(8) Philadelphia 76ers @ (4) Boston Celtics
It just doesn’t get much better than this. A matchup of two franchises with a well-established rivalry, from the days of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell to Julius Erving and Larry Bird, the 76ers and Celtics go way back. As of late, the Celtics have dominated the Sixers, especially since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived in Boston, but this year, it appears Philadelphia may be competitive again. The 76ers have taken two of three in the season series this year against the Celtics, with both wins coming in blowouts. In all fairness to Boston, the first loss was after two straight overtime games and both were on the second night of a back-to-back. The Celtics struggled with Atlanta’s athleticism in the first round, but in the end, Boston’s playoff experience simply wore down the Hawks. Almost no one expected the 76ers to be in this position at the beginning of the playoffs, but after Andre Iguodala’s clutch free throws with 2.2 seconds remaining to send Chicago home, Philly looks to continue its improbable run.
Like the 76ers-Bulls series, the mantra of this matchup is “Defense, Defense, Defense.” Boston and Philadelphia are ranked 2nd and 3rd respectively in points allowed per game this season. With the brand of suffocating defense both of these teams play, rebounding and second chance points will be key in this series. Unfortunately for Boston, they are statistically the worst rebounding team in the NBA, averaging fewer than 39 per game. The 76ers, on the other hand, are actually quite a good rebounding team, ranking seventh in the league. Philadelphia has two great perimeter defenders in Evan Turner and Andre Iguodala, but Boston has two of the best perimeter scorers of all-time in Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. There’s no doubt that Allen and Pierce will “get theirs,” but Turner and Iguodala should be able to control the damage for the majority of the series. The key matchup will be between Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday. If the 76ers can get the same production out of Holiday that they got from him in the beginning of the Chicago series, the Sixers will have a great chance to take a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, but if he allows Rondo to consistently find open teammates and control the series, Boston will move on.
Prediction: 76ers in 6
Rajon Rondo, who might have been considered the weak point in the starting lineup of the ’08 Celtics championship team, is now one of the premier point guards in the league and may be the most valuable player in the Celtics this year. His consistent ball security and well-placed passes have propelled the Celtics this far and will probably be a factor in winning against the 76ers. Along with Rondo, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, who are certainly not as adept as they were during their championship run, have been performing well late in games, when it matters most. The 76ers, fresh off their win against the Bulls, are playing with tremendous confidence despite being the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. If Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, and Evan Turner can manage to maintain a high perimeter shooting percentage, expect the Celtics to have a difficult time closing the 76ers out early in the series.
Prediction: Celtics in 7
(3) Indiana Pacers @ (2) Miami Heat
The Miami Heat continue their quest for their first championship in Indiana with a matchup against the Pacers. The two teams met four times in the regular season with Miami taking three of the games, one of which being an overtime thriller in which Heat star Dwyane Wade hit a buzzer beater, propelling the Heat to a 93-91 win. This season, Miami met many of their preseason expectations, winning 46 games and locking up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They also took care of the seventh seeded New York Knicks handily, ousting them in five games. The Pacers also disposed of the Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic in five games, but their outstanding play this season has been the surprise of the league. They burst onto the scene early in the year with an All-Star effort by center Roy Hibbert and the emergence of second year guard Paul George and haven’t looked back.
The Heat are a tough matchup for any team, and the Pacers are no exception. It’s hard to find perimeter players to compete with the talent and athleticism LeBron James and Dwyane Wade bring to the table every night. Out of the teams remaining in the East, however, Indiana has the best chance to oust the Eastern Conference favorites, due to their post presence. If they can control the pace of the game and prevent Miami from running in the open court (where they have been, for all intents and purposes, unstoppable this season), they may be able to take advantage of Roy Hibbert’s matchup against Miami center Joel Anthony. Indiana is formidable in the rebounding game, as they rank fourth in the NBA, while Miami ranks 21st. The Heat also play stellar defense, so the Pacers must take advantage of each of their offensive possessions, and they cannot be careless with the ball. They need to force Miami into isolations in the half court, where at times they can struggle, when Wade and James cannot get shots to fall. With all of that said, I still don’t think this Pacers team (or any team that isn’t from Oklahoma City, for that matter) can compete with the athleticism of the Heat. That does not mean that the series won’t be close and won’t have its tense moments, because it will. The Pacers will give Miami a run for their money, and they’ll surprise some people in the process, but in the end, King James rolls on.
Prediction: Heat in 6
The Heat, after entering the postseason this year with memories of their loss last year in the Finals, have established a solid presence by comfortably winning their first round series against Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks. Expect them to keep it up and post some more comfortable victories against the Pacers. Although the Pacers won their first round series in five games, it is important to note that they faced a Magic team without superstar Dwight Howard. The Pacers defense will not be prepared to defend against the driving and scoring of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the outside shooting of Miller, Chalmers, and Battier, and the mid-range shooting of Chris Bosh.
Prediction: Heat in 5
(3) Los Angeles Lakers @ (2) Oklahoma City Thunder
The Lakers took longer than expected to finally take down the pesky Denver Nuggets, but they got the job done in seven games and look to continue their playoff run into Oklahoma City. They relied on the stellar post play of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to turn the pivotal Game 7 while Kobe Bryant did not appear to be himself as he recovered from an illness that he contracted before Game 6. This series should be particularly interesting because although it may be viewed as an advantage that the Thunder swept the Mavericks and got a week off to rest while waiting for their opponent, it would not be surprising if OKC came out flat to start the series, and the Lakers were able to ride their momentum to an early win or two. Don’t expect this series to be played nicely either. During the second quarter of these teams’ April 22 matchup, Lakers forward Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest, intentionally elbowed James Harden, causing Harden to immediately crash to the floor and undergo concussion screening. World Peace subsequently received a seven game suspension.
The Thunder match up well with many teams in the NBA. They have two outstanding post defenders in Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, a legitimate superstar scorer in Kevin Durant, an elite perimeter defender in Thabo Sefolosha, and a scoring point guard who can light up any team on any given night in Russell Westbrook. As if all that wasn’t enough, they also currently employ the newly-named sixth man of the year, James Harden, who would start for most teams. It’s fairly safe to say that the Thunder are stacked. The Lakers, on the other hand, have an aging roster outside of Andrew Bynum, and they, like the Celtics, may be on their last few legitimate title runs for a while. The midseason acquisition of Ramon Sessions helped solidify the point guard position, but it still remains a weak spot in an otherwise solid Lakers starting lineup. The obvious answer for the key matchup in the series would be the battle of the scorers, Kobe Bryant vs. Kevin Durant. However, both players should neutralize each other, and neither will be solely responsible for their team winning the series. This series will be decided by the bench players, the category in which the Thunder have a massive advantage, simply by having Harden. Even though the Thunder are the worst post scoring team in the league averaging just 23 points in the paint per game, Russell Westbrook’s quickness in the half court (provided that he makes good decisions, which is not always a given) should remedy that weak area for the Thunder.
Prediction: Thunder in 5
With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook doing a lot of the scoring, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins playing solid defense in the post, and Thabo Sefolosha defending the perimeter, the Thunder have proven to be hard to beat. However, the Lakers, even after coming off a long series against the Nuggets, will be tough to defend. In the post, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who has improved his rebounding and defending in the paint, will be a handful for the Thunder big men. The clutch scoring of Bryant and Durant in the waning moments of the fourth quarter will probably decide which team wins the series. Expect the Thunder to win in six hard-fought games.
Prediction: Thunder in 6
(5) Los Angeles Clippers @ (1) San Antonio Spurs
After their riveting first round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, the LA Clippers look to carry their momentum forward against the top seeded Spurs. This Clippers team has shown much resilience thus far in the playoffs, making an incredible 27 points comeback in Game 1 of their first round series behind the always-consistent play of Chris Paul and their highlight machine Blake Griffin. Meanwhile, the Spurs showed once again why they’re always in the mix when playoff time comes around by sweeping the Utah Jazz. Ever since Gregg Popovich took over as head coach, San Antonio has been a model for any NBA team looking to build a dynasty, by combining wily veterans like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili with shrewd draft picks like DeJuan Blair and Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs always seem to do everything right, and this year is no exception.
This matchup will be a tough one for the Clippers, and if they want to have a chance in this series, Blake Griffin must be dominant. He has had an outstanding season, making the All-Star team and averaging nearly 21 points per game and almost 11 rebounds, but LA needs him to play lockdown defense on future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and he needs to use his unmatched athleticism to dominate offensively. The Clippers also need someone other than Chris Paul and Griffin to score, and they will need consistent contributions from their perimeter players like Caron Butler, Randy Foye, Mo Williams, Eric Bledsoe, and Nick Young. Young and Foye are known to be streaky shooters, so it would be in the Clippers’ best interest to get those two going early in the series. They should be able to compete in the rebounding game, especially with Reggie Evans coming off the bench. Evans has been known throughout his entire career as an elite rebounder and he can be expected to come up with at least three key rebounds in this series. San Antonio moves the ball very well as a team, and they are fifth in the NBA in assists. The Clippers must be active on defense and play the passing lanes. If they allow Tony Parker to penetrate into the lane and convert easy floaters or assists, it could be a long series. Surprisingly, the highest scoring team in the NBA is not the Miami Heat, but it is these San Antonio Spurs. LA needs to play lockdown defense this entire series to have a chance. Outside of Chris Paul, they do not have anyone who would be classified as an elite defender, which will make the series extremely difficult.
Prediction: Spurs in 5
While the one-seeded Spurs have had much time to rest after sweeping the Jazz, the Clippers just finished a grueling series against the Grizzlies. Will the long rest cause the Spurs to be rusty or will it contribute to their energy as they enter a new series? With veterans like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, the Spurs know how to handle the series transitions in the playoffs. Although the Clippers feature a strong bench with Eric Bledsoe, Nick Young, Mo Williams, and Kenyon Martin, the Spurs have shown consistency all season and will outperform the whole Clippers team with the perimeter shooting of Parker, Ginobili, and Danny Green, and the inside presence of Duncan.
Prediction: Spurs in 6