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2013 NBA Eastern Conference first-round playoff preview

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

The 2013 NBA Eastern Conference playoffs begin Saturday.   (USATSI)
The 2013 NBA Eastern Conference playoffs begin Saturday. (USATSI)

The 2013 NBA playoffs begin Saturday and we're here to give you a comprehensive guide for what to look for. We begin with the Eastern Conference and the marquee matchup of the first round.

by Zach Harper

1. What Happened: When the Boston Celtics were at full strength or close to it, they gave the New York Knicks fits in their first two meetings. Boston won the first meeting of the season when it overcame a suspension to Rajon Rondo. In the second meeting, the Knicks overcame a horrendous shooting night from Carmelo Anthony (11 of 28) and J.R. Smith (3 of 16) to beat the Celtics, despite Rondo's triple-double. In the two meetings since, the Knicks have smoked a battered Celtics team by a combined 34 points.

2. X-Factor: Jason Terry. I don't know if it's the hangover from winning the 2011 NBA championship or if he just doesn't care anymore, but someone needs to remind JET that he has a job to do and it isn't getting dunked on by LeBron James. The Celtics badly need scoring and execution out of the backcourt. Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley are fine on offense, but they need someone to be deadly. Terry used to be that player, but now he's mostly a bystander. Someone needs to wake him up.

3. The Big Narrative: Can Carmelo Anthony lead a playoff team? We've seen him do it once before in 2009 against much tougher competition in the West. Now he has to use his considerable skills to take down the Celtics before they start believing they can win the series. It won't be just scoring either; Melo has to show the entire arsenal if he wants to oust the Celtics. Yes, New York is a better team, but the Knicks have to make Boston know they are the favorites. Right now, the Celtics believing they can rally and make a run in the playoffs when people doubt them like they often do. Will Melo allow this to happen or will he shoot, drive, pass, rebound, and defend his way into the second round?

4. Prediction: I'm going to hedge my bets here and say the Knicks win in seven games, because the Celtics put up enough of a fight to scare us into thinking they can win the series. I doubt this Celtics team, but I only mostly doubt them. The Knicks will prove they're better and ready to advance.

Knicks in seven.


by Royce Young

1. What Happened: If the regular season is any indication, this series is going to be close. The Bulls took the season series 3-1, but the teams played four mostly tight games. One game was decided by two points, another by four, another by one. All four games, though, were played to Chicago's style, with the score staying under 100 points. The Bulls roughed up the Nets and made life in the halfcourt extremely challenging.

2. X-Factor: Joe Johnson. Deron Williams should be good, Brook Lopez is going to have his work cut out for him against Joakim Noah. But Johnson is the one player who can change things, specifically in the fourth quarter. The isolation stuff gets old and often is fool's gold, but the fact is, late in close games you need a plan and the Nets at least have one in Johnson. He can post, he can go off the dribble, he can move without the ball.

The key for the Nets is to make sure Johnson is in rhythm, while also not completely stopping the ball. Because the Bulls dig in as well as anyone on the defensive end and have some very talented defenders like Jimmy Butler to throw at Johnson. But in the four regular season meetings, the big problem for Brooklyn was finding shots and points in the halfcourt in the fourth quarter. Johnson's the guy who can give them that answer.

3. The Big Narrative: Derrick Rose will hover over this series whether he plays or not. It seems unlikely he'll be back for the Bulls, but who knows; maybe he was saving himself for this moment. Still, if he plays, then this series immediately becomes must-see stuff, and is about how that changes things in the East. If he doesn't play, Rose missed the entire season despite being cleared for more than a month.

The Bulls might be good enough to beat the Nets without Rose, and maybe that's what he's planning on -- to wait and see. But if they can't advance, the question has to be asked: What if Rose played?

4. Prediction: This is one of those series where you go back and forth, change your mind three times and then finally settle on a pick that doesn't feel very good. The margin between the two teams is thin and the difference between winning and losing here is going to be about luck, about big plays, about clutch shots.

Here's why I lean toward the Bulls: While Deron Williams has been fantastic the past month and a half or so, he always seems to struggle against Chicago. And the Bulls can match up with Brooklyn almost across the board. While the Nets have the talent and I think their best is better than Chicago's best, the Bulls have a knack for making teams play inconsistently.

There's going to be a lot of pressure on the Nets to advance and the Bulls have to feel like they've got nothing to lose right now. It'll be close, it'll be tight. It could go either way. But I think Chicago has the edge.

Bulls in seven.


by Zach Harper

1. What Happened: The Miami Heat won the season series 3-1 against the Milwaukee Bucks, but this series has been extremely close over the last two years. The Bucks had a 19-point blowout victory over the Heat in their second meeting this season, but Miami had an average margin of victory of 10.3 points in the other three games (including a seven-point overtime win). But don't let that trick you into a sense of Heat dominance. The Bucks never seem to know they're supposed to go quietly into the night against the defending champs.

2. X-Factor: Larry Sanders! In the Bucks' lone win over the Heat this season, Sanders had an incredible performance. He dominated the paint on both ends of the floor, with 16 points (8-for-11 shooting), 11 rebounds, and four blocks. In the three Heat wins, they made 63.1 percent of their shots inside the restricted area. In their one loss, that number dropped to 54.1 percent, thanks to Sanders' rim protection.

3. The Big Narrative: How seriously will LeBron James and the Heat take the Bucks in the first round? We saw the proverbial killer instinct for most of the season as Miami won 66 games. But will the Heat allow themselves to let up and play to their competition again? Or will they want to run this team out of the gym for four games and get some rest before the competition starts getting harder? We know James and Dwyane Wade are winners, but are they all-time winners? Can they march through the playoffs by starting off with the dismantling of a sub-.500 playoff team?

Also, don't forget that even though we've moved onto the postseason, Brandon Jennings is still looking for a max deal in his contract season. Is he going to play the measured, team ball it takes to bring down the Heat or is he going to try to shine bright in the playoff spotlight?

4. Prediction: With how tough the Bucks have played the Heat over the last two seasons (3-4), it wouldn't shock me if they stole a game at the Bradley Center.

Heat in five.


by Matt Moore

What happened: The Hawks won the first two meetings this season, the Pacers won the second two. The Hawks beat Indiana in the first month when the Hawks were arguably playing their best and the Pacers were playing their worst, as they struggled out of the gate. They also won in Decemeber when the Hawks put up a 123.8 offensive rating on the normally defensively stout Pacers. Lou Williams, who went down with an ACL tear later in the year, had 21 points in that game.

After Williams went down and the Pacers hit their stride, the tide turned in a big way and the Pacers dominated the Hawks. The Pacers won the final two games by a combined 17 points.

The X-Factor: The muscle inside. With Zaza Pachulia, the Hawks had multiple big men along with Al Horford and Ivan Johnson to deploy vs. the Pacers' imposing front line. But without him, it gets a lot harder. Horford is a skill center with muscle, and might be the best frontcourt player in the series.

But from there the Pacers start to swing it. Not only do they have Roy Hibbert, but David West is strong and difficult to guard and keep off the boards, Tyler Hansbrough is a physical irritant, and Ian Mahinmi is tall.

For comparison, Johan Petro played 36 minutes against the Pacers this season. In those 36 minutes, the Hawks surrendered a 131 defensive rating. That's bad.

The Big Play: The Hawks had a really difficult time containing Paul George, especially as the year went on. George scored in double-figures in each game, including a 29-point explosion. One thing where the Hawks really had trouble was keeping active and aggressive on George in pick-and-rolls. They did a really good job at rotating and attacking him on drives off the pick-and-roll, but when George went behind the screen or off of it for a 3, their coverage tended to be confused and left him open. And he made them pay for it. Watch what happens here:

The Hawks, especially Josh Smith, have to attack George's dribble coming off these picks. He's a good passer, granted, and you do have to protect against the drive. But playing off of him isn't advised, and pressing him on his dribble could lead to him having to take more time to make the pass, allowing Atlanta's defense to reset.

Prediction: I can't for the life of me figure out why the Hawks tanked to play down to the sixth seed and face Indiana. The idea is they wanted to avoid Miami in the second round. But they have little shot against the Pacers, a worse shot against the Knicks, and then they'll still likely have to face Miami in the conference finals if they survive that far. But before all that, they have a nightmare matchup with Indiana, as opposed to a very favorable one (comparatively) with Brooklyn.

Anyway, the Pacers have the defense to cut off the Hawks' options and force them into isolation situations, which Smith will embrace with a big ol' hug. They have the cutters and inside force to score on the Hawks. This will be an ugly, hard-to-watch series, but you have to like Indiana pretty comfortably here. Atlanta can't protect its homecourt, and the result is a gentleman's sweep for the Pacers.

Pacers in five.

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