Throughout much of the NBA 2013-2014 regular season, the Eastern Conference was mocked for not playing nearly as great basketball as the West. However, especially because of the Pacers’ and Heat’s recent struggles, the playoff picture in the East could be more competitive than anyone expected:
Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Atlanta Hawks (8) -Without much thought, one might believe that the Pacers would sweep a series against the lowly Hawks, the only team in the playoffs that was below .500 in the regular season. Despite this, not only have the Pacers struggled lately, including a late-season 19-point loss to the Hawks at home, but the matchups in this series are not in their favor. While Pacers’ point guard George Hill can defend fairly well, Hawks’ point guard Jeff Teague has the ability to dominate him with his quickness and strength. In addition, All-Star forward Paul Millsap and especially rookie center Pero Antic will take the Pacers’ bigs, David West and Roy Hibbert, outside of the paint, their comfort zone on the defensive end. Despite a shocking Game One loss and these matchup problems, the Pacers probably will not meet my original prediction of beating the Hawks in five games, but George and Lance Stephenson will likely lead them in six games.
Miami Heat (2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7) – With LeBron James looking to re-establish himself as the league’s best player after pretty much losing the MVP award to Kevin Durant, and with Dwayne Wade well-rested after missing many games down the stretch of the regular season, this series should be easy for the Heat to take. Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker will make this series somewhat interesting, but Bobcats star center Al Jefferson is hobbled after a Game One loss. After discovering that the Bobcats have not beat the Heat since Miami acquired LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010, I see this series going no other way than to the Heat in four games.
Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)-While the young, postseason hungry Raptors think that they have the edge over the elder “dinosaur” Nets, they are wrong. In the playoffs, experience is what matters most, and the Nets have that and more in playoff veterans Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. All-Star DeMar DeRozan and Most Improved Player candidate Kyle Lowry will be tough for the Nets to contain, but as Paul Pierce proved with his clutch shots in Game One, experience trumps all in the postseason. I expect the Nets to take this series in six games, maybe even less.
Chicago Bulls (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)- When Derrick Rose went down for the season early this year, and especially when the Bulls traded away Luol Deng for financial relief, people started to count Chicago out of making an impact in the playoffs. Enter an extremely motivated Joakim Noah. After the Deng trade, Noah proved that he was the heart and soul of this season’s Bulls squad, as he averaged 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.51 blocks on his way to the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year award. Sixth Man of the Year candidates Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin also give the Bulls some much needed spirit and offensive prowess. The Wizards should not be discounted though, as John Wall is eager to perform in his playoff debut, and Nene did provide a huge spark against Noah that led the Wizards to a Game One victory in Chicago. Despite these factors, I still have the Bulls winning it in six games.
The Rest of the Way- As far as my predictions go, the Pacers and Bulls will face off in a heated defensive matchup in the second round. While Noah may be too hard for Hibbert to stop, Paul George and Lance Stephenson will likely overwhelm the Bulls’ guards, and I expect the Pacers to win that series in six games. On the other side of the East bracket, the Nets will draw their favored matchup against the Heat, whom they swept in the regular season. However, LeBron and Co. will figure out how to overcome the Nets and win that series in six games. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat will once again face the mighty Pacers, but this time without a home-court advantage. The Heat may fall behind early in the series but, with some dominant performances, they should be able to knock off the Pacers for the second year in a row in six or seven games. Finally, in a rematch of the 2012 NBA Finals, the Heat and Thunder will square off in a thrilling seven game series that will bring out the best in LeBron, Durant, Wade, Westbrook and more. The Heat will close it out in Oklahoma City and claim their third title in a row.
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