#1 Bulls vs #8 Pacers:
I figured I'd start off with an easy one. Bulls win it. Rose will be too much for Collison, who hasn't played with that same reckless abandon he had last year with the NOH. It's almost a Bulls advantage at every position though. Hansborough/McRoberts is a decent rotation, but Boozer/Gibson is on another level, clear advantage to the Bulls. Dunleavy, George and Rush are actually one of the better rotations at the 2, except they are missing that reliable starter; the depth is good, the quality isn't, I'll give the nod to Brewer, Bogans and Korver here.
That said, Granger vs Deng is going to be very interesting to watch. If Granger can't hold Deng down defensively and punish him on the other end then the Pacers might have to start looking elsewhere for a franchise player. Now, Deng has had a great year, but Granger is the All-Star, is a very talented offensive player and needs to dominate his own matchup at both to prove he can be a leader in the playoffs, even if the Pacers get swept. The Pacers aren't deep like the Nuggets, so they really need Danny to step up and rediscover that intensity he had the year he made the All-Star team.
Another thing to watch if you're a Pacers fan is the play of Roy Hibbert; if he can find the form he had early in the season, where people were talking about him as a potential MIP winner, he could be the difference. Noah is known to frustrate finesse big men like Hibbert, but if Hibbert can somehow throw off the shackles they might be able to pull out a win.
Overall, Bulls win the series 4-1; the loss will do them good so they don't fall victim to the same fate as Lebron's 08-09 Cavaliers who swept their first two rounds only to be upset by the Magic.
#2 Miami vs #7 Philadelphia:
On paper, this looks like a runaway victory for the Heat, but then, that's been the case for almost every game the Heat have played this season. And like in the regular season it doesn't always work out the way it does on paper. I actually think of all the teams capable of an upset, the Sixers are the most likely for a number of reasons;
- Iguodala is an All-World defender, and will frustrate Lebron immensely over the course of a seven game series; he's just as strong, athletic and quick as Lebron, and expends a lot less energy than LBJ on offence, unless he's running the break. Throw in Thaddeus Young, another oversized, hyper-athletic SF/PF to slow down Lebron and all of a sudden it's a series.
- Elton Brand's resurrection is going to be a big factor in the Sixers' chances in the playoffs. If he can abuse Bosh and get him in foul trouble, the already shallow depth of the Heat will suffer even more.
- Pace. As I just mentioned, the shallow Heat bench is going to be a problem in the playoffs; yes, Lebron and Wade love the break, but the Sixers are athletic from top-to-bottom, are always running at you, and for a team which requires Herculean efforts from it's stars night-in-night-out to win games, Philadelphia's style can wear you down.
- Depth. The Miami bench is well, a joke. The Sixers on the other hand, have one of the best benches in the League. Take a look; Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams are matched up with James Jones, Mario Chalmers and the ghost of Mike Miller.
- Coaching. Collins has been there, done that a million times already, and this heady vet has done wonders to forge these Sixers into a real team, not dominated by one star, but just an all-around talented team, that actually plays like one in a game dominated by go-to guys. Spoelstra on the other hand has had a roller-coaster season, going from safe, to on the brink of being canned. When the going get's tough (and sooner or later it will) I'm not sure Spoelstra has enough control over his stars to get them across the line.
#3 Celtics vs #6 Knicks:
Nobody is more upset than me that we didn't get to see Carmelo's Knicks whale on Wade's Heat for a series this year, but it will be more interesting when both teams are more settled in and the Knicks find that third piece in either free agency or an off-season move. For now, I'll have to settle for my Celtics playing them.
Celtics will win it handily, maybe dropping a game due to Melo heroics, but never the series. Yes, Melo has been playing out of his mind, but the Celtics are notorious for shutting down great individual scorers; weren't you watching what they did to Wade and Lebron last year? I know, I know, I'm forgetting some guy who wears number one, but given how the Knicks have flourished while he's been playing a lesser role, I don't think it likely Melo and Amare somehow develop chemistry to withstand the playoffs.
If the Celtics are rested after sitting their veterans the past two games (and still beating the Knicks incidentally), then it's a no contest. A veteran, tough team up against a hastily cobbled together pair of superstars... what's that saying about a champion team and a team of champions...
It comes down to Shaq whether they sweep the series or not. If Shaq is healthy and can put Amare in foul trouble early then the Celtics can cruise through this series. If not, they might drop a game or two. I'll call it 4-2 at most, but more likely a 4-0 sweep. Didn't anyone tell New York you can't buy chemistry?
#4 Orlando vs #5 Atlanta:
Oddly enough, the Hawks have the most reason to believe they can pull an upset given their 3-1 record against the Magic in the regular season. But in all honesty, who really cares? Both of these teams have seen better days, and still failed to win a championship. Plus, they'll be up against the Bulls in the next round. Atlanta is limping into the playoffs, and Orlando just seems harmless for some reason. Sure, they have Dwight, but unless he starts shooting FTs like Yao, I don't think anybody is afraid of him in a close game, which there are going to be in the playoffs.
That said, for all the futility of these teams' post-season campaigns, it's actually quite hard to pick a winner. If Nelson can get hot, then the Magic reverse the regular season trend and bully the Hawks into submission, but if Orlando can't find that shooting touch, they'll be in a whole world of trouble. That said, Orlando win it 4-1, and Dwight averages at least 20-10.
So there you have it, my picks for the Eastern Conference first round. If you're a Magic/Hawks fan, sorry if that seemed harsh, but it's after midnight over here and I need some sleep.
Thanks for reading.