Indiana Pacers (1) vs Atlanta Hawks (8)
The Pacers spent much of this season at the top of the Eastern conference standings, but a slump in performances over the last month or so saw the Heat catch up and eventually take control of the top seed, only to hand it back to the Pacers. Paul George has been excellent once again this season, and is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, but it is the continued improvement of Lance Stephenson that has been most impressive.
The Hawks have had problems of their own this season, having lost star center Al Horford to his second torn pectoral muscle in as many seasons, causing him have season ending surgery. Jeff Teague has been putting the team on his back in recent weeks, despite the Hawks continuing to fall down the standings. The Knicks almost caught up to Atlanta after a late surge, but a victory against Miami secured the Hawks place in the post-season.
Despite their recent slump, this series should be just what the Pacers need to get their form back on track. The Hawks may be able to cause them a few problems, and may even steal a game on their home court, as Indiana has not been great away from home, but other than that the Pacers should get through this match-up without too much trouble.
Winner: Pacers in 5.
Miami Heat (2) vs Charlotte Bobcats (7)
The Miami Heat have not been at their best for much of this season as the rigors of attempting to make the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season has started to take its toll. Despite this, they have still been able to comfortably secure second place in the Eastern Conference standings, challenging Indiana all the way for the top spot. The Heat has been resting Dwyane Wade for the second game of most back-to-backs to allow his ailing knees a chance to heal, which just makes Miami even more dangerous in the post season.
The Bobcats have been one of the surprise packages in the league this season. The stellar play of Al Jefferson has carried Charlotte into the playoffs, with his consistent double-double performances carrying the Bobcats up the standings. Back in September, Kemba Walker was quoted as saying he was “sick of losing” and his play this season has certainly shown that, as he has set career highs in rebounds and assists, helping the Bobcats to their first season over .500 in four seasons.
The Heat should have too much quality to beat the Bobcats without a lot of difficulty. Miami swept the season series 4-0, and although the Heat has always had trouble with forwards like Al Jefferson during the Big Three era, he will not be able to win the series, or indeed a game on his own against this team. The Bobcats are the only NBA franchise yet to win a playoff game, and I expect that to remain the same at the end of this series.
Winner: Heat in 4.
Toronto Raptors (3) vs Brooklyn Nets (6)
The Raptors have surprised a lot of people around the league with how well they have done this season, not only making the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, but winning the Atlantic Division for the first time since 2001 by way of a franchise record 48 wins. The trade of Rudy Gay in December allowed Toronto to change their approach on offense, from a team looking to isolate Gay into a pick and roll offense. This has seen the Raptors get the best out of their players, in particular DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who are both having breakout seasons.
The Nets had a terrible start to the season, and it appeared as though, despite all the money they had spent in putting together a team capable of challenging for the title, they might not even make the playoffs. However, despite losing center Brook Lopez to a season-ending foot injury, the Nets have been one of the form teams in the league since the all-star break, which saw them fly up the standings and fall just short of gaining home court advantage in the first round.
If things had stayed as they were before the last day of the regular season, the Raptors would have been very happy, as it would have meant facing the Wizards in the first round. However, the Nets lost and the Wizards won their final games, meaning Toronto have arguably a more difficult match-up now. The Nets have a vast wealth of playoff experience, and will be ready to play physical basketball; they will need to be in order to slow the game down and keep up with the much younger and athletic Raptors. This will be a tricky test for Brooklyn, but one they should win.
Winner: Nets in 6.
Chicago Bulls (4) vs Washington Wizards (5)
The Bulls have once again shown resilience to make the playoffs despite losing former MVP Derrick Rose to yet another season ending knee injury. They have also had to deal with the trade of Luol Deng, one of their key contributors, while only getting Andrew Bynum, who was later released, and draft picks in return. Joakim Noah has been in inspired form throughout the season, and has been putting up numbers that have put him in the running for the Defensive Player of the Year award. DJ Augustin has also provided some much needed offense off the bench, leading the team in scoring at 14.9 points per game.
Washington has been pleasantly surprising this season, making the playoffs for the first time since 2008. John Wall has been healthy and playing excellently this season, averaging 19.4 points and 8.8 assists per game. With Bradley Beal alongside him, averaging 17 points per game, the young duo make one of the best backcourt pairings in the league. Forget about their frontcourt at your own peril, however, as Nene and Marcin Gortat will battle down low, while Trevor Ariza has proved he is more than capable of knocking down outside shots.
This is a match-up of a team all about offense against a team all about defense. However, the Wizards are going to have a tough time breaking down the impenetrable Chicago defense. With Noah and Gibson in particular locking down the paint, that will cut off a lot of the driving lanes that John Wall needs to be effective. This could lead to Washington having to settle for long range shots, and with a defender like Jimmy Butler on one of the Wizards’ better shooters in Bradley Beal, the Bulls should be able to nullify the opposition’s threats and win this series with relative ease, especially with the wealth of payoff experience they have over their youthful and inexperienced opponents.
Winner: Bulls in 5.