Home-court advantage and the No. 1 seeding in the Eastern Conference playoffs have not resulted in a championship the past two seasons. Just ask LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
James powered the Cavaliers to 66 and 61 wins and the No. 1 seeding in the East two years in a row, but a great regular season turned into a nightmare in the postseason. Last year was the most painful one, as the Celtics eliminated the Cavs in the conference semifinals and LeBron walked off the TD Garden floor with his head down, took off his Cavaliers uniform for the last time and bolted for South Beach.
This year, Derrick Rose has powered the Chicago Bulls to 62 wins and the No. 1 seeding in the East. Even though the Bulls have clearly been the best team in the East this season, the playoffs are a totally different challenge. Can these upstart Bulls and their soon-to-be crowned league MVP handle the immense pressure and scrutiny of the playoffs? That’s the No. 1 question facing first-year coach Tom Thibodeau.
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (8) Indiana Pacers
The Bulls took three of four games from the Pacers, who may be able to win one game in this series but that’s about it. Too much Derrick Rose, too much Bulls defense. Prediction: Bulls in 5.
(4) Orlando Magic vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
Last year the Hawks were thoroughly dominated by the Magic and had no answer for Jameer Nelson. The Hawks picked up defensive specialist Kirk Hinrich at the trade deadline and he should help deal with Nelson’s dribble penetration and contest his jumpers off screen-and-rolls. However, the Hawks didn’t pick up anyone to deal with Dwight Howard in the post and that will ultimately be, again, their Achilles’ heel. Prediction: Magic in 6.
(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) New York Knicks
Most experts feel this could be the best first-round series. From a pure entertainment standpoint? Yes. In terms of the length of the series? No. Chauncey Billups and Amare Stoudemire both have health issues, and the Knicks play way too loose on offense and defense to keep up with the highly efficient and battle-tested Celtics, who could break out of their shooting slump against a very forgiving and extremely soft Knicks defense. Prediction: Celtics in 5.
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) Philadelphia 76ers
The Heat’s biggest weaknesses are at center and point guard. Fortunately for Miami, Philly doesn’t really have a low-post presence who can command double teams. And point guard Jrue Holiday is playing in his first postseason so don’t expect this series to be competitive. Prediction: Heat in 4.
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (4) Orlando Magic
This is where the shocker of the postseason occurs. Orlando has a significant edge in the middle with Howard, and Chicago really has no one on its roster who can keep Orlando’s 6-foot-11 beast out of the paint. Joakim Noah is still bothered by an ankle injury and backup center Omir Asik will be in foul trouble throughout the series because he’s not athletic enough to stay in front of Howard. Another matchup problem for Chicago is Jason Richardson, who should win his one-on-one battles with Keith Bogans, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer. And as good as Rose has been all year, he has yet to lead the Bulls out of the first round. Prediction: Magic in 6.
(2) Miami Heat and (3) Boston Celtics
Miami’s victory over Boston in the fourth meeting between the two teams was not only a huge confidence booster for the Heat but it was also a reality check for the Celtics. The addition of Mike Bibby gives LeBron and Dwyane Wade a true sniper who can spread the floor and be counted on in the fourth quarter. For the Celtics to win this series, three things must happen: 1) Shaquille O’Neal plays 24 minutes a game,2) Rajon Rondo makes some jumpers, and 3) Paul Pierce averages more than 20 points per game. All three will be very difficult to achieve against a Heat squad that is coming together at the perfect time. Prediction: Heat in 7.
(2) Miami Heat vs. (4) Orlando Magic
In 2009, Howard and the Magic denied LeBron a trip to the NBA Finals. This year, James has D-Wade to lean on when the going gets tough. James’ biggest obstacle the past two postseasons has been his inability to raise his game in big moments. That’s where Wade comes in. This is the series where Wade turns into Jordan and LeBron happily takes on the role of Pippen. The two teams split the season series, so that means home court will decide the outcome of the battle of Florida. Prediction: Heat in 7.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/onemanfastbreak.