Frank Vogel really showed his coaching chops this season by leading the Pacers to 45 wins and the 3rd best defense in the league despite significant roster turnover and the absence of some key defensive pieces. The return of Paul George as the star and centerpiece of the team helped, and Vogel got terrific work from various guys you wouldn't expect: Ian Mahinmi, C.J. Miles, Lavoy Allen, Jordan Hill, and rookie Myles Turner. It is far from the most talented team in the East, but they are tough and experienced and this won't come easy for the Raptors.
The Raps had a magnificent regular season, winning over 50 games for the first time in franchise history and finishing 2nd in the East. They feature a terrific back court of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan who can devastate opposing defenses, and up front they have great depth, with Jonas Valanciunas taking a big step forward, and guys like Bismack Biyombo, Patrick Patterson, and Luis Scola all contributing. There is very little weakness on this squad that was 5th in the league offensively and 11th defensively; they rebound well, don't turn the ball over, get to the free throw line, and make threes at a high percentage. This is their best chance yet to make a strong run in the post-season, something they haven't been able to do in past seasons.
Pick: Raps in six.
The Rockets stumbled into the playoffs and have looked anything but impressive this season, particularly on defense. They can still score, led by James Harden who continues to put up spectacular offensive numbers, but the defense has been poor and the effort often questionable. Their defensive rebounding is the worst in the league, and giving Golden State second shots is recipe for disaster.
The Warriors are the clear favorites to defend their title, and it's hard to see them being challenged by the Rockets team that is set to undergo major change this summer. Their one flaw-turnovers, is something the Rockets might be able to take advantage of as Houston forces a lot of them, but also commits a lot themselves. The Warriors just have too much talent and confidence for this to be a competitive series.
Pick: Warriors in four
The teams that finished 3rd-6th in the East are a fascinating bunch. They all finished at 48-34 on the season. They are all capable of looking great, and playing entertaining brands of basketball, and yet none of them have been able to do so consistently, hence their seedings.
The Celtics are led by one of the top young coaches in the league, have a fantastic defense led by some ferocious perimeter defenders like Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, and play at a fast pace without turning the ball over. But their offensive talent is lacking, hence their poor shooting percentages, and the sometimes struggle on the defensive glass.
The Hawks, who have taken a step back from last season's 60 win team, still have an immense core of talent. They also feature a terrific defense married with a fairly high pace, and add excellent shooting to that mix. But they tend to turn the ball over too much, and rarely get easy points at the free throw line. Still, their front court of Paul Millsap and Al Horford is as good as you'll find, and the have some useful depth.
Pick: Hawks in seven (only because of home court. I think this is going to be a great series).
Mavericks at Thunder
8:30 pm CDT
The Mavs looked dead in late March, then reeled off seven wins in their last nine games to sneak into the 6th spot in the Western Conference. It felt to me, though, like a last gasp fueled by the brilliance of Rick Carlisle and the will of Dirk Nowitzki (not to mention a bizarre hot streak from J.J. Barea).
In truth, the Mavs shouldn't have enough to really compete with the Thunder. They were outscored on the season and it's tough to see how they stop the Thunder's powerful offense. Other than Nowitzki, they lack consistent weapons. They shoot a ton of threes but not that well (though it drives a decent team Efg%), and never turn it over, which is enough make for a decent offense.
The Thunder, though, should have little trouble finding a scoring rhythm in this series. They beat the Mavs all four times they met this season, scoring at least 108 points in each match up. They should be able to work the Mavs on the glass, and have two of the biggest offensive weapons in the league.
Pick: Gentlemen's sweep: Thunder in five