Friday, April 29, 2011

Eastern Conference Previews/Predictions: Semifinals

While the Western contingent are still nutting out the details (you know, whether the Grizzlies will pull off the elusive upset of a number on seed, that little thing), the East is ready to go, and we've had a few surprises already.

I'm pleased to say I was bang on with the Celtics series and Bulls series, but I expected more of a fight from Philly, and of course, I was wrong entirely with Atlanta. In my defence, I've been calling for Horford to play more PF and Smith more SF for years now, who'd have thought they'd finally make the move and that it would work so well?

But, what's past is past, so on to the next round!

#1 Chicago Bulls vs #5 Atlanta Hawks:
Who'd have thought we'd see this matchup? Nobody gave it much thought because most of us agreed with Jameer Nelson that he'd see Rose in the second round (boy, does he know a thing or two about having egg on his face, he should ask Lebron for tips on how to deal). But, expected or not, the series is here, and should be arguably a better one than a Bulls-Magic series might have been. While Rose and the Bulls are a throwback to the old superstar model of the 90s, the Hawks are built around a number of solid (if not spectacular) players who know their roles and share the load. Denver was another team who had this mindset, but it didn't go so well against a team with legitimate star-power in the Thunder. However, the Hawks have been together a lot longer than that hastily cobbled together Frankestein of a team in the Mile High City, so should weather the storm a little better. Let's see why...
  • Key matchups: Rose vs Crawford is going to be huge. They are both killers in the clutch, excel in isolation and have been know to will their team to victory. However, while Rose showed some aggression on the defensive end against the Pacers, neither is well known for being lock-down defenders, so it will be a battle of offensive firepower, which I think the soon to be MVP has covered. That said, if it comes down to needing a 3 to win it, I wouldn't be surprised if Crawford one-ups Rose. Another worthy mention is Horford vs Boozer; Boozer has been underperforming in the post-season thus far, and with Horford finally in his natural 4, he might just have his way with Boozer's terrible defensive efforts and carry the Hawks to a few victories.
  • X Factor: Joe Johnson; Johnson seems to have shaken his playoff blues from last season, but Deng will have to guard Josh Smith, which leaves Johnson free to run amok against Korver and Bogans, against whom he has a size, strength and skill advantage. It'll be up to Ronnie Brewer to put the clamps on Johnson, and it could be that he will hold the fate of the Bulls in his hands, because the Hawks might have overpaid to get him, but Johnson is still an extremely high calibre player when he gets hot.
  • Most interesting sub-plot: Florida reunion; having spent those seasons together winning titles in Florida, Horford and Noah know each other pretty well, and while they will be playing different positions this series, Thibs is smart enough to switch the longer Noah onto Horford for much of the games, as Boozer will get eaten alive. The pitting of a defensive specialist against an offensive hustler who were also college teammates? Yeah, I'd call that good watching.
While the Hawks pulled an upset against the Magic, we've known all along that Orlando was a spent force and wouldn't make much noise in the post-season this year. That's why I'm saying Bulls in 7, because Atlanta is gaining momentum at home, and the Bulls were playing from behind against Indiana, I imagine the third-round starved Hawks will do a better job holding onto those leads. Expect more Herculean efforts from Rose to pull the Bulls through this series, but suddenly they don't seem so invincible.

#2 Miami Heat vs #3 Boston Celtics:
It would have been nice if this could have happened in the ECF, but the Celtics always did prefer to take out their biggest threat when they are fresher, as they did against the Cavaliers last year, and after having swept the Knicks, the Celtics are going to be fresh. The Heat on the other hand, had a more draining series than their 4-1 win suggests; for much of the time they were playing from behind, and had to really expend energy defensively to win those games. With Bosh, Wade and James all playing big minutes in the series (39.8, 38.0, and 42.2 respectively), the Sixers did their job as road-bump by giving the Celtics that one extra game's worth of rest. The Celtics' veteran mentality should prove the edge, as the Heat could easily crumble under the pressure of their own expectations when faced by a real challenger.
  • Key matchups:
    • Wade vs Allen: Allen is underrated defensively, and one of the best conditioned athletes in the NBA should be up to the task of slowing down Wade with his efforts on both ends, because everyone knows playing against Ray Allen doesn't just mean trying to overcome his veteran D, it means chasing him through all those screens and trying to stop him getting a tiny bit of air. Wade is notorious for roaming on D and gambling, so if Rondo can find Allen open, he could be the difference between victory and defeat for the Celtics.
    • Lebron vs Pierce: Pierce defends Lebron well. This we know. However, the reverse is also true. Many called Pierce a spent force after his disappointing performance against Lebron offensively last season, but he's looked good against Melo, and seems locked in defensively too. However, if Lebron can get hot with his jumper, there's little Pierce can do to stop him at this stage of his career.
    • Bosh vs Garnett: This is the key matchup. We know what Wade and Lebron bring to the table, but Bosh has had a very hot and cold season. Going up against the last Defensive Player of the Year not named Dwight Howard, he'd better find some consistency on those jumpers, because I don't see him being very effective in the paint. Garnett has been champing at the bit to go at the Heat all season, and I can see him taking it at Bosh every time he gets the chance, because he's healthier than he was last year, and knows the end is coming. When an already intense KG has nothing to lose by going all-out, you'd hate to be Chris Bosh.
  • The X Factor: Rajon Rondo. Plain and simple, if Rondo is doing his thang and can hit the jumpers he will invariably be given, the Celtics win handily. The Heat simply have no one who is even close to his level on either end. However, Rondo can get trigger happy in big games, and he needs to pick his moments to be aggressive for the Celtics to win.
  • Most interesting sub-plot: Shaquille O'Neal denies the "King" a ring. Shaq is pretty old even by the standards of the regular population, nearing 40 and breaking down every time he strains himself. However, he was able to rest the whole of the Knicks series, and is expected to be healthy for at least some of the Heat series. Now, why is Shaq so important? Well, even though he's old, the Heat are still weak inside, and Shaq will eat Joel Anthony alive, even if only in small portions. Plus, he's probably the only player in the NBA who can confidently step in front of Lebron going full-steam and put him on the floor with just his body. We saw Jermaine O'Neal try it, and that didn't go so well for him, but Shaq is a different kettle of fish. He's got his rings, and being set to retire, he's got no problem pissing off Lebron with hard fouls, because while some scoring would be nice, putting the fear of God into the minds of Miami's slashers is better. Shaq still has a little Diesel left in the tank, don't be surprised if he emerges as a key contributor in this series.
I've gone over a few reasons why the Celtics will win, and I haven't even mentioned their bench depth, superb coaching and Miami's woes in close games. Suffice to say, the Celtics have every reason to win this series, and I'm going out on a limb to say this is a shorter series than people expect, and win it in 5 games. Celtics get it 4-1.

When we know the result of the Grizz-Spurs series, I'll throw up a Western conference edition. Until then, keep enjoying the NBA, because with a lockout looming, it might be the last you get of it in a long, long while.

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