1. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 8. Chicago Bulls
The deepest team in the East goes up against the weakest. Cleveland has within its arsenal LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams. Not bad when you consider that James sets all of them up with his tremendous court vision. We all know it starts and ends with LeBron, but it will ultimately come down to Jamison and Williams. They have to hit their open shots and play up to par on the defensive side. They don’t have to score 20 points a game, but they must be able to hold the Bulls from having big scoring nights. Cleveland is a scrappy club that many believe is the best in the league. This will be the test for the rest of the Conference to study up and find their weaknesses, if any, while they’re playing the Bulls.
Chicago does have an okay team, but with the distraction of whether they will have Vinny Del Negro as their coach when the series is over will loom in the back of their minds. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah (if healthy) are their best players. Kirk Hinrich is a good table setter, but isn’t what Ben Gordon was for the Bulls last year. Luol Deng and rookie Taj Gibson are good players, but Gibson is playing in his first playoff series and Deng just isn’t the same player at this time a year. The Bulls will have an up hill battle, but it will be a fun series nonetheless. It’s not Jordan & Pippen vs. Price & Daugherty, but it’s good to see these two go at it in the playoffs.
Cavaliers in 5 games
4. Boston Celtics vs. 5. Miami Heat
I would like to say this series is going to be close, but I just don’t see it. The Celtics still have a deep team, but it is an old team. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are playing together probably for the last time. Garnett has lost a few steps. Pierce looks sluggish at times and uninterested. Allen seems to have been forgotten on the offensive side. It all boils down to Rajon Rondo. The distributor of the ball and the one that will try to keep everyone happy. When Rondo is on, the Celtics have it in them to run the table. Boston can’t possibly think of winning a title unless they are clicking on both sides of the court.
The Heat are the fifth seed, but I don’t see how they got this high of a seed with just Dwayne Wade. Wade is truly a one of a kind player and it shows with the group around him. Michael Beasley and Jermaine O’Neal are the only viable offensive options for Miami after Wade. If Wade can have a great game in Boston they might have a chance of sneaking a win for themselves going back to south beach. However, they can’t expect to get anymore than that with just Dwayne Wade. It might work against Atlanta, but not Boston.
Celtics in 5 games
3. Atlanta Hawks vs. 6. Milwaukee Bucks
This is potentially the most exciting series of the first round. It would’ve been had Andrew Bogut been healthy for the Bucks. Alas they do have a good core. John Salmons was a great trade deadline acquisition from the Bulls. He has taken on the scoring load down the stretch and with veteran Jerry Stackhouse coming off the bench, the Bucks have some playoff experience. However, with a rookie point guard in Brandon Jennings leading the way, there isn’t much hope for this talented, but young team. Milwaukee is a different team at home and could make things interesting. They will sorely miss Bogut in the paint though.
The Hawks have a great core with Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford. Mike Bibby, Jamal Crawford and Marvin Williams provide excellent support to the star cast. Johnson is the superstar that no ones knows about. Not afraid to take the big shot when needed and is an excellent court general. Smith will get consideration for Defensive Player of the Year for the rest of his career. He’s now emerged as an offensive threat for Atlanta. Horford will have a chance to be the man in the paint with Bogut out. Look for Horford to have a big series. Williams is a defensive guy, but can give you 15 points a game. Bibby and Crawford provide a deadly combo of outside shooting for the inside game of Horford.
Hawks in 6 games
2. Orlando Magic vs. 7. Charlotte Bobcats
They are division rivals, but in no way is this going to be a close series. The Magic will once again be relying on their outside shooting to get them back to the Finals. Dwight Howard will be the setup by his presence in the post. With him planted underneath the basket he will be a pain in the butt for the Bobcats. Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter will be patrolling the three point line waiting for their opportunity to strike. Orlando should have an easier time getting back to the Conference Finals with a healthy Jameer Nelson.
Charlotte does have the frontcourt depth to deal with Dwight Howard, but not nearly enough playmakers to offset Orlando’s. Gerald Wallace is a great player that does everything for them. His only help comes from the often hot headed Stephen Jackson who can be great and costly for his team. Raymond Felton is a good trend setter at the point, but Charlotte doesn’t possess the will to beat the defending conference champs. They could win one game at home, but Michael Jordan isn’t walking through that door in a uniform.
Magic in 5 games
1. LA Lakers vs. 8. Oklahoma City Thunder
At one point Oklahoma was going to possibly host a playoff series. Now they are stuck with playing the defending champion Lakers. Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum are banged up, but will play. To avoid this series from being longer than it needs to be, Kobe must be his old self and Bynum must be more involved. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom will do their part, but for the Lakers to get back on track, Kobe and Bynum have to be healthy and in sync.
Kevin Durant will finally be seen if hasn’t been already. He will score big, but it will be the only positive for them in the series. Russell Westbrook will be the key for the Thunder. He is an emerging star. He is the best point guard in this series and will be counted on to help lighten the scoring load for Durant. Jeff Green is another good up and coming player that will have his moment in the spotlight in this series. Oklahoma could give the Lakers a series, but it will be tough to get it to seven games.
Lakers in 6 games
4. Denver Nuggets vs. 5. Utah Jazz
This will be a true test of will for the Nuggets. Can they win a playoff series without their coach George Karl? Clearly this is his team and right now his team sputtered into the playoffs. Carmelo Anthony will need to have a big series to get Denver into the semifinals. Chauncey Billups will also need to have a better showing. He’s been banged up all year, but this is his time to shine. Denver has a good trio of post defenders in Kenyon Martin, Nene and Chris Anderson, but neither is a threat offensively. It will be up to J.R. Smith to provide that extra spark off the bench.
Utah has a great point guard in Deron Williams who actually is a mismatch for Billups. Denver doesn’t have anyone who can keep up with him and Utah knows it. Carlos Boozer will need to have a great series for the Jazz. I’m talking 20 points and 15 rebounds a game for them. Mehmet Okur will need to give them a boost, but must be a presence in the paint and not sit around the three point line. The Jazz will miss Andrei Kirilenko who is out with a calf injury. He was the only one who could defend Carmelo Anthony. The Jazz will make it a great series, but Denver is too good to go down this early.
Nuggets in 7 games
3. Phoenix Suns vs. 6. Portland Trail Blazers
Phoenix has caught fire at the right time. They are playing to their strengths and it shows. Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire are clicking on all cylinders and it’s hard to say that Portland will be able to stop them. Jason Richardson and Grant Hill will be counted on to lessen the pressure on Nash and Stoudemire. All in all the Suns have a favorable matchup that they would be wise not let drag on longer than it needs to be.
Portland was fortunate to avoid the Mavericks and Lakers, but they have run into the hottest team going into the playoffs. They will be without their best player Brandon Roy with a knee injury. LaMarcus Aldridge and Andre Miller are dubbed the captains who must salvage what is left. Injuries have plagued them all year long and they haven’t used that as an excuse which is a credit to their coach Nate McMillan. Marcus Camby was a great addition and he has them playing defense against some of the best offensive teams. They will need it against the Suns.
Suns in 6 games
2. Dallas Mavericks vs. 7. San Antonio Spurs
These two have a long history in the playoffs and it will play out again. This time in unfamiliar territory in the first round. Dirk Nowitzki has two new running mates this time in Caron Butler and Shawn Marion who are great complements to what Head Coach Rick Carlisle has instilled in Dallas. Jason Kidd will need to have a big series. Not every game, but at least two where he puts up his Jason Kidd like numbers. Nowitzki and the Mavs haven’t had this much of an advantage against their state rival.
The Spurs are healthy and rested, but find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. They have some new faces, primarily Richard Jefferson who has been a disappointment for San Antonio. Tim Duncan will need to have a fantastic series for the Spurs to have a chance at getting past the Mavericks. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker who is back from injury will be their usual selves, but they will need Duncan to have his MVP type performance to get the Spurs into contention this time around.
Mavericks in 6 games