One of the strangest regular seasons in NBA history is over. It was a season that started about seven weeks later than usual because of the lockout and was shortened to just 66 games instead of the regular 82. It was a season where, for the first time, teams played games on back-to-back-to-back nights, where the weak struggled to stay physically and mentally healthy and the strongest rose above the rest. It was a season which hit us like a whirlwind and concluded in just about four months. A season where the Bulls became the NBA’s best team despite their reigning MVP skipping nearly 40% of their games. It was a season where the Bobcats set a mark for the worst team in NBA history, winning only 0.106 percent of their games. It was a season where the reigning champions – Mavericks – could only finish at 7th place in the West, and it was a season where just two weeks in February changed one virtually unknown individual into the most popular name in the basketball world – Jeremy Lin. And it was a season where, despite all the tough schedule hurdles, players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Paul did what they do best – play brilliant basketball, night after night.
The Future: But now the season is over, and we’re into the two months of frenzied summer do-or-die basketball bonanza called the playoffs. This is where the past virtually goes out the window. This is where legacies are made and history is rewritten. On Saturday, April 28th, the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs will finally tip off. Who will dominate and who will be shocked? The fans are ready to get their first glimpse of the potential championship contenders: the Bulls, the Spurs, the Heat, the Thunder, the Lakers, and the rest.
Here are my predictions for the First Round in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, while my colleague Akshay Manwani will have his expert predictions up for the West.
Chicago Bulls (1) v Philadephia 76ers (8):
Game 1: April 28, 2012 @ Chicago – 10:30 PM (IST)
Series schedule: Game 2 @ Chicago – May 2 – 5:30 AM (IST), Game 3 @ Philadelphia - May 5 – 5:30 AM (IST), Game 4 @ Philadelphia – May 6 – 10:30 PM (IST). Game 5, Game 6 and Game 7 - only if necessary
Regular season record: Chicago Bulls – 50-16, Philadelphia 76ers 35-31.
Home Court Advantage: Chicago Bulls [United Center]. Philadelphia to host Chicago at Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia.
Regular season home record: Chicago Bulls – 26-7, Philadelphia 76ers – 19-14
Regular season road record: Chicago Bulls – 24-9, Philadelphia 76ers 16-17
Regular season series: Chicago won 2-1
Preview: For the second year in a row, the Bulls finished with the best record in the league, and this time, they achieved it even with their reigning MVP Derrick Rose missing 27 games. Thibodeau may be one of the best coaches in the league, and his Bulls squad is in a habit of winning games, with or without Rose. Against the 76ers, they face a team that was at the third spot in the East for most of the season before plummeting down to eighth. Without Rose, the Bulls and the 76ers play with a similar philosophy of well-coached, defense-first, and team basketball. But Bulls just do it all much better, and with Rose in the lineup, there is little hope for a Philadelphia upset.
Numbers Game: [3-19] – Without a clear potent go-to guy in clutch situations, the 76ers are a woeful 3-19 this season in games decided by seven points or less.
Karan’s Take: With or without a healthy Rose, the Bulls are too good a squad for the falling 76ers. Although Philadelphia will play with a lot of pride, especially at home, to challenge Chicago with some close games, I predict that the Bulls will sweep this series 4-0.
Miami Heat (2) v New York Knicks (7):
Game 1: April 29, 2012 @ Miami – 1:00 AM (IST)
Series schedule: Game 2 @ Miami – May 1 – 4:30 AM (IST), Game 3 @ New York - May 4 – 4:30 AM (IST), Game 4 @ New York – May 7 – 1:00 AM (IST). Game 5, Game 6 and Game 7 - only if necessary
Regular season record: Miami Heat – 46-20, Philadelphia 76ers – 36-30.
Home Court Advantage: Miami Heat [American Airlines Arena]. New York to host Miami at Madison Square Garden, New York.
Regular season home record: Miami Heat – 28-5, New York – 22-11
Regular season road record: Miami Heat – 18-15, New York – 14-19
Regular season series: Miami won 3-0
Preview: Will the real New York Knicks please stand up? The Knicks have been through different coaches, different star players, and many different emotional ups and downs all season, but finally seem to have settled into a groove under Coach Mike Woodson and the brilliance of Carmelo Anthony, finishing the season with an 18-6 flurry. This could spell trouble for the higher-seeded Heat, who have the most challenging first round matchup in the East. But unlike the Knicks, the Heat are more sure of their identity this time around – with LeBron James having an MVP season and Dwyane Wade well rested to explode in the playoffs, the Heat will be ready to bring their ‘A’ game in this series. New York’s point guard Jeremy Lin is ruled out for the first round.
Numbers Game: [29.8] – Carmelo Anthony has averaged nearly 30 points per game over the month of April, and has been the NBA’s leading scorer in the last month. After a forgettable season, this was a powerful end for ‘Melo, but will he carry the momentum into the playoffs?
Karan’s Take: The Heat won’t have it easy, as the Knicks are a far better team than their seventh place rankings suggests. Still, Miami is a team with its eyes on the prize: their defensive resolve and the Big Three should edge up past New York in a memorable series. Miami wins 4-2.
Indiana Pacers (3) v Orlando Magic (6):
Game 1: April 29, 2012 @ Indiana – 4:30 AM (IST)
Series schedule: Game 2 @ Indiana – May 1 – 5:00 AM (IST), Game 3 @ Orlando – May 3 – 5:00 AM (IST), Game 4 @ Orlando – May 5 – 11:30 PM (IST). Game 5, Game 6 and Game 7 - only if necessary
Regular season record: Indiana Pacers 42-24, Orlando Magic – 37-29
Home Court Advantage: Indiana Pacers [Bankers Life Fieldhouse]. Orlando to host Indiana at Amway Center, Orlando.
Regular season home record: Indiana Pacers 23-10, Orlando Magic 21-12
Regular season road record: Indiana Pacers 19-14, Orlando Magic 16-17
Regular season series: Orlando won 3-1
Preview: The Magic are in a strange situation. On one hand, they have dominated their head-to-head series against the Pacers. On the other hand, they find themselves three spots below them. That is because Orlando has plummeted down the rankings with the inconsistent team-chemistry caused by the Dwight Howard drama all year, and eventually, his injury which has now ruled him out of the playoffs. Without Howard, the Magic are a shell of a team. The Pacers, meanwhile, have been quietly brilliant this season, racking wins night after night with balanced contribution from their players. Will their style favour them in the playoffs, too?
Numbers Game:  – The Pacers have an unselfish offense where eight players average over 8 points per game.
Karan’s Take: No Dwight Howard, no win? While playing without Dwight gives the rest of the Magic inspiration to regroup as a team, they face an Indiana squad with a point to prove this season. Pacers win 4-1.
Boston Celtics (4) v Atlanta Hawks (5):
Game 1: April 30, 2012 @ Atlanta– 4:30 AM (IST)
Series schedule: Game 2 @ Atlanta – May 2 – 5:00 AM (IST), Game 3 @ Boston – May 5 – 5:30 AM (IST), Game 4 @ Boston – May 7 – 4:30 AM (IST). Game 5, Game 6 and Game 7 - only if necessary
Regular season record: Orlando Magic – 39-27, Atlanta Hawks – 40-36
Home Court Advantage: Atlanta Hawks [Philips Arena]. Boston to host Atlanta at TD Garden, Boston.
Regular season home record: Boston Celtics – 24-9, Atlanta Hawks – 23-10
Regular season road record: Boston Celtics - 15-18, Atlanta Hawks – 17-16
Regular season series: Boston won 2-1
Preview: A unique situation: the Celtics have the higher seed (4th) because they were the best team in their division, but the Hawks have home-court advantage because they had a better record. The 4th-5th match-ups are usually extremely close and this is no exception. While the Celtics, who started slow, have finished the season as one of the league’s hottest teams, the youthful athleticism of the Hawks is sure to cause some problems. Atlanta’s Forward/Center Al Horford is ruled out for the first round.
Numbers Game:  – Rajon Rondo of the Celtics has already had six triple-doubles this season, which leads the NBA.
Karan’s Take: With Rondo leading the charge, the Celtics are a dangerous team, especially in the playoffs. The old big three of Garnett, Pierce, and Allen may be on their last legs, but will give it all this year as their last opportunity for a championship. The athletic Hawks, who have home-court advantage, may give them some problems, but the veteran Celtics should survive this series for a 4-2 win.