By Dennis Berry
The NBA playoffs have reached the conference semi-finals stage. In the Eastern Conference the top three seeds (Chicago, Miami, and Boston) advanced on. The only upset was the fifth seeded Atlanta Hawks knocking out the fourth seeded Orlando Magic. These both appear to be great match ups with Chicago going against Atlanta and perhaps the best match up in this round from either conference is Miami against Boston.
At the start of the season this appeared to be a likely match up in the playoffs. Most would have believed it would be in the conference finals and not the conference semi-finals. With Boston you have a veteran-core of players who have been here before and may be looking at their last chance to win a championship. For Miami, this is another test of the big three to prove they are worthy of hype that was given to them when LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed on.
Boston won the season series 3-1 against Miami this year. They won the first three games and it has to be noted that this was before the trade of Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City. The Heat won the last game played in this series 100-77, which was in the final week of the regular season.
For the Celtics you know what you are going to get from Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. The key for the Celtics in this series will be Rajon Rondo. He creates a match up problem for the Heat, as they have no defensive stopper to put on him. He may have only averaged 7.5 points a game against the Heat in the regular season, but he did average 12 assists against them. He is excellent at getting in the lane and creating shots for his teammates. Against the Knicks he shot 50% from the field and averaged 19 ppg in the series.
The play of Allen helped the Celtics sweep the New York Knicks in the first round. Allen averaged 22 points a game in the series and made 17 of 26 three pointers. Boston hopes Allen can keep that up against the Heat. He averaged 20.3 points against the Heat this season, while shooting 49% from the field and 57% from behind the three point line.
You cannot forget about Pierce and Garnett. Pierce put in 17.3 ppg and Garnett added 16.5 ppg against the Heat during the regular season. They both will likely draw two important defensive assignments. Pierce will probably be matched up with LeBron James and Garnett will draw Chris Bosh. Will their offensive output suffer because of tough defensive matchups?
What remains to be seen is how Boston will handle the Heat without Perkins. They struggled down the stretch with him in the line up. The Heat out rebounded them by 16 in the only game Perkins did not play in. Jermaine O'Neal has returned and along with Glenn Davis and Jeff Green helped control the paint against the Knicks. It is unknown if Shaquille O'Neal will be ready to play in this series.
For Miami, it's all about the Big Three. As we get deeper into the playoffs the pressure will only build for this team to win. They were expected to win against Philadelphia and they took care of business. Now they will be looked at as the favorite again in this match up.
Against the 76ers the "Big Three" dominated. There was even a Chris Bosh sighting in the opening round. Bosh averaged 19.8 points and 9 rebounds in the series against the Knicks. In four games against Boston in the regular season, he averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds. He will need to raise his play in this series and give Miami a post threat too and help Miami keep an advantage in rebounding.
Dwyane Wade had what can be considered a down regular season against Boston. The All-Star guard only averaged 12.8 points and shot only 28% against them. The Heat would like to see the Wade that averaged 22.2 points and shot 44% show up for this series. Wade may have some help now in South Beach, but he should still be the man down the stretch when Miami needs a basket.
The playmaker for the Heat will be LeBron James. He can create a shot for himself, but also is willing to create for his teammates. James averaged 28.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 6.5 assists against the Celtics in the regular season. He shot 48% from the floor, but only 20% from three. This series though he needs to attack the basket without a true shot blocker on the floor for Boston. He will either score, get fouled, or create a shot for someone else.
You know what you will get from Miami's "Big Three", but who else will step up? In game five against Philadelphia, it was Mario Chalmers that helped with 20 points. Players like Chalmers, Mike Bibby, James Jones, and Mike Miller will have to step up on the wings. Zydrunas Illgauskas and Joel Anthony will need to help Bosh keep Boston's big men off the glass.
This might be the best series of the whole playoffs and will go at least six games. Don't be surprised if it goes seven. The edge has to go to Miami being that they have the home-court advantage.
The other Eastern Conference semi-final match up should also be an excellent match up. The Atlanta Hawks pulled the upset of the Orlando Magic to get a date with the Chicago Bulls. These teams played three times in the regular season, with Chicago winning two of the three games. Chicago is favored to win this series, but Atlanta matches up very well with them.
The Hawks are lead by a core of players. Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford have been the nucleus of this team. Perhaps the key to this team right now is point guard Jamal Crawford. He will get to start due to the injury to Kirk Hinrich. Crawford averaged 20.5 points a game in the series against Orlando. His spark off the bench was a big lift for the Hawks. How will it affect the team with him starting and not coming in off the bench?
Johnson has been the leading scorer since he came to Atlanta in 2005. This has been the roughest season as he only averaged 18 points and shot a only 30% from the three point line, his percentage since his rookie season. These playoffs, his numbers have been about the same as the regular season. Johnson is a scorer and can bust out of a slump at anytime. How will he react to face one of the best defensive teams in the NBA? Johnson only averaged 13.7 points a game against the Bulls this season.
The Hawks may have to look to the post in this series. Horford averaged 17 points against the Bulls during the regular season while shooting almost 63% against them. The big man also averaged 9 rebounds and 2 blocked shots a game.
Atlanta would love for Josh Smith to play in the post. The 6'9” Smith is one of the most versatile bigs in the NBA. He can shoot the ball from the outside, although he does fall in love with three point shots. He can drive to the basket and is able to finish in traffic. He also can post up smaller opponents, most small forwards with Atlanta going with center Jason Collins and Horford down low. Smith could be a match up problem for Chicago, but will Smith be able to take advantage of it.
There are two questions that the Hawks need to answer. One is how will they react to losing Hinrich? It may only be for a game, but they do lose the energy that Crawford brings off the bench. Second is whether this team will play with the same focus and energy it did against Orlando? In that series they had something to prove and if they want to earn a trip to the conference finals, they need to bring that same play against Chicago.
The Chicago Bulls may have been a surprise to the rest of the NBA this season, but in the playoffs they can't rest on just having home court advantage. Luckily they have the man who should be the MVP in Derrick Rose and are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
Rose is the man for Chicago and the Hawks can confirm that. Against Atlanta Rose averaged 25 points and 9 assists in three games. He shot only 39% from the floor, but Rose's strength is driving the lane and finishing or creating open shots for teammates. Atlanta does not have a player who can keep Rose from driving the lane, so perhaps they will see if can hit open jump shots to beat them.
Loul Deng is the only other Bulls player to average double figure points against the Hawks this season. He averaged 20 points, 6 rebounds, and almost 4 assists in three games against them. He also shot 51% from the field in those games.
The paint will be controlled by Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. Neither had much success against the Hawks this season. Noah only averaged 7 points, but did grab an average of 10 rebounds a game against Atlanta. Boozer only played in two of the games in the regular season, averaging 8.5 points and 5 rebounds. They both have stepped up in the playoffs with each of them averaging a double-double in the first round win over the Pacers.
As long as the Bulls continue to play stellar defense they should win this series. They held Atlanta to an average of 80 points in those three regular season games. One would expect for the Hawks to play much better then they did against the Bulls in the regular season, but still they won't be able to overcome Chicago.