2014 NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview, With a Dose of NBA History


Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Atlanta Hawks (8)

Location and History

Indianapolis. Drive just outside the city. Grain. Cornfields. Soybeans. Rural Poverty and the farming life. Hoosiers. Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum. 1967. Larry Bird’s childhood in French Lick. The ABA. Twenty years before Reggie Miller was drafted.

Atlanta gets a team. A franchise that moved from Buffalo to the booming metropolis of Moline, Illinois, then to Milwaukee, then St. Louis for several years. Bob Petit and the St. Louis Hawks. Celtics-Hawks NBA Finals in 1957. Petit was interviewed by Simmons recently. Petit speaks with a great Louisana drawl. Then Atlanta gets a team in 1968.

Dominique and Doc Rivers. Reggie Miller, Chuck Person, and Rik Smits. Both franchises have been all over the map. Indiana’s history of basketball love. The relationship with the fans in Indy has been rekindled as we’re now almost a decade removed from the Malice at the Palace. Hawks fans have been famously ambivalent toward their teams over the years. Though Philips Arena can get loud in April and May.

This Year and a Prediction

The story of the Pacers regular season has been two-fold. The first half: Pacers pick-up where they left off last June and dominate the competition early. A 16-1 start. Holding teams to under 85 points on a regular basis. Defensive mastery. Stephenson becomes a catalyst on offense. Everything going according to plan. 46-13 record through March 2nd. However, in a “What have you done for me lately?” world, everyone questions the Pacers in mid-April because they’ve fallen off a cliff over the last six weeks. What does it mean? They were tired. They created an atmosphere of perfectionism that was unsustainable. Paul George’s ascension on the offensive end, particularly his three-point shooting, was unsustainable when you consider the absolute maximum effort he always gives on the defensive end. For all of the criticism James Harden gets about his defense, he saves his energy for those isolation possessions and the Rockets offense is rewarded. George is still learning how to pace himself.

The Hawks without Al Horford (who played 29 games before succumbing to injury) are not a playoff team. They are in the playoffs, because the Knicks and Cavs couldn’t get their act together in time, and because six Eastern Conference teams were planning for the future. I love Paul Millsapp and Kyle Korver. This Hawks team will shoot 25 three-pointers a game, with Pero Antic stepping outside the arc and rendering Roy Hibbert barely usable, but this just means more rest for Hibbert, leading into the second round.

Darko Index Predicts: Pacers in 5.

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Chicago Bulls (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)

Location and History

Chicago is a basketball mecca. Michael Jordan and the birth of the modern American sports icon. Say what you will about the aftereffects of one-on-one isolation-heavy basketball that followed the Jordan-led Bulls championship dominance, but the defensive side of the ball was always the root of their success. Jordan and Pippen were the greatest perimeter defenders of their era. Chicago fans are some dedicated folks and they’ve been rewarded handsomely through the years. Open court steals led to breakaway dunks. The Miami Heat of the past three years, with Lebron and Wade, have carried that defensive torch.

Ironically, Washington’s franchise history started in Chicago. The Chicago Packers were the first NBA expansion team, created in 1961. Two years later, they moved to Baltimore and the Baltimore Bullets were born. Gradually, they made their way from Baltimore to Landover, Maryland. The Capital Bullets foreshadowed the Washington Bullets. The 1970’s were to kind to the D.C. fans, as center Wes Unseld led the Bullets to six division titles, four conference titles and, finally, the franchise’s lone championship in 1978. In 1997, after years of mediocrity, the team chose a new name. The title “Washington Bullets” was a constant reminder to D.C.’s citizenry that the murder-rate due to gun-violence was an epidemic. It was then that the Wizardry began. Unfortunately, the cauldron-stirring resulted in little success.

This Year and a Prediction

Tom Thibodeau and Joakim Noah are simpatico. Defense first. Defense second. Relentless commitment to stopping the opposition. Game plan and execution. The well-documented loss of Derrick Rose to injury and the trade of Luol Deng seemed only to reinforce that commitment. Fortunately for Thibs and Noah, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson have the same level of dedication. The December addition of D.J. Augustin sent few waves through the Association. Four months later, Augustin’s shooting, in addition to the spectacular passing of Noah as point-center, has saved Chicago’s offense.

While John Wall is a tremendous talent and a pleasure to watch zip around the court, and while the corner-three-point expertise of Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster are noteworthy, the Wizards will be depending heavily on the banged up knees of Nene and the shot-creation of Ray Allen-disciple Bradley Beal. The Wizards are an enigmatic bunch. They have played to the level of their competition all year. It seems unlikely that they can muster four wins against the highly-disciplined Bulls. This will be an ugly series. John Wall will lose his shit when he doesn’t get the foul calls he wants. His lack of maturity, combined with a lack of a healthy post-presence will be Washington’s downfall. Barring some crunch time Andre Miller wizardry and some health potion for Nene, Chicago will stifle the Wizards into submission, in some very close, heartbreaking games for the Wizards.

Darko Index Predicts: Bulls in 6.

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Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)

Location and History

Canada’s lone NBA representative, the Raptors played in the Skydome from 1995-1999. I did not know this. Through a draft day trade in 1998, Vince Carter put Toronto on the NBA map; “Air Canada” and the team played in the Air Canada Center. Toronto led the NBA in attendance in 1998, and won their first playoff series in 2001. The team is called the Raptors because Jurassic Park made dinosaurs cool. Chris Bosh was the team’s leader throughout the 2000’s. He was somewhat bird-like with his enormous wingspan.

Like Indiana, Brooklyn’s team history involves the ABA. The New Jersey Americans were founded in 1967. After moving to New York and then the NBA during the 1976 merger, the Nets moved back down the Jersey turnpike to Exit 16W and the Meadowlands. During the thirty-five years in New Jersey, the Nets had some success. In 1983-84, Daryl Dawkins, Buck Williams, Michael Ray Richardson, and company won the franchise’s first playoff series. The mid-80’s were fill of upheaval in Jersey. Richardson was banned from the league after his third drug offense and Daryl Dawkins had continual back problems that derailed his career.

After struggling through the late 1980’s, the Nets drafted the immensely talented Derrick Coleman (the precursor to Chris Webber and DeMarcus Cousins) and the sparklingly creative point guard Kenny Anderson. The team then added one of more tragic figures in NBA history, Drazen Petrovic. The Croatian shooting guard was brought in via trade with Portland and helped rekindle the franchise with his profilic long-range shooting. Petrovic shot a remarkable 45% from distance in 1992-03, averaging over 22 ppg, and making third-team All-NBA. After only three years with the Nets, Petrovic was killed in a car accident.

The Nets were resurrected in the late 1990’s. As a Celtics fan, I remember those Jason Kidd/Kenyon Martin/Kerry Kittles teams were remarkably physical and generally drove Celtics fans crazy just as much as Antoine Walker’s shot selection. Kenyon Martin always took Antoine out of the equation and the Celtics offense disintegrated. However, one of my favorite sports fan moments: Eastern Conference Finals, 2001, Game 3. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the balcony of the Garden that afternoon.

***

This Year and a Prediction

Toronto and Brooklyn both started the 2013 season slow. Injuries and the adjustment process took their toll on Brooklyn early. Rudy Gay’s shot selection and a lack of depth resulted in a lackluster November and early December for the Raptors. GM Masai Ujuri made yet another wise trade, following the pattern he’d established in Denver, and sent Gay to Sacramento, which had three important effects: 1) Kyle Lowry had the ball in his hands and free reign to push the pace; 2) DeMar DeRozan channeled his inner Vince Carter and his confidence spiked; 3) the bench now had several very worth pieces in Vasquez, Salmons and the rugged Patrick Patterson. Toronto’s record following the trade: 42-22.

Perhaps most surprising among all of the unexpected numbers to come out of this year in Toronto: they finished with the 10th best defense in the NBA. Like the Wizards, the Raptors have turned into a very good defensive team. One caveat: 52 games against the Eastern Conference helps, as only 2 of the NBA’s top 10 most efficient offenses resided in the East.

Brooklyn’s season was reborn as the calendar turned to January. As you may have heard, they are 34-17 in 2014. Playing an unusually versatile lineup has resulted in the Nets ability to guard the pick-and-roll better than almost any team in the Association. The length of Shaun Livingston, Andrei Kirilenko and Alan Anderson, among others, allows the Nets to defend the perimeter with ease. The only way Toronto can maintain their offensive efficiency against Brooklyn’s defense is to get a huge series from developing post-presence Jonas Valanciunas. Kevin Garnett will have something to say about that. One last run for Pierce and KG. I’ve always enjoyed Kirilenko. I love the Livingston storyline. Against all odds, I have to say, “Go Nets!”

Darko Index Predicts: Nets in 6

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Miami Heat (2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7)

Location and History

As far as history, there ain’t much to say about either of these franchises. Miami joined the NBA as an expansion team in 1988. Maybe you remember Glen Rice, the smooth-shooting scorer in the Heat’s early days? Maybe you recall Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner? Other than dunks, he more closely resembled former-Celtic Greg Minor than Michael Jordan. Here’s all you need to know: Wikipedia’s Miami Heat entry devotes all of one paragraph to the years 1988-2003. This doesn’t make much sense, as the Heat had several very good seasons in the mid-1990’s, led by Alonzo Mourning and Jamal Mashburn. Anyway, 2003 was the year they drafted Dwayne Wade. You may have heard about Miami’s recent history. I’ll spare you the details. One piece that is sometimes forgotten amidst the franchise’s recent run, Wade led them to a Finals victory in 2006 over the Mavericks. As far as location, Miami fans are notoriously flaky.

The Charlotte Bobcats have been a punchline in NBA circles since entering the league in 2004. Don’t get this franchise confused with the Hornets, who entered the league in 1988 with Miami. That franchise is now known as the New Orleans Pelicans. To add a bit more confusion, the Bobcats have chosen to re-brand themselves as the Charlotte Hornets starting next season. The Bobcats were almost named the Charlotte Dragons back in 2004. A trade for Goran Dragic would have been inevitable, right? This year marks the second (and last) season the Bobcats will be in the playoffs. They made it in 2010 with folk hero Gerald Wallace diving all over the place, and Tyson Chandler and Stephen Jackson providing support. Bobcats fans have been given a lump of coal for the holidays every year. Charlotte is also located in one of the most aggressively college-basketball-loving regions in the country.

This Year and a Prediction

I would love to say the Bobcats have some serious fight in them. I would love to emphasize their 6th-ranked defense. I would love to spread the Al Jefferson love. I would love to call Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist very useful defenders. I would love to say that Charlotte has been sneaking up on everyone all season and that they can make this series a very enticing storyline that the national media would soak up in a second. However, I can’t say that. One win is all they can muster. One lone home win for those traumatized fans.

Darko Index Predicts: Heat in 5.  

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