There are several Eastern Conference teams that nurture either realistic or make-believe hopes of surviving into the championship series, and a handful will be content to make an acceptable showing in the opening round.
Here are the details:
(1) CHICAGO vs. (8) INDIANA
Why the Bulls should win: Derrick Rose has become one of the NBA’s elite players — so much so that he’s the odds-on favorite to be named MVP. Even his perimeter shooting has improved. And against the relatively defenseless Pacers, D-Rose will be able to take the ball wherever he so desires. The only Pacer with any chance to impede him is James Posey, who has been coasting for the past three years.
Carlos Boozer absolutely destroys run-of-the-mill opponents like Roy Hibbert, while Keith Bogans can get in Danny Granger’s kitchen and make Indiana’s leading scorer do something he’d rather not do — put the ball on the floor. Joakim Noah will arrive at the rim in time to turn several of Indiana’s otherwise easy layups into misses. Luol Deng will have an easy time demonstrating just how far his offense has evolved.
In all, Tom Thibodeau’s swarming defense will make the Pacers struggle just to get fleeting glances at the hoop.
How the Pacers could win: Hibbert suddenly channels Bill Russell. Granger shoots over 75 percent from beyond the arc. Mike Dunleavy scores 30 points per game. Posey forgets what year it is and believes he’s still playing for the Celtics.
Prediction: Chicago has its sights set on a championship, the Pacers represent a mere pebble in the road, and the Bulls will triumph in five games.
(2) MIAMI vs. (7) PHILADELPHIA
Why the Heat should win: Miami has developed an intriguing harmony. The most important factor here is Erik Spoelstra’s decision to stop trying to force-feed Chris Bosh in hopes of getting him off early. Instead, Bosh now gets precious few opportunities and must rely on offensive rebounds, appropriate off-the-ball movement and being on the receiving end of kick-out passes to get his shots.
Also, LeBron James has emerged as the team’s go-to player, with Dwyane Wade accepting a diminished role. Plus Joel Anthony has played inspired defense in the middle.
In addition to overwhelming firepower, Miami’s defense has vastly improved as the season has progressed.
How the Sixers could win: Only if LBJ and D-Wade are discovered to be the leaders of an ultra-secret Al-Qaida terrorist cell and are whisked away to Guantanamo.
Prediction: This is strictly a warmup as the Heat fine-tune their burners and roast Philly in four games.
(3) BOSTON vs. (6) NEW YORK
Why the Celtics should win: The core of the team consists of hardened veterans with championship bona fides. Kevin Garnett is obnoxious but scrappy. Paul Pierce has enough left in his tank to run wild against the Knicks’ porous defense. The return of Shaquille O’Neal will provide an overpowering presence in the paint, plus monstrous screens to facilitate Ray Allen’s constant cuts, curls and fades that will befuddle the defense of rookie Landry Fields. Rajon Rondo can run circles around Chauncey Billups, New York’s senior citizen point guard. Above all, the Celtics play with discipline at both ends of the court.
Despite their recent woes, the Celtics will be as greedy as King Midas once the money season commences.
How the Knicks could win: Amar’e Stoudemire’s quick-stepping offense leaves KG in the dust. The sheer versatility of Carmelo Anthony’s ability to put points on the board wears out PP at the defensive end. Billups can bully Rondo and still make big shots — and Rondo sorely misses the company of his best buddy, Kendrick Perkins. Shaq is old, increasingly brittle and unlikely to keep his wobbly wheels intact for long.
If the Celtics stumbled through the last few weeks of the regular season, the Knicks have learned to integrate the respective talents of Melo and Amar’e and ended the season with peak performances. Except for Billups, New York’s young legs will make a huge difference as the series unfolds.
Most important, the Knicks are much hungrier than the staid, elderly Celtics.
Prediction: Despite Boston’s plan to win the very last game of the season, they are on their collective way down while the Knicks are surging. New York in seven.
(4) ORLANDO vs. (5) ATLANTA
Why the Magic should win: Dwight Howard has an unbeatable size and strength advantage over any and all of Atlanta’s bigs. Jameer Nelson has his flaws, but leadership isn’t among them. Hedo Turkoglu has rediscovered his comfort zone. Ryan Anderson’s all-around hustle and 3-point bombs are a significant plus off the bench. Jason Richardson has found the fountain of youth in Orlando. Brandon Bass has taken full advantage of his increased daylight by climbing the glass and popping his mid-range jumpers. J.J. Redick has evolved into a crafty, bull’s-eye shooting sub. And whatever Gilbert Arenas brings to the mix in any given game always makes a difference.
In sum, the Magic’s board power and usually alert defense are abetted by Stan Van Gundy having eight double-figure scorers at his disposal.
How the Hawks could win: On the basis of sheer talent, Atlanta can beat any team in the NBA at any time. Too bad their roster is stocked with too many wildly immature players. In any event, the Hawks can turn the Magic into rabbits if Josh Smith and Jamal Crawford can be dosed with grown-up pills; if Joe Johnson can succeed on the majority of his one-on-one forays; if Al Horford can out-quick Howard and also knock down his jumpers; if Marvin Williams isn’t paralyzed by stage fright; and if his scatterbrained teammates can yield to the leadership of the slow but tough-enough Kirk Hinrich.
Prediction: Orlando can be had but not by the iffy Hawks. The Magic make Atlanta vanish in six games.