East playoff picks: Heat go fo, fo, fo?

East playoff picks: Heat go fo, fo, fo?
April 19, 2013, 7:00 pm
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Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) after making a basket against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first period at the American Airlines Arena.

(Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)
J. Michael and Ben Standig predict the entire Eastern Conference playoff bracket plus discuss key players, intriguing opening round series and sleeper teams - assuming any really exist with LeBron James and the Miami Heat around.
J. Michael, Wizards Insider
If I could only watch one first round series in the Eastern Conference it would be...Nets-Bulls. The No. 4 vs. 5 matchup is usually intriguing, and especially because the Nets qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07 and for their first season in Brooklyn.  
Key Eastern Conference player not named LeBron James: Paul George. The Pacers dipped at the end of the season because of George’s listless play. He was an All-Star for the first time in this third season, but in April he has shot 32% from the field, including just 23% on three-point shots, as Indiana went 2-5 and lost its grip on the No. 2 seed. If he continues to underperform, the Pacers aren’t a lock to knock off the Hawks in the first round. They were 2-2 in the regular season. 
Eastern Conference player most in need of a strong postseason: That would be Celtics PF-C Kevin Garnett. Without him on the floor and making an impact on both ends, they don’t have a chance. And if the Celtics get bumped out of the first round the way most are expecting, it’ll be the last shoe to drop. 
If one Eastern Conference team other than the Heat or Knicks shocks the world with a run to the finals it will be...the Pacers.  There's no other logical choice. The Heat's weakness is in the paint and the Pacers can counter with C Roy Hibbert. Of course, when the Heat push the pace they make big men a liability in transition. And with the Knicks, I don't trust three-point shooting teams in seven-game series. See the Phoenix Suns with Steve Nash. 
Eastern Conference - first round
Heat over Bucks, 4-0
Knicks over Celtics, 4-3
Pacers over Hawks, 4-3
Bulls over Nets, 4-2
Eastern Conference - semifinals
Heat over Bulls, 4-1
Pacers over Knicks, 4-2
Eastern Conference - finals
Heat over Pacers, 4-2
Overview:  The Heat have benefited from a weakened, depleted conference and already have been crowned champions. Despite that, they’re still light years ahead of the conference and losing a game – or two – actually will benefit them in the long run. The last time they were ordained champs before the playoffs started, what happened? Ask the 2010 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. 
Ben Standig, Wizards correspondent
If I could only watch one first round series in the Eastern Conference it would be...Knicks-Celtics. With this week's tragic events in Boston, these games - especially those played in the Celtics gym - will take on far more emotion than normal even among the old school rivals. Adding to the on-court drama, this could be the final stand for the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett combo. Lastly, a scenario of true insignificance, we have the battle of ex-Wizards in Jordan Crawford vs. Earl Barron. The volume shooting Steez is due for one scorching quarter with like 15 points - and then drive Doc Rivers in all others.

Key Eastern Conference player not named LeBron James: J.R. Smith - If indeed an Eastern team can take down the Heat, it's the 3-point shooting Knicks, but that assumes Carmelo Anthony is not trying to outscore James and Dwyane Wade by himself. Smith is the wildcard of all wildcards, but one with extreme confidence and tremendous point-producing ways. The shot-making swingman will not be afraid of the starry Heat, which puts him ahead of most.

Eastern Conference player most in need of a strong postseason: It's cool that Carmelo Anthony led the NBA in scoring. Will be less cool if the Knicks star doesn't back that up with a run to the conference finals. Would be super duper cool if he engineers a blow to Miami's chances for a repeat. His reputation will veer closer into Dominique Wilkins territory if 

If one Eastern Conference team other than the Heat or Knicks shocks the world with a run to the finals it will be...The Pacers are the obvious call and if the question asked which team has the best chance to keep games against Miami close, Indiana it is. Alas, the question is about getting to the end. Making the playoffs right away after moving to Brooklyn, the Nets bring more star power than the Pacers especially now that Deron Williams is playing like the guy owner Mikhail Prokhorov agreed to pay a bazillion rubbles. Brook Lopez is shooting 57 percent from the field against the center-less Heat this season and the reality is that Joe Johnson can't play any worse than he did the past six months.

Eastern Conference - first round

Heat over Bucks, 4-0
Knicks over Celtics, 4-2
Pacers over Hawks, 4-1
Nets over Bulls, 4-3

Eastern Conference - semifinals
Heat over Nets, 4-1
Knicks over Pacers, 4-3
Eastern Conference - finals
Heat over Knicks, 4-2

Overview: Would love to hype up an upset-narrative, but if LeBron James is focused, we could have a fo, fo, fo situation in the East. While the Nets, Pacers or Knicks could offer modest resistance, ultimately Miami's only real challenge will come in the finals.