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Saturday / April 20 / 2013

Playoffs Preview: Eastern Conference

Miami Heat

By Ernest Hernandez (@ErnestLeo)

During the 2012 NBA Finals, Pat Riley saw how Mike Miller burned the OKC Thunder with seven 3-pointers and it led him to what he thinks is the best formula to maximize the Big Three, which is to surround them with more reliable shooters. The improvements could have never been better by acquiring some of the top 3-point gunners in the history of the league – Ray Allen from the Boston Celtics and his former partner in Seattle, Rashard Lewis. Together with their existing shooters, Allen and Lewis join Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller and James Jones in forming the Heat’s “Bomb Squad”.

When the season started, the Heat struggled to get their defense straight, resulting to a very slow start with a 29-14 record while battling the Knicks for the top seed in the East.

Feeling the need for a big man, the Heat made a bold move of signing Chris Anderson, a volatile big man, for the remainder of the season who seemed to be a perfect fit coming off from the bench.

The Heat then went on to win a historical 27 straight games and finishing the season 36-2 to clinch the best record in the NBA.

Coming from another extraordinary season finishing with an improved 57 percent field goal percentage and shooting 40 percent from the 3-point arc, LeBron James is once again the frontrunner for MVP. Dwayne Wade, for his part, is having the lowest point production of his career with 21.4 points per game but has set a career high on his field goal percentage at 53 percent.

With the playoffs coming, the Heat are coming together at the right time of the season. The question around the league right now is “Who can beat the Heat in seven games?”

New York Knicks

By Marco Aventajado (@aventajado)

The 2012-13 NBA Playoffs see the New York Knicks at the second seed and expectations are high because it has been more than a decade since the Knicks had been described as a team that was: 1) on a 13-game winning streak (third longest in franchise history); 2) won 50-plus games for the season (first since the 1999-2000 season); 3) Atlantic Division champions (first since the 1993-94 season); and 4) had the regular season scoring champion on the team (since 1983-84).

Die-hard Knicks fans are giddy for the second act of this season, with potential league MVP Carmelo Anthony and Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith being the first Knick duo to score 30-plus points in at least three games in the season (since Patrick Ewing and Gerald Wilkins during the 1987-88 season), their performances and heroics have electrified the faithful at Madison Square Garden, but what are their chances?

Undeniably, the Knicks’ reliance on the isolation plays for Anthony, along with the threat of a kick-out to the waiting 3-point shooters Steve Novak, Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert and Smith, will be the key for their success in the playoffs. The team leads the league in 3-pointers made, averaging 12 per game and breaking the previous record of the 2009-10 Orlando Magic for most team 3-pointers in a season. Naysayers were predicting that the team would slump in the middle of the season after a torrid (understatement) start because of the 3-point proficiency, which was correct, but they didn’t predict that the Knicks would get hot again late in the season, in time for the playoffs.

Versatility will be a contributing factor for New York as creative lineups have been the norm throughout the season because of key injuries. The three-guard lineup (Pablo Prigioni, Felton and Shumpert with Anthony at the power forward slot and Chris Copeland at the center) has been in effect for most of the 13-game winning streak, and the benefits have been in both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Continue to look for this starting lineup until the return of the big men of the team. Tyson Chandler, Amare Stoudamire, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby, who have all missed significant time with various injuries, will be ready to play in the playoffs.

Smith will be the X-factor for the team as he emerges as the second option on the floor with Anthony. He has been spectacular during the streak with a shooting efficiency and explosiveness to the basket that has been sublime.

The team’s attitude of “Good to be here” from last season’s playoff run should be replaced so that the team can look for a deep run this year.

Indiana Pacers

By Erik Ong (@FantasyHoopla)

What do the Indiana Pacers need to succeed in the 2012-13 NBA Playoffs? The answer is simple. They need a quantum leap in maturity and they need it right away. They’ve shown signs of such in patches throughout the regular season already.

First and foremost is the growth and emergence of Paul George as a certified elite talent in the game. The thing is, up until this point, it has all just been about young player’s improvement in confidence in himself combined with an insane level of athleticism and sheer ability to do almost everything on the court. Versatility, explosiveness, and impact are all good, but the truth of the matter is such that George is still not ready to bear the full weight of this team on his young shoulders just yet. He’s still getting acclimated to his newfound role of being one of the team’s key players. He will have to take his across-the-board statistical improvement and take on a bigger on-court leadership role. Whether he sees himself as a go-to guy at this point or not, is beside the point. If he will need to grow up more quickly and be “that guy” in those clutch moments down the stretch. Winding out the regular season, George has been in a shooting slump and has been dealing with a sprained ligament in his left pinkie. George will need to get both his body and confidence up to one hundred percent health, A.S.A.P.

Another player who REALLY needs to come into his own, and in a hurry, is Roy Hibbert. Season after season, we’ve been waiting for him to live up to – “grow into,” if you will – the potential we all know is there. Inside that big guy is an elite NBA center just waiting to bust out and become a dominant force to be reckoned with in the paint, on both ends of the floor. We’ve seen glimpses; we’ve seen sparks, all of which somehow get overshadowed now and again by his loss of focus – and at times self-confidence. Maybe Roy needs Rob Schneider (Waterboy 1998) to be standing in Pacer’s bench to scream “You can do eeet!” to remind him of what he is capable of bringing. There aren’t any real, quality big men threatening to be dominant in the East. Yes Roy, you can be that guy, and cause matchup headaches for so many teams.

What the Pacers have going for them at this point is David West. He’s the veteran. He brings the confidence and maturity to the floor night in and night out. He’s welcomed the mantle of being the go-to scorer in the absence of Danny Granger. His presence, leadership and ability to score in the low post are invaluable to Indiana.

Lastly, George Hill needs to be rested. He’s exploded this season, but he’s gotten banged up in the process. When he's fully healthy, Hill’s scoring and quarterbacking skills will be key in making the Pacers’ offense tick. That, and he and Paul George have shown to play very well off each other when they’re on the court together.

Brooklyn Nets

By Earl Leonard Sebastian

They’re practically the newest team in the league, having relocated from Newark, New Jersey, to Brooklyn, New York, and with a totally new environment, new surroundings, new direction for the team, it also means higher expectations for them. When your franchise is the “other team” in the basketball capital in the world or the neighbor of one of the most valuable, popular and historic teams in the league, people expect you to deliver.

Fortunately, with a Russian deep-pocketed owner supporting, a coaching change early in the season, re-signing of key players and fanatics in Barclays Center, the Nets have managed to improve in the standings and are now seated at fourth place in the Eastern Conference after having been in the lottery for quite awhile. Riding a four-game winning streak and seven wins in last ten games, they are expected to create a noise in the playoffs and can give a running for the conference crown.

Focus will be on their deadly triumvirate of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. Williams is one of the premier point guards in the league and has played for Team USA twice. He has the ability to score and create opportunities for his teammates. Williams has also been considered as the cornerstone of the franchise, that’s why re-signing him during the offseason was the priority. Meanwhile, Joe Johnson was added to bolster the backcourt and lessen the scoring burden of Williams. Being the former main man for Atlanta, he has made a name for himself there and is among the silent and underrated shooting guards in the league. His uncanny ability to hit the clutch and off-the-dribble shots has been unstoppable and difficult to defend. Lopez has emerged the past few seasons as among the best big men in the league right now. He was rewarded with an All-Star stint, although as a replacement for Rajon Rondo. The Nets also need Gerald Wallace to step up in the playoffs. He has not yet been able to find his groove the way he used to have in Charlotte Bobcats when he was an all-around stat freak. All of these and with the poise and chemistry enough to compete with the big boys.

The Nets will be facing the Bulls in the playoffs. It would have been a marquee matchup at the point between Williams and Derrick Rose, the elite point guards in the league, and both have played for Team USA, but hoop fans need not to worry because we are in treat to a matchup between All-Star centers Lopez and Joakim Noah. Both are rugged and tough, and will not back down from each other. Johnson and Rip Hamilton may not be the main men that they used to be with their former teams, but come playoff time, we know what these two can do especially during the clutch. Roster-wise, the Bulls are short since they will not be playing without leader and former MVP Derrick Rose, but they have a psychological advantage winning their season series 3-1. Both teams would want to prove that being in the playoffs is not a fluke for them, with the Nets entering the playoffs in their first season in Brooklyn, and the Bulls entering with playoffs uncertainties during the start of the season because of some injuries to key players.

Chicago Bulls

By Ernest Hernandez (@ErnestLeo)

"Will they survive without Derrick Rose?”

That was the question for the 2012-2013 season for the Bulls. Did they have an answer? Of course! The first move that they made was making Kirk Hinrich come back to wear the Bulls uniform once again. Forming a tandem with the fiery play of Nate Robinson, the Bulls secretly know that they have things covered till Rose’s probable return.

Most of all, the mantle of leadership was taken by Joakim Noah, who is having the best season of his career. Recognizing his performance, he was rewarded with his first trip to the All-Star Game together with teammate Luol Deng.

The record may not show it, but the Bulls have been the dark horses in the coming playoffs and they proved that by stopping the winning streaks of both the Knicks and the Heat.

Despite the timely injuries throughout the season from key players Carlos Boozer, Noah, Marco Belinelli and Richard Hamilton, the Bulls have managed to sneak in to snag the fifth seed in the East.

For a season that many counted them out and even missing the playoffs, the Bulls look to be overachieving without Rose. But they themselves know that they can do more. Don’t be surprised if they make a good run in the playoffs and who knows, a familiar face could come back if they hold on.

Atlanta Hawks

By Edison Ching (@MrEdChing)

Joe Johnson “The $120 million Man” came and went, and the results were almost identical: 40-36 last year (about 50-32 in a regular 82 game season), to 44-38 this year. Of course, the return to health of bruiser Al Horford was a big factor as well. Limited to just 11 games last year, he had a career year, boasting of 17.4 points per game and 10.2 rebounds per game, both career highs. Like Al, the loss of Joe Johnson meant the other players had to step up. Guard Jeff Teague did his part, upping his production from 12.6ppg and 4.9 assists per game to 14.6ppg and 7.2apg.

But of course, when you talk about the Atlanta Hawks, you talk about the enigmatic and super-talented Josh Smith. He took a career high 201 threes, but only connecting on 30.3 percent of them. Free throws, down to a career low 51.7 percent. Despite the negatives, the team relies heavily on him for his 17.5ppg 8.4rpg and 4.2apg. His performance will determine how far they go this post season.

The only regular contributor from the Joe Johnson trade, Devin Harris (10.0ppg, 3.4apg), has been solid and combined with sweet-shooting Kyle Korver, (2.5 threes per game, 45.4 percent accuracy), round off the rest of the starting lineup. Rookie John Jenkins registered more than 20 points three times in the last five games of the regular season, so he might be able to see some minutes against the Pacers.

Additional contributors like swingman Deshawn Stevenson (5.1ppg) and big man Ivan Johnson (6.4ppg, 2.7rpg) shore the rest of the bench.

Against the Indiana Pacers, the frontcourt will be a key matchup. Roy Hibbert (11.9ppg, 8.3rpg) and David West (17.1ppg, 7.7rpg) will give Al Horford and Josh Smith fits, and it will be very entertaining for them to go at it in the paint.

The X-factor for the Hawks will be team defense. They have great individual talents, but they need to be a team, a unit, to beat a well-oiled machine like the Indiana Pacers. The frontcourt battle will eventually cross each other out, and if they can figure out how to contain Paul George (17.1ppg, 7.6rpg, 4.1apg) and George Hill (14.2ppg, 3.7rpg, 4.7apg), they have a good chance to keep every game competitive against the east’s third seed.

Boston Celtics

By Jericho Ilagan (@atletajericho)

On January 27, 2013, every Boston Celtics fan felt that the season was in peril when it was announced that starting point guard Rajon Rondo would miss the remainder of the 2012-2013 NBA season due to a torn Anterior Crucial Ligament (ACL) in his right knee. At that time, the Celtics were three games under .500 (20-23).

Irish luck also didn’t seem to be on the Celtics’ side this year as the team was hit by several other injuries – Kevin Garnett missed 13 games, Avery Bradley was out for 31 games early in the season, Leandro Barbosa suited up for 41 games for the green & white before suffering an injury late in February (then traded to the Washington Wizards, along with Jason Collins, for Jordan Crawford), rookie Jared Sullinger played a key role off the bench before he missed the rest of the season after back surgery.

But by the end of the regular season, the Celtics had a 41-40 record and clinched the seventh playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Paul Pierce continues to be the focal point of the Celtics’ offense as he led the team in scoring with 18.6 points per game. Jeff Green (12.8ppg) looks more comfortable under Doc Rivers’ system after missing 56 games last year due to aortic aneurysm. Jordan Crawford (who once dunked on LeBron James while he was still in college. Yes, he’s that guy) will provide ample support off the bench as well.

While the Celtics may have had a difficult time during the grind of the regular season, their roster makes up for it in playoff experience. Newcomers Courtney Lee and Jason Terry have played in the NBA Finals – Lee with the Orlando Magic in 2009, and Terry with the Dallas Mavericks in 2006 and 2011. This Celtics squad is not new in facing adversity. Though I personally don’t expect them to go deep in the playoffs, I know that they will go down fighting.

Milwaukee Bucks

By Timothy Jay Ibay

So what is there to say about the Milwaukee Bucks? They’re back in the postseason after missing out last year, and while management might consider this season a success with that fact alone, the silver lining practically ends there. They are the only team in either conference to make the playoffs despite a sub .500 record, and will get rewarded for their efforts to face the defending champions and the best team in the league, the Miami Heat in the first round.

The good news is that they’ve managed to beat the Heat once in their four meetings this year; the bad news is that the win came in December when Miami was still shaking off the residual effects of winning a championship. The Bucks enter the playoffs with zero momentum, winning just three of their last 10 games, and haven’t had a winning month since January when they finished just over the .500 mark at 8-7. They bring an offense that was good for 12th in the league in points per game against the pit bull defense of Miami that has won all but two of its games since the All-Star break. And did I mention they’re going up against the most dominant player in the planet, and his two buddies that just happen to be All-Stars themselves?

But ignoring all basketball logic that they have little to zero chance of beating the Heat four times in seven games, what exactly do the Bucks bring to the table? They have a couple of ultra-quick guards that also happen to be extremely streaky scorers in Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, both of whom could explode at some point in the series and perhaps swing a game. They’ve got a slew of shooters surrounding the penetrations of Ellis and Jennings, but how far can you really push the Miami threshold when those shooters are named Mike Dunleavy, JJ Redick and Ersan Ilyasova? When the quick-footed closeouts of Miami make those three shooters do something off the bounce, what exactly are they going to be able to do?

You know Luc Mbah a Moute will give his best effort in trying to contain LeBron James. You also know that the likelihood of him succeeding in bottling up this improved version of the best player in the world is slim to none. We know Larry Sanders’ long-armed rim protection will rear its head, but will the games be close enough for it to matter?

It could’ve been any of the six other teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs that Milwaukee could be facing, and none of them would really have a reason to fear these deer. But against a team that has somehow improved after winning a championship, the only fear the Bucks can instill in their first round foes will be the fear of boredom.

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