2012 NBA Playoffs First Round Preview: Eastern Conference
(1) Chicago vs. (8) Philadelphia
What to expect from the Bulls: When healthy, the Bulls put together a lethal combination of interior defense with Joakim Noah and Omer Asik to supplement the squad’s shooters in Luol Deng, Rip Hamilton and the red-hot Kyle Korver. A former MVP by the name of Derrick Rose is also there to run the show, using his elite athleticism to slash to the basket for easy layups or draw the defensive focus to him to find Carlos Boozer or another forward for open mid-range jump shots. While Rose is the unquestioned star of the squad, the Bulls are 18-9 without him this season and should continue to rely on defense and unflashy but effective offensive play sets.
What to expect from the 76ers: There’s little doubt the 76ers are glad to be facing the Bulls instead of the Heat, but it will take more than a little swagger to shock the basketball world. The 76ers’ roster is like a Swiss army knife, and Coach Doug Collins is sure to use different lineups to find a way to slice through the Bulls’ sturdy defense. Andre Iguodala will need to make plays as well as pick up the scoring load, while Elton Brand must outmuscle Carlos Boozer and have his way in the paint. The 76ers won’t be lighting up the scoreboard and need to make sure Hamilton and Deng shoot the 76ers into oblivion.
Bulls’ X Factor: Derrick Rose’s health. This season has not been a smooth ride for Rose, as the young superstar should be about halfway to a medical degree after all the time he has spent diagnosing and treating his injuries this year. The Bulls may be 18-9 without him this year, but the playoffs are a different breed of basketball. Stars need to shine when it matters most, and if Rose is limping through the series, then his counterpart in the young, dynamic Jrue Holiday could help the 76ers capitalize.
76ers’ X Factor: Evan Turner. Almost a watered-down version of Iguodala, Turner can be the dynamic bench player with the size and speed to run wild over the Bulls’ second unit. The 76ers biggest strength is their depth. If Turner can have a breakout game or two worthy of his status as the second overall pick in 2010’s draft, then he can be the difference-maker for his team against a banged-up Bulls squad.
Prediction: The Bulls are hurting. The 76ers have won four of their last five and look to have everyone available. Unfortunately for Collins’ squad, talent wins out and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau will ensure that even a marred Rose will result in a competitive, but resounding Bulls series win. Chicago, 5 games.
What to expect from the Heat: With tickets for Game 1 going for an average of $300, the main spotlight of all the first round playoff matchups will be focused on South Beach. Luckily, the Heat has earned the attention they constantly garner. LeBron James will play like the MVP-caliber player he is, using his inhumane combination of strength and athleticism in his driving ability to put points on the board as well as likely running the point to facilitate for Chris Bosh down low. Dwyane Wade will not be at full ability, but he will still attract a defense’s attention and create plays for the Heat’s supporting cast. LeBron has the ability to focus and dominate from the defensive end, and how well the two-time MVP can force the Knicks’ scoring threats into bad shots and turnovers will be crucial in how the series plays out.
What to expect from the Knicks: At least one, maybe two outrageous new fist-bumps or handshakes between Spike Lee and his neighbors courtside. Oh, basketball? The show that is Carmelo Anthony will continue, with Anthony’s deadly accuracy and ability to create his own shots being put to the test against LeBron. Tyson Chandler is iffy for the opening game, but will give the Knicks an intimidating defensive presence in the block as well as provide a necessary rebounding prowess when he’s on the court. Amar’e Stoudemire will return after missing 19 games this year, but his play has been remarkably worse than last season and it remains to see if he can handle significant minutes, let alone outplay Bosh. Mike Woodson is looking to have his interim tagged removed, and will not be afraid to sudden lineup changes and minutes adjustments midway through the series.
Heat’s X Factor: Udonis Haslem. No surprises here. Finally healthy, Haslem has proved deserving of the mid-level exception given to him in the summer of 2010. He gobbles up rebounds, is always causing havoc in the post, and is more than happy to make the extra-effort plays that keep momentum in the right direction. Easily the most consistent member of the Heat outside of the Big 3, Haslem has playoff experience and will be undaunted by the media circus surrounding the series.
Knicks’ X Factor: J.R. Smith and Steve Novak. While all eyes will be on the return of Amar’e Stoudemire, the Knicks will not win without these two’s three-point shooting. While they only average a little over 20 points combined, the pair have been instrumental in the Knicks’ late surge into the seventh seed. The Heat have the advantage in star power, but Novak and Smith each have the ability to go off for 20 or more points on any given night, and give the Knicks a valuable weapon from beyond the arc that the Heat cannot match.
Prediction: Wade will struggle out the gate, while the Knicks, who are used to playing with any given lineup at this point, will take advantage by mixing their offensive specialists in Novak and Smith with their defensive-minded players in Chandler and Iman Shumpert. The Knicks will steal one in Miami and talk of blowing up the failed experiment in South Florida will ensue, but LeBron will step up his play; Bosh will outduel a struggling Amar’e; and the Heat will narrowly avoid a nightmare first round upset. Miami, 7 games.
What to expect from the Pacers: The Pacers have no superstar, but they have incredible length and depth to make up for it. Roy Hibbert is a behemoth of a center who has improved his ability to battle down low this season, while David West has superb strength and will not take a play off in the paint. Danny Granger has emerged as the closer that every team needs come playoff time, averaging 7.8 PPG in the fourth quarter and overtime in April, and has at long last found his shooting touch in April (47%) after shooting below .400 coming into the final month. The Pacers have an exciting young scorer in Paul George, whose size (6-foot-10) at the shooting guard spot will create matchup nightmares against Orlando.
What to expect from the Magic: Long-distance shooting. Lots of it. The Magic were a perimeter-oriented squad with Dwight Howard manning the paint, and now there will be an even greater focus away from the basket. Ryan Anderson has been a valuable contributor with around 16 points-per-game and 8 rebounds-per-game this season, but his drastically increased minutes point to the better numbers more than a drastic improvement in his play. Sharpshooter J.J. Redick scored a career-high 31 points on Wednesday, but the fact that the game result itself was seven-point home victory over the historically terrible Bobcats does not portend well. The Magic will put up a fight when their shooters are hot, but will need Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson to turn back the clock five years in order to have a real shot at the upset.
Pacers’ X Factor: The bench. The Pacers’ bench has been prolific for the options it provides Coach Frank Vogel to spell his starters. Darren Collison has played a starting role before, and is more than capable to run the second unit as one of the top backup point guards in the NBA. Tyler Hansbrough adds scrappiness in the paint, mid-season acquisition Leandro Barbosa is a mid-range slasher who can magically put the ball in the basket, and Louis Amundson adds grit as a capable backup big man after Jeff Foster’s retirement. Playoff rotations tend to be smaller than in the regular season, but Vogel should relish the lucky task of having to juggle all of his different pieces.
Magic’s X Factor: Stan Van Gundy. After a season-long feud between Van Gundy and his now-injured superstar, the beleaguered coach now has possibly his last hurrah ahead. In order to improve his shot at returning for another year, Van Gundy needs to light a fire under the mercurial Glen Davis, design plays for Jameer Nelson that result in easy looks for Anderson and Redick, and utilize Richardson and Turkoglu’s ball movement and creativity. The Magic have inferior talent and have been in a downward spiral since losing Howard, so it is up to Van Gundy to get in the heads of and motivate his players in order to avoid embarrassment.
Prediction: Even if Anderson and Redick shoot the lights out, the Magic still have no answers for the Pacers big men. Granger should continue to embrace his role as the veteran team leader, leading the Pacers’ balanced offensive squad easily into the next round. Indiana, 4 games.
What to expect from the Celtics: The Celtics have gone from looking on track to miss the playoffs in February to a dark-horse finals contender. The key now is health. Kevin Garnett, despite not exactly thrilled with his move to center, has once again has made fools out of those who believed that his days of domination were gone, averaging 16.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game after the move compared to 14.3 and 7.5 in the season’s first 24 games. Rajon Rondo still needs to be the floor leader for the squad, spacing the floor setting up Paul Pierce and the new all-time three-point leader Ray Allen with open shots.
What to expect from the Hawks: Athleticism. Josh Smith has stepped up his play all season in the absence of center Al Horford. “J-Smoove” doesn’t need to put up 30-point, 15-rebound performances. But he needs to not disappear for long stretches, as he’s been prone to do, and provide the Hawks with strength down low. Jeff Teague is unafraid, and will continue to attack the basket while looking to dish out, giving a revitalized (49% shooting and 20.3 PPG in March and April) Joe Johnson opportunities to be a volume scorer and (almost) live up to his gaudy contract.
Celtics’ X Factor: Avery Bradley. The injury to Ray Allen hasn’t been all-bad for the Celtics. Bradley has not only shown to be a respectable shooting threat, but he has emerged as a perimeter defender capable of being assigned to, and limiting opposing teams’ star scorers. He can even steal the ball while tying his shoes (below). Fun plays aside, Bradley will allow the banged-up Allen to give the second unit a scoring boost if healthy, and gives coach Doc Rivers a capable scorer (15.1 PPG in April in extended minutes) with a defensive focus.
Hawks’ X Factor: Zaza Pachulia. While there is no doubt Garnett has the matchup advantage, it’s up to Pachulia to fill in for All-Star Al Horford, who has been out all but 11 games this season, and prevent Garnett from taking over completely inside. Pachulia is banged up himself with a ligament strain on his left foot, but should return by the series’ second game. The Georgian (nation, not state) big man has tussled with Garnett before, and the more Garnett’s concentration on basketball decreases, the better chances Atlanta has to advance.
Prediction: The Hawks gained home court advantage on the last game of the season. Unfortunately for them, the Celtics “gained” Bradley and his versatility during the season’s final month. The Hawks have played admirably, especially after losing arguably their best player, but a rejuvenated Pierce (hopefully) and Garnett will lead the Celtics to a hard-earned spot in the second round. Boston, 6 games.