The East gave us all the drama in the first round of last year's playoffs, with the Celtics and Bulls setting the tone in an epic seven-game series. The Heat and Hawks also went the distance in a rare (though mundane) seven-game series in which every game was a blowout. The Magic stumbled early against the Sixers before recovering and moving along to the NBA Finals.
This year? I don't see it. No upsets in the East, and not too much drama, either.
The lone exception is Heat-Celtics, the only one in the East I'm predicting will go the distance. But before we fast-forward to Cavaliers-Magic in the conference finals, we do have some business to attend to:
1. Cavaliers (61-21) vs. 8. Bulls (41-41)
Regular season: Split, 2-2.
Bulls: In Chicago's eight April games, Derrick Rose averaged 25.4 points, his highest average in any month this season.
Cavaliers: Other than the obvious, it's J.J. Hickson, who played great in Shaq's absence and now must settle back into a secondary role.
Bulls: Kirk Hinrich. Rose's dribble-penetration and pick-and-roll mastery will be huge factors, but Hinrich is in the middle of everything on both ends of the floor when the Bulls are playing well. According to stat guru Wayne Winston, Hinrich was part of every one of Chicago's five most effective lineups this season.
Key matchup: Cavs' bench vs. Bulls' bench. As superior as Cleveland will be with LeBron on the floor, the Cavs' second unit (Hickson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Jamario Moon) may have an even bigger advantage over the Bulls' lackluster subs.
Subplots: Plenty. This series will be much more compelling off the court than on. There's the LeBron-Joakim Noah spat, the Vinny Del Negro-John Paxson spat, and any number of other spats that might emerge once the feisty Bulls go down 2-0. Then, there could be creeps from the New York media flying in to ask LeBron if he has made up his mind yet.
Berger's take: After dropping the final four regular-season games while LeBron rested, the Cavs have all the marks of a heavily favored top seed that won't be sharp in the playoffs. I don't buy it, though. LeBron is too young and too good to be rusty, for one. For another, the Shaq who comes back into the lineup will look more like the Shaq of 10 years ago. Rumblings around the Cavs last week were that the Big Aristotle used the time rehabbing his thumb injury well and may have dropped more than 15 pounds. As he promised when the Cavs acquired him, Shaq will be ready for exactly what he was acquired for -- the playoffs. It may take some time for him to get going, but even when O'Neal was healthy, Mike Brown's preference was to play him fewer than 30 minutes. No way Cleveland loses more than a game in this series, if that.
Prediction: Cavs in 4.
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2. Magic (59-23) vs. 7. Bobcats (44-38)
Regular season: Magic, 3-1.
|The Bobcats need to keep Dwight Howard at bay in the playoffs. (Getty Images)|
Magic: Orlando shot a league-high 27.4 attempts from 3-point range this season -- and even more (32) in its four games against Charlotte, which allowed a league-high 20.7 3-point attempts per game. As the Magic blog OrlandoPinstripedPost.com put it, Larry Brown is smart. He has his team forcing the opponent to take shots it defends well. (Charlotte's .338 3-point field-goal percentage against was second in the league.)
Bobcats: Only Carl Landry (100) had more of his shots blocked this season than Gerald Wallace (91), according to HardwoodParoxysm.com. I don't know what that means; I just like writing the word paroxysm.
Magic: Jameer Nelson. Point-guard issues doomed the Magic in the Finals last year. Nelson finished the regular season on a strong note, but Orlando doesn't need him to be great to win this series. Still, it's worth taking stock of how well Nelson is running the team and how much his teammates trust him heading into the later rounds.
Bobcats: Stephen Jackson. Nobody gave the eighth-seeded Warriors a chance against top-seeded Dallas three years ago, either. Jackson was a big part of that massive upset. He's fearless and loves the playoff stage.
Key matchup: Howard vs. every center Brown has ever coached. Well, it only seems that way with Nazr Mohammed and Theo Ratliff among the big men Brown can send at Howard in waves -- mostly just to foul him. Between putting Howard (a 59 percent free-throw shooter) on the line and forcing the Magic to become too 3-point happy, Brown will have a field day trying to win this series by himself.
Subplots: Does Brown mean it when he says Charlotte will be his last coaching job? Or are the Sixers moving to Charlotte?
Berger's take: As cynical as I am about Brown's wanderlust, I have the utmost respect for him as a coach. It's impossible not to respect the job he has done in Charlotte, with a team that defends, plays unselfishly, and has a little edge to it since the Jackson acquisition. But Michael Jordan's first foray into the postseason as a majority owner will end badly. It has to, because the Magic are playing better than they were a year ago when they went to the Finals -- and they're more confident and dangerous than they were, too. Yes, the JordanCats can throw a lot of bodies at Howard, put him on the line, and watch him miss a lot of free throws. It won't matter. The Magic won't get flustered, they have too many shooters, and remember -- Howard gets to play defense, too.
Prediction: Magic in 5.
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3. Hawks (53-29) vs. 6. Bucks (46-36)
Regular season: Hawks, 2-1.
|Jamal Crawford leads a potent Hawks bench vs. the Bucks. (Getty Images)|
Hawks: Jamal Crawford, the favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year honors, is finally in the postseason after a drought that lasted 676 games and 21,903 minutes.
Bucks: Ersan Ilyasova. I can't remember who, but someone dubbed him "Turk" Nowitzki. That's a little generous, but Ilyasova has a chance to affect the series in a way that will prove that Atlanta isn't the only team with an elite sixth man.
Key matchup: Brandon Jennings vs. Mike Bibby. The Bucks' rookie point guard proved beyond any doubt that he was ready for the NBA stage. There's no reason to think he'll shrink from the playoff spotlight -- especially if Bibby has to defend him for long stretches.
Subplots: Will the Bucks be galvanized by Bogut's absence? Joe Johnson and coach Mike Woodson are both essentially lame ducks. Woodson almost certainly will get a contract extension after the season; Johnson's future is way more up in the air.
Berger's take: It has been more than a decade since the Hawks went into a playoff series as the prohibitive favorite. This could be a problem -- but it should be the only problem Atlanta faces in this series. Without Bogut, the Bucks are still dangerous, but not nearly the fearsome first-round opponent they would've been with their big man. The Hawks proved their mettle in past playoffs against the Celtics and Heat. Now they have to show the maturity of a team that has a chance to go deep into the postseason by not fooling around with a vulnerable opponent and putting the Bucks away quickly.
Prediction: Hawks in 5.
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4. Celtics (50-32) vs. 5. Heat (47-35)
Regular season: Celtics, 3-0.
Celtics: After starting the season 23-5, Boston went 27-27.
Heat: If the Heat win, it won't be from the 3-point arc, where they shot 29 percent in three regular-season meetings against Boston.
|Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade will square off in this close matchup. (Getty Images)|
Celtics: Kevin Garnett. Does he stop limping and start intimidating again?
Heat: Michael Beasley. If he plays smart and remains engaged, Beasley has the ability to exploit his matchup with Garnett. That rarely happens for long stretches, though.
Key matchup: Dwyane Wade vs. Ray Allen. As is usually the case, the shooting guard matchup is Miami's advantage. But in this case, it works at both ends of the floor. If Allen takes a beating against Wade on the defensive end, how will his legs hold up when sizing up crucial 3-pointers on the other end? For that reason, look for Paul Pierce to get plenty of Wade duty, with Allen switching off to Quentin Richardson, who does all his damage standing beyond the 3-point arc.
Subplots: The Celtics face the end of the Big Three era, with Allen set to be an unrestricted free agent and Pierce holding an opt-out. Another early playoff exit could cause Wade to have second thoughts about staying in South Beach. Then, he'll return to South Beach and say, "Nah."
Berger's take: This is by far the hardest series to predict in either conference because we don't know who the Heat are playing. Are they playing the 2008 NBA champs, the team that started the season looking like a team chasing 70 wins? Or are they playing the lethargic, old, .500 team that has been stumbling around since then? Miami has the momentum, finishing the regular season 15-3, including a nine-game winning streak. The Celtics keep talking about raising their intensity and playing better, but it hasn't happened. Even while they struggled with offensive consistency throughout the regular season, at least they could rely on their defense. But over the final month of the season, that abandoned them, too. Having said all that, this was a team built for the playoffs. And without Garnett, the Celtics beat the Bulls in an epic seven-game series in the first round last year and pushed Orlando to seven games. I see a trend developing. Nothing is ever easy for the Celtics, but they find a way.
Prediction: Celtics in 7.