#1 Chicago Bulls (50-16) vs. #8 Philadelphia 76ers (35-31)
Regular Season Series: Bulls 2-1
Series Outlook: Two of the premier defensive teams in the league will square off against each other in one of the more intriguing opening round matchups. Both the Bulls and 76ers have an eerily similar philosophy on the defensive end of the court. That philosophy has translated into results for head coaches Tom Thibodeau and Doug Collins. The Bulls finished the regular season by limiting their opponents to the fewest points per game in the league (88.4). They also held their opponents to just 42.3% from the field (2nd), as well as 32.7% from beyond the arc (4th).
Much of Chicago’s success stems from their ability to limit second chance attempts/points, as well as generate those same second chance attempts/points via their superior offensive rebounding. The Bulls led the league in total offensive rebounds (903), as well as total rebounds per game (46.5). The Bulls have five players who have compiled at least 300 rebounds or more this season (Noah-617, Boozer-561, Deng-350, Asik-341, Gibson-320), making them the most formidable rebounding team in the league.
Similar to the Bulls, the 76ers success is fueled by their intensity on defense. Philadelphia finished second in the league (behind the Bulls) in points allowed per game (89.1). The Sixers also finished the season ranked in the top three in opponents field goal percentage (42.6%-3rd) and three point field goals allowed (343-3nd). Philadelphia’s 42.9 rebounds per game were good for eighth best in the league. Andre Iguodola (381 rebounds) and Evan Turner (372 rebounds) are two of the better guard/forward rebounders in the league.
After allowing the 76ers to shoot 47.6% from the field during their first matchup of the season (Sixers victory 98-82 victory back on February 1st), Philadelphia wasn’t nearly as successful during their final two matchups with Chicago. The Bulls limited the 76ers to just 40.5% from the field during their wins in the month of March.
Key Matchup: Andre Iguodala vs. Luol Deng- The Sixers need a productive series out of Iguodala. He is such a versatile player that can do just about everything on the court. He needs to do a better job of attacking the rim off of the dribble. His four free throw attempts total (3 games played) against the Bulls this season is inexcusable. Other than that, he has had relative success versus the Bulls. His 13.3 points per game, as well as his 44.7% shooting from the field are all near his season averages (12.4 & 45.4% on season).
Luol Deng has struggled in his games versus the 76ers this season. In his two starts, Deng is shooting just 27.3% from the field (a full 14% below his season average). Deng is far too productive of a player to be limited to this type of offensive production. Expect him to step up his game versus the Sixers during this series.
The Sixers are Expecting More Plays Like This From Iguodola
Prediction: As great as these two teams are defensively, this series comes down to the health of Derrick Rose; and consequently how he can perform on the offensive end of the court. Similar to just about every other team in the league, the Sixers don’t have anyone who can contain Rose from getting in the lane with his dribble penetration.
As great as Jrue Holiday has played against the Bulls this season (and he has played great, averaging 21.0 points per game versus them), he has struggled to contain Rose in the games in which he has appeared. Rose is averaging 26.5 points per game, 7.0 assists, all while shooting 50% from the field (55.6% from beyond the arc). The Bulls star did struggle in his five appearances during the month of April (32.1% from the field & 20 total turnovers), however Chicago is banking on the production of a rested Rose in this series.
This series will be far more competitive than most people think. The simple fact that Sixers excel in the exact same type of tempo that the Bulls are accustomed to should keep this series competitive. Rose is the unquestioned key to this series. If he can perform at his usual production rate, the Bulls will have the upper hand. If not, this series gets a lot more interesting. Bulls in 6
#2 Miami Heat (46-20) vs. #7 New York Knicks (36-30)
Regular Season Series: Heat 3-0
Series Outlook: The expectations to deliver an NBA title in Miami will continue to be magnified throughout these playoffs. After looking like the class of the league during the first half of the season (27-7), the Heat struggled offensively in the second half. Miami averaged 10 points per game less during the second half of the season (103.7-1st half vs. 93.6-2nd half), in route to a 19-12 record.
Having said that, the Heat are still the most well rounded team heading into the playoffs. They are the only team in either conference that ranks in the top six in points per game (98.9-6th), field goal percentage (47.1%-4th), points allowed (92.3-4th), and opponents field goal percentage (43.2%-5th).
For as much criticism as he takes for his past postseason failures, Lebron James continues to be a “once in a generation” type talent. Few players in the history of basketball have been able to generate as much production as James does in all aspects of the game. This season was no different, as he posted a stat line that we have grown accustomed to over the years (27.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 6.2 APG, 1.9 SPG, 53.1 FG%). Unfortunately for James, those numbers continue to be meaningless to himself (as well as the general public) until he delivers on his “prophecy” of an NBA title.
The Mike Woodson experiment has been a success in New York, as the team has compiled a 18-6 record since Woodson took over for Mike D’Antoni. The success under the new head coach is due in part to the Knicks’ s becoming a greatly improved defensive team. After surrendering 105.8 points per game last season (28th), New York only gave up 94.8 (12th) points per game this season. Their attention to the defensive end of the floor has certainly been their biggest turnaround under Mike Woodson.
The Knicks still possess a potent offense under Woodson’s current system, evident by their thirteen 100+ point games during his stint. Their offense will need to be at its best during the series, something it wasn’t during their three regular season matchups. The Knicks averaged only 87.3 points per game versus the Heat during the regular season (7 points below their season average).
Key Matchup: Lebron James vs. Carmelo Anthony- This represents perhaps the premier positional matchup of the entire first round. Both players have had extreme success against each other this season. In three games versus the Knicks, James has averaged 26.9 points per game, 9.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and shot 50% from the field. In two games versus the Heat, Anthony has averaged 30.5 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, and shot 44% from the field. Although both players are unlikely to matchup with each other for long periods of time, they will most certainly cover each other during key moments of the game. This will be fun to watch.
Can the Heat contain Carmelo?
Prediction: I fully expect the Heat to enter these playoffs with a sense of urgency and purpose. They certainly have their share of deficiencies (poor rebounding, stagnant offense at times, etc.), but they also have a bitter taste left in their mouth following last season’s disappointing end. The Knicks have played great basketball under Mike Woodson, however they just struggle to dictate tempo versus the Heat. If Carmelo struggles, this could be a truly lopsided series in favor of the Heat. Heat in 4
#3 Indiana Pacers (42-24) vs. #6 Orlando Magic (37-29)
Regular Season Series: Magic 3-1
Series Outlook: So just how important was Dwight Howard to the success of the Orlando Magic? Consider this, in his four games versus the Indiana Pacers, Howard shot a ridiculous 68% from the field (37/54), all while averaging 23.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. In their four matchups, the Magic held the Pacers to just 91 points per game (6 points below their season average).
With Howard now sidelined for the entirety of the playoffs (back surgery), head coach Stan Van Gundy is going to need to get creative (we mean real creative). Aside from his obvious dominance generating easy buckets, rebounding, and controlling the paint area, Orlando will simply miss the leadership of their All-World big man versus Indiana.
Look for the Magic to go with a starting five of Ryan Anderson, Glen Davis, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, and Jason Richardson to open the playoffs. (not yet known if Hedo Turkoglu will be ready for the start of the series). Since Howard went down to injury earlier in the month, this starting group has struggled to find any type of consistency; especially on the defensive end of the court. They are 4-6 since April 9th, and are allowing 98.8 points per game to their opponents (five points above their season average-93.5).
The Pacers played their best basketball during the month of April, winning 12 out of 15 games. Since taking over the team last season around the midway point, head coach Frank Vogel continued to improve his team defensively. After finishing 17th in the league in points allowed last season (100.9), the Pacers finished 9th this season allowing just under 95 points per ball game (94.4).
Danny Granger really elevated his game during the month of April. In his 13 games played, Granger increased his points per game (+2.9), field goal percentage (+4.4%), three point percentage (+9.2%), free throw percentage (+8.7%), and his minutes per game (+0.8) over his season averages. He appears to be dialed in as the Pacers get set to make their second consecutive trip to the playoffs.
Aside from the Spurs, the Pacers might have the most depth in the playoffs. Frank Vogel can call on a plethora of scorers within his lineup at any time. Indiana has five players who average double digit scoring (Granger-18.7, West-12.8, Hibbert-12.8, George-12.1, Collison-10.4), and three more who aren’t far behind (Hill-9.6, Hansbrough-9.3, Barbosa-8.9).
Key Matchup: Roy Hibbert vs. The Magic Double Team- The likelihood of Ryan Anderson or Glen Davis playing Roy Hibbert straight up doesn’t seem probable. At 7-2 (280 lbs), Hibbert is one of the few legitimate centers in the playoffs. Although Hibbert was able to be fairly productive against Dwight Howard during the regular season (10.8 PPG 6.5 RPG), he did pick up 16 fouls and only averaged 26.9 minutes per game.
With Howard out, expect those fouls to be reversed in favor of the Pacers. Van Gundy and the Magic will likely be forced to bring early and often double teams on Hibbert. If Hibbert can make good decisions out of those double teams, Orlando could be vulnerable to giving up wide open looks on the perimeter. This could be a reoccurring theme all series long.
Highlights of the Pacers lone victory versus the Magic this season
Prediction: Stan Van Gundy’s locker room speech before Game 1 is probably going to include the phrase “play the hand you were dealt” somewhere in it. Unfortunately for the Magic, their current hand appears to be more of a bluff without the services of Dwight Howard.
The Pacers brand of basketball is just geared for the playoffs. Aside from playing stellar team oriented defense, Indiana does two things that are a must during playoff time. Number one, they usually always out-rebound their opponents. The Pacers outrebounded their opponents 4 out of the 5 months during the season. Number two, the Pacers get to the free throw line more than their opponents and shoot at a high percentage. The Pacers shot an average of 26.1 free throw attempts on the season (3rd), converting on 20.4 of them per game (2nd). The Oklahoma City Thunder are the only other playoff team that shoots a higher percentage than the Pacers 78.2%. Look for the Magic to struggle in this series. Pacers in 5
#4 Boston Celtics (39-27) vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks (40-26)
Regular Season Series: Celtics 2-1
Series Outlook: This has grown into one of the better rivalries in the league since these two teams squared off in the playoffs back in 2008. Since their 2008 playoff matchup (won by Boston 4-2), these teams have faced each other a total of 14 times during the regular season (Celtics-8 wins, Hawks-6 wins).
For the most part, the key players on each team have not changed since their 2008 matchup. The Hawks have really developed into more of a defensive oriented team under second year head coach Larry Drew. Atlanta finished the regular season allowing 93.2 points per game (5th best in the league) and the team enters this matchup playing some of their best basketball of the season. During the month of April, the Hawks were 9-3 and outscored their opponents by over 11 points per game. The team is shooting an impressive 49.4% as well during the month. But perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Atlanta is averaging over 25 assists per game (versus only 13 turnovers) during April. This tells us that Hawks are moving the ball and not relying on their isolated offensive sets (usually for Joe Johnson).
During the regular season Joe Johnson continued to excel against the Celtics averaging 23.7 points per game, 4.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and shot 48% from the field (50% 3PTFG). Following the early season injury to Al Horford (torn pectoral muscle), forward Josh Smith played at an All Star type level for the majority of the season. Smith posted career highs in points per game (18.7) and rebounds per game (9.6) in 2011-12. The forward really turned up his game during the month of March, averaging 23.9 points per game, 10.1 rebounds, and 4.5 assists (45.4% from the field) in 19 games. The elevated play of Smith (as well as his consistency) was perhaps the Hawks biggest asset during the season.
The Celtics are no strangers to the playoffs since adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to their roster back in 2007-08. As a matter of fact, Boston will be playing in their 13th playoff series since adding Garnett and Allen to the team.
A winning playoff atmosphere has followed the Celtics during this era, as they have won 9 out of their 12 playoff series during this timeframe (only series defeats were to Orlando-2009, Los Angeles-2010, Miami-2011). However, with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce all in the latter stages of their illustrious careers, this season could be Boston last realistic chance to bring home a title. An experienced coach such as Doc Rivers no doubt relayed this message to his veteran team, especially after their mediocre start to the season.
After starting the season just 17-17, the Celtics played with a sense of urgency to close out the season. During the months of March and April, the Celtics compiled a 21-10 mark. As usual, the Celtics were one of the premier defensive teams in the league, finishing in the top three in opponents field goal percentage (42%-1st), three points field goals allowed (342-1st), opponents three point field goal percentage (30.9%-1st), points allowed (5,822-3rd), and points per game allowed (89.6-3rd).
Key Matchup: Jeff Teague vs. Rajon Rondo- When these two teams played back in 2008, one of the biggest mismatches was the speed of Rajon Rondo versus an aging Mike Bibby (the Hawks starting point guard at the time). Rondo was able to get past Bibby with relative ease and convert easy buckets for himself (45% from the field for the series), as well as force the Hawks to bring help defense once he broke containment (usually led to open shots on the perimeter and in the paint area).
The emergence of Jeff Teague this season (and really last season in the playoffs versus the Bulls) has given the Hawks a legitimate threat at the point guard position. He is an extremely quick player on both ends of the court, and has the ability to match up with Rondo. Although Rondo distributed the ball at a high level versus Atlanta this season (averaged 16.5 assists per game), he struggled shooting from the floor (just 23%). If Teague can simply take away Rondo’s ability to get into the lane and create easy buckets for himself, he will give the Hawks an advantage they simply didn’t have back in 2008.
Rajon Rondo’s huge game versus the Hawks back on 4/11
Prediction: This should be the best series of the opening round in either conference. These teams are familiar with each other and seem to have a general dislike for one another. Buckle in for an old school playoff matchup similar to those of the eighties.
There are indications that the Hawks will be getting back the services of Al Horford for this matchup. I can’t imagine him playing more than 10-15 minutes per game in the series. Nevertheless, a 75% Al Horford is better than no Al Horford at all. Keep an eye on Josh Smith in this series. He represents the biggest positional mismatch for the Hawks versus the Celtics. I don’t believe Kevin Garnett, nor Brandon Bass will be able to contain him if he plays within himself (something he has been able to do for most of the season).
Also, in a series in which the teams are so evenly matched (regular season contests were decided by a total of 10 points), look for the play of the bench to be a huge factor. Although the bench scoring was relatively close during the regular season (56-Celtics vs. 51-Hawks), I would give the edge to Boston based off of the scoring consistency of Avery Bradley. This series has seven games written all over it. We like Atlanta to pull off the mild upset in this series, due in large part to the play of Teague and Smith. Hawks win in 7
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