By BEN SHATZMAN
It’s that time of the year, folks.
Atlanta Hawks (8) vs. Indiana Pacers (1)
Season Series: 2-2
Top Five Players: Paul George (IND), Paul Millsap (ATL), Jeff Teague (ATL), David West (IND), Lance Stephenson (IND)
X Factor: Roy Hibbert — The two-time all-star has been dismal of late. DeMarre Carroll — Responsible for stopping Paul George.
Outlook: The Hawks looked little like an 8-seed in Game One, as they soared to an eye-opening victory on the road. The struggling Pacers lost six of their final 10 regular season games, and are in serious danger of being upset unless they can find an answer for Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague, who tore them apart for 25 and 28, respectively. The Hawks are great on defense, but massive Roy Hibbert should be able to cause havoc in the paint. Hibbert must show up, and Indiana needs to turn it on defensively in order to compete with an Atlanta squad that is solid on both sides of the ball.
Pick: Pacers, 4-3
Charlotte Bobcats (7) vs. Miami Heat (2)
Season Series: 4-0, Heat
Top 5 Players: LeBron James (MIA), AlJefferson (CHA), Dwayne Wade (MIA), Chris Bosh (MIA) and Kemba Walker (CHA).
X Factor: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist/Chris Douglas-Roberts — LeBron plays small forward, as does this hyphenated-pair. Thus, well, good luck!
Outlook: Charlotte was among the better defensive teams in the league this season, but LeBron dropped 60 on ’em, too. They simply don’t have the means to stop the Heat’s high-powered offense. Al Jefferson is no slouch, however, and he should be able to dominate the Heat bigs enough to keep the Bobcats within striking distance, as seen in Game One.
Pick: Heat, 4-1
Brooklyn Nets (6) vs. Toronto Raptors (3)
Season Series: 2-2
Top 5 Players: Deron Williams (BKN), DeMar DeRozan (TOR), Kyle Lowry (TOR), Joe Johnson (BKN) and Paul Pierce (BKN).
X Factor: DeMar DeRozan — When he’s hitting shots, the Raptors are tough.
Outlook: The Nets took Game One on the road in front of an epic Air Canada Centre crowd, thanks to Paul Pierce turning back the clock a couple years. These teams are evenly matched and each game should come down to which team drains more clutch buckets in the final five minutes of the fourth. DeRozan was quiet in Game One, but one of the most explosive scorers in the game, he has the ability to get Toronto through to the semis. The Nets will need to ride their defense to pull the upset.
Pick: Raptors, 4-3
Washington Wizards (5) vs. Chicago Bulls (4)
Season Series: 2-1, Wizards
Top 5 Players: John Wall (WAS), Joakim Noah (CHI), Nene Hilario (WAS), Bradley Beal (WAS) and Marcin Gortat (WAS).
X Factor: The Bulls’ offense — Chicago lacks scorers and playmakers, so guys like Dunleavy, Hinrich, Augustin and Butler must knock down jumpers.
Outlook: ESPN’s Bill Simmons picked the Wizards to go to the Eastern Conference Finals, and after their Game One victory, many jumped on the Wiz’s bandwagon. Their starting-five is loaded, and with Nene healthy, the Wizards boast one of the most threatening offenses in the league. The Bulls have heart, are well-coached, and excel on defense, but their pathetic offense is, well, really pathetic. Chicago led for most of Game One, but the Wizards stole the win in crunch-time, exposing the Bulls’ weaknesses. The Bulls were one of the most surprising teams in the regular season, but it’s going to take a lot to extend their postseason past round one.
Pick: Wizards, 4-1
Dallas Mavericks (8) vs. San Antonio Spurs (1)
Season Series: 4-0, Spurs
Top 5 Players: Tim Duncan (SA), Tony Parker (SA), Dirk Nowitzki (DAL), Monta Ellis (DAL) and Kawhi Leonard (SA).
X Factor: The Spurs are the Spurs — They just know how to win. They’re sooooooo good.
Outlook: This series is a basketball lover’s dream. Dirk vs. Duncan — two of the greatest power forwards to ever play. The Spurs, like, never lose, but the Mavs are a veteran, winning bunch themselves. Dallas held San Antonio to 90 points in Game One, but, in typical Spurs fashion, Dallas only scored 85. They led for much of the game, though, and Dirk had an off-game. It will take something special, but Dallas has what it takes to win the series.
Pick: Spurs, 4-1
Memphis Grizzlies (7) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (2)
Season Series: 3-1, Thunder
Top 5 Players: Kevin Durant (OKC), Russell Westbrook (OKC), Zach Randolph (MEM), Serge Ibaka (OKC) and Mike Conley (MEM).
X Factor: Marc Gasol — He is the anchor of the Grizz’s defense, and needs to be a major presence in the paint for Memphis to have a chance.
Outlook: The Grizzlies knocked OKC out of the playoffs in 2013, but unfortunately for Memphis, this season’s Thunder is eons better than the team they eliminated. Russell Westbrook is back and playing better than he ever has, and the Thunder seem to get any look they want on offense. The Grizzlies led a ferocious second-half comeback in Game One, only to lose in the fourth quarter, but overall Memphis is outmatched. It’s all or nothing for the Thunder in 2014.
Pick: Thunder, 4-0
Golden State Warriors (6) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (3)
Season Series: 2-2
Top 5 Players: Blake Griffin (LAC), Stephen Curry (GSW), Chris Paul (LAC), David Lee (GSW) and DeAndre Jordan (LAC).
X Factor: Doc Rivers — The Clippers have underachieved in the playoffs over the past couple seasons, but Vinny Del Negro appeared to be incompetent. Doc knows what it takes to win the title. Klay Thompson — The presence of Stephen Curry means lots of shots for Klay. He’s one of the best pure shooters in the game, and he must perform against the Clippers.
Outlook: Game One came down to the wire as the Warriors edged L.A. — albeit with some help from the officials. But Blake Griffin was in foul trouble the entire game and only logged 19 minutes. Griffin should be able to dominate inside, but the Warriors’ offense can keep up with any. The Warriors’ must help Curry by knocking down open looks. If they don’t, the Clippers will cruise.
Pick: Clippers, 4-3
Portland Trail Blazers (5) vs. Houston Rockets (4)
Season Series: 3-1, Rockets
Top 5 Players: James Harden (HOU), LaMarcus Aldridge (POR), Dwight Howard (HOU), Damian Lillard (POR) and Nicolas Batum (POR).
X Factor: Robin Lopez — Must stop Howard from dominating down-low and needs to force Harden to take outside shots. Dwight Howard — If he can just knock down 50-plus percent of his foul shots…
Outlook: This series has the makings to be the best first round match-up. Both teams have both tremendous guard play and game-changing big-men. The Blazers pulled out an epic victory in Game One Sunday night, thanks to the success of Hack-A-Dwight in the final five minutes. If Howard continues to miss free throws, the Rockets are going to be at a significant disadvantage. There is no reason to believe he will suddenly solve his foul shot woes though, and without him in the game, Aldridge is unstoppable (46 points, 18 rebounds in Game One). Kevin McHale will need to make adjustments for the Rockets to win the series.
Pick: Trail Blazers, 4-3