The Eastern conference is on the rise. The Bulls and Heat look like elite teams for the foreseeable future. The Magic will join them if they can keep Dwight Howard, and the Knicks now have a couple superstars that they can build around. Even the Nets landed a star and have a core that could make some noise if they can gather one more high quality piece to mesh with what they have.
In short, the East looks like the new West with the Bulls and Heat playing the role of the Spurs and Lakers with plenty of other teams having the ability to put quality out there. This year, things won't get interesting until the second round.
Bulls (1) vs Pacers (8)
I'll obviously spend a great deal of time breaking down this series and doing game by game recaps of it, so I won't go into too much depth here. Instead, I'll relay an interview I heard from a guy who covers the Pacers on ESPN 1000 last night.
When asked, "How far do Pacers fans think this series will go?" He responded with five or six games. Home fans typically think their team is at least one game better than it is, and they're predicting 5 or 6.
I'm predicting 4 or 5. The only question of whether there's a sweep or not is how focused the Bulls are. In many ways, I think a sweep would hurt the Bulls, because I think they'll play better without having a massive layoff between series.
Bulls in five
Miami (2) vs Philly (7)
Philly has the individual man defenders and athleticism to bother Miami's offense. Unfortunately, they don't really have the potent offensive players to do much on the other end.
The Heat are simply better on both ends of the court and Philly even lacks the three point shooting that would give them a punchers chance of having a lucky series.
Much like the Pacers/Bulls series, you're only asking how long Philly can hang in here. I'd say this one is also 4-5 games depending on how focused Miami is.
Miami in five
Boston (3) vs New York (6)
New York earlier said they wished they played the Heat. So do I, it would have been more entertaining than this series, and New York would have had that 1/5 chance of knocking Miami out.
That said, I think they stand a pretty good chance at beating Boston. People fall into two groups right now. Those who think Boston is just sandbagging because they put together a good playoff run last year, and those who think Boston really isn't that good anymore.
You know I'm in the second group. If there's an upset in this round, it will be this game. However, I think Boston matches up pretty well against New York. A team that basically has a couple of star focal points will feed well into Boston's defensive strategy and New York doesn't really have the depth or athleticism to run them off the court.
As such, I think Boston does just enough to get by the Knicks in the only interesting first round series in the East.
Boston in six
Orlando (4) vs Atlanta (5)
You typically think of the four vs five matchup as one that can go either way. This one can't go either way. Atlanta is in a complete free fall ever since trading away Mike Bibby in order to get Captain glue whether those things are related or not is anyone's guess.
Atlanta's a team that ended the season in complete freefall and only racks up wins against lousy opponents for the most part. They did beat Orlando three of four times during the season, so I suppose that counts for something, but not really...
The Hawks are further hurt by the fact that they have no homecourt advantage whatsoever, and the Magic fans might be louder and more present than the Hawks fans at their playoff games.
They simply have no way to deal with Dwight Howard, while Horford is one of the better center's in the NBA, he's also a PF playing center and doesn't have the size or strength to do anything with Dwight. The Hawks do have the shooting to give them some kind of puncher's chance in the series, especially if Orlando's shooters go cold.
However, it's hard to see either of those things working out as Orlando's shooters will likely be shooting open far more often than Atlanta's.
Magic in five
Bulls (1) vs Magic (4)
The Magic are probably the team that scares me third most in the NBA for the Bulls to face after L.A. and Miami. I think the Bulls would have an easier path if they played Boston in round two, as they match up better. Amusingly, Nick Friedell was saying on ESPN 1000 that he thinks the Bulls would prefer Miami to Boston in the ECF.
I'm not one to say I know more than the players, but I think players tend to discount how much guys decline due to age more so than sideline observers.
Anyway that's not going to happen, so no use thinking about it.
The Bulls have beaten the Magic three out of four this season, but the final win was a hard fought contest and Dwight Howard wasn't even playing. The only loss game in Boozer's debut game for Chicago where he rotated the wrong way on every help defensive play and the Magic still had Rashard Lewis, so that game also doesn't mean much to me either.
The Bulls have the bodies to throw at Dwight and make his life miserable. Asik has done a serviceable job on Howard so far, Thomas will annoy the piss out of him with physical play, and Noah will use his energy to make Dwight work hard on both ends of the court moving around.
I think the Bulls can manage Howard just fine, the question is whether or not the Bulls can successfully run the Magic shooter's off the three point line. I think they've done a great job of managing wing players, but they struggle when having to defend stretch fours and fives. As such Ryan Anderson probably plays a fairly absurdly important role for the Magic against Chicago relative to what he might play normally.
On the other end, the Magic's best hope of stopping Derrick Rose is for Dwight to beat the hell out of him, and he's certainly shown that he's willing to do just that (even if I don't think either foul was as bad as most people). Luol Deng will destroy Hedo Turkoglu, and we'll have to hope Carlos Boozer shows up with his share of offense against the rather uninspiring Magic PF rotation of Bass and Anderson.
As noted above, after L.A. and Miami, the Magic have the third highest chance of knocking out the Bulls, so I don't think this series is a pushover, still I think the Bulls are solid favorites and will go on to win.
Bulls in seven
Heat (2) vs Boston (3)
I don't think this will be a series at all. Chris Bosh said that Boston's a tougher opponent than Chicago, but I don't know which NBA he's been watching lately. The Miami Heat are going to absolutely throttle the Boston Celtics in this round. I doubt I'll even get killed for this opinion at this point.
The Celtics are 3-1 against the Heat this year, but two games were really early in the season when Miami hadn't gotten their crap together yet, and Kendrick Perkins was there for the other game.
The Heat have too much athleticism and too much talent for the Celtics to deal with. Their lone hope is that Rajon Rondo gets his head out of his ass which I suppose isn't entirely unrealistic. Still, I don't think this one is even close.
Heat in five
Eastern Conference Finals
Bulls (1) vs Heat (2)
The Bulls are 3-0 vs Miami this season, but I don't think that carries much meaning. All three games were close, all three games could have gone either way, LeBron missed one of them as well.
The Bulls have the kind of defense that can give Miami a hard time as I think they do a nice job of stopping star players. The Heat have no one who can even pretend to match up with Derrick Rose on the defensive end, nor do they have anyone who can provide any help once he blows by whomever they put on him.
The Heat will be able to take the ball out of Rose's hands if they aggressively trap him with both Wade and LeBron, but then the Bulls should find a lot of success moving the ball as there are no other athletic defenders available to stop anyone else when they're defending four with three guys.
All that said, the Heat are dangerous as hell. They have immense top end talent and Chris Bosh may have finally found his niche on this team after that five game losing streak. They can overwhelm the Bulls with their offensive creation power and multiple points of attack. The Bulls have made Bosh beat them in the past and he's failed, will Chris Bosh fail again?
I've gone back and forth in my mind on this series over and over again. I typically come to the conclusion that if my house was on the line that I'd pick the Heat, but I think it's more or less a 50/50. I think the Heat probably have a more talented roster, but I trust Thibodeau to make better adjustments and homecourt could be a huge factor.
So just because I can't force myself to print anything else....
Bulls in seven