COMMENTARY | The 2011 NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs will begin Saturday, April 16. In the first game of the postseason, likely Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls will host the Indiana Pacers. Later that afternoon, the Philadelphia 76ers will visit the Miami Heat, and that evening the Orlando Magic will host the Atlanta Hawks. The Boston Celtics and New York Knicks will open their first-round playoff series Sunday, April 17.
Here is a brief preview, along with predictions, of each Eastern Conference first-round series:
#1 Chicago Bulls (62-20) versus #8 Indiana Pacers (37-45)
Regular season series: Bulls 3-1
En route to their NBA-best 62-win season, Derrick Rose and the Bulls lost one game to a divisional opponent. That loss occurred on March 18 to the Indiana Pacers. Chicago manhandled the Central Division and finished the season 15-1 against their divisional foes.
The Pacers (the only sub-.500 team to make the Playoffs) will have to play near-perfect basketball to have a chance at even one win in this series. Look for the Bulls to carry their regular-season dominance of divisional opponents into the postseason.
Prediction: Bulls 4-0
#2 Miami Heat (58-24) versus #7 Philadelphia 76ers (41-41)
Regular season series: Heat 3-0
The Miami Heat All-Star Trio will face an athletic, deep and talented 76ers squad in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The Heat features three double-digit scorers compared to six for the 76ers. One team relies on its star power, the other relies on its bench production.
Both the Heat (2-8) and 76ers (3-8) were absolutely horrible in games decided by three points or less this season. The Heat acquired their 58 wins by beating up the weaker teams of the league (35 wins by 10 or more points and 37 wins against teams below .500).
The 76ers spent most of the season (57 games) below the .500 mark and appear to be the kind of team that Miami feasted upon during the regular season. In fact, the Heat won the three head-to-head matchups between the two teams by an average of 10.3 points.
As deep and talented as they are, Philadelphia only has one player, Andre Igoudala, who can make life difficult for either Dwyane Wade or LeBron James. Igoudala is a premier wing defender but he cannot guard both James and Wade at the same time.
Unless Philadelphia finds a way to clone Andre Igoudala, the Heat’s star power will trump Philadelphia’s depth and talent.
Prediction: Heat 4-1
#3 Boston Celtics (56-26) versus #6 New York Knicks (42-40)
Regular Season Series: Celtics 4-0
The Knicks, led by All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, will face the reigning Eastern Conference Champion Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Boston boasts four All-Stars of their own (Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rando) who all play defense.
Even though they traded Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Celtics maintained their defensive focus. Boston finished the season with the second-best defensive efficiency (97.8), behind the Chicago Bulls.
Neither Anthony nor Stoudemire has ever been accused of playing defense. The Celtics and their four defensive-minded All-Stars will humble the defensively challenged Knicks.
Prediction: Celtics 4-1
#4 Orlando Magic (52-30) versus #5 Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
Regular Season Series: Hawks 3-1
This series is a rematch of last year’s second round matchup. Last season, the Magic swept the Hawks 4-0 and outscored them 429-328.
This year, Atlanta won three of its four regular season meetings with Orlando. But the Hawks also lost three home games by 30 points or more, and any team that allows itself to be embarrassed like that on its home floor lacks pride and discipline.
The prideful and defensive-minded Orlando Magic, anchored by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, finished the season as one of the top defensive teams in the NBA. That defensive mindset will carry them past the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA Playoffs.
Prediction: Magic 4-1
Information from ESPN.com’s NBA Schedule, 2010-2011 NBA Regular Season Conference Standings, 2011 NBA Playoff Matchups, Miami Heat 2011 Statistics, Philadelphia 76ers 2011 Statistics, Philadelphia 76ers 2011 Schedule, NBA All-Star Game 2011, Hollinger’s NBA Team Stats and Atlanta Hawks 2011 Schedule was used for this article.