With the 2014 NBA Playoffs beginning Saturday, we begin our previews for the first round matchups. You can find the Western Conference preview here. Here's a look at the Eastern Conference:
by Zach Harper
Season series: The Hawks and Pacers split their series 2-2 in a weird twist of events. It turns out that this incredible Pacers' defense that defense the 3-point shot as well as anybody can't actually stop the Hawks from making threes. Atlanta hit 40.3 percent of their outside shots in this four-game set. They caught the Pacers during Indiana's deep spiral down and embarrassed them on their home floor. The Pacers struggled to score in all four games, topping 89 points just once in the series. Indiana did a great job of forcing turnovers but struggled to convert them into successful opportunities.
|Indiana Pacers||Atlanta Hawks|
|George Hill||Jeff Teague|
|Lance Stephenson||Kyle Korver|
|Paul George||DeMarre Carroll|
|David West||Paul Millsap|
|Roy Hibbert||Pero Antic|
X-Factor: Roy Hibbert. The Atlanta Hawks are unlikely to win this series, so the key to the series is the Pacers figuring out how to right the ship. If Hibbert can go back to being the player that was dominating the defensive paint, the Pacers can key in on the 3-point line again and take away the Hawks' greatest strength. That would leave the Pacers with a relatively easy series and a lot of confidence heading into the second round.
Narrative: Are the Pacers actually a contender or were we just fooled by a good couple of months? It's a shame the Hawks aren't more relevant in this series but without Al Horford, they just seem undermanned. This will be about the Pacers and them doing what title contending teams are supposed to do: end the easy series early and get prepared to advance. The Pacers have to possess that mentality and learn how to be the team they said they were months ago.
Prediction: I'm going to go out on a decent-sized limb and assume the Pacers figure things out at the expense of the Hawks. It's not that I'm dismissing the Hawks as much as I'm trusting the Pacers will be what they're supposed to be.
Pacers in four.
by Matt Moore
Season series: The Heat won all four meetings, by an average of 10.5 points per contest. They were 14 points better per 100 possessions against Charlotte this season. Charlotte allowed 96.9 points per game this season, 101.2 per 100 possessions. Against Miami they allowed 103.3 points per game and 116.6 per 100 possessions.
You may remember one of those games as the one in which LeBron James scored 61 points, causing blood to rain from the sky and siphoning the power of the earth's molten core to burn the Bobcats into cinders and ashes.
So, no, the Bobcats don't match up particularly well with Miami. Why do you ask?
|Miami Heat||Charlotte Bobcats|
|Mario Chalmers||Kemba Walker|
|Dwyane Wade||Gerald Henderson|
|LeBron James||Michael Kidd-Gilchrist|
|Udonis Haslem||Josh McRoberts|
|Chris Bosh||Al Jefferson|
There's a chance Miami uses Greg Oden at center and moves Haslem to the bench. Or uses Battier as power forward. Really, Spoelstra can do what he wants but Chalmers, Wade, Bosh, and James will start.
X-Factor: The "Let Them Eat" defensive approach. Both teams are likely to employ similar strategies against their opponent's best offensive player. The Bobcats got torched by Lebron for 61 points in March because their defensive scheme dicatates that they don't double on the perimeter. They let Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts go one one one and try and focus on shutting down points in the paint and closing out shooters.
That means that James can score whenever he wants. The trick is trying to make him into a scorer only. He averaged 5.5 assists vs. Charlotte this season. They lost the game where he went off for 61 because they also got torched by Chris Bosh. If they can figure out a way to triage James' damage and focus on closing out the rest of the Heat the Bobcats might have a chance.
A similar strategy is in play for Miami, as they let Al Jefferson run wild, he averaged over 30 points per game vs. Miami this season, but the Bobcats scored just 100.6 points per 100 possessions with Jefferson on the floor. The Heat let Big Al eat and then watch as the rest of the Cats' offenses suffocates.
Narrative: How quickly will this be over? Those paying attention this season in the NBA know that the Bobcats were really pretty good, especially defensively, but no one outside of the hoop nerds know it. So the big narrative will simply be how much rest the Heat can get before a second-round matchup with either Toronto or Brooklyn.
Side narrative: Will the Heat be able to rest Dwyane Wade?
Prediction: I've been on the Charlotte bandwagon all season and think Steve Clifford has really changed the culture there. But this matchup is a nightmare. The Heat are tough for anyone. But the Bobcats can't shoot, and have young defenders going up against the Flying Death Machine. There's just not a lot to be optimistic about for Charlotte.
Heat in five.
by Matt Moore
Season series: The two teams split the season series 2-2 in close, entertaining games. The Raptors finished with a plus-2.2 points per game advantage overall.
|Toronto Raptors||Brooklyn Nets|
|Kyle Lowry||Shaun Livingston|
|DeMar DeRozan||Deron Williams|
|Terrence Ross||Joe Johnson|
|Amir Johnson||Paul Pierce|
|Jonas Valanciunas||Kevin Garnett|
X-Factor: The offensive glass. The Nets are ranked 27th in percentage of offensive rebounds grabbed and 28th in offensive rebounds allowed. The Raptors meanwhile are 11th in offensive rebound percentage and allow the 12th fewest. Think about that gap. That's a monster number of extra possessions surrendered.
The Raptors are also fifth in second-chance points. The Nets are a little bit better in second-chance points allowed, but if you want to look at one area where the Raptors could absolutely kill Brooklyn, it's this.
Narrative: Are the Raptors for real? For a three-seed, no one's talking about them. The list of threats to Miami are Chicago and Brooklyn with the Pacers' slip. But Toronto has earned the three-seed, are tough at home, have size, depth, and All-Star experience. The Raptors were supposed to be a tank team after trading Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay and instead became one of the most consistent teams in the league.
Are they ready to compete in the playoffs? Can they knock off the star-studed, big-money Nets? And also, who are these guys?
Prediction: I'm the only one of our crew to go with the Raptors, so I'll give you the Nets' side. Toronto's not ready, the Nets have too much experience, too much firepower, and too many guys who can step up and make plays.
But the Raptors have been the better team. Yes, the Nets were red hot after January 1st, but they're also in part that team that struggled out of the gate. Throw in the rebounding issues, Kyle Lowry's ability to take over a game and the fact that the Raptors are playing with zero expectations while Brooklyn is desperate to make good on the money they've had invested in them, and I think Toronto can win this thing in seven. Should be a great series.
by Royce Young
Season series: They played three times, with the Wizards winning twice, and the Bulls taking the most recent matchup. The Bulls obviously have a very specific identity and can frustrate teams with their tenacity, but the Wizards were able to mostly play their style. In the three games, the Wizards scored 100.6 points per 100 possessions, which is below their season average, but that's also greatly affected by the lone Bulls' win, a 96-78 suffocation.
|Chicago Bulls||Washington Wizards|
|Kirk Hinrich||John Wall|
|Jimmy Butler||Bradley Beal|
|Mike Dunleavey||Trevor Ariza|
|Joakim Noah||Marcin Gortat|
X-Factor: Taj Gibson. He's been the barometer for the Bulls this season, a likely Sixth Man of the Year award winner. His ability to impact games, especially in the fourth quarter, has been huge for Chicago. He changes lineups, and gives Tom Thibodeau a stronger, more athletic look to his front line. And playing against Marcin Gortat, Nene, and the all-of-sudden productive Drew Gooden, Gibson will have his hands full, along with Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer.
Narrative: The theme has been running with the Bulls for a while now: This isn't a team you want to see in the playoffs. They make your life difficult, grinding your offense down and forcing you to execute with precision in the halfcourt. And for a young team like the Wizards making a playoff appearance for the first time in seven years, having to go through such a grizzled, savvy group isn't ideal. The Wizards don't necessarily play pretty, but they will have to figure out how to get ugly and still be effective.
Prediction: The Wizards have a decided advantage at point guard with John Wall attacking D.J. Augustin and have quality size to counter inside. Bradley Beal can space, Trevor Ariza is capable of getting hot and Andre Miller adds a needed veteran presence. The Wizards are young, athletic and play just dumb enough that they could give the sturdy Bulls some problems.
Then again, we're talking about Tom Thibodeau versus Randy Wittman, and in a postseason series that's a war of attrition, things play into the Bulls' hands. When you look over the Bulls' roster, outside of Noah, it's hard to really figure where they have a matchup advantage. Wall is a star, Beal is a stud and Gortat and Nene are imposing. But this is a Bulls team that has carved its identity winning in spite of that stuff, and playing against a team that's still in the excited-to-be-here phase, things are going to play right into their hands.
Bulls in six.