Indiana Pacers vs. Atlants Hawks
Key Matchup: Pero Antic vs. Roy Hibbert
Antic will light up the Pacers in this series just like he did in the regular season. (17 points per game on 72% shooting against Indiana, 6.6 points on 40% against the rest of the league.) Figuring out a way to guard him will be Vogel's challenge, but doing so while keeping Hibbert on the floor will be key. Hibbert must get his confidence back for the Pacers to have a deep run in the playoffs. Getting Big Roy enough burn, and putting him in situations to have success is the best way to get that done. Sure Vogel could dust off Copeland to chase around the Macedonian rookie, but I think giving up a few three pointers is worth the price of getting Hibbs some easy looks in the paint.
X-Factor: George Hill
Hill's been steady of late…steadily invisible. His confidence is way down. He's even missing out on backpacks for the kids at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, his backup, CJ Watson, is on fire. If Hill isn't properly motivated, he will see his crunch time minutes reduced. If he has even an efficient series, the league better take notice, 'cause the Pacers are coming.
Prediction: Atlanta embarrassed Indiana on their home floor to the tune of 107-88 just two weeks ago. The Hawks are capable of winning games against these Pacers, however they can't beat them in a series. Atlanta's only real hope is the Pacers beat themselves. Sorry Hawk fans…not this round. Indiana comes out focused and sharp and takes care of business.
Pacers in 5
Editors Note: I wrote these predictions before game 1. After the Pacers lost at home, I am hitting all of the panic buttons. But i am a hardcore (delusional) fan and so I am keeping this prediction. Get it together boys and sweep the next four.
Miami Heat vs. Charlotte Soon-to-be Hornets
Key Matchup: LeBron vs. Michael KIdd-Gilchrist
MKG is the glue of Charlottes stout D, but boy will he have his hands full. No one can stop LBJ, but if the young Kidd can make him work, this could be a much more closely contested contest than people imagine.
X-Factor: Al Jefferson
Big Al has quietly become my favorite non-Pacer, largely because of this and all he does is put on a clinic in the low block. He is a beast and produces problems for the whoever the Heat might try to throw at him. Miami will double/trap/help/front and whatever else the can think of to make life miserable for Jefferson and get the ball out of his hands. How effectively can he move the ball against the Heats lightning quick pressure D? And can anyone else on Charlotte make them pay?
Prediction: The Tasteful Side-Boob Cats are a legitimate playoff team with low post scoring and defense. If Miami is not sharp (and they haven't played that way of late) Charlotte could definitely win a game or two.
Heat in 5
Toronto Raptors vs. Brooklyn Nets
Key Matchup: Kevin Garnett vs. Oldness
Can the Big Ticket bring anything for this playoff run or is his illustrious NBA career essentially done?
X-Factor: The Toronto Fan Base
America's Hat hasn't seen its team make a significant playoff run since 2001 and the fans are going to be pumped that this Raptors team has a chance. I don't think the veteran laden Nets will crumble under such circumstances, but a rabid home court advantage might be enough to push a talented, young and playoff untested Toronto to another level.
Prediction: I think Toronto's better and they should win in six. But If this goes the distance, I can envision the experience factor (particularly some bloodless daggers by Johnson and Pierce down the stretch) outweighing home court.
Nets in 7
Chicago Bulls vs. Washington Wizards
Key Matchup: The Bigs
While John Wall must fight through the rugged defensive scheme that is surely going to be tailored around stopping him, this series will be dictated by how Washington's front court produces. Can the Gortat/Booker/Nene hold its own against the likes of Boozer/ Sixth Man Candidate Taj Gibson/Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate Joakim Noah? If they can, Washington's superior offense might be enough to tilt this contest.
A gifted athlete playing his guts out. He's currently playing the best basketball of his career and will be the best player in this series.
Prediction: I'm concerned the Bulls can't score enough to keep up with the Wiz and I like Washington's depth, but in the playoffs the combination of defense, rebounding, and having the best player general wins.
Bulls in 6
San Antonio Spurs vs. Dallas Mavericks
Key Matchup: Timmy vs. Dirk
Two old warriors still competing at a high level. This will be their sixth meeting in the playoffs. Cool shit.
Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle are arguably the two best coaches in the Association. This has potential to be a chess match.
Prediction: The Spurs are a surgical knife.
Spurs in 5
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzles
Key Matchup: Who has the best BBQ?
X-Factor: Kevin Durant
KD is out of his mind good...unstoppable scorer, willing passer, and rangy defender playing at an MVP level-and he's not losing in the first round.
Prediction: This is a legit rivalry. Two years ago the Thunder eked out a game 7 overtime thriller to advance. Last year Memphis toughed out a close six game Westbrook-less series. These teams know each other and it has all the makings of another 7 game thriller. But Durantula is just too good right now.
Thunder in 6
LA Clippers vs. Golden State Warriors
Key Matchup: Stephen Curry vs. Chris Paul
There is an augment to be made that these are the two best point guards in basketball. Can Paul's savvy neutralize Curry's unworldly shooting ability? This is going to be fun.
X-Factor: Jermaine O'Neal
Blast from Pacers past becomes a huge factor in this series, now that Warriors starting center Bogut is down with an injury. That's probably not a good thing. Mark Jackson will utilize a lot of small ball, but when JO gets important minutes can he summon his low post mojo via the way, way, way back machine? Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan gonna dunk. A lot.
Prediction: Curry is one of the most electric players in basketball. When he gets hot, nothing past the timeline is out of his range, and it's must see TV. A scorching Curry can steal a game or two and the Oracle is a tough place to play for anyone including the Clips. Smells like the makings of an upset. But LA is playing playoff style basketball, Blake and CP3 are top 10 players, and Doc is a championship tested coach. This will be uncomfortable close for Clip-town, but the ride doesn't end yet.
Clippers in 7
Houston Rockets vs. Portland Trailblazers
Key Matchup: Blazers vs. the Refs
Harden's nearly unguardable perimeter speed along with his penchant for exaggerating contact led to him getting to the line 9 times a game. The Bearded One may be spending an excruciating amount of time at the line in this series. The Blazers need to stay patient and composed with the officiating or the series might begin to unravel.
X-Factor: LaMarcus Aldridge
Who gonna guard him? Ain't nobody gonna stop him.
Prediction: LA will get his, but so will Harden and Dwight Howard. This should be a high scoring and entertaining series. I have a terrible feeling there will be a referee mistake/judgement call surrounding Harden that Portland fans painfully remember forever (a la Larry Johnson's four-point play) that tilts the series.
Houston in 7