No. 1 Indiana Pacers (56-26) vs. No. 8 Atlanta Hawks (38-44)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Coaches: Frank Vogel quickly went from a Coach of the Year candidate to the scapegoat in Indy’s late-season collapse. But he’s still one of the best coaches in the league and he’s proven in the postseason. You can shovel credit to Mike Budenholzer for his Hawks not folding, at least completely, after the Al Horford injury. But the first-year coach is simply outmatched in experience. Edge: Vogel.
X-Factors: Roy Hibbert needs to come back to life. Remember, it was in that blowout loss to the Hawks on April 6 when the Pacers center was benched for the second half. Hibbert has been dreadful to end the season and he also averaged just 5.0 points and 3.8 rebounds in four games vs. the Hawks. Hibbert is an uncertainty entering the playoffs, but facing the Hawks without Horford is an opportunity to find a postseason rhythm. Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap will need huge series if the Hawks have a shot, but the interior presence of old man Elton Brand could actually be the difference.
Breakdown: The Pacers absolutely needed a slumpbuster like the Hawks in the first round. Indy has been awful this second half, losing 11 of 15 games against playoff teams. But the Hawks are only a playoff team by technicalities, and they offer the perfect appetizer for the Pacers. Even No. 1 seeds aren’t supposed to have the luxury of facing a team six games under .500 in the playoffs. The Pacers did get rolled by the Hawks in that April 6 meltdown, but consider that an aberration. There’s too much of a talent differential for Indy to lose in a best-of-7 series. If the Hawks are going to have a shot, they much scorch it from the outside (they did shoot 40.6 percent from 3-point range against the Pacers this season) and play the type of defense that held Indy to 23 first-half points on April 6. Catching that combination on one night is possible, but doing it four times is a tough task.
Prediction: Pacers in 5.
No. 2 Miami Heat (54-28) vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats (43-39)
Season series: Heat, 4-0
Coaches: Don’t sleep on Steve Clifford. The guy is worthy of Coach of the Year nods, and he’s capable of creating a defensive strategy to stop even the greatest of offensive firepower. But people have been sleeping on Erik Spoelstra for years now, and he is gunning for his fourth straight Finals. Edge: Spoelstra.
X-Factors: And people said they’d never get to see LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan (even if it is like one of those tricky Aladdin versions of a granted wish). While we’ll never get that matchup on the floor, Jordan will get a heavy dose of James, the league’s greatest X-factor since, well, Jordan. But it’s Dwyane Wade who must be healthy and productive to ease the load off James. The Bobcats can be confident they’ll get offense from Al Jefferson, but Charlotte needs Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to be the defensive stopper he is meant to be instead of the one who has been torched by superstars this season.
Breakdown: Miami is still the favorite to win the title. Just ask Vegas. And if there’s a Cinderella in this dance, it’s certainly the Bobcats. But this isn’t some Disney movie (yes, despite my above Aladdin reference), and the Heat completely outmatch the Bobcats in a best-of-7 series. Ultimately the Heat have too many superstars for the young Bobcats to contain. Now that doesn’t mean Charlotte will go down easily; there are a couple things in Charlotte’s favor, most notably: The past Heat champions have thrived off turnovers and getting points in transition, but no team after the All-Star break has averaged fewer turnovers per game than the Bobcats. Equally as valuable is the damage that Jefferson is capable of in the post. Still, when it comes down to it, LeBron is a top-five player in history and he won’t fail on a three-peat by falling to the Bobcats.
Prediction: Heat in 5.
No. 3 Toronto Raptors (48-34) vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets (44-38)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Coaches: Jason Kidd was a laughingstock early on, and for good reason. The first-year coach and his star-studded roster ended 2013 at 10-21 on the court, and saw assistant Lawrence Frank reassigned off of it. And while Kidd has found his groove in 2014, it still doesn’t match what Dwane Casey has done with these Raptors following the Rudy Gay trade in early December. Casey has pulled this No. 3 seed from nowhere, creating mysterious win totals in a way that mirrors what the great Gregg Popovich does in San Antonio. Edge: Casey.
X-Factors: The Nets traded it all for a shot this season. They didn’t give up the house for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett as a long-term investment; Brooklyn is meant to contend now. The absence of Brook Lopez hurts, but if Garnett and Pierce come to the postseason motivated, their leadership could be the difference. For the Raptors, they need to continue to utilize the secret formula that’s gotten them here, and that includes high-volume scoring from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Breakdown: This might be the most competitive series in the Eastern Conference first round. Entering the season, no one would have believed that Lowry would have owned the matchup at point guard against Deron Williams, but that’s how we walk into this series. Williams is going to have to renew his reputation as one of the game’s great guards, and that only happens if he gets consistent outside shooting from Joe Johnson along with inspired play (which shouldn’t be a problem) from Garnett and Pierce. The Raptors struggled to contain the Nets in their four meetings, allowing a true shooting percentage of 56.8 percent, the seventh highest of all opponents all season. Of course the absence of the injured Lopez continues to be a huge blow, so work on the boards from Andray Blatche, Mason Plumlee and Andrei Kirilenko is imperative. The Raptors have an advantage there, as the Nets were second-worst in the league in rebounding — behind only the Heat — in the season’s final 20 games. Toronto isn’t a fantastic rebounding team either, ranked 18th, but Jonas Valanciunas has an opportunity to eat up the Nets inside.
Prediction: Nets in 7.
No. 4 Chicago Bulls (48-34) vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards (44-38)
Season series: Wizards, 2-1
Coaches: Tom Thibodeau is an absolute elite coach. You could make the argument he’s the best coach in the East. Despite being without an injured Derrick Rose and stripped of Luol Deng in a trade, his Bulls finished the regular season with home court in the first round. Randy Wittman has probably done enough to keep his job, satisfying a playoff mandate by guiding the Wizards to their first postseason in six years. While he’s done an adequate job, he’s not even close to Thibodeau. Edge: Thibodeau.
X-Factors: D.J. Augustin is the best scorer on the Bulls and his ability to deliver in the playoffs will decide whether or not Chicago wins this series. Chicago will play enough defense, but it’s up to Augustin to provide just enough offense. To compete with Chicago’s size, Nene Hilario needs to be healthy and ready to mash with Chicago’s front line.
Breakdown: The identity of this era of Bulls basketball is defense as much as it was Jordan two decades ago. Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler should both find spots on the All-Defense first team, and that’s going to be a steep task for the playoff-inexperience backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal to overcome. Chicago’s intensity is going to be too much for the Wizards. Chicago isn’t “just happy to be here” — hell, does Thibodeau ever look happy? — so the Wizards need to have that mentality that they’ll get knocked in the jaw. The Bulls are playing the best basketball in the conference, as no East team has a better record since Feb. 1 than the Bulls (25-12). Washington hasn’t been bad, either, (22-15 since Feb. 1), but the playoffs are a different battle and Chicago has experience on its side.
Prediction: Bulls in 5.