By Dennis Berry
For the past few years the Eastern Conference was seen as the weaker conference compared to the West. After the Chicago Bulls' dynasty of the 90's ended with Michael Jordan retiring for the second time in 1999, the Eastern Conference has won only three NBA Titles.
This year though, the NBA Champion may come out of the East. With the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, and Boston Celtics all could come out of the East. Whoever comes out of the East will be battled tested, as they will not have an easy road to the NBA Finals.
So let's take a look at the match up in the Eastern Conference.
The Chicago Bulls have returned to the top of the Eastern Conference for the first time since Michael Jordan played in Chicago. They draw a central division foe in the Indian Pacers. The Bulls were 3-1 against the Pacers this season, their only loss coming in overtime on the road in March.
The Pacers know all about MVP candidate Derrick Rose. In four games against the Pacers, Rose is averaging 27 points, 6.5 assists , and 5.8 rebounds. It was Rose that almost kept the Pacers from getting their only win against the Bulls, when he scored 42 points in the overtime loss on March 18. The Pacers should expect Rose to continue his stellar play.
The Bulls should look to dominate the paint against the Bulls with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. Boozer averaged 20 points and 11.3 rebounds in three games against the Pacers. While Noah contributed 14.5 points and 4 rebounds, he shot 80% from the floor in two games.
If the Pacers are going to win, they are going to have to improve their defense against the Bulls. The Bulls shot 45% from the field against the Pacers this season. A lot of those shots came from the paint. The Pacers cannot give up easy points in the paint. That job will fall to Tyler Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert. They will be matched up against the bigs of Chicago.
Hansbrough will also need a strong series. He averaged 20.5 points a game against the Bulls this season. He will need help and that should come from Danny Granger. He averaged 20 points against Chicago in three games.
In the end, the Pacers will not have enough. They might be able to steal one game at home, but the series should not go more than five games. The Bulls will advance.
The Miami Heat were the team that was expected to run away with the East this season. They did not gel fast enough to do that and at times have struggled, but when they are on, they are perhaps the best team in the league. They are matched up against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Heat swept the season series 3-0 this year.
For Miami the series should be controlled by the "Big 3," Chris Bosh. Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James. Wade averaged 30.7 points, James 22.7 points, and Bosh 17.7 points a game. They all averaged eight rebounds a game against the 76ers. The Heat as a team averaged 102 points against Philadelphia during the regular season, shooting 47% from the field and 40% from three.
This is just a bad match up for the 76ers as they do not really match up well against the Heat. If they are going to have a chance they are going to need more out of Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala. Brand only averaged 10.7 points in three games against Miami, Iguodala only contributed 13.3 points. They will need to raise their level and hope that their teammates, like Jodie Meeks who averaged 17.5 points against the Heat, can step up and help.
This appears to be another blow out of the series. It's hard to see Philadelphia making this a competitive series. They may get one at home, but Miami should win at least 5 games.
This is the most interesting match up in the Eastern Conference. Two teams that appear to be going in different directions are going into the playoffs. The Celtics are struggling in the second half of the season since trading Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City. The Knicks are playing some of their best basketball since acquiring Carmelo Anthony.
The season series was swept by Boston. Even though the Knicks were swept, they were competive with the Knicks. The Celtics averaged 106.3 points against the Knicks. New York averaged 102.8 against Boston. The last two games the teams played after both teams made trades, the Celtics were able to win by 10 points. The last game between the two Amare Stoudemire was the only big name to play on the final night of the regular season.
The key to the Celtics advancing is Rajon Rondo. Since the trade of Perkins, Boston has been up and down. You know the big three will come out and play at a high level. If Rondo can come out and play like he did early during this season, it will give the Celtics an edge. Rondo should have an advantage over the Knicks Chauncey Billups in the open court and transition. In the half court, Rondo should also be able to get by Billups and attack the rim for baskets or passing for open shots.
Even though this is the Knicks' first trip to the Playoffs as a team, many of their core players have been here before. Stoudemire, Billups, and Anthony all have playoff experience and can lead this team. The Knicks are starting to play good basketball, despite coming in on a two game losing streak. They had a seven game win streak before that.
This will be an interesting series. Will Boston bounce back after a less then stellar finish to the regular season? How will New York react in the playoffs as a team for the first time? New York may win a game, maybe two, but Boston should advance in this series.
The one series where there is the best chance for an upset, is the Orlando Magic against the Atlanta Hawks. Last season the Magic swept the Hawks out of the playoffs. This year the Hawks actually got a small amount of revenge when they won the regular season match up 3-1 against the Magic. This has to give them some confidence going into this match up.
The Magic will need to find an offensive groove. They have been up and down on offense since the trade in December that brought in Vince Carter, Hedo Turkoglu, and Jason Richardson. They need to go to their best offensive weapon, which is Dwight Howard. Against the Hawks, Howard has averaged 19.3 points and 14.3 rebounds a game. They should look to create their offense from the inside out. They should also make the Hawks double team Howard, which should open up the Magic shooters.
If the Hawks truly want to get payback on the Magic for the sweep last season, then Joe Johnson and Josh Smith should be at the forefront of their attack. Johnson averaged 19.3 points a game against the Magic. Smith averaged a double-double against them, getting 17.5 points and 10.5 rebounds a game. The Hawks should also try to get center Al Horford involved in the offense. Horford averaged 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds against the Magic. If Horford can force Howard to play defense and maybe get him in foul trouble, that would take away the key offensive weapon for Orlando.
This should be an extended series. Orlando only averaged 82.5 points a game against Atlanta this season The Hawks have only managed 86.3 against the Magic on the year. This is really a toss up and could go 6-7 games. Atlanta has an excellent chance to advance.
The East is really a top heavy conference. We are probably headed to a Bulls-Miami conference finals match up. Even though the Celtics are struggling going into the playoffs, they should not be over looked. They were in the same position last season and made it to the NBA Finals.
Can the Lakers 3-peat? Here's our 2011 NBA Western Conference Playoff Preview.