After another grueling 82 game marathon, the race begins in South Beach, as Lebron and Co. look to deliver yet another championship for the Heat, while 7th Avenue has the distinct feel and sounds of past, vintage Knick seasons. As trees grow in Brooklyn, the feisty South Siders lurk beneath the radar, while the proud, but tired Celtics look to summon the energy for one, final playoff run, together. Pull up a chair, and enjoy the ride.
Tierney’s Take: Brutal. The Bucks might just be the most faceless, anonymous NBA franchise out there, and that includes the Bobcats (MJ) and the Kings (arena issues.) The Bradley Center is sterile by nature (less so for Marquette games, admittedly), their uniforms are lame, and the roster is historically littered with guys just good enough to snag the 8 seed in a weak Eastern Conference before transforming into 1st Round road kill. OK, OK, some real analysis for the more cerebral fans: Larry Sanders is a terrific defender and should make things uncomfortable for Chris Bosh inside. Milwaukee’s guards, while explosive, are woefully undersized and inefficient. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are capable of dropping 40 on a Monday and equally capable of dropping a 3-19 stinker on Tuesday. Oh yeah, and the Heat have Lebron. By far, the least compelling of all of the 1st Round series. See you in Round 2, Champs.
The Verdict: Heat in 5.
Tierney’s Take: You think Carmelo Anthony is feeling the pressure yet? Let’s be very blunt here: he absolutely, unequivocally MUST advance to the next round. Must. Dissect the numbers, react to trends and put this series in historical context as much as you want, be my guest. I’ll simplify it for you: the NBA’s scoring champ is by far the best player on the court, and he must punctuate his sensational season with the only thing that matters from this point forward: wins. Yes, the Celtics are extremely proud and self-motivated and their collective DNA is impressive. But the Knicks are the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference for a reason. They’re really good, and personally, I’m not buying the cautious rhetoric. The Knicks should wipe the floor with the green and white, and I’m picking them to do just that.
The Verdict: Knicks in 5.
Tierney’s Take: Despite a very competitive season series (2-2), the Pacers and Hawks just seem as if they are headed in opposite directions. Indiana should be a force for a few years within the conference, while the Hawks prepare for a long, uncertain summer revolving around FA Josh Smith. The Pacers hard-nosed, interior toughness is perfect for the playoffs, and their advantage in the paint this series should negate their consistent battle knocking down open jump shots. The Hawks are just good enough to make this a fairly compelling series, but in the end, Indiana’s defense (allowed just 90.7 ppg. and limited opponents to a league-best 42% FG rate) and passion fuels a series victory.
The Verdict: Pacers in 6.
Tierney’s Take: On paper, by far, the toughest Eastern series to predict. Without Derrick Rose, I can easily make the case the Nets individual talent is simply better than the Bulls. However, collectively, and on the practice floor, I like the Bulls and Tom Thibedeau. Thwarting two lengthy winning streaks within a month (Miami, New York) speaks to their ability to lock in when it matters most, when people are watching and the pressure and intensity is most palpable, all direct characteristics of the playoffs. If the whispers continue that Rose might return if the Bulls advance, the city and team will be sky-high with emotion and possibilities. Expect Williams and Johnson and Lopez to do their thing for Brooklyn and Deng and Boozer and Noah to follow suit for the Bulls. In a deep series, the supporting cast typically impacts the outcome, and with that in mind, Jimmy Butler and Nate Robinson loom large for the Bulls. Fun series, long series.
The Verdict: Bulls in 7.
AVOID SLIPPAGE AT ALL COSTS
1. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks: ’Melo finally earned recognition as a willing defender, a great teammate, and a leader. Watch how quickly those platitudes dissipate if he’s watching Round 2 on his couch. It would be ugly times a million. Trust me, I’m from here.
2. Mike Woodson, New York Knicks: Woodson has done a tremendous job, particularly transforming JR Smith into a basket-attacking star. Not sure if you noticed, but Phil Jackson recently said that he’s eager to return to the game, either as a coach or an executive. Old Knick roots and a petulant owner is a bad combo if Woody doesn’t beat the Celtics.
3. Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks: It only takes one fool to overvalue a player to drive a price tag into “max” territory. While he’s far from that in my opinion, he does have a chance to open some eyes and state his case with a solid performance against the World champs. A 28% clunker would severely compromise his position in July.
4. Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks: Unlike Jennings, Smith actually has a legitimate chance to play deep into his series and make a strong contractual push heading into the summer. While I doubt the Lakers would amnesty Kobe Bryant, what if they choose to exercise that option, shave $30 million off the cap, and engineer a sign and trade with the Hawks (Gasol?) to pair Smith with D-12? Crazy, but the next 10-15 days are big ones for Smith.
5. Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets: Currently, what exactly is Deron Williams? Is he a legit franchise-type player, or is he merely a shooting star? Bright and dazzling at times, but unable to sustain the wattage? Beat the Bulls and show up strong in Round 2, and he’ll probably answer that question for us.
Tomorrow: the West