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NBA Playoff Picks: Eastern Conference

1 Indiana Pacers vs. 8 Atlanta Hawks
Lance Stephenson

Although they have cooled down a lot down the stretch, the Pacers still held off Miami to hold on to the No.1 seed in the Eastern Conference (they are 55-26 as of April 15th). They will do battle with the Atlanta Hawks, who held off New York for the final playoff spot. The Pacers will lean heavily on budding superstar Paul George, who made a name for himself in last year's playoffs. George is so difficult to defend, standing at 6'10", he can overpower most guards who are quick enough to guard him. Roy Hibbert has struggled down the stretch for the Pacers but should still be very key if Indiana is going to make a playoff run. He is the defensive anchor in the paint for the Pacers and is vital to beating smaller teams like Miami and San Antonio deeper down these playoffs. Atlanta sneaked into the playoffs with a 38-44 mark and will be led by a solid frontcourt that includes Al Horford and Paul Millsap. Horford and Millsap will make for an interesting matchup against Hibbert and David West. Along with flourishing point guard Jeff Teague, the Hawks have enough playmakers to give the Pacers a pretty competitive series. Indiana is the deeper team and if Hibbert starts playing better they should definitely get past Atlanta.
Indiana in five

2 Miami Heat vs. 7 Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats are finally back in the playoffs, after a number of brutal seasons but now they get the two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat. The one issue that has plagued Miami in their three straight Eastern Conference titles has been the lack of size up front. To add to the issue, Greg Oden is out once again and will likely never play in these playoffs. Charlotte's success this year has been because of the play of Al Jefferson, who doesn't appear to be aging. Jefferson is averaging a double-double, putting up nearly 22 points per game and nearly 11 rebounds as well. Also, Kemba Wallker has shown significant improvement this year, averaging 17 points per game, while being a more dependable point guard, averaging 36 minutes per game. Defense has been a real issue for the Bobcats and you may remember that LeBron had 61 points against Charlotte. The rest of the "Big Three" will also hope to lead Miami past the Bobcats, Chris Bosh will hope to provide extra offensive support to LeBron. Defensively, the Heat will need Chris Andersen, their blocked shots leader, to step up and helped shut down Jefferson. This first round meeting won't be quite the breeze the Heat got last year, when they ran all over Milwaukee, but they are too good to drop a series to Charlotte.
Miami in five

3 Toronto Raptors vs. 6 Brooklyn Nets
One of the most surprising teams in the NBA, the Toronto Raptors, will hope to prove they can play with Miami or Indiana with an impressive series against Brooklyn. The big reason for the sudden success in Toronto has been the addition of streaky scorer Rudy Gay and the impressive play of budding guard DeMar DeRozan, their leading scorer. Gay isn't a player that can lead a team to a championship; he underperforms in big games and he is average against strong defenses. He will have to step up even if DeRozan plays well because Brooklyn is a very good offensive team. Experience should be a major factor in this game, the Nets have Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Kidd at the helm, all players who have made playoff runs. Along with Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, the Nets certainly have a team that can do something in these playoffs. But, that team has played all year and the success has not been there for a big bulk of the year. They will make stupid plays very often, so much that you wonder how this is a veteran club, and injuries have certainly taken a toll. The Raptors will need a big series from Jonas Valanciunas, a second-year center who has proven he can be a real defensive presence at times. Brooklyn is the more talented team, but the Raptors have tied the seasons series up at 2-2 and did when 48 games this season. The Nets have had a wild, rollercoaster year, but things shouldn't end without a fight.
Nets in seven

4 Chicago Bulls vs. 5 Washington Wizards
Once again, the Bulls were constantly hurt by injuries to key players all year but yet, here they are, the 4 seed in the East with a pretty favorable matchup against Washington. When Derrick Rose fell injured yet again, it appeared Chicago would forget about this year and look ahead to the draft and a healthy Rose. But, Joakim Noah has stepped up big-time, and the big man has broken out, putting up 12.6 PPG, 11.3 RPG and also leading the Bulls in assists, with 5.4 per game. He has found a pretty solid mid range game and he was become more aggressive at getting to the rim. When he has been healthy, Carlos Boozer has also been a solid contributor and shooting guard Jimmy Butler has turned into a quality offensive option. The Bulls lean on their defense, the best in the NBA, and they will need it to shut down one of the most improved teams in the league, the Wizards. John Wall has had a breakout season leading the Wiz and Bradley Beal has had big second year with the team. In the frontcourt, Marcin Gortat and underrated Nene Hilario will attempt to shut down Noah and Boozer, while trying to figure out how to get anything going inside against them. Wall has been great; not known for his scoring, he is putting up 19.3 points per game and he has also played all 82 games for Washington this year. This matchup is perfect for Chicago; Washington is young and not very deep which means they could really have issues getting anything to go offensively. Even with a beat-up team expect Chicago to play very well.
Chicago in six

1 Indiana Pacers vs. 4 Chicago Bulls
Central Division foes will collide in this Eastern Conference semis clash. The Pacers and Bulls have had some great meetings already this year and this series should be plenty exciting with a ton of storylines. Joakim Noah against Roy Hibbert down low should be very fun to watch; Hibbert hasn't been very effective on both sides of the ball against the Bulls this year and Noah is a fantastic defender, he moves very well for being so large. The Pacers' elite scorers versus Chicago's stingy defense should be interesting. Indiana has so much versatility on the wings, with George, double-double machine Lance Stephenson and newly acquired Evan Turner, who hasn't done much since coming from Philadelphia. Stephenson is one of the toughest players to defend in the NBA along with George; he also has the size to get to the rim but he moves so well and his jump shot has looked so much better this year. Those two are going to be very tough to guard, but Chicago is up for the challenge. Butler and rookie Tony Snell are two great defenders and the Bulls are disciplined they play help defense so well, it is going to force Indiana to shoot. How well a bench performs is obviously huge in the playoffs, and the Pacers have a deep bench, one that includes hard-working Luis Scola and Turner along with playmaking guard C.J. Watson. Indiana is talented enough to make a deep playoff run, but their play lately has me worried. Expect the Bulls to push Indiana, much like they did last year with Miami, but the Pacers should sneak away in Game 7 on their home court.
Indiana in seven

2 Miami Heat vs. 6 Brooklyn Nets
Miami has really dominated the Eastern Conference as usual this year (outside of Indiana of course) but the team that they have really struggled against is Brooklyn. The Nets seem to play their best basketball against Miami and might be pretty happy to see them in the conference semis. LeBron should be LeBron and he should make plays and if healthy, Dwayne Wade will add some more scoring punch. But, the Nets offensively, will make Miami's defense struggle. Shaun Livingston has taken the reins of the Nets' offense and has played very well, while Joe Johnson should be a huge factor in close games. The issue for Brooklyn is that Miami is a lot deeper than people give them credit for. Shane Battier won't strike fear into opposing defenses but he can be a real factor from downtown as well as Ray Allen. Udonis Haslem and Norris Cole are hard-workers who will be able to provide Erik Spolestra valuable minutes off the bench. Brooklyn has the experience, but yet Miami has won two straight titles and made it through these Eastern Conference playoffs for three straight years. Jason Kidd has played on championship teams as a player, but this is his first year as a coach and we will have to see if he is able to make the late game adjustments he needs to beat the Heat. This one won't be an easy series for Miami either but if they stay healthy and can hit some big shots, like they did against Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals and San Antonio in the Finals, they should win.
Miami in six

1 Indiana Pacers vs. 2 Miami Heat
Since the moment Derrick Rose was lost for the year this meeting in the conference finals seemed inevitable. These two teams are the best in the East and although they should get tested in the semis, they seem like they should end up here, in the rematch of last year's epic Eastern Conference Finals. Led by the fantastic play of Paul George, the Pacers played very well and nearly took down Miami before losing in seven games. George will be back and coach Frank Vogel could play him on LeBron if these two meet. It would make sense; George is maybe the only player in the NBA that can match LeBron's quickness, size and versatility. Hibbert and West will be the X-factors for Indiana, they must play very well. Bosh is very bad at defense in the post and I don't think he will be able to match West if they do battle down there. Andersen is a good defender and provides some energy but even a struggling Hibbert is still going to be awfully hard for him to counter. Point guard play is also going to be a big part of this game, as it usually is. George Hill has been solid all year for Indiana but Mario Chalmers outplayed him last year. Hill's shot has been an issue for him and if Chalmers' pressures him, they may look for Stephenson to handle the ball. These two teams aren't much different than last year's squads, and Miami had the home court advantage in that series. This year, the Pacers have it and should use it to knock off the Heat. Although they haven't been a Finals team this month expect Frank Vogel and the Pacers to figure things out and get past Miami and Chicago.
Indiana in seven

1 Indiana Pacers win Eastern Conference

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