The NBA playoffs tip off Saturday and the Eastern Conference’s cast of teams has two new entries from a year ago. The Milwaukee Bucks are the No. 8 seed, in the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and the Brooklyn Nets are seeded fourth and are returning to the playoffs for the first time since they were across the Hudson in New Jersey in 2007.
But the story line this year is a simple one? Is there anyone in the East who can beat the defending champion Miami Heat, who rolled to a franchise-record 66 wins en route to clinching home-court advantage for the duration of the playoffs.
That is a question that remains to be answered, but for now, let’s take a look at how the first round in the East should play out.
(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks
If there were a way for Miami to win this best-of-7 series in only three games, I’d predict it.
Since there isn’t, I’ll simply say Miami in four. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh against Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova? Seriously?
(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics
The Knicks are a top-tier seed for the first time since the 1990s. The Celtics are a lower-echelon seed for the first time since Kevin Garnett came to the Hub in 2007.
Carmelo Anthony has famously only advanced past the first round of the playoffs once in his career, when his Denver Nuggets reached the Western Finals in 2009.
He’ll lose that claim to fame when the Knicks win in six.
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks
The Pacers didn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence with their sputtering finish. Indiana lost its final three games and split its last 10 games, but did manage to hold off Brooklyn for the No. 3 seed (important because it means avoiding the Heat in the conference semifinals).
Paul George will be asked to lead a playoff team for the first time in his career and there’s never any way to tell how a young player will respond to that sort of responsibility.
On the other hand, it’s the Hawks. Josh Smith is playing for a max contract, but if Atlanta could only get to the second round when they had Joe Johnson, it’s hard to see them getting there without him. Pacers get it done in six.
(4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls
Chicago actually won the season series from the Nets, 3-1, but Derrick Rose is still a huge question mark for the Bulls and Joakim Noah said Friday (per ESPNChicago.com) that he’s not likely to play in the opener because of his ongoing problem with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
The leaves the Bulls shorthanded in the middle—not a particularly good development considering their opponent has the highest-scoring center in the NBA this season in Brook Lopez.
Add in the fact that Deron Williams has remembered he is an elite point guard over the last two months and Brooklyn reverses the trend in the postseason, dispatching the Bulls in seven tough games.