Apr 18 2014 4:54PM

2014 Eastern Conference First Round Preview


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1. INDIANA PACERS VS. 8. ATLANTA HAWKS

PACERS (56-26)

SRS: +3.63 (8th)

OFFENSE: 101.5 (22nd)

DEFENSE: 96.7 (1st)

PACE: 94.90 (20th)

HAWKS (38-44)

SRS: -0.88 (16th)

OFFENSE: 103.4 (15th)

DEFENSE: 104.1 (15th)

PACE: 96.87 (13th)

WHEN THE HAWKS HAVE THE BALL

: The idea is to get Roy Hibbert away from defending the basket. It'd be nice to have former All-Star and nice outside shooter Al Horford healthy, but he ain't walking through those doors. Makeshift starting center Elton Brand can do a good job of keeping All-Defense candidate Hibbert honest, but his specialty is 10-to-16-foot mid-rangers (52 percent), moreso than long-range 2s (42 percent). Pero Antic now--that's a player who can change the complex of this series, if he keeps feasting on Pacers as he did during the regular season (34 points in two games). Antic is not much for mid- or long-range 2s, but he does have a knack for taking 3s, with 58 percent of his shots coming beyond the arc, while shooting 33 percent against the league and 6-for-10 on 3s against Indiana in two starts. Antic's success is part of the reason the Hawks recently signed long-range 2 shooting center Mike Muscala, who will be sure to see some action. Coach Mike Budenholzer, a former longtime Spurs assistant, knows he needs to spread Indiana's defenders all over the court, if they are to have a chance against the NBA's No. 1 defense. Shooting ace Kyle Korver, who makes 2.6 three-pointers per game at a league-leading .472 clip, will do his best to pull the Pacers' All-Defense candidates away from the key, as will Louis Williams and DeMarre Carroll. It's the only way Atlanta will be able to keep defenders honest, while letting go-to guys Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap have the space to do their thing.

WHEN THE PACERS HAVE THE BALL

Much has been written about the late-season collapse of the Pacers, which saw Indiana go 10-13 to close the season, while watching its offense drop since March 4 from subpar (ranking 19th in offensive efficiency at 102.7 points per 100 possessions) to the worst in the NBA (98.4) over the last 23 games. Everybody shares responsibiity, but only one player has yet to break out of this prolonged slump, and that's Roy Hibbert. The Pacers' 7-footer is averaging 9 points and 4 rebounds in 28 minutes per game on 38 percent shooting during the last 22 games, as opposed to 12 and 8 in 30 at 46 percent in his first 59 games of the season. If the Pacers have to play the latter version of Hibbert, they will lose. The Hawks aren't a great defensive squad, but they do have the wherewithal to shut down the Pacers' go-to guys (Paul George, Lance Stephenson and David West) in good team defenders Carroll (+1.74 defensive Real Plus Minus), Korver (+0.71 dRPM) and Millsap (+1.93 dRPM), especially if they are getting additional help from either Brand or Antic. Hibbert's the key here. If he is not himself--either as a rebounder or potential inside threat--the Pacers' stagnant offense will become even more predicatable and iso-isolated than it already is.

PREDICTION PACERS IN 7.


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2. MIAMI HEAT VS. 7. CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

HEAT (54-28)

SRS: +4.15 (7th)

OFFENSE: 109.0 (2nd)

DEFENSE: 102.9 (11th)

PACE: 93.26 (27th)

BOBCATS (43-39)

SRS: -0.89 (17th)

OFFENSE: 101.2 (24th)

DEFENSE: 101.2 (6th)

PACE: 94.73 (21st)

WHEN THE BOBCATS HAVE THE BALL

Al Jefferson. All day. There aren't many teams that play small-ball on Al J, but if Miami intends to play its best lineup, the Bobcats will counter by featuring one of the best post-up performers in the game in Summer 2013 free-agent signee Al Jefferson, who has averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds in three games as a Bobcat versus the Heat. Miami can afford to play that way because its second-best NBA offense has had little slow-down against Charlotte's talented D, scoring 109 points per games inn each of the three victories that Miami got on a Jefferson-Bobcat squad (Al J missed the first mid-November battle, another Miami win). Versatile guard Kemba Walker will also play a big role in making sure the HEAT D sees a variety of attacks, while also not being turnover-prone against this pressure-defending, quick transition team (the 23-year-old Walker ranks fifth among point guard starters in lowest turnover ratio).

WHEN THE HEAT HAS THE BALL

But if you think Jefferson feasts on the Heat, you ain't see nothing yet, until you see LeBron drop 41, 45, 38 and 32 points on the Bobcats like he did in four wins this seson. Normally I would point out how the Bobcats starting five is one of the best quintets in basketball, with Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Josh McRoberts and Jefferson scoring a +10.9 net rating together in 526 minutes together, posting a 96.0 defensive rating along the way (ranks third for the 15 units over 500 minutes). But obviously those players have no bearing on LeBron, who has averaged 38 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists in 39 minutes per game for a .720 true shooting percentage against an-up-and-coming team, in what otherwise has been a good year of growth for the Bobcats under new coach Steve Clifton. That said, I am still excited to see how young defender-of-the-future Kidd-Gilchrist (+1.47 dRPM), his Bobcat teammates and Coach Clifton handle this LeBron problem in a seven-game series (they cannot keep putting him on the line nine times a game). Because if there is any chance that a No. 6 defense can slow down a No. 2 offense, then we may possibly see Al J start to do some very big things indeed.

PREDICTION: HEAT IN 6.


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3. TORONTO RAPTORS VS. 6. BROOKLYN NETS

RAPTORS (48-34)

SRS: +2.55 (12th)

OFFENSE: 105.8 (9th)

DEFENSE: 102.4 (9th)

PACE: 94.42 (23rd)

NETS (44-38)

SRS: -1.58 (20th)

OFFENSE: 104.4 (14th)

DEFENSE: 104.9 (19th)

PACE: 93.68 (25th)

WHEN THE NETS HAVE THE BALL

Brooklyn’s walking wounded has made it to the regular-season finish line, so now we’ll see how much sprint they have left for the remainder of the playoffs. They have many supporters in the media, predicting the sixth-seeded, playoff-experienced vets on the Nets will take advantage of the youthful Raptors because the Nets have four men with 45-plus games of playoff experience: Paul Pierce (136 games), Kevin Garnett (131), Joe Johnson (69), Deron Williams (51), not to mention Andrei Kirilenko, who has 45 or the team’s rookie head coach Jason Kidd (158 as a player). But these men—outside of Williams and Johnson—don’t have the continuity together that playoff teams bond themselves in at this time of year. However, since January, when the Nets got their act together (34-17), they’ve been pretty reliant on point guard Shaun Livingston bumping his teammates up a size at each of their old positions, creating a tall small-ball vet effect with Williams (+4.52 oRPM) at the 2, Johnson (+3.01 oRPM) at the 3 and Pierce (-0.21 oRPM) at the 4. Pair that successful squad up with old-dog Garnett (good offense as quintet in 129 minutes, 107.7; elite defense, 89.9) or rookie-dog Mason Plumlee (elite offense as quintet in 284 minutes, 113.7 points per 100 possessions; subpar defense, 107.1) or in-between-dog Andray Blatche (great offense as quintet in 111 minutes, 109.4; good defense, 101.1), and you've got three successful five-man units to rotate your bigs.

WHEN THE RAPTORS HAVE THE BALL

There are two different Toronto Raptors squads—one with Rudy Gay and the other without. The One Without has been the NBA’s sixth-best team since trading Gay to Sacramento December 7, taking the supposed loss of a 20-points-per-game scorer and just had other actors play better roles, as Amir Johnson remained the master screener, Kyle Lowry the unnoticed crafty catalyst point guard and DeMar DeRozan as the new scorer on the block. By acquiring four key vets to stock the bench—Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes—Toronto’s offense took a leap up, as the Raptors closed the season out going 41-23 and giving Canada’s team every reason to believe they’re not a one-and-done playoff squad, despite many players’ postseason virginity. The Nets have a nice Post-New Year’s lineup to throw back at Toronto’s offense, going small with old, moving up-a-position players like KG at center, Pierce at power forward and so on. But Toronto has a counter too with young, strong Jonas Valanciunas, who will be up for the task of jousting with Garnett, Plumlee or Blatche at the center position. It’s definitely a game of contrasts.

PREDICTION: RAPTORS IN 7.


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4. CHICAGO BULLS VS. 5. WASHINGTON WIZARDS

BULLS (48-34)

SRS: +1.20 (14th)

OFFENSE: 99.7 (27th)

DEFENSE: 97.8 (2nd)

PACE: 92.72 (28th)

WIZARDS (44-38)

SRS: +0.48 (15th)

OFFENSE: 103.3 (17th)

DEFENSE: 102.4 (10th)

PACE: 95.45 (19th)

WHEN THE WIZARDS HAVE THE BALL

In Washington, you have two of the NBA’s most exciting guards in All-Star John Wall (+2.70 oRPM) and 20-year-old three-point shooter Bradley Beal (-1.53 oRPM), though the latter has much to learn about team basketball and those weaknesses become much more apparent when you’re facing Jimmy Butler and the Bulls’ defense, rated second in the NBA. Do not be surprised to see 38-year-old Andre Miller—who has yet to play 23-plus minutes as a Wizards—play alongside Wall for major minutes, if Beal is not up to the task. Wall still would have Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster on the outside to keep options open. Plus, he has Marcin Gortat and Nene to keep the Bulls bigs occupied. If the Wiz complements do their job, Wall could have a field day on Kirk Hinrich, D.J. Augustin or whoever Chicago throws at him.

WHEN THE BULLS HAVE THE BALL

In Chicago, the Bulls are not going to score much. That’s a given ever since Derrick Rose went down, and amplified even further when Luol Deng was sent packing. The Bulls have the 27th-best offense playing at the 28th-fastest pace, which is another way of saying they are slow and bad at offense, no matter how the team tries to spin the Augustin acquisition. But they don’t win with offense; Bulls win by scoring 94 points a game, and chances are you’re not going to hit 90-something on them at playoff time. That’s why this side of the ball is so important to Washington because they have elite defensive postmen too, with Nene (+4.44 dRPM) being every bit as good as Noah on D (+3.78 dRPM) and Gortat (+3.43 dRPM) being every bit as good as Taj Gibson (+3.65 dRPM). With Ariza (+0.93 dRPM) and sub old-man Miller (+0.92 dRPM) at the Wizards’ disposal, there is no reason Washington cannot give Chicago some of its own medicine and perhaps hold them under 80 a game or two.

PREDICTION: BULLS IN 7.

SRS Simple Rating System from Basketball-Reference combines scoring margin with strength of opposition; Offense and Defense efficiency numbers listed are points per 100 possessions, while Pace numbers are possessions per 48-minute game, and all three come from Stats.NBA.com; Real Plus Minus numbers listed below come from ESPN.