With the exception of Atlanta's mild upset of the Orlando Magic, the Eastern Conference playoffs have played out pretty much close to form so far which leads us into some really cool match ups in the second round. Three of the teams - with the exception of the Hawks - are capable of not only winning the conference, but if things develop properly, could win the whole thing. Should be fun to watch it unfold. Here are my predictions for the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Enjoy!
1. CHICAGO vs. 5. ATLANTA: (Bulls in Six) - Injuries play a huge part in this series. Kirk Hinrich for Atlanta and Carlos Boozer for the Bulls are question marks heading into this one. The Bulls have proven they can win this season without Boozer but I don't like the Hawks without the services of the former Bull. Hinrich is a good perimeter defender and keeping Derrick Rose under control is a huge task.
It's going to be critical for the Hawks to get out to early leads and play the game from the lead position throughout the series. Their ability to defend well on the outside and challenge shots was huge in the Orlando series and it will be again. Al Horford is an underrated post player and his ability to defend and score will be significant vs. Joakim Noah and Chicago's front line. Josh Smith needs to create havoc on the glass and change shots in the lane. Joe Johnson, obviously will need to continue to be effective and efficient against an even better defensive team
Jamaal Crawford (Another ex-Bull) has the explosiveness to win a game in this series and with Hinrich out of the mix he's got to play within himself yet take chances that make sense to their half court offense. The Bulls were decent against the Pacers but will have to play dramatically better if they want to get to the Eastern and NBA Finals. Derrick Rose carried them in round one and I'm sure he can do it again but they need Boozer healthy and more productive inside.
Luol Deng has been excellent this season and knows how to play this game smart and in a clutch fashion. Look for the Bulls defense to absolutely swarm Johnson and challenge other Hawks to beat them. The Bulls offense has to get more movement earlier in the clock (way too reliant on Rose at the end of the clock, though I call that a 'positive problem!') and play a little more inside/out in this series. Bottom line, the Hawks got their playoff series that has eluded them and now it's time for the team that's been better throughout this season to show their true colours in this series. The Bulls are simply put, better - time to show it.
2. MIAMI vs. 3. BOSTON: (Celtics in Seven) - I keep hearing the words 'classic' and 'epic' when I hear how this series is going to play out. I gotta tell you, I'm totally confused (in a good way--I think!) about how I feel this series will develop. I gotta tell you my brain keeps telling me that I like Miami a little more because I think LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are the two best players in this series, yet my Heart tells me that Boston is the better/deeper team that has more team chemistry/role definition/experience.
Injuries will play a factor, with Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller for the Heat and Shaq-Daddy for the Celtics. By far the most important player in this series is Rajon Rondo - he will be a royal pain for the Heat to deal with at the point of attack and his defense can be totally disruptive. He must be a force for the C's to win. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce will put on their usual clinic of efficiency without the ball and with it and I must say that Jeff Green better produce in this series. You trade Kendrick Perkins away (still shaking my head at that one) so a guy like Green absolutely has to impact the game on both sides of the ball particularly in a series that looks like it will be so perimeter oriented.
Kevin Garnett and 'Big Baby' Davis are great competitors inside and will dish out some physical force. Where does ex-Raptor Chris Bosh figure in all of this? First time in the second round for him and how he handles the pressure and the mind games of KG, Davis and the rest of the C's will be critical. He's a very good offensive player but he must play big as a rebounder and be rock solid in his defensive responsibilities. Miami is an improved and good defensive team and will make sure this series is played at their tempo.
Miami must take care of the ball better-I thought they were careless and sloppy late in the Philly series. Can't win on talent in this series. It's gotta be totally tight and functional as a team in every respect. Huge key for the Heat will be the five-on-five half court possessions. Will they function as a team and create great shots for each other or will LeBron and Wade get in each others way? Can James Jones and Eddie House light it up on home run balls? The level of tension and ability to make plays under duress will be in full force in this matchup. The long and short of it: maybe I'm too old-school. I believe that the Heat are headed on the right path and will win a title at some point in the near future with Wade and LeBron but their front court situation needs to improve further this offseason. The Celtics might not win a title without Perkins but something tells me this series is VERY personal for them and they just have better 'know how' in a matchup like this. Can't wait - I think!