Thursday, April 26, 2012 Updated: April 28, 4:29 PM ET
Playoff preview: Eastern Conference
By Israel Gutierrez ESPN.com
There's nothing keeping Chicago and Miami from meeting in the conference finals for a second straight year. Except Derrick Rose's health. And Boston's familiarity. And Indiana's balance. And maybe it's just Atlanta's time. OK fine, perhaps the first round does leave a lot to be determined in the East. (For our West preview, click here.)
Let take a look at the matchups:
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (8) Philadelphia 76ers
This is still supposed to be the season Derrick Rose gets it right, makes up for the Eastern Conference finals loss to the Miami Heat that he placed squarely on his shoulders, and carries his slightly improved Bulls team to the NBA Finals.
Of course, the first three quarters of that script have been something of a mess, with coach Tom Thibodeau and his band of defenders doing much of the work to get the Bulls the No. 1 seed, while Rose nursed injury after injury.
Still, the ending can play out just as planned.
It'll take Rose rounding back into shape rather quickly, but that's what the luxury of the No. 1 seed and the chance to play the Sixers is for.
Because as much as Bulls fans want to point to the team's success despite the starting backcourt of Rose and Richard Hamilton missing a combined 64 games on the season, it's Rose and Rose alone who elevates the Bulls to NBA Finals caliber.
Chicago's offense already has to execute to perfection when Rose isn't there to create for them. Try doing that for three consecutive best-of-seven series against teams that get progressively better. Won't be nearly as successful.
So Rose doesn't just have to be back. He has to be back to last year's playoff form.
Check that. He has to be slightly better than last year's playoff form. Because all that got him last year was extremely frustrated and a Chicago Cubs-like wait-till-next-year approach.
The 76ers, meanwhile, are in their second superstar-free playoff run, and have already seemingly reached their ceiling. If Doug Collins and his Sixers can't spring a shocking upset here, look for Philly to comb the entire league for an available superstar. Heck, the Sixers might do that regardless of the result.
How it'll be decided
The Sixers almost prefer to do their damage when the benches come in. With Lou Williams, the team's leading scorer, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young all playing reserve roles, Philly normally has an advantage in that area.
Not in this series, though. The Bulls have been through so many significant injuries that core reserves C.J. Watson, Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver and Omer Asik can be equally as devastating.
The Sixers need either Jrue Holiday or Andre Iguodala to score consistently in this series if they have any chance at upsetting the Bulls. That said, when the Sixers were getting off to that impressive 16-6 start, they did blow out the Bulls in Philly. If they rediscover that mojo, Chicago might have a second straight testy first round on their hands.
But with each game that passes, the better Rose will get. And he'll eventually be the difference in this one.
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) New York Knicks
What's not to like here?
The class of the 2003 draft all together for a playoff series. LeBron James coming off a probable MVP regular season -- possibly his best season yet -- and looking to officially erase the memories of an NBA Finals gone horribly wrong.
Carmelo Anthony possibly playing better than anyone at the moment, and the Knicks seemingly believing their own hype.
It's the type of glam series normally reserved for the later rounds. Fortunately for everyone, the Knicks tanked the first half of the season and set up this beauty for us right off the bat.
The Heat very likely would've fallen asleep given a second straight opening series against the Sixers, who Miami hasn't lost to in the regular season in the big three era, so this is the kind of playoff wake-up call the Heat prefer. Not only does it get the competitive juices flowing a little stronger, but the Heat would want nothing more than to sweep the surging Knicks just to show off how ready they are.
For the Knicks, there are baby steps involved in this run-to-a-championship routine. So before New York can discuss mild-altering upsets that would signal the end of the Heat's big three almost immediately, the Knicks might want to win a single playoff game. You know, an accomplishment the franchise hasn't experienced since April 29, 2001. That would be 4,017 days entering its Saturday showdown with the Heat in Miami, if anyone's counting.
So, yeah. Baby steps.
How it'll be decided
There's one particular element of this matchup that should give the Knicks the feeling that their long-awaited day has come: 3-point shooting.
The Heat are seventh worst in the league in 3-point shooting percentage allowed. Though the Knicks are in the bottom third themselves, they are still quite dangerous hoisting the triple -- especially with J.R. Smith in the fold, Anthony shooting it as well as he is, and Steve Novak leading the league in that department.
The Heat may have swept the season series from the Knicks, but New York outscored Miami by a staggering 102-30 margin from beyond the arc in those three games.
If New York can find a way to continuously draw the defense to the paint -- that is almost strictly Anthony's job on that team -- then find a groove shooting open 3s, this made-for-TV series could get interesting.
That would be the only way to steal this series, or even a game, away from LeBron James.
As if James wasn't already doing enough heavy lifting this season, Dwyane Wade comes into the series with a dislocated left index finger and Chris Bosh has a problematic hamstring.
James averaged a ho-hum 26.7 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists and 2.3 steals in those three games versus the Knicks. Expect bigger things from him in this series now that he has taken full control of this Heat team.
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Orlando Magic
The only way this could've worked out any better for the Pacers is if David Stern randomly granted them a first-round bye. (After all, it has been a whole four months since he has stepped in and made dramatic league-altering decisions.)
Not only do the Pacers get a Magic team in turmoil with its coach and superstar at odds, but that superstar won't even be in the picture.
The definition of a successful season for Indiana would've included an appearance in the second round of the playoffs. And facing the Magic without Dwight Howard gives the Pacers a great chance at doing just that.
The Magic aren't complete pushovers, but since beating the Bulls, Pacers and Heat in consecutive games in early March, the only playoff-bound team Orlando has beaten was a floundering Philadelphia team twice.
Still, if the Magic can do the unthinkable and win a playoff series without Howard, it would certainly bring into question the value of head coach Stan Van Gundy, who presumably will be dismissed after the season, as per the alleged request of Howard.
Winning with Van Gundy but without Howard should make Magic brass reconsider exactly how valuable each of those respective assets really are.
How it'll be decided
Welcome, Ryan Anderson, to the role of leading man.
One of the top candidates for the NBA Most Improved Player Award, Anderson has barely had time to enjoy his breakthrough season, and now he'll become the primary target of the Pacers' defense.
Yes, Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu (who'll be masked and ready to go after suffering a fractured cheekbone on April 5) are the ones who make the Magic's offense go by driving and kicking. But Anderson has done most of the scoring damage, even with Howard out.
J.J. Redick and Jason Richardson should have issues against the length of Paul George and Danny Granger, which would put even more of an onus on Anderson.
If he can pull that off, then Anderson deserves more than MIP honors. They should create a Most Underrated Player Award.
It's a lot more likely the Pacers' balanced attack guides them to the second round, putting a bow on a season that's gone about as well as could be expected.
You can expect more from David West than the seven points and five boards he averaged against the Magic in the regular season, especially without Howard protecting the rim.
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
Last year was allegedly Boston's last gasp at getting its core another NBA Finals appearance. Five games into the second round, that opportunity was supposedly destroyed.
Somehow, the Celtics get one more chance at this. Maybe even a better chance.
Danny Ainge looks like a genius by holding off on trades that would've sent Ray Allen and Paul Pierce elsewhere.
For the month after the trade deadline, Rajon Rondo & Co. rewarded Ainge by going 13-6 and reminding the rest of the NBA they're not dead yet. And the playoffs play into the Celtics' hands even more, with the additional rest involved.
But on the other side of the court will be a team looking just to get a taste of Celtics-like success. The Hawks have found a way to surprise in the playoffs ever since they took the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in 2008.
Now the Hawks are an afterthought again, in part because stabilizing big man Al Horford has been out, and will be out for this first-round series.
But the Hawks match up well against the Celtics. And in a sense, this is their revenge series.
It might've been four years since Boston took out the Hawks in seven, but beating the Celtics and officially (at least we think it would be official this time) extinguishing the Big Three (plus Rondo) era in Boston would feel like a major accomplishment.
How it'll be decided
Normally, the absence of Horford and the uncertain status of center Zaza Pachulia would be considered huge detriments for the Hawks.
But against this version of the Celtics, who start Kevin Garnett at center and bring rookie Greg Stiemsma off the bench, that might not be a problem at all.
Garnett and Josh Smith are still likely to match up. It'll just happen at the 5 spot instead of power forward.
Joe Johnson and Pierce are essentially mirror images of one another, both capable of explosive scoring games and both solid defensively.
The similarities between these two veteran groups will make home court something of a non-factor.
So the difference here will very likely be Rondo. In two games against the Hawks, he struggled horribly from the field, shooting 23 percent. But he still dished out 33 assists in those two games, and the Celtics won both games (by a total of five points) that Rondo played against Atlanta.
The Celtics have been riding individual motivations all season long. Getting ousted in the first round will essentially ruin that run. Don't expect that to happen.