HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Thanks to a surge here and a slump there, the first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference playoffs are set.
The bracket filled itself out overnight. The Bulls and Pacers will square in the No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup, Heat-Sixers in the 2-7, Celtics-Knicks in the 3-6 and Magic-Hawks in the 4-5.
While it would be a bit foolish to try to offer up any predictions right now (those are coming Thursday, when the entire field is set), there is no shortage of storylines surrounding each series as we wait for things to kick off this weekend.
Your friends here at the hideout wanted to make sure you were well equipped to tackles each series. So we’ve cooked up a few items for your Tuesday morning reading pleasure, with a huge assist from the Prime Minster.
No. 1 BULLS vs No. 8 PACERS
The Skinny: We’d like to thank Pacers swingman Danny Granger for doing his best to start a small fire in a series that, minus Joakim Noah, is short on eccentric personalities. When asked which team he’d rather face between Boston and Chicago, Granger offered up this salvo to Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com:
“Boston’s a different monster,” he said. “They don’t have the best record in the East, but they won championships; they know how to do it. They have four, five guys you have to worry about. Chicago, they go as Derrick Rose goes. If you make a concerted effort to stop Derrick Rose, you have a better chance of beating them.”
That sounds great in theory, Danny — except for the part where the Bulls handled you three times this season and have no reason to fear anything the Pacers bring to the playoff party. Granted, these Pacers and this Bulls crew have the same number of playoff series wins (none) going in. But there’s a reason the Bulls are the No. 1 seed and the Pacers had to squeeze their way into the postseason.
No. 2 HEAT vs No. 7 SIXERS
The Skinny: Had someone told you Mike Bibby would be the linchpin to the Heat’s playoff hopes two months ago, you’d have swung on ‘em. Bibby was still playing for the Hawks two months ago. And when he did get traded, it was to the Wizards — and not the Heat. But after being bought out by the Wizards, Bibby quickly found his way to Miami and has since become entrenched in the Heat’s starting lineup.
And now it appears that Bibby, along with fellow veteran Zydrunas Ilgauskas, will be the starters flanking the Heat’s Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the postseason. After a season of searching for the right fit, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra appears to have found what he’s been looking for, per Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel:
Spoelstra expounded before Monday’s game on his reasoning for moving in Ilgauskas and Bibby and moving out Erick Dampier and Mario Chalmers.
He said Ilgauskas’ outside shooting balances the evolution of the offense.
“Our game is different than it was when he initially was starting for us,” Spoelstra said. “And we were successful. It never was an indictment on Zydrunas and his play. We were a jump-shooting team at the time and we had not developed a halfcourt game that would get us paint attacks.
“We’ve changed that now in the last few weeks, and Z actually helps us with that game, because he spreads the floor, gets the center away from the basket.”
As for going with Bibby over Chalmers, Spoelstra said it was a chemistry issue,.
“Mike Bibby works well with the starting group, gets the guys organized, particularly Dwyane and LeBron,” he said. “They can play off the ball at the beginning of the game. They can get into the normal rhythm and balance offensively. He’s a natural quarterback.”
It’s going to be interesting to see how deep into the playoffs the Heat can ride with this group.
No. 3 CELTICS vs No. 6 KNICKS
The Skinny: Perhaps the most intriguing postseason matchup of all involves the two most perplexing teams in the league since the trade deadline. Both the Celtics and Knicks made franchise-altering moves at the deadline — the Celtics shipped Kendrick Perkins out while the Knicks added Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups in a mega-deal.
The results have been mixed at best, although the Knicks head into the playoffs on a much better vibe than the Celtics. But it’s clear neither outfit has fully adjusted to the changes. Anthony and Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, however, have finally found a comfort zone that both can live with and it’s been the key to the Knicks’ late surge, according to the New York Daily News:
When Anthony arrived on Broadway, many worried that his isolation style wouldn’t jive with D’Antoni’s run-and-gun system, and over the first few games, Anthony seemed to bring the offense to a halt on nearly every touch. [Shawne] Williams and Landry Fields occasionally got lost. Fields conceded Sunday that he was “a little bit frustrated.”
But D’Antoni has made adjustments. The Knicks don’t run as often as they once did, but D’Antoni has established what he called a “fine balance” of open-court action and halfcourt sets. And Anthony no longer works against the offense, because most of the playbook has been retooled.
“He’s really getting it all off the offense,” Williams said of Anthony. “Every spot he’s in is a play; it’s a set. Coach did a good job of tweaking a lot of our plays to put him in his sweet spots.”
The result is a smoother offense. Fields said the Knicks are getting “better possessions,” and “the ball is moving much better.” And as the attack has grown fluid, Anthony has formed a stronger bond with D’Antoni. Anthony said Sunday that everybody has “bought into the Mike D’Antoni system.” And when D’Antoni was asked about the secrets of the recent run, he cited improved defense and rebounding, then added something else.
“Everybody’s on the same page now,” he said, “trusting each other and understanding what’s best for some players and what’s best for the team.”
It might not mean a thing in the grand scheme of things, because on paper the Celtics should clearly be the superior team. (They rested their starters last night instead of chasing the No. 2 seed, which should tell you something about the confidence/arrogance/whatever this bunch possesses in spite of their recent struggles.) But the fact that the Knicks will enter the playoffs on a positive swing while the Celtics limp into the postseason only makes this series more intriguing.
One thing the Celtics won’t have to worry about is Shaquille O’Neal, who will miss the regular-season finale Wednesday but is good to go for Game 1 of this series, per Celtics GM Danny Ainge (via the Boston Globe).
No. 4 Magic vs No. 5 HAWKS
The Skinny: It’s a good thing Dwight Howard is embracing the underdog role for this postseason run. The Magic will need the game’s most dominant big man to play with a chip the size of a dump truck on his broad shoulders if they are going to make a deep run from the fourth spot.
It’s not like it hasn’t been done before. The Celtics did it just last season. That same “no one respects us” mantra fueled the Celtics’ run. Listening to Howard, who spoke to HOOPSWORLD, makes you think the Magic are hoping to use the same blueprint:
“We’re always under the radar. Nobody’s ever talked about the Magic in any kind of way besides that we’re not a good team. So that’s all that we hear. But I like it. I like being the underdog, I like people not talking about us because, on one end, it keeps everybody on their heels and makes us really have to work to prove ourselves. If we were always being talked about and always in the limelight, some guys get complacent and we’ve got to stay humble if we want to be successful.”
The Magic’s opponent in this series is another team in search of respect — from Orlando, which destroyed them last year in a brutal sweep in the conference semifinals and from locals who refuse to believe the Hawks’ hype. HT fave Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution details all of the things he doesn’t like about these Hawks, (something about not liking Larry Drew as Mike Woodson‘s replacement, the team tuning Drew out and the regression by nearly 10 wins by a team that came back this season virtually intact, among other things) before explaining why he believes they have a shot at the upset (remember: they did win the regular season series 3-1):
Drew has done one thing that gives this uninspiring and uninspired team a chance to play beyond Round 1. He has done what Woodson would not: Chosen to guard Orlando’s Dwight Howard one-on-one, the result being that the Magic’s gaggle of shooters remains covered. “We’ve kept ourselves out of so many rotations,” Drew said.
As luck would have it, the Hawks will play Orlando in Round 1, and this Magic team isn’t half as potent as it was. (Orlando dismissed the Hawks by an aggregate 101 points over four games in the 2010 playoffs; the Hawks won three times in four this season.) Jason Collins isn’t much of a player, but he doesn’t need to be. He just needs to pester Dwight Howard so the other four Hawks can keep guarding the other four Magic men.
This will likewise make no sense, but here it is: There’s not much about these Hawks I like, but I like their chances of beating Orlando.
We agree that the Hawks have not inspired much confidence, local or otherwise, with their performance this season. We’re still mulling over the second part of this premise, that this team has any chance of knocking off the Magic in this series …