Even though I was born in September and my soul is inextricably tied to all things autumn, I think the stretch from Tax Day* through Labor Day might be my favorite time of the year.
(*Editor’s Note: Obviously, in light of the events in Boston this week, Tax Day will be forever tied to a greater tragedy than our self-deprecating jokes about paying the IRS. I was profoundly affected by the Boston Marathon bombing, just as I was affected by the Newtown shootings. I found myself able to write about Newtown, but I’m still at a loss for what happened in Boston. And, I just want to talk about basketball here anyway.)
I understand that using Tax Day as a starting point leaves out the Final Four and the NCAA National Championship Game, but once you hit mid-April, it really feels like spring. Pear and cherry blossoms bloom and it seems as though there are bits of lavender and yellow tulips everywhere; the squeal of children on their way to school sounds endearing and makes you smile; and the evening walk home from the subway is graced by mellow, near-damp twilight—everything blue and refreshing and pleasant.
And as you move toward Memorial Day things slowly start to get warmer, but nothing too unbearable; an open window is still just as good as an air conditioner to a blind horse. There are Saturday picnics and lengthening evenings and everything in the world—the dresses on girls, the emerging boat shoes, the action of humanity in the dusk—has the promise of becoming full and overripe, but isn’t quite there yet. Finally, it all explodes in a rush of barbeques and first swims and the a big summer blockbuster on that prolonged weekend at the end of May. Before you know it, it’s June and its just too hot!
Plus, my Ga-od the sports! I may be cutting out the Final Four and the like, but late April and May contain the first tangible storylines of the baseball season, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the NHL Playoffs…
Oh, and of course, my favorite sporting event, the first few rounds of the NBA Playoffs.
Sure, the Finals start in June and we usually only remember the NBA Finals matchup from a given year. However, for an NBA junkie, there is nothing quite like those multiple nights of the week in late April when there are triple-header playoff games—and of course those even more special cases when there is a weekend quadruple-header. It’s a time that you can forget tragedy, forget shortcomings and take solace in a day full of games; and maybe a little beer.
This year, the Playoffs are shaping up to be fantastic. Well, at least once conference is. Yes, it is no secret that this year’s Eastern Conference Playoffs may not define the word “drama.” No matter what any deluded Indiana, Chicago or New York fan tells you, it does look like Miami will once again represent the East in the NBA Finals.
Yet, there are some interesting subplots and potentially entertaining series that need to be discussed. So, I am going to walk you through the entirety of my Eastern Conference playoff predictions today, before following up with a Western Conference preview on Friday, which will include my NBA Finals prediction as well.
So, please sit back and soak what I think will hypothetically happen during the Eastern Conference Playoffs of the sporting league known as the National Basketball Alliance. Ah, shit…I meant Association. National Basketball Association.
1. Miami Heat vs. 8. Milwaukee Bucks
When the Bucks traded for J.J. Redick at the February deadline, they regained a bit of their 2010 “Fear the Deer” potential. However, that has long gone. Though the Bucks have traditionally played Miami tough in the Big Three era, this Heat team is more mature, more professional an dmore focused than the teams of the past two years. Basically, here are the four things you need to know about this series:
- Lebron James is the NBA MVP.
- Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis have still not figured out how to play together.
- The Bucks have lost five games in a row, and one of those losses was to the Bobcats.
- Larry Sanders* (LARRY SANDERS!) is great.
Prediction: Heat win series 4-0.
(Editor’s Note: I really wanted to link to a Larry Sanders Show clip, but it’s been done to death already. Ah, what the hell!?)
2. New York Knicks vs. 7. Boston Celtics
This might be the most interesting series of the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Unfortunately, its going to take on an extra resonance with the Boston Marathon bombing, but nevertheless, the Knicks and Celtics should engage in a physical and emotional battle.
However, it’s hard to see any other outcome besides the Knicks defeating the Celtics. For all the talk over the past few years as to whether or not this matchup is even a rivalry, at this point I think the Knicks have a legit claim as being rivals to the Celtics. Honey Nut Cheerio-gate has long passed, but when you have Chandler and Garnett vying for defensive position; Pierce and Carmelo looking to make dagger three-pointers; Avery Bradley trying to make Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton cry; J.R. Smith playing out of his mind (and ditching the pipe); and Jeff Green trying to decide if he wants to be a great player or not, it’s going to be an intense series.
The Celtics are beat up, though, and this team has the feel of the 1992 or 1993 vintages of the Celtics, right when the Parish-McHale-Bird era reached its end. Meanwhile, the Knicks are rounding into playoff form at the right time.
And, as a side note, I miss Rondo.
Prediction: Knicks win series 4-2.
3. Indiana Pacers vs. 6. Atlanta Hawks
Oh, how the somewhat mighty have fallen! The gritty Pacers were once the trendy pick to push Miami to the limit in the Playoffs, but they have sputtered over the past month or so and finish the season under the radar once again. According to Zach Lowe, this is exactly where coach Frank Vogel wants them to be.
No matter what issues the Pacers are currently having, they should still be able to beat the Atlanta Hawks over a seven game series. These teams are fairly comparable, though. They both boast two physical front court players (Hibbert/West and Horford/Smith); they each have a feisty point guard (Hill vs. Teague) and they each have a bruising somewhat head case that comes off the bench (Tyler “Psycho T” Hansbrough vs. Ivan Johnson.
But the Pacers just play phenomenal defense (Indiana and Memphis are each the best defensive team in the league on any given night) even if they have trouble scoring. They also have Paul George. While Josh Smith can score at the same clip as Paul George—and is capable of playing high-caliber defense when he wants to—the Hawks just don’t have the same level of talent in their starting five and the same cohesiveness on defense that the Pacers do.
Look, this series is going to be ugly. The Hawks are most definitely going to win two games, but the Pacers will win the series because of their great defense, the fact that they have slightly more talent and their marginally deeper bench.
Prediction: Pacers win series 4-2
4. Brooklyn Nets vs. 5. Chicago Bulls
Though I am baffled by P.J. Carlissimo’s decision to call out Andre “Key Reserve” Blatche on his fitness after 81 games, I like the Nets. And, no, it’s not just because I live right up the street from the Barclays Center and think the Atlantic Avenue Terminal is the pinacle of urban human achievement. I like the Nets for the same reasons I liked them at the beginning of the season: they have a starting five that can compete with anyone, they have a respectable bench, and they have a great home crowd.
Now that Deron Williams is back to playing like he did from 2006-2009 (back when many said he was a better point guard than Chris Paul), the Nets are a substantially more dangerous team than they were for much of the season. Lopez has been great all year long. Joe Johnson has been his ho-hum, up-and-down, overpaid self—capable of a transcendent all-around performance one night and then capable of making you forget that he was even playing in the game the next. Blatche, despite his conditioning or whatever, has actually had a very productive season and was one of the smartest pick-ups of the offseason. And, Gerald Wallace has just been bad. But, hey, he does hustle.
Meanwhile, after a solid start to the season, the Bulls have been plagued by the ghost of Derrick Rose (Will he return? Will he wait until next year? Maybe he’ll come back for the Playoffs? Maybe he won’t come back because his brother said that he didn’t think the Bulls did enough to build a contender?) as well as a series of injuries to various players. You know that Chicago will always play hard; Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are going to hound the ball and push you around on the glass. Also, Tom Thibodeau will sound like a Depression-era gangster. And Nate Robinson is going to play out of his mind for at least one game and keep the Bulls in the series.
This one is going to go seven games. The Chicago crowds are always great, but the Brooklyn fans, watching a playoff Game Seven in their first year as an NBA franchise, are going to be historically rowdy. The home court advantage, along with the fact that the Bulls have no true answer for Williams (Hinrich is a solid player and I’ve always loved him, but he’s not stopping this version of Deron) will allows the Nets to prevail.
Prediction: Nets win series 4-3
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
1. Miami Heat vs. 4. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets are most certainly a sleeper in this series and could give the Heat trouble. If Deron Williams continues to play as well as he has over the past two months, he will definitely be too much for Chalmers to handle. Reggie Evans eats glass and will be a pain in the ass for Battier and Haslem to box out. Joe Johnson has size and can give Wade problems. There is a chance that Brook Lopez might very well outplay Bosh in the entire series. Plus, the Brooklyn bench is both feisty and experienced.
However, Joe Johnson has a tendancy to disappear. Lopez has never been to the Playoffs before. The Heat are sound defensively and can even be stifling when they want to. The Heat bench is both experienced and feisty and also better than all of the Nets’ reserves. Plus, the Heat have Lebron.
Prediction: Heat win series 4-0
2. New York Knicks vs. 3 Indiana Pacers
The Knicks get to take on another old-school Eastern Conference rival and we viewers at home will get to remember plenty of Knicks/Pacers historical highlights (Spike Lee, Reggie’s choke sign, 8 points in 9 seconds, Starks/Miller, Ewing’s missed layup, LJ’s four point play, Rik Smits in general, the Davis Boys, and Charles Oakley).
This also may be the dark horse for the best series in the Playoffs. These two teams play very different styles, but are evenly matched overall. David West is not afraid of anybody and the Pacers will throw both his size and toughness and Paul George’s athleticism at Carmelo in equal doses. The backcourt matchups are a wash (Felton has maybe a slight edge on Hill and Shumpert and Stephenson are a draw); Hibbert vs. a recovering Chandler is a wash and might be a slight edge to the Pacers. But the Knicks have a more dangerous bench. Offensively, J.R. Smith, Prigioni and Novak can bring more to the table than Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Sam Young and Gerald Green.
The Pacers are going to try to make this series as physical as possible and unnerve the Knicks, just like they tried to do with Miami last year. If the Knicks can move the ball like they did at the beginning of the year—and as they have been doing over the past three weeks—as well as remain mentally resilient and not let a physical series knock them completely out of gear, they can beat the Pacers. However, if the Pacers draw blood and the Knicks get wary, then its going to be tough.
Yet, somehow I see Game 7 with a raucous Madison Square Garden, while the entire borough of Manhattan feels electric in the May evening. After withstanding a furious Pacers comeback, Carmelo stands at mid-court and encourages the crowd to cheer. His line of 33-14-7 fades from the big screen, replaced by a “BEAT THE HEAT” graphic.
Prediction: Knicks win series 4-3
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
1. Miami Heat vs. 2. New York Knicks
“So, wait a second. You’re telling me that the Knicks are going to play three out of their four true historic rivals in one playoff run and that doesn’t qualify as an entertaining or ‘good’ Eastern Conference Playoffs?”
No, Whoever Just Asked That Question, I would never say that. In fact, you just helped me make my point. If the Eastern Conference Playoffs shake out this way, it will actually be more entertaining than it looks on paper.
Look, everyone knows that the Knicks won the season series against the Heat three games to one. However, two of those wins came in the first two months of the season when the Heat weren’t THE HEAT that they are right now. You know, the team that won 27 games in a row. The third Knicks victory game right after the Heat’s winning streak had ended, plus Lebron and Wade did not even play. Even then, the Knicks won by twelve only because Carmelo played out of his mind and scored 50 points.
Without a doubt, Carmelo will have one of those games in this series. He did it last year at the Garden and he’ll do it again. Here’s how the series will shake out:
The Heat will win the first game convincingly against a tired Knicks team.
In Game 2, the Knicks take a big lead, but the Heat come back and win. Melo and Lebron duel and both finish with around 35-40 points.
In Game 3, Carmelo explodes at the Garden for 49 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists. The Knicks win by twelve as Lebron and Wade both score 22 points and Bosh is held to 10 points and 6 rebounds in one of those classic games where he just disappears.
In Game 4, a rabid MSG crowd is quieted as Carmelo starts cold and the Heat storm to an eleven point halftime lead. However, the Knicks come out on fire in the third quarter and take a five point lead into the fourth behind a hot shooting streak from both Jason Kidd and Steve Novak. Yet, in the final frame, the Heat come back and Wade steals a sloppy J.R. Smith pass to seal the five point victory. Carmelo finishes with 30 points on 9-30 shooting and the New York media is frothing.
Game 5 in Miami is a back and forth affair. J.R. Smith comes out scorching hot and the Knicks lead by four at halftime. After Miami takes a seven point lead to start the third quarter, the Knicks even the game heading into the fourth. The game is tied at 90 with two minutes left, but Bosh pump fakes Chandler, who was drawn out away from the basket, and makes a three pointer. On the ensuing possession, J.R. Smith, who had been driving through the Miami defense all night, misses a three pointer. At the other end, Miami finds Battier for a corner three and go up by six points with 57 seconds left. The Knicks score a quick two to cut the lead to four with 48 seconds left, but Lebron answers with a fadeaway jumper with two seconds left on the shot clock, pushing the score to 98-92 with 26 sconds remaining in the game. Carmelo misses a desperation three and, after the obligatory foul game tactics, the Heat prevail and head to the NBA Finals once again.
Though, despite the team’s shortcoming, Carmelo is not flayed by the New York press. In fact, his heart and high level of play in the series are applauded with many—even Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith on ESPN—declaring Carmelo a changed man and “finally a true super star.” Rumors of an SNL hosting gig in the fall run amok.
Prediction: Miami Heat win series 4-1.