Indiana Pacers (8) at Chicago Bulls (1)
Game 1: Saturday, April 16th at 1:00 PM ET on ESPN
Game 2: Monday, April 18th at 9:30 PM ET on TNT
After narrowly nabbing the eighth seed with 41 wins last year, the Chicago Bulls bounced back with a vengeance and landed at the top of the 30-deep heap in 2011. An outstanding blend of young talent and veteran experience, the Red and Black finished the regular season 62 W’s-strong, good for best record in the league. All-Star PG Derrick Rose led the charge with an absolutely fantastic campaign that will likely earn him MVP accolades. Coached to title contention by defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau, who could very well be named Coach of the Year, the Bulls will bowl into the postseason on a nine-win roll. The Bulls are deep; they defend; they run and score in transition; and they can shoot threes to stretch the defense.
The Indiana Pacers have struggled for a number of years but made a late season run to capture the eighth position in the East. Interim coach Frank Vogel did an excellent job after Jim O’Brien was released in January and has led the Pacers to their first playoff appearance since 2006. Though Indiana’s big front line could give the Bulls a battle, the Pacers are still in the early stages of development. Postseason play is unfamiliar territory for most members of this group. So I expect this to be a short series with Chicago winning in five.
Philadelphia 76ers (7) at Miami Heat (2)
Game 1: Saturday, April 16th at 3:30 PM ET on ABC
Game 2: Monday, April 18th at 7:00 PM ET on TNT
Doug Collins, another candidate for Coach of the Year, has done a masterful job of rebounding from a very slow start this season to transform the Philadelphia 76ers into a playoff-caliber squad. Coach Collins finally figured out the combinations and rotations that produce wins. Last year the Sixers finished with one of the worst records in the league, but now they are playing above .500 ball. The Sixers rely on their athleticism, speed, quickness and a solid defense while minimizing mistakes and turnovers.
However, their strengths are also strengths of the Miami Heat, who likewise capitalize on the athleticism, speed and quickness of wings Dwayne Wade and LeBron James. The Heat are obviously on a mission to prove their championship pedigree and to prove their numerous critics wrong. Miami is the better team, but Philadelphia competes every night so it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Sixers steal a couple games somewhere in this series. I see Miami taking the series 4-2.
Atlanta Hawks (5) at Orlando Magic (4)
Game 1: Saturday, April 16th at 7:00 PM ET on ESPN
Game 2: Tuesday, April 19th at 7:30 PM ET on NBA TV
A year ago the Atlanta Hawks entered the playoffs in third place with home court advantage. This year they will open up as the visitors on the Orlando Magic’s home court. The Hawks won 3 of 4 games in the regular season series against the Magic, which is surprising in light of the difficulty they’ve had trying to win against them in the past. For the last couple of seasons the Magic have dominated the Hawks. Atlanta has not been able to match up with them inside, particularly against Dwight Howard. And when Atlanta did try to collapse or double team Howard, Orlando made them pay with the three-point shot. Despite their success this season, this Atlanta team is not heading into the playoffs on a high note. They’ve played poorly down the home stretch. Whether or not they can regroup in the playoffs and do some damage remains to be seen.
A big concern for Orlando going into this series is the health of their nicked-up players, in particular J.J. Redick, who is key to the Magic playing their best basketball. Redick missed the Orlando Magic’s final 17 regular-season games after straining a muscle in his lower abdomen during a Magic shootaround. Obviously they will rely heavily on powerhouse center Dwight Howard. But for Orlando to go far on in the playoffs, they need to make 3-point shots to stretch their opponents’ defense. And they need to get those injured players back in top form. If Atlanta gets back to playing at a high level, this will be a very challenging series. And it could be one of the series in which the lower seeded team winds up advancing. If Orlando does get Redick back, I see them closing out the series in six games.
Portland Trail Blazers (6) at Dallas Mavericks (3)
Game 1: Saturday, April 16th at 9:30 PM ET on ESPN
Game 2: Tuesday, April 19th at 9:30 PM ET on TNT
Portland Trail Blazers vs. Dallas Mavericks is another early round series that will be very exciting. I think most teams wanted to avoid meeting Portland in the first round. Portland has played outstanding basketball despite enduring a season with injuries to key players. Greg Oden did not play at all and Brandon Roy had to rehabilitate from knee surgery to help his team finish strong down the stretch. Portland will to try to control the tempo of these matchups and to prevent Dallas from getting into the wild, up and down game that they’d like to have.
Dallas has had an outstanding season. When you have Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic you’re talking about a team with tremendous talent, depth and a ton of experience. Their defense has been questioned in the past, but they’ve made significant improvements. If the Mavericks play at the top of their game they should beat the Blazers. But it will be a close series that could very well boil down to a Game 7. Portland could pull off an upset, but I think the Mavericks will clinch the series 4-3.