Predictable Predictions For the Eastern Quarters

A Daily Babble Production

We promise there won't be a third straight day of not-as-clever-as-SW-thinks repeated root word headlines coming this week.  In the meantime, let's roll out the guesses for the Eastern Conference's half of the first round of the NBA playoffs...

The match-up: (1) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (8) Detroit Pistons

The figures

Cleveland: 66-16, plus-8.9 point differential, 112.4 points per 100 possessions (4th in offensive efficiency), 102.4 points allowed per 100 possessions (3rd in defensive efficiency)

Detroit: 39-43, -0.5 107.4 OE (21st), 108.0 DE (16th)

The word: Contrary to the understandable fears of some Magic fans (many of whom are still sighing with relief that their team didn't draw Detroit), these are no longer the bastion-of-stability Pistons we came to know throughout most of this decade.  Rodney Stuckey is not an efficient enough shooter (50.9 percent true shooting) or an effective enough distributor to provide an adequate replacement for the departed Chauncey Billups, and the second-year guard isn't ready to fill that leadership void either.  Michael Curry is not Larry Brown - or even Flip Saunders.  With Billups gone, this team has struggled to regain the offensive continuity and timing that had enabled a group of jump-shooters to be successful in past years.  The result has been miserable shooting from the field (the Pistons' 48.4 effective field goal shooting ranked them 25th in the league) and a less-than-impressive job of getting to the foul line (the Pistons sat 27th in made free throws per shot attempt).  With Rasheed Wallace aging, Billups gone, Rip Hamilton in and out of the lineup and questions at center all season, the defense is a far cry from any Bad Boys-type unit.

The Pistons' record might have been a bit better if not for the facts that the Billups trade happened in-season (forcing the team to jell on the fly), Michael Curry making the mistake of sending his best guard (Rip Hamilton) to the bench for a while and injuries keeping Hamilton and Wallace below the 70-game mark.  But even with all that said, as hard as this may be to conceptualize after the Pistons' run of early-round dominance of the last six years, this team just isn't that good. 

The Cavs, on the other hand, are quite good.  They've got basketball's best player, a nearly historically well-defended home court and great units at both ends of the floor.  You've heard about the Cavs ad nauseam all year, and we expect to be dealing with them more thoroughly in future rounds, so we'll keep it quick: Anderson Varejao, Ben Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas all do a fine job crashing the glass and defending the interior.  Mo Williams, Delonte West, Daniel Gibson and Wally Szczerbiak knock down shots and have done a better than expected job defensively.  Number 23 does everything really well.

This is going to be quick.

The pick: Cavs in four

The match-up: (3) Orlando Magic vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers

The figures

Orlando: 59-23, plus-6.7, 109.1 OE (11th), 101.9 DE (1st)

Philadelphia: 41-41, plus-0.1, 107.9 OE (19th), 107.8 DE (14th)

The word: While the Magic didn't exactly sprint to the finish line, let's review how the regular season ended for the Sixers: six straight losses (including games against New Jersey and Toronto as well as a home loss to a Boston team that had nothing to play for and was without two of its three stars) followed by a one-point overtime win over a Cleveland team that sat LeBron James, Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.  That's a group that sounds ready to turn it on.  Or not.

The Sixers shoot the three less effectively than any team in basketball, and they won't find creating offense any easier against the number one effective field goal percentage defense the league had to offer this season.  The Sixers do crash the offensive boards well, especially Samuel Dalembert, Marreese Speights and Reggie Evans, but that strength may be neutralized by the fact that the Dwight Howard-led Magic do an excellent job defending the glass, to the tune of second in the league this year.  Howard's presence makes it difficult enough to score inside, and the Sixers are more than capable of shutting themselves down from the outside.

The one thing the Sixers have going for them, despite the fact that Rafer Alston has performed nicely in Orlando so far, is that Andre Miller provides an edge at the point.  Alston's awful shooting and lack of great penetration ability are going to cost the Magic in a big spot sooner or later, and Miller has been worth more than his numbers to the Sixers as an on-floor leader over the last couple of seasons.

But even with that in mind, the Magic are just too much better.  They have the series' best player in Howard as well as several good distance shooters in Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and Courtney Lee, and they will lock up a slumping Philly team defensively.

The pick: Magic in five

The match-up: (4) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Miami Heat

The figures

Atlanta: 47-35, plus-1.6, 109.3 OE (10th), 107.6 DE (12th)

Miami: 43-39, plus-0.3, 107.8 OE (20th), 107.6 DE (11th)

The word: The Hawks deserve plenty of credit for a fine regular season, and I'm sure no one here has forgotten the dangers of playing the disrespect card with the Hawks.  Mike Bibby gave them more consistent play than many expected coming into the season.  Joe Johnson can take over a game offensively and contributes at the other end of the floor.  Josh Smith and Al Horford make up a young and athletic frontcourt.  The Heat will be relying heavily on rookies Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley and a washed-up big man in Jermaine O'Neal.  This leaves plenty of room for questioning by anyone thinking logically.

But we're scrapping that sense business on this one and making our one gut instinct pick for the conference: Dwyane Wade will not let his team see the door without winning a round.  He is just too much of a killer at both ends of the floor in any game that is even remotely close in the fourth quarter.  The NBA's leading scorer has done his work efficiently, played fine on-ball defense and gotten open looks for his teammates all season.  This isn't to say that Wade wins the series by himself, as it will take some over-achievement from Chalmers (who has some experience of his own playing in big games from his days at Kansas) and a mini-revival from JO, but Wade is going to put out a gargantuan effort, probably get a few extra trips to the line somewhere and find a way to pull his team through before running into trouble in Cleveland.

No, I don't think his team can beat one of the East's top three squads, and yes, the Hawks look a bit better on paper.  But against anyone in the conference outside the three runaway leaders, I'm not ready to bet against Flash.

The pick: Heat in six

The match-up: (2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Chicago Bulls

The figures

Boston: 62-20, plus-7.5, 110.5 OE (6th), 102.3 DE (2nd)

Chicago: 41-41, minus-0.3, 108.4 OE (15th), 108.7 DE (18th)

The word: Despite the loss of Kevin Garnett, the green is the clearly superior team here.  The Celtics have plenty of offensive firepower with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce at the swing spots.  Rajon Rondo has just the physique and style to cause Bulls wunderkind point guard Derrick Rose plenty of issues in his maiden postseason.  A team with a deeper squadron of bigs available than it had in March won't allow Unsotppable John Salmons to be quite as unstoppable attacking the rim as he was in the St. Patrick's Day game that didn't feature Garnett or the Infuriated Infant at all and saw Leon Powe leave due to injury after just four minutes on the floor. 

The Bulls have clearly been a better team since the midseason acquisitions of Unstoppable John and Brad Miller, and Wednesday's loss to Toronto was just their second at the United Center since the All-Star break.  But the Celtics won 62 games for a reason (several, in fact).  The Bulls don't have the horses to defend Allen and Pierce (Ben Gordon is most kindly considered a poor defender at the two) or quite a strong enough interior bunch to make the Celtics pay too dearly for the loss of Garnett inside.

Health questions will make this series longer than I expected 48 hours ago, but here's guessing it still goes the way of the good guys.

The pick: Celtics in six

***

UPDATE: We've got our West playoff preview coming in the next couple of days (the emergency "Fan As In 'Fanatic'" column in light of the KG injury backed up the Babble schedule), but I figure the official picks should be on the record before the first games are played.  So here they are: Lakers in five, Nuggets in six, Spurs in six, Rockets in seven.

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