The first round of the NBA playoffs starts on Saturday. Time to make picks. J. Michael and Ben Standig do just that. Today, the Eastern Conference.
No. 1 Pacers vs. No. 8 Hawks
J. Michael: On paper, this should be a sweep for Indiana, but Atlanta has played them tough with the season series 2-2. Indiana’s weaknesses down the stretch have been defense and shoddy point guard play, and the Hawks can spread the floor with C Pero Antic who has three-point range. In a seven-game series, however, it’s doubtful the Hawks can keep pace with a roster thinned by injuries.
Pick: Pacers in 6
Standig: Look, the Pacers have clearly been a mess down the stretch (though let's not ignore a recent win over Oklahoma City Thunder.) Regardless, the Al Horford-less Hawks don't have enough weapons to make this a series, assuming Roy Hibbert and company do not literally combust. The real question is whether the Pacers start looking like a team capable of winning a few more rounds.
Pick: Pacers in 5
No. 2 Heat vs. No. 7 Bobcats
J. Michael: Who would’ve thought that this could be a competitive series just one year ago, or that anyone would be talking about Charlotte? Bobcats C Al Jefferson is a matchup problem. The Heat don’t have anyone who can defend him consistently. The same can be said for the problems posed by LeBron James. How easy or difficult this series becomes will hinge on the health of Dwyane Wade (left hamstring). If he’s back to All-Star form, it should be easy. But given an aging and inconsistent bench for Miami, nothing is these days.
Pick: Heat in 6
Standig: LeBron James dropped a cool 61 points - both a career and franchise high - on the Bobcats back on March 3. The general assumption surely is more volume scoring days will come in the opening round series. Likely, but let's note the respective records since that game: The two-time defending champions finished 11-14, Charlotte 16-6. Now let's note that big men thrive against the Heat soft middle and centers dominated more than Al Jefferson this season. All that said, the universe might not allow Miami to 3-peat, but it's not ready to let the Big 3 fall so early.
Pick: Heat in 6
No. 3 Raptors vs. No. 6 Nets
J. Michael: Brooklyn essentially threw in the white towel, dropped in the standings and accepted a chance to play Toronto so don’t let the way the Nets ended the season fool you. They’re 2-2 in the season series and have a major edge in experience. The Raptors have the guard play and are a solid defensive team, but among that starting unit only PG Kyle Lowry (one appearance) and SF Amir Johnson (two) have seen the postseason, it was minimal and wasn’t even recent. With Joe Johnson, Marcus Thornton, Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston, Brooklyn has the guard play to match Toronto.
Pick: Nets 7
Standig: Come on Brooklyn, that's some shameful shenanigans you pulled this week. Essentially bailing on the final two games to fall into the sixth seed. Whether the rationale was to face the Raptors (and perhaps the Heat in round two) or avoid the Bulls, boo. Would love to pick Toronto and the backcourt pair of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozen give me cover to do just that. Then I'm reminded of the matchup from an experience standpoint; Brooklyn has tons, Toronto does not. Plus Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams. So, I guess that means...I'm picking karma.
Pick: Raptors in 7
No. 4 Bulls vs. No. 5 Wizards
J. Michael: We’re going to be talking about this a lot between now and Game 1 that tips Sunday, so there’s no need to bog this down too much. Washington is capable of playing sound defense and has more options on offense. While the Bulls have coach Tom Thibodeau, they also have a smaller margin for error. Foul trouble or if D.J. Augustin doesn’t produce off the bench getting four wins will prove difficult.
Pick: Wizards in 7
Standig: The one consistent part of the Wizards season involved their inconsistency from game to game, sometimes half to half. That's not wise against a Bulls squad that might struggle to score but shows up for work every night. This season, three of those nights came against Washington. Twice they ended with Chicago feeling blue. Sure, the recent encounter was a Bulls romp, but Nene sat out. The Wizards have more scoring options, a deeper bench, can counter Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer inside and twice shot at least 50 percent from the field against the NBA's stingiest defense. As long as John Wall doesn't try to win the series on his own - or some random like Jimmer Fredette doesn't turn into Damon Jones -, the Wizards can defy the odds and the masses picking against them. If they consistently show up, that is.
Pick: Wizards in 6