The Miami Heat may be the biggest sports story so far of 2013. The defending champions posted a 38-3 record during the second half the NBA season, including a 27 game winning streak, that was the second longest in league history. LeBron James is playing the best basketball of his career and is on the verge of winning his fourth MVP award in the last five seasons. While the Western Conference playoff picture will be more difficult to forecast, the biggest question in the Eastern Conference is if any team has a chance to stop the Heat. Miami is playing at a dominant level that no team has reached since, the Chicago Bulls of the late 1990 and Los Angeles Lakers of the early 2000’s.
The Heat are a heavy favorite to reach the NBA Finals for a third consecutive year and it would not all be surprising if they swept the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. They went 3-1 against the Bucks during the regular season, including two double digit victories over the last five weeks. Their road to the finals will get tougher in the later rounds against the likes of the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls. New York beat Miami three out four times during the regular season and Chicago split their four game series with the Heat.
Here’s a preview of what to watch for in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
#1 Miami Heat vs. #8 Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee is playing far from its best basketball going in to the postseason, having lost three of their last ten games. A big reason for their recent struggles was the absence of Larry Sanders and an Achillies’ injury suffered by Brandon Jennings. When healthy, he and Monta Ellis are one of the best backcourts in the NBA. Both of them are streaky streakers, especially from beyond the arc, but either one is capable of putting up 30+ points on any given net. The key for the Bucks against the Heat will be the defensive play of third year center Larry Sanders and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Miami was the worst rebounding team during the regular season which could mean trouble for Chris Bosh and their other big men against the Buck’s strong defensive pair. However, their perimeter players will have a difficult task of slowing down both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Prediction: Miami in Four
#4 Brooklyn Nets vs. #5 Chicago Bulls
Chicago’s season went better than many had expected without the presence of Derrick Rose, who has not suited up since tearing the ACL in his left knee on the first day of the playoffs last year. The Bulls had the best record in the NBA during the previous two seasons and looked like the biggest challenge to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference. Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have stepped up with All-Star campaigns with their MVP point guard out of action. However without him at full strength, Chicago is a middle of the pack that will have enough trouble just getting out of the first round. Their series against the Brooklyn Nets is easily the biggest toss up of all the Eastern Conference first round series. The Nets are in the postseason for the first time since 2007 (Jason Kidd’s last full season with the team) and made it during their inaugural season in Brooklyn. Resigning Deron Williams and Brook Lopez and expensive trades for Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace, have helped the franchise became relevant for the first time in the Mikhail Prokhorov era. Brooklyn has the depth to matchup with Chicago’s forwards and a huge advantage with their all-star caliber backcourt. Hard to compare the duo of Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich to that of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. That could be the difference maker in what will be a hard fought series.
Prediction: Chicago in Seven
#3 Indiana Pacers vs. #6 Atlanta Hawks
Its a make or break it postseason for the Hawks who are in the NBA Playoffs for a sixth consecutive year. Atlanta has not advanced to the conference finals during that time and was eliminated in the first round last year, after three consecutive trips to the second round of action. Changes could be on the horizon for the roster and coaching staff, if they have another early exit in the playoffs. This series will be a clash of styles, between Atlanta’s up tempo offense (that led the NBA in assists) and the defensive mindset of Indiana. Indiana led the NBA in rebounds as a team and gave up the fewest points per 100 possessions (96.5). Both of these offenses run through their versatile small forwards, Josh Smith and Paul George, which will be the key matchup in this series. Paul George is the favorite to be named the NBA’s Most Improved player and emerged as a star player, with Danny Granger missing all but five games this season. Atlanta is the deeper team, especially in the backcourt, but the Pacers stout defense will be a difficult matchup for the Hawks.
Prediction: Indiana in Six
#2 New York Knicks vs. #7 Boston Celtics
2013 may finally be the year the Knicks postseason drought ends. Their last championship banner was raised in 1973 and the franchise has not advanced past the first round since 2000. The wait for an NBA title may be on hold for another year (or two), but Madison Square Garden is getting closer to hosting playoff games in late May. Carmelo Anthony led the league in scoring for the first time in his career and helped the Knicks achieve their best record in 16 years. Not bad for the oldest team in NBA history. The Boston Celtics aren’t nearly as ancient, but they are an aging group that has declined dramatically this season and won 17 fewer games than a year ago. Boston entered the season as a championship contender, after taking the Miami Heat to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals. Their title hopes began to fade after Rajon Rondo tore the ACL in his right knee back in January. An early exit against the Knicks would be the first time the Celtics have failed to advance past the first round during the Kevin Garnett era.
Prediction: New York in Five