How will the East be won?
5-on-5: Our crew breaks down some of the possible East playoff matchups
John Hollinger broke down the biggest threats to a Bulls-Heat showdown in the East finals. Now our 5-on-5 crew shares their takes.
1. Which team would be most likely to upset the Bulls in the first round?
Ryan DeGama, Celtics Hub: The Celtics. There's no path to the Finals for Boston this year but with fresh legs, in a first-round series, there's also no team in the league the C's can't beat four times out of seven. The Bulls are uniquely vulnerable given Boston's suffocating strongside defense and Chicago's over-reliance on Derrick Rose (30.26 usage rate) for offensive creation.
Graydon Gordian, 48 Minutes of Hell: The Pacers. They've built on their defiant first-round series against the Bulls last season and evolved into one of the most competitive teams in the East. Most importantly, they're one of the few teams with the mismatches and firepower needed to thwart the Bulls' staunch defense over the course of several games.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: The Knicks? I don't know that there is even a legitimate answer for this. I pick the Knicks because they have the talent to do it, in theory. They have a lot of offensive weapons and if everything clicks right then maybe they could take down Chicago. Of course, if everything "clicks right" for me in the next year, I'll make my NBA debut this October
Matt McHale, By The Horn: The Pacers. Let's face it, there's history dating back to last year's first-round matchup between the two teams. The Pacers delivered a lot of hard fouls in that series, particularly against Derrick Rose, and the Bulls haven't forgotten that. The animosity carried over to this season. The Pacers were the first team to win in Chicago and they celebrated that one. The Bulls didn't forget that one, either. There's a budding rivalry and the Pacers always play the Bulls tough.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Boston. Assuming that the Old Three and their moody point guard get to the playoffs -- as I definitely do assume -- Round 1 is when Paul, KG, Ray and Rondo figure to be at their freshest and thus most dangerous. Factor in D-Rose's iffy health and you can almost start to picture another Bulls/Celts first-round classic that goes longer than it's supposed to. Almost.
2. Which team would be most likely to upset the Heat in the first round?
DeGama: The Celtics. To be clear, most likely does not mean actually likely, but the Celtics consider last year's injury-laden loss to Miami a travesty and are likely to bring their very best against a team they despise. Now, if only they could rebound. And score. And stay healthy.
Gordian: The Sixers. Iguodala hasn't played as well against LeBron James as many would have hoped, or even expected, but given his length, athleticism and tenacity, he still matches up with the eventual MVP as well as anyone. Simply put, the Sixers have the best chance of slowing Miami's offensive attack of anyone in the East outside of the Bulls.
Harper: Again, I don't really see this as a possibility. I'd have to say the Knicks again. You need firepower from all angles to upset a team like Chicago or Miami and the Knicks certainly have a lot of ammunition. If Novak goes nuts, if J.R. Smith makes shots, if Melo and Lin can find some on-court chemistry then maybe the improbable can occur.
McHale: Boston is the only team I could see making a go of it. Cunning veterans, championship experience and all that. But only if they're healthy. And Kevin Garnett gargles with Fountain of Youth water.
Stein: Philly. The Sixers have no closer and their fourth-quarter execution can be painful to watch. But they also play withering half-court D that puts them a notch ahead of everyone else in the Rest of the East club starting with Doug Collins' privilege of throwing Iguodala at LeBron.
3. Which team would be most likely to upset the Magic in the first round?
DeGama: Sixers. I don't like this year's Magic team because of its mediocre offense and because, Howard's recommitment aside, I think Orlando has only papered over the internal cracks from earlier this season. I'd also be comfortable with the Pacers, Knicks and Celtics in this spot. I think Orlando's out early.
Gordian: The Knicks. If J.R. Smith, Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony find their rhythm and can make jumpers with consistency, they'll do what lots of other teams in the East aren't able to: Score consistently while staying as far away from Dwight Howard as possible. Failing to utilize talent is a double-edged sword. It still means you have the talent.
Harper: I'll go with Indiana. The Pacers have the size to match Dwight Howard for 40 minutes every game (it's unlikely Dwight ever comes out) and they force a lot of turnovers. Orlando seems to think you get extra points if you turn the ball over this season, so that's a bad matchup for the Magic.
McHale: I'm going to go with the Sixers. Because Dwight Howard cannot contain Spencer Hawes. Kidding. The Sixers are so good defensively I could see them successfully pulling off a "stop everybody but Dwight" strategy and ending Orlando's season.
Stein: C'mon. Everyone knows that the Hawks have Orlando's (and Atlanta native Dwight Howard's) number. Rest assured that Hawks officials are huddled in a room somewhere as we speak trying to figure out exactly what sort of record they need the rest of the way to lock up the sixth seed and ensure a first-round reunion with the Magic. (If the Hawks unavoidably move up the East ladder over the final month of the season, let's go with Philly and that withering D here.)
4. Fact or Fiction: The East playoff picture will finish as is.
DeGama: Fiction. I think Indiana will pass Philadelphia -- which plays six of its last seven on the road -- for the fourth seed. Atlanta may lap the Sixers, too.
Gordian: Fact. Tom Thibodeau won't let the Bulls slip down the stretch. No one is catching Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division. After Monday night's loss to the Knicks, Milwaukee isn't likely to slip past New York for the eighth seed. With the possible exception of Atlanta and Indiana switching spots, this is the playoff seeding you're getting.
Harper: Fiction. With the way Philadelphia is struggling, you could very well see the Celtics or even the Knicks grab that division title from the Sixers' grasp. I don't see the Bucks making the final push, even if they are on a pace to break the all-time record for backcourt swag.
McHale: Fiction. Too many of these teams are clumped too close together. I could see the Heat leapfrogging the Bulls, and the Atlanta-Boston-Indiana trio all could swap places before the end. One or more seeds will change before everything is said and done.
Stein: Fiction. The mantra of this lockout-shortened season, as you've surely deduced by now, is assume nothing. Or at least that should be the mantra. The eight playoff teams look reasonably set, but even that is no lock thanks to Amare Stoudemire's bad back.
5. Which first-round East matchup are you dying to see?
DeGama: Boston-Miami. There are plenty of great storylines here. The dying throes of a great Boston era pitted against a Miami team trying to justify the hype with its first title. The deep-seated contempt Boston's Big Three holds for Miami's Big Three. And the titanic struggle between Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf for the title of supreme waiver-wire pickup.
Gordian: Boston-Miami. I don't think it will even be that close. I'd take Miami in five. However, I'm looking forward to watching an aging Boston team claw and scratch and fight for that last breath of postseason air. The swan song for this era of the Celtics will be something to behold.
Harper: I'll say Bulls-Knicks. I really don't want to watch the Celtics anymore right now because it's just kind of awkward. And I definitely don't want to watch any more Hawks basketball than I have to because you can't trust them to have entertaining games. Although Sixers-Pacers could be an awesome matchup, give me the stars to watch.
McHale: For sheer star power and drama, Heat-Knicks for sure. But only if Amare Stoudemire makes a nearly-full recovery from his back woes. (Note to Basketball Gods: Please don't let it be anything like the Heat-Knicks series from the '90s.)
Stein: The Celtics against whomever they play. Because we've had five wild years of Paul, KG and Ray and the end is near. Must-see TV.
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