Here’s a link to the first-round playoffs schedule.
(1) Chicago Bulls (50-16) vs. (8) Philadelphia 76ers (35-31)
Despite having the services of the 2011 MVP, Derrick Rose, for only 39 games this season, the Bulls repeated as the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference behind a league-best defense, which yielded only 88.2 points per game. Their suffocating defense and unrivaled bench unit, spearheaded by Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, and C.J. Watson, to name a few, kept the Bulls afloat despite the loss of their best player.
Meanwhile, the Sixers, who made the playoffs last season, looked like they were cruising to a division title early on, as they started out 20-9 while the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks floundered. But right around the All-Star Break, Philly lost six straight, eventually re-stabilizing at 25-17. From there, the Sixers stumbled to the finish line, losing seven out of nine games in early April, allowing the Knicks to pass them in the playoff standings.
Given how the Bulls didn’t miss a beat without their MVP point guard — a rare accomplishment — and that the Sixers tumbled back to Earth and lack a go-to scorer, this series should be no problem for Chicago. Prediction: Bulls in 4.
(2) Miami Heat (46-20) vs. (7) New York Knicks (36-30)
Despite the Heat boasting the likely MVP of this season in LeBron James, and a player with a Finals MVP to his name in Dwyane Wade, the Heat have looked mortal lately, going 11-9 to finish the regular season after a 35-11 start. However, it’s likely that Miami was just conserving energy for the playoffs, which took on extra meaning in this shortened season.
Meanwhile, it’s been a roller-coaster season for the Knicks, who, in less than three months, saw the out-of-nowhere rise and injury-induced fall of Jeremy Lin, the resignation of head coach Mike D’Antoni, and the resurgence under interim head coach Mike Woodson. The team has finally settled into a groove, and can give Miami a run for its money. The question is, how much of a run?
A lot can go wrong for Miami — specifically, if Chris Bosh struggles and its bench can’t step up — but it would take a lot for them to lose to the up-and-down Knicks. While this series could get interesting, the Heat will likely survive and advance. Prediction: Heat in 6.
(3) Indiana Pacers (42-24) vs. (6) Orlando Magic (37-29)
Balance is the buzzword for the Pacers, who have six players averaging double figures, led by Danny Granger, who is averaging 18.7 points per game. Fourth-year center Roy Hibbert also made strides, averaging 12.8 points and 8.8 rebounds. David West, who made an impact as a free-agent signing, also contributed an average of 12.8 points per game. The great thing about balance is that on any given night, somebody different could step up. However, the only problem is, who’s getting the ball in crunch time?
Meanwhile, the Magic have had a tumultuous season to end all tumultuous seasons, despite getting off to a 10-3 start, Orlando chugged along for the next 53 games, playing just a shade over .500 at 27-26 and finished the regular season with a record of 37-29. The fact that they made the playoffs and avoided Chicago or Miami in the first round despite all of the drama surrounding Dwight Howard was a feat in and of itself.
While Indiana’s possible lack of a go-to scorer may come back to haunt them in the later rounds, I don’t think they’ll have much trouble dispatching Orlando, which lost its best defender and sputtered to the finish line. Prediction: Pacers in 5.
(4) Boston Celtics (39-27) vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks (40-26)
Note: Despite qualifying as the fourth seed, the Celtics will NOT have home-court advantage due to Atlanta holding a better regular-season record.
In mid-February, a five-game losing streak sunk the Celtics to 15-17. With creaky veterans Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce looking close to the finish line, it looked like the glory days surrounding Boston’s 2008 title run were nearing an end.
But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance. The Celtics righted the ship with a five-game winning streak in late February and early March, and then began to pick up steam, eventually rolling to a division title — its fifth consecutive. When all was said and done, Boston won an astounding 24 of its last 34 games, a stunning turnaround for a team that looked peaked in February.
Meanwhile, it looked like it would be a long season for the Hawks after the team’s center, Al Horford, went down with an injury 11 games into the season. But behind Joe Johnson (18.9 points per game) and Josh Smith (18.7 points and 9.6 rebounds per game), Atlanta built off its success from last season, when the team toppled the Magic in the first round of the playoffs and pushed Chicago to six games in the second round.
While the Hawks are certainly talented, and shook off the absence of one of their best players to finish with 40 wins, do they have the chops to beat Boston, which may have one more run left? Even without home-court advantage, look for the Celtics to prevail in a closely contested series. Prediction: Celtics in 6.