The 2010 Eastern Conference playoffs will begin Saturday afternoon when the Chicago Bulls visit the Cleveland Cavaliers. Later that day the Atlanta Hawks will host the Milwaukee Bucks and the Miami Heat will visit the Boston Celtics. The Orlando Magic and the Charlotte Bobcats will open their first-round playoff series Sunday evening.
Here is a brief preview of each Eastern Conference first-round series:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (61-21) versus 8. Chicago Bulls (Record 41-41)
Regular season series: Split 2-2
The eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs was finally determined when the Chicago Bulls defeated the Charlotte Bobcats on the final night of the season. With that win the Bulls earned the right to face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first game of this year’s playoffs.
In last year’s playoffs the Chicago Bulls surprisingly pushed the Boston Celtics to the brink in a memorable first-round seven-game series. This year the Bulls will face a determined Cleveland Cavaliers team whose sole mission is to win the NBA Championship. Chicago’s fortitude, mixed with Cleveland using the opening round as a tune-up as LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal return to the lineup, might allow Chicago an opportunity to steal one game. Even if the Bulls win one game there is no chance that they will derail the Cavaliers.
Prediction: Cavaliers in five.
2. Orlando Magic (59-23) versus 7. Charlotte Bobcats (44-38)
Regular season series: Magic 3-1
The top two defensive teams (in terms of efficiency) will battle it out in the first round. The Magic and Bobcats both finished the regular season with defensive efficiency ratings of 100.2. The Magic’s defense is anchored by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. Charlotte’s defensive strengths are defending the three and creating turnovers.
This match up will be decided on the offensive end where Orlando has the clear advantage. Charlotte has no answer for Dwight Howard who will dominate the paint. The only way that the Bobcats (who are in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history) will be able to compete in this series is by shooting the ball extremely well, especially from the three-point arc (since that is Orlando’s defensive weakness). Charlotte, however, is in the bottom third of the league in field goal and three-point shooting percentages. Orlando will win this series handily.
Prediction: Magic 4-0
3. Atlanta Hawks (53-29) versus 6. Milwaukee Bucks (46-36)
Regular season series: Hawks 2-1
Without the services of center Andrew Bogut the Milwaukee Bucks will have a tough time in this series. Rookie point guard Brendan Jennings will make his playoff debut and how he plays will determine whether the Bucks will have any chance at all.
Atlanta will use their length and athleticism to exploit Milwaukee’s lack of a defensive stopper in the middle. Milwaukee’s defense and three-point shooting will keep them in games, but it will not be enough to get them out of the first round. The Bucks will probably steal one game, and if the Hawks lose focus, Milwaukee might get two.
Prediction: Hawks 4-1
4. Boston Celtics (50-32) versus 5. Miami (47-35)
Regular season series: Celtics 3-0
Can the Boston Celtics turn it on now that the playoffs are here? Who knows? What we do know is that the Miami Heat will go only as far as Dwyane Wade can carry them.
The Celtics struggled at the end of the regular season and fell to the fourth seed. Miami closed the season by winning nine of their final ten to move up to the five spot.
If Dwyane Wade can endure the physical pounding he will take whenever he goes to the basket the Heat will probably upset the Celtics. If the weight of the Heat becomes too much for Wade to bear the Celtics may have just enough to make it to the second round.
Prediction: Heat 4-2
Information from ESPN.com’s NBA Schedule, 2010 NBA Playoff Match ups, 2009-2010 Hollinger Team Statistics, and 2009-2010 NBA Regular Season Conference Standings was used for this article.