By Kein Chua
When it comes to competition for Playoffs seeding, the Western Conference is a veritable battlefield. Chew on this for a second: the lowest seeded Playoff team in the West (Houston Rockets with 45-37), has won more games than the Eastern Conference’s sixth seeded team (Atlanta Hawks with 44-38).
Do not think however, that teams in the East are a bunch of pushovers. Contrary to what you might believe, Eastern Conference teams are well-known for having a more physical style of play. Miami Heat swingman Shane Battier commented to the Miami Sun Sentinel about this same trait last year, contrasting it to the “free-flowing” basketball tempo Western teams gravitated towards.
Be prepared for a slugfest, as the four playoff series approach, and eight teams ready themselves for a brutal best of seven series.
Series 1: Miami Heat (1) versus Milwaukee Bucks (8)
Newly-minted champions in 2011/12, the Heat were on a 27-win streak at one point in the season. They stayed healthy, strengthened their roster by signing “Birdman” Chris Andersen in the mid-season and finished with a stellar 66-16 season record. No question about it, Miami is set to continue their dominance with undisputed star LeBron James at the helm. With fellow All-Star Dwyane Wade running the transition machine and center Chris Bosh filling the gaps both as a shooter or finisher at the rim, coach Erick Spoelstra runs an intimidating defensive system that punishes opponent mistakes with transition dunks and three point makes. To the Heat, anything less than a re-peat would likely be considered a failure.
Will the Bucks pull a miracle victory somehow? Unlikely. Miami’s only perceived weakness is against teams with interior firepower (e.g. Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers). Rising big man Larry Sanders is not in his best form right now, being sidelined with a back injury. Throw in a wrist injury on long-range bomber/forward Ersan Illyasova, and we have two capable big men with questionable health. Expect big performances from manic scoring guard Monta Ellis to win them a game (or two), but it will not be enough to pull an upset over King James.
Series 2: New York Knicks (2) versus Boston Celtics (7)
An old rivalry re-establishes itself once more in this series, with new storylines in the making. Carmelo Anthony is on the chase for a ring, and coach Mike Woodson has magically transformed the once-troubled Knicks into a cohesive team capable of big numbers, and big wins.
On the other hand, we have the 17-time champion Boston Celtics. After a promising roster reload in the off-season, multiple season-ending injuries to key players derailed the ride somewhat: savant point guard Rajon Rondo and Brazillian swingman Leandro Barbosa suffered ACL injuries, while talented rookie rebounder Jared Sullinger had a back operation. Wizards scorer Jordan Crawford was signed to fill Barbosa’s absence. Big men Darko Milicic and Jason Collins were eventually replaced with CBA imports Shavlik Randolph and DJ White. Whilst the team was being torn apart and reshaped, veteran leaders Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce soldiered on with stoic confidence. Pierce (known as The Truth), stil believes in the Celtics being “as tough as anybody in the East to beat“.
Will this storied franchise, all bruised and battered, shine once more in the post-season against the Knicks? Stranger things have happened, and if there is one thing we have learnt, it is never to count Garnett and Pierce out. Pierce has made a career of sinking daggers in the clutch against the Knicks, and this series matchup would be like steak to a starved pitbull - dinner, is served.
Everyone is favouring the Knicks, but I would not be surprised if either team wins.
Series 3: Indiana Pacers (3) versus Atlanta Hawks (6)
The absence of Danny Granger was a blessing in disguise, as third-year Pacer Paul George stepped up to fill the gap admirably. With the tenacious defense and raw physical length the Pacers boasted, they made a quiet run and finished third in the conference. “Defense wins championships” – do the Pacers have what it takes to make a deep Playoff run this year?
The Hawks on the other hand, had a bumpy ride through the season. On some nights, they looked like tough playoff contenders. On others? Not in your wildest dreams. Scoring guard Lou Williams played well for the team, averaging 14.1 points off the bench before an ACL injury derailed his season. Right now, Atlanta survives on a staple diet of interior offense from Al Horford with Jeff Teague manning the helm, and ex-Chicago Bull marksman Kyle Korver providing long-range firepower.
Will Atlanta make it a tough battle against Indiana? The key that could swing the series, would be errant power forward Josh Smith’s shot selection. J-Smoove is a formidable foe in the low post, but has chosen to take long two-point jumpshots over the efficient game he possesses near the paint. The Pacers are not an elite scoring team by any stretch of imagination. Should the Hawks turn the tide on scoring while getting the Indy big men into foul trouble, we could be in for a long series ahead.
Series 4: Brooklyn Nets (4) versus Chicago Bulls (5)
Big bucks, big contracts, and big player names. The Brooklyn Nets were built for success, and they have delivered somewhat by emerging as a fourth-seeded team. The one thing you would notice immediately, is the size advantage their lineup presents. Joe Johnson, who stands at 6 ft 8 inches is playing at the two spot (shooting guard), presenting an absolute mismatch for most other teams. Add a tough interior roster (Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans, Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez), an elite point guard returning to top form in Deron Williams, and the Nets are set to make an impact.
The Bulls trudged to the finish line this season and clinched a playoffs berth, only to realise recuperating star Derrick Rose would likely be sitting this post-season out. Without their All-Star point guard, Chicago’s post-season hopes took a legitimate hit. The Bulls however, still are a well-honed threat with coach Thibodeau’s scrappy defensive system, Luol Deng’s leadership and the emergence of sophomore Bull Jimmy Butler as an energetic piece in the starting lineup.
Are the Bulls the underdog in this series? Definitely. Could they still win this round? It all hinges on Bulls center Joakim Noah’s health. Hampered with plantar fasciitis, the center’s mobility would be a huge factor in containing the Nets’ interior onslaught. Another thought: could point guard Nate Robinson hit enough big shots for the Bulls and win them a game, the way he did during his tenure with the Celtics in the “Shrek and Donkey” game with Glen Davis?
Bring on the Playoffs!
There is no better time to watch the NBA like right now. In the Playoffs, every mistake could be a costly turnover, and every possession matters like it never did on a season game. Two factors separate the winners from everyone else: mental toughness, and an iron will to succeed, no matter what. Who will emerge from the ashes of the trials ahead?
The Playoffs await.