Friday, April 17, 2015

NBA Playoff Preview Part 1: Eastern Conference First Round

As if the NHL playoffs hadn't been compelling enough, in steps the NBA to turn the sports world into little kids on Christmas morning. Less than twenty four hours from now, the NBA playoffs will begin, kicking off with four match ups spread across ESPN and TNT. There are questions to be answered (like how the hell did Brooklyn weasel their way into the playoffs?), legacies to be made and goats to be created, perhaps all at once. What will happen? Put on Faith No More's song "Epic", grab some pizza Pringles and sit back; it's time to preview the NBA playoffs, starting with the Eastern Conference. Don't worry, we'll get to the Western Conference tomorrow (or today, if you're on the East Coast like me). On with the show!

Eastern Conference Preview (First Round Edition)

(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (8) Brooklyn Nets

Major Storyline: How far can the Hawks go in the playoffs? They've been brilliant all regular season, they have a Coach of the Year candidate in Mike Budenholzer and only the Golden State Warriors have been more fun to watch. That said, the lack of a major star player is giving people pause, especially considering the Hawks will likely have to play Lebron and co in order to make the Finals.

Hawks Player to Watch: Kyle Korver. He's not their best player, he's got no other major skill beyond his three point shot, and that fact that he looks like Ashton Kutcher's distant cousin remains concerning. But he's one of the best perimeter shooters ever, and if he remains as hot in the postseason as he was all season, the Hawks will cruise to the second round.

Nets Player to Watch: Deron Williams. Remember when he was considered one of the best players in the NBA just a few years ago? Pepperidge Farm remembers. For the Nets sake, Williams better if they want a shot of even competing in this series.

Brooklyn Will Win If...: Every member of the Hawks starting five is injured under mysterious circumstances, and if Deron Williams parties like it's 2009. In other words, a miracle.

Prediction: Hawks in 4. Maybe Brooklyn can finally start thinking realistically and rebuild following another disappointing loss.

(4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Washington Wizards

Major Storyline: Which team is ready to make the leap? Are either of them? Both Toronto and Washington are talented, but for one reason or another have sort of underachieved this year following a breakout 2013-14 season. Will this series mark the arrival of one of them to prime time? I'm guessing no, but there's always a chance.

Raptors Player to Watch: Jonas Valančiūnas. The easy answer would be either DeMar DeRozen or Kyle Lowry, but both members of the Raptors backcourt proved their reliability in the playoffs last year. The 6'11 Valančiūnas remains the Raptor with the most potential for greatness, and if he continues to build off his best NBA season yet, the Raptors will be dangerous.

Wizards Player to Watch: Bradley Beal. The young shooting guard only played in 63 games this season due to various ailments, continuing Beal's unfortunate trend of failing to play a full season during his three year career. When he's been right, the Wizards have been at his best. John Wall may be the Wizards best player, but Beal is the key. When he hasn't the team has struggled. Will he remain right long enough for the Wizards to advance?

Prediction: Raptors in 6. In the end, Duane Casey is a much better coach than Randy Wittman, and that's enough for Toronto to eek out the series. Have you seen Wittman coach? Know wonder Batman doesn't like him.

Sorry Batman, you can't

(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Boston Celtics

Major Storyline: Can the Cavs live up to expectations? Since LeBron James returned home last summer, Cleveland has been expected to compete in the NBA Finals, regardless of all the chemistry, coaching and media issues that came along the season. Are they the team the experts think they are? Or do they need one more year before the Cavs become the team everyone believes they can be?

Cavs Player to Watch: Kevin Love. Let's be real here guys; of all the guys in this serious who need to answer questions, Love has the most. LeBron, aside from a brief period at the beginning of the season, was LeBron. The same goes for Kyrie Irving. Only Love the third part of the dynamic trio, has failed to live up to the hype, spending most games with a look that's part sulk, part "get me out of this hell hole now!". Has he been used correctly by head coach David Blatt? Perhaps not. But whatever the reason, Love doesn't look like the same guy who averaged 26 and 14 last year in Minnesota. He needs to be if he wants to win a title and wants LeBron to stop rolling his eyes at him after every blown defensive possession.

Celtics Player to Watch: Evan Turner. Isaiah Thomas might be flashier, but the former number two pick Turner has quietly been a surprise for the out of nowhere Celtics, hitting clutch shots and excelling in the role of power forward. He'll have the touch assignment of both guarding LeBron and trying to run the offense against LeBron. If he hangs, Boston will hang. Simple as that.

Celtics Will Win If...: Brad Stevens has the series of his life as a coach (highly possible), Turner continues his hot play, Thomas plays out of his mind and one of the young guns like Marcus Smart or Kelly Olynyk takes the leap.  In other words, they need a Doug Flutie Hail Mary situation.

Prediction: Cavaliers in five. It'll be entertaining though, as Boston gives Cleveland all they got and proves they'll be a force to be reckoned with in the years to come.

(3) Chicago Bulls vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks

Major Storyline: Is this the beginning of a major long term NBA rivalry? Chicago and Milwaukee are separated by less than 100 miles, and the despite a late season swoon, the Bucks possess both the coach (Jason Kidd) and the youth to be a serious threat in the East in the coming years. I expect this series to be more physical than people expect, and if the Bucks push Chicago further than many expect, this could be the beginning of yet another hot NBA rivalry. Here's hoping!

Bulls Player to Watch: Derek Rose. Duh. The former league MVP seemingly hasn't been healthy since the second Transformer film was released, and the lack of him on the court has derailed the Bulls title hopes for years now. He's recently just returned from yet another injury, and wasn't exactly lighting it up before he was hurt. Can he return to NBA form? Can he at least come close? Chicago needs him to if they expect to challenge Cleveland or Atlanta.

Bucks Player to Watch: Can I just call him the Greek Freak? Alright, I'll give it a whirl; Giannis... Antetokounmpo. Boom, totally nailed it (and by nailed it, I mean I totally looked it up). With Brandon Knight now enjoying the Phoenix Sun (pun fully intended) and Jabari Parker out for the postseason, the 20 year old Giannis represents the closing thing to a potential star in the Bucks future. He's still more of an athlete than a basketball player, and there's a better chance a new Turok game will be made than Giannis hitting a perimeter shot. At the very least though, the Greek Freak's dunk skills, long length and uber athleticism should make him fun to watch in this series.

Bucks Will Win If...: The Greek Freak turns into a complete player overnight. Excuse me while I order Turok: The Return of the Son of Stone.

You know he regrets nothing

Prediction: Bulls in 5, though the Bucks will hang tough like the Celtics. Don't worry guys and gals, there's always the Western Conference to produce a seven game series.

Till tomorrow (or technically later today)!

Please change disks to continue...

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