After a terrific first round highlighted by a triple overtime thriller between the Nets and Bulls, the NBA playoffs continue into the second round. Here are my picks for the second round matchups in the Eastern Conference:
No. 1 seed Miami Heat vs. No. 5 seed Chicago Bulls
The Bulls showed tremendous resolve in slipping by the fourth seeded Nets in the first round. Even without Loul Deng and Kirk Hinrich able to suit up and Joakim Noah still playing with an injured foot, Tom Thibodeau’s gutsy squad was able to get past the Nets on the road in game seven, winning a series against an undoubtedly more talented team. Now the Bulls face an even wider talent gap as they face off against the mighty Heat and the robust Lebron James. The Heat breezed by an incompetent Bucks team in the first round, making my bold prediction of a semi-competitive series appear laughable at best. In fact, the series was so uncompetitive that the Heat must come into the second round feeling like the playoffs haven’t even started. James only cracked the 40 minute mark once in the series and managed to drop 25 points a game while only taking 15 shots per contest (he shot 63% from the field). Part of how the Bulls were able to hang with the Nets was by harassing the Nets offense and keeping them from scoring for long stretches. Stopping the Heat from scoring is slighty more difficult than stopping an Acela Express. Especially when you are trying to stop the train with a condensed copy of Moby Dick (its not like the Bulls are working with a bunch of healthy all-world defensive players). Thibs is a miracle worker, but in this series he has met a riddle unsolvable: how to beat the Heat without a healthy, talented team. Not even the great little sparkplug that is Nate Robinson can save the Bulls in this series. Unless Derrick Rose stuns everyone by not only returning but also coming back at or near 100%, the Bulls are in for a long, ahem, short series. All I can say is that the Bulls might be able to steal one at home if the Heat have an off-game.
Pick: Heat in 5
No. 2 seed New York Knicks vs. No. 3 seed Indiana Pacers
What we have in the Knicks and Pacers is two excellent defensive teams. The Pacers subdued the Atlanta Hawks in six games to get to this point. Indiana rolled over ATL twice in Indianapolis, then stumbled on the road in games three and four before winning game five in blowout fashion and at home in game six. The Knicks meanwhile exploded to a 3-0 series lead against the wily Celtics, before allowing the series to tighten up. The Knicks escaped Boston with a win in game six on Friday night. In terms of being complete, defensive minded teams, the Knicks and Pacers are very similar, but their similarities end there. The Pacers are one of the league’s most balanced teams offensively. They had four guys average double digits points per game during the regular season (and seven averaged seven or more). While the Pacers spread the rock around, they lack a single go-to scorer in crunch time. The Knicks aren’t nearly as deep (or deep at all), but they do have a certain player named Carmelo Anthony on their roster. That difference–that the Knicks have a closer and the Pacer don’t–could be a pivotal factor in close games. Indiana is also one of the league’s biggest teams. They start three players 6-8 or taller: the gargantuan Roy Hibbert, former 20-10 (and by that I mean 21-9) guy David West, and the incredibly versatile Paul George. As a result, the Pacers are the best rebounding team in the NBA. The Knicks on the other hand start three guards (college lineup alert), bring a third guard off the bench for 30 minutes a game (J.R. Smith), and are forced to play Carmelo Anthony (who isn’t exactly a menace on the glass) at the 4. It will be essential for the Knicks to find ways to neutralize the Pacers on the boards. Tyson Chandler has got to keep the good vibrations going after logging three straight 10+ rebound games to finish off the series with the Celtics. In the end, despite the size mismatch, I think the Knicks are too hot offensively and have the answers to pull out a win in what should be a hard fought series. They will, however, need ‘Melo to rise to the occasion, both on the glass and in the scoring column.
Pick: Knicks In 7