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John Schuhmann

Amar'e Stoudemire
How well the Knicks shoot could determine whether they challenge the Celtics in the first round.
Steve Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images

Eastern Conference Preview: No clear favorite yet

Posted Apr 14 2011 2:34PM

The Eastern Conference didn't quite play out like we expected.

The Miami Heat didn't win 70 games, the Boston Celtics shocked us by breaking up their core mid-season, and the Orlando Magic did the same. Meanwhile, with the Celtics faltering down the stretch, the Chicago Bulls emerged as the conference's best team behind the league's No. 1 defense and an MVP campaign from Derrick Rose.

2011 Playoffs schedule
Click here to view the schedules for every East series in the 2011 Playoffs.

But Rose goes into these playoffs having yet to win a playoff series. The Heat still have questions about how well they can execute offensively on crucial possessions. And it's not clear whether the Celtics can flip the switch like they did last year. Meanwhile, the Magic still have a star, a coach and a system that have won in the past, and the New York Knicks have the firepower to out-gun any opponent on a given night.

There's no clear favorite to represent the East in The Finals, but the first round may be somewhat cut and dried.

Chicago Bulls (62-20) vs. Indiana Pacers (37-45)

I'll be watching to see how well Chicago can execute against Indiana's defense. We know the Bulls are the best defensive team in the league, but they'll be tested against some other pretty good defenses (Orlando and Boston or Miami) in the following rounds.

The Pacers aren't great defensively, but with Roy Hibbert in the paint, they can prevent Rose from getting to the rim as often as he'd like.

Most telling stat: The Pacers shot 38.0 percent in four games against the Bulls this season. Only the Mavs (37.8 percent) shot worse against Chicago. If the Pacers are going to have a shot, they're going to have to lock down on the other end of the floor.

How this (probably) should go: It will be an ugly series that should never really make Bulls fans nervous. They've got the league's best home record and aren't likely to drop a game at the United Center, but the Pacers are plucky enough to pick up a win at home. Bulls in five.

Complete Bulls-Pacers series preview

Orlando Magic (52-30) vs. Atlanta Hawks (44-38)

I'll be watching to see whether Jason Collins can defend Dwight Howard one-on-one. Collins doesn't need to shut down Howard, but if he can allow his teammates to stay at home on Orlando's shooters, the Hawks have a chance to win ugly like they did three times in the regular season.

Most telling stat: The Magic scored just 72.9 points per 100 possessions against the Hawks when Collins was on the floor (79 minutes), compared to 105.0 against Atlanta when he was on the bench (113 minutes) and 105.9 for the season overall. He really does make a difference.

How this (probably) should go: As fascinating as the above numbers are, Stan Van Gundy is too good of a coach to allow Collins to knock his team out in the first round. The Magic aren't as good or consistent as they were when they swept the Hawks a year ago, but they're good enough to outlast the Hawks in a series that won't see many big swings in either direction. Magic in five.

Complete Magic-Hawks series preview

Miami Heat (58-24) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (41-41)

I'll be watching to see whether Miami can get to the basket. With the thought that it would benefit them in the postseason, the Heat have lately put an emphasis on scoring in the paint and at the line, instead of relying on jump shots like they did for most of the season. Miami was 27-2 when they scored more than 40 points in the paint.

Most telling stat: The Heat are the only team in the league to rank in the top five both offensively and defensively. They struggled at certain times of the season and in specific moments in close games, but over the course of 5 and 1/2 months, they were a great team on both ends of the floor.

How this (probably) should go: The Sixers have made the most of what they have this season and would match up relatively well with a couple of the East's top teams, but the Heat are not one of them. Without an elite point guard or dominant big man, the Sixers don't have what it takes to expose the Heat where they're weak.

Lou Williams expects to return from his strained hamstring, and he gives Philly the ability to pick up a game at home, but Miami is just too good to make this series interesting. Heat in five.

Complete Heat-76ers series preview

Boston Celtics (56-26) vs. New York Knicks (42-40)

I'll be watching to see whether the Celtics can flip the switch. With two of the best scorers in the league, the Knicks are a dangerous team. But they're simply not as good as the Celtics if Boston is playing its best. The problem is that they haven't looked their best since before the All-Star break.

Most telling stat: The Knicks have outscored their opponents by just three points in Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire's 672 minutes on the floor together. With their star combo, New York is potent offensively, scoring 110.7 points per 100 possessions. But they're atrocious defensively, giving up just as many. The Celtics' offense has struggled of late, but the Knicks' porous defense may be just what they need to get going.

How this (probably) should go: Each game might depend simply on how well the Knicks shoot the ball. The Celtics will do their part to minimize easy looks at the basket, but Mike D'Antoni's team simply has no conscious when it comes to putting shots up. And when those shots go in, the Knicks are tough to stop.

But they're 8-29 when they shoot less than 45 percent from the field and 13-32 when they make fewer than 10 threes. They're likely to be on the wrong side of those numbers against the second best defense in the league. Celtics in five.

Complete Celtics-Knicks series preview

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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