of the regular season, which means Tyson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, and Marcus Camby will be healthy and ready for Game 1.
The Celtics have gotten some great scoring performances out of Jeff Green late in the season, but they haven't quite contributed to wins. The Celtics are 7-13 over their last 20 games. Regardless, this team has strong-willed veterans who have hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy, and they won't go down without a fight.
However, the lack of a true point guard is going to hurt the Celtics a lot against a Knicks defense that can stifle opponents when they put their minds to it. The Celtics lost to the Knicks by three with Rondo on the court, then lost the next two games against New York by 15 and 19 points without Rondo. The Celtics did beat the Knicks without Rondo once, in the infamous "Honey Nut Cheerios" game, but I don't see that happening four out of seven times.
Knicks in 6.
Indiana Pacers vs. Atlanta Hawks: Offensively, the Pacers don't rely on one single player to get the job done. They have a few guys who can score the ball, and a few guys to distribute it. Therefore, you can't lock down one Pacer with a defender (such as Josh Smith) and expect the entire offense to struggle. Defensively, the Pacers are tenacious. They rank first in opponent field goal percentage and second in opponent points per game. They have strong individual defenders and a mentality that defense can and will win them the game.
Offensively, the Hawks are similar to the Pacers in that they have a number of players who contribute. However, they are different in that they have much higher percentage shooters, led by Al Horford at 54.3%. Of course, Horford will be dealing with 7'2'' monster Roy Hibbert (2.6 blocks per game) down low. Leading scorer Josh Smith has a tendency to become a bit of a black hole when the going gets tough, and the Pacers are a good bet to give Smith some major frustration.
I think the Pacers will slow down these games to the tempo they like and, for the most part, be the more efficient team.
Pacers in 6.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Chicago Bulls: It only took one year in Brooklyn (plus a couple of roster moves) for the Nets to make their way to the playoffs, and they now find themselves with home court advantage in the first round. They play a nice breed of basketball, running the offense through Deron Williams who sets up scorers Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson for good looks at the basket. Williams doesn't shy away from his shot either, averaging 18.9 points per game (second on the team). He's also averaging 25.4 points on 50.7% shooting in his past nine games (excluding the season finale, in which he only played 21 minutes).
No Derrick Rose, no problem for the Bulls (to a certain extent). Chicago's ability to win despite injuries is one of the main reasons Tom Thibodeau is considered one of the top coaches in the game. They managed the 5th seed in the east without their MVP point guard, and went 7-5 down the stretch without Joakim Noah to avoid having to face the Pacers. This is one of the more hard nosed, blue collar teams in the NBA, and they have the ability to dominate down low with Noah, Carlos Boozer, and Taj Gibson.
Brook Lopez, while he is a good scorer, is a mess on the boards, averaging 6.9 rebounds despite his height of 7'0'' (Eddy Curry-esque). The Nets' Reggie Evans feasts on teams that fail to box him out, but the Bulls aren't the type of team to let a rebounder run free. However, Noah (foot) is not expected to play significant minutes at all in the first round, which hurts any advantage the Bulls may have had down low. With Williams and Johnson, the Nets boast a better backcourt, and that will be the difference. If Noah were healthy I'd probably lean the other way.
Nets in 7.