As part two of our playoff preview (part 1 here); lets take a look at the Eastern Conference. While the East may be a bit weaker than the West this year, there is no shortage of competition to take the East crown. So without further adieu lets do this…
The Chicago Bulls are the clear cut favorite out of the East. They've managed to rack up a very impressive record and the top seed in the East which is impressive for any team to do;but what many fans will fail to remember is that the Bulls were able to do this without their best player for much of the season. Derrick Rose was out for much of the season with various injuries yet the Bulls kept chugging along. Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and CJ Watson stepped up tremendously in their captains absence all season, but when Rose returned the Bulls seemed almost unstoppable. There is one team that matches up well against Chicago with a healthy Rose, the only question is whether we will actually see that matchup?
The Forgotten Soldiers
All homer-ism aside (those of you that have read my work all season, I continually harped that the Celtics are dead in the water and I still don't believe they have enough to win it all, but lets continue) the Celtics are showing signs that they will be a tough out for whomever they face this postseason. While people will try to compare them to the Spurs, the two teams couldn't be any more different. The Spurs are in far better shape than Boston. Where San Antonio has been able to find gems in the draft, the Celtics have been stuck with JR Giddens, Lester Hudson, and Semih Erden. The Spurs have a legitimate chance of staying relevant after Duncan leaves, the Celtics? Not so much.
But for this season, Doc Rivers has really captured the attention of his squad and deserves to be mentioned as a candidate for Coach of the Year. Avery Bradley has surprised many across the league (but not the loyal Texas Longhorns fans), and Kevin Garnett hasn't just found the fountain of youth…he's been doing cannonballs into it since the All Star break. The Celtics will cruise past Atlanta in the first round, but its lining up to be a second round matchup with the Bulls and I like how the Celtics match up. A combination of Rondo and Bradley defending an injured Rose will flat out wear him out. The only question that remains is do they have enough to beat the Heat, Pacers, or Sixers?
The Indiana Pacers are such an enjoyable story. They are every definition of the word "team". Top to bottom their starting five is extremely solid, with no true superstar they are a team of very good players which sometimes can make up for having no star. Teams that have had the most success against the new Big Three format in the NBA are the teams that are solid top to bottom. The Pacers may be the best example of this and an example what teams will attempt to build around in the future.
Roy Hibbert has quietly turned into one of the best Centers in the NBA, he is a solid 7'1'' and his post game has improved tremendously since entering the league. Danny Granger is still doing Danny Granger things while Paul George has emerged into a very good all around player. The Pacers also have Psycho T Tyler Hansborough, George Hill, Darren Collison, and David West. The Pacers run the floor at will and can defend with the best of them (ranked 10th in Def eff.) I'll take a team of 12 over a trio of buddies in Miami any day.
So who takes the cake?
This is a VERY tough call. Don't get me wrong I really want to see the Celtics make this happen but like eating reheated McDonalds, I just can't get the taste of how they played the first half of this season; it quite literally made me hate a few players on this roster for how indifferent they became. They will let Celtics fans down. The Bulls would be the easy pick, but for a #1 seed they still have a ton of holes, that bench is ugly and Rose's health is a big question mark. Miami has even more question marks, Lebron and the word clutch haven't slept in the same bed in…forever and Miami's bench is ho-ho-horrendous. So whats that leave us with? The Knicks….just kidding.
Representing the Eastern Conference will be the Indiana Pacers. Don't think I'm just riding the hot hand here. I pegged the Pacers as one of the teams to make noise at the end of last season, in my preseason preview elsewhere I declared that they would be the "team on the rise" and I am sticking by my guns. Why? The Pacers really impressed me last season with how hard they fought the top seeded Bulls in the first round of last seasons playoffs. The Pacers fought tooth and nail every game and just narrowly missed making that series a six or seven game affair. Now, a year older, a year smarter and adding key pieces such as David West the Pacers are going to be a really tough out, and it'll take someone from the Western Conference to make it happen.