Let’s all come to terms with one thing. The caliber of playoff teams in the NBA’s Western Conference as compared to the Eastern Conference is close to the difference between night-and-day. The Eastern conference has four bright spots in the form of the top four seeded teams of Cleveland, Orlando, Atlanta, and Boston. The rest of the playoff picture could be thought of as four very-dark alleys in the night of the Eastern Conference; you might think you’re strong and brave enough to make it through the alley without incident but if you’re over confident and don’t protect yourself you are in for a fight or two. Don’t catch my metaphors? Okay, fine well here it is in plain English.
The top 4 teams are all favored to advance to the second round of the playoffs with Cleveland and Orlando expected to rematch in the conference finals. Atlanta and Boston have enough weak points that one of the lower seeded teams could exploit. Fact of the matter is that the 5 – to -8 seeds in the “L-East”ern conference are not expected to pull an upset and win a series. I don’t expect or believe it will happen either. However, I do believe that some of these teams could manage to pull out a game, maybe two and I’ll explain how I see that happening.
No.5 – Miami Heat
Exhibit A, the Miami Wade’s, that is to say, this team will go as far as Dwayne Wade can carry them. All season long Miami has tried to develop a winning formula and with 47 wins they might have something. The name of the game is Wade-ball, he is the Alpha and the Omega, everything runs through him. The way this team should work is with Wade playing his role as the 1 and 2 guard while running high-screen and isolation plays. Michael Beasley was expected to grow into the role of second-scorer on the team but he is still immature, it would be great (and amazing) if his learning curve sped up. Since he hasn’t the Heat rely on the shooting of Quentin Richardson and the hustle-play of Udonis Haslem on the boards. Beasley and Jermaine O’Neal, despite being the starting PF and C rarely contribute as such, a good night for them is 12-15 points and 8 rebounds. What the Heat do have working for them is momentum, and that might be all Dwayne Wade needs to push his team over (similar to his last successful playoff run). If the Heat can play defense and bang Boston’s “Big 3” around the Celtics might show their age after 2 games. That’s a good way to describe this battle experience vs. youth & energy. If the Miami Heat players can mature and come into some-sort of playoff worthy form then the Celtics will be challenged to a six-game series.
No.6 – Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks go up against the Atlanta (Athletic) Hawks in the first round. The numbers are against them but the Bucks have not collapsed since losing Andrew Bogut (center) at the end of the season. The Bucks have two bright spots in Brandon Jennings and John Salmons, they are key to everything. However, beyond this guard tandem is some relative depth of with Ersan Ilyasova, Luke Ridnour, and Jerry Stackhouse coming off the bench. None of these guys have the ability to leave a crowd awestruck but they fulfill their roles. That is how the Bucks work, all of the players stick to their roles in Scott Skiles’s system which is predicated on defense first. So yes their 7 foot, 260 lb center is gone but the Bucks still have a few guys they can throw in at center behind Kurt Thomas. The Bucks have to continue their solid defensive play and limit the Hawks from moving around. Atlanta is a team of athletic wing players and forwards with the ability to stretch defenses using Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford which then opens up players like Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, and (the ghost) of Mike Bibby to get involved. There’s a chance we see some flashes of brilliance from Brandon Jennings and a bit from John Salmons. Again, barring a collapse of the Atlanta Hawks I don’t see the Bucks pulling out more than one win, if that. No fear of the deer!
No. 7 – Charlotte Bobcats
First, congratulations to the Charlotte Bobcats for making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Second, let’s all wave goodbye because they will only be around for this first round. Of all the teams in the lower seeds, the Bobcats are the best equipped to take on the Magic. I think Stephen Jackson is crucial to this team’s success but he shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence as a team star, which the Bobcats have none of. This team is a prototypical, no superstar talents and a bunch of guys who he brainwashes into playing “his way.” That means ball movement, screens and defense. In order to win games the Bobcats need excellent guard play and solid rebounding from their centers…oh and the three point shooting of Stephen Jackson. I think that any advantage the Bobcats have comes from their athleticism, their starting forwards are Gerald Wallace and Boris Diaw, both of whom are “hybrid-forwards” Wallace is 6’7″ and averages a double-double with 18.2 ppg and 10 rpg, Diaw is 6’9″and averages 11.3 ppg and 5.2 rpg. Those number seem a bit reversed as far as height and position goes but against Orlando it can work to slow down Rashard Lewis at PF and whoever fills the rotating starting SF spot. The Bobcats also have a few centers to throw at Dwight Howard with Tyson Chandler, Nazr Mohammed and Theo Ratliff. With all due respect to Larry Brown, he might be able to come up with some schemes to slow down the Magic and get them into foul trouble but he is working with a team of athletic underdogs.
No. 8 – Chicago Bulls
The Bulls willed themselves into the playoffs in the last 5-6 games of the season and beat Toronto out for the 8th seed. But, this is an all-too-familiar position for the Bulls just edging-into the playoff picture only to face off against the best of the East. The Bull have momentum and energy coming into the playoffs…same as the past playoff appearance of this franchise in the last 5 years. Derrick Rose is a beast, Joakim Noah has come into his own as a center (but still can’t bang with the strongest), Kirk Hinrich has been the same guy these past years +/- his confidence and Luol Deng brings shame to all the talk that he could be a “star” three years ago. By the season series, The Bulls have beat Cleveland twice this year but to me those wins don’t mean much from a strategical perspective. The first win versus Cleveland came on November 5th, back when the Cavaliers were still rediscovering their team and trying to rework the team to be more efficient and effective with Shaquille O’Neal, the Bulls won 86-85. The second win came last week on April 8th, LeBron James was sitting and Shaq was still out recovering. The Cavaliers still gave the Bulls a tough game for their 109-108 win. Fact of the matter is that the Bulls are out-matched but the Bulls are also a solid defensive team and are much less oriented on perimeter shooting (like last year’s team featuring Ben Gordon and John Salmons). I don’t think the Bulls can put together another 7-game series because they don’t have the great outside shooting that becomes a game-breaker in the playoffs. The other problem? The Cavaliers have also found a second-gear, a line-up they can use to play a faster and more athletic game with Shaq out of the line-up (see Anderson Varejao, Antwan Jamison, & JJ Hickson). The Cavaliers also have a stable of guards (Daniel Gibson, Delonte West, & Mo Williams) who can hit the three-point shot.
Now I called this post “Rumblings from the Dungeons of the L-East” because none of these teams seeded from 5- 8 has a high-chance of winning their series. They have the chance to make some noise and create a bit of hype for themselves but, nothing more than 1-2 games in my opinion. On that note, I see the Miami Heat as the most viable team to upset and because of Dwayne Wade. The Bobcats have the athletes to matchup against Orlando but the talent is questionable. Bucks and Bulls have energy and heart but not enough manpower.
That’s all for the first round! I’ll be back in a few weeks with my forecast for Round 2, until then enjoy the games.