The Eastern Conference this year was baaaad. Only two Eastern teams cleared 50 wins (seven did in the West). Only five had positive point differentials. The Celtics tanked. The 76ers tanked. The Knicks season was a train wreck. Out in Brooklyn, the Nets didn’t even seem to realize the season started until January 1st. And the Conference’s number one seed, the deep, loaded Pacers, pretty much said ‘nah’ to the final third of the regular season. So be it. The Eastern Conference playoffs will still be great thanks to its blend of gritty, veteran teams, and serious darkhorse contenders (Brooklyn, Chicago). It might not be as flashy as the stuff out West, but you’re going to want to tune in to Eastern Conference playoff basketball. Here are College Sports Town’s picks for the first round.
No. 1 seed Indiana Pacers vs. No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks
These two teams met in the first round last year as the Pacers took down Atlanta in six games. The Pacers, led by their fearsome nucleus of Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson, and David West, exploded out of the gate this year (winning 18 of their first 20) and possess an elite defense. But they’re absolutely limping into the playoffs. Coach Frank Vogel has been on damage control, as rumors have swirled around the team regarding viscosity among the players. Roy Hibbert has been playing poorly of late and whining to the media. Back on April 6th, the Pacers were held to 23 first half points in a 107-88 loss to the Hawks. The Hawks, meanwhile, have mostly flown under the radar this year (no pun intended). They were a more intimidating team earlier in the season before Al Horford tore his right pectoral, but they’ve embraced a perimeter-oriented identity (only Houston attempted more threes per game during the regular season). Underrated point man Jeff Teague leads the charge for ATL, and the Hawks’ shooters could give the old-school Pacers a test. But Indiana simply has too much firepower. While the Pacers appear to be in a bad way at the moment, the playoffs present a clean slate. Look for Indiana to right the ship somewhat in the first round.
Pick: Pacers in 6
No. 2 seed Miami Heat vs. No. 7 seed Charlotte Bobcats
The Heat coasted through the regular season. Dwyane Wade sat a lot. The 82 game marathon was a mere formality for the King and his court. This first round matchup should be much of the same. This Heat team is not as good as past outfits–Wade is not the superstar he once was and Bosh is hit or miss. But nobody expects the youthful Bobcats to take them down either. Charlotte has to be happy simply to be back in the postseason again; they won 43 games in the regular season, buoyed by the addition of big man Al Jefferson (the most underrated player in the NBA today). Another big change for the Bobcats was the hiring of coach Steve Clifford, who took one of the worst defensive teams in the league (they finished 29th in opponents’ points per game in ’13) and turned it into one of the best (they finished 4th in the same stat this year). They’re heavily reliant on offensive production from Walker and Jefferson, but they do defend.
Pick: Heat in 5
No. 3 seed Toronto Raptors vs. No. 6 seed Brooklyn Nets
Few expected the Raptors, who last visited the playoffs in 2008, to finish the season with the three seed in the East. But, thanks to the emergence of Kyle Lowry and the improvement of many young guns including dynamite scorer DeMar DeRozan (fear the capitalized third letter!!!) and near-double double guy Jonas Valanciunas, that’s exactly what the Raps did. Toronto may be green, but they get it done at both ends. In the other corner, the Nets had a wacky season this year. They got out to the mother of all slow starts and lost star center Brook Lopez to injury early. But then, around the turn of the new year, rookie coach Jason Kidd’s team started to figure it out, featuring Paul Pierce at the 4 and showcasing a much-improved defense to go along with their multiple offensive attack. The Nets were a quality team after New Year’s and feature a talented, if hodgepodge, supporting cast around the three-headed Williams-Johnson-Pierce monster. Brooklyn traded for Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the summer to gain some playoff experience and toughness after last year’s postseason disaster against Chi-town. Look for it to pay off in what should be a riveting first round series.
Pick: Nets in 6
No. 4 seed Chicago Bulls vs. No. 5 seed Washington Wizards
In early January, the Bulls traded away Luol Deng and the world thought they were tanking. The world, apparently, forgot that Tom Thibodeau is their coach. Thibodeau, and the prideful Bulls, have an almost embarrassing lack of offensive guns. Their best healthy scorer is…D.J. Augustin. But they D UP. Chicago is, once again, the league’s most formidable defensive squad, anchored by Joakim Noah (who is also averaging a ridiculous 13-11-5). Noah is the centerpiece on both ends, and the Rose-less and Melo-less (next year, folks?) Bulls enter the postseason with 48 regular season wins to their name. The situation isn’t that dissimilar to last year, when Nate Robinson went all Kyrptonate and the Bulls knocked off Brooklyn in the first round. In fact, the Wizards share some similarities to that Nets team also. Like the Nets last year, the Wizards are in the playoffs for the first time in a long time. The Wiz have a nice balance between their back and frontcourt. John Wall and Bradley Beal make up an offensively potent guard combo while Nene Hilario and Marcin Gortat are a tough twosome in the paint. Washington has the weapons to challenge the Bulls. But it’s hard to bet against Thibs.
Pick: Bulls in 6