With the NBA season over, the most exciting time in professional basketball is about to get under way. The NBA playoffs are the time when the casual fan or NBA hater can fully appreciate the talent and determination of these pro athletes, as most argue that this is the time when the NBA players “try” to play good basketball. The Eastern Conference playoff teams are almost identical to last year’s with slightly different seedings. With eight teams moving on to the playoffs from the East, three teams come from the Central Division alone. All three squads from what is arguably the hardest division in the NBA will be top contenders to move on to the finals.
5. Toronto Raptors
The Difference Maker: PF Chris Bosh
Combined with T.J. Ford, Bosh has played out of his mind this season and is the reason for the Raptors’ success. In only his third NBA season and averaging 22.4 points per game, Bosh is going to have to take Toronto on his shoulders this postseason, similar to what he did in the regular season, if Toronto hopes to escape the first round of the playoffs.
Bottom Line: Not since trading Vince Carter have the Raptors made the playoffs. Bosh has lead Toronto to the top of the Atlantic Division and into the postseason this year. While talented, Toronto is young and lacks the playoff experience to make it out of the first round this postseason. Most likely drawing the No. 4 seed, they will be matched up against the Cleveland Cavs who are more talented and experienced then the Raptors. Toronto should put up a good fight in the first round despite losing in five or six games to one of the tougher, more experienced teams in the East. This year’s postseason appearance will act as a great jumping-off point for the Raptors as they look toward next season.
4. Miami HeaT
The Difference Maker: SG Dwayne Wade
D-Wade has returned to the lineup after opting not to have shoulder surgery so he could return for the postseason. With Shaq in the middle playing consistently as always, the real question mark for Miami this postseason will be Wade. Is he 100 percent? Can he handle the pressure of the playoffs wearing his new shoulder protector and his injury looming in the back of his mind? Playoff basketball is extremely intense, and while it appears that Wade is ready for the playoffs with his performance down the stretch after his return, no one will know if he is ready or not until Wade dives headfirst into the playoff environment.
Bottom Line: The defending champs struggled early in the season and received a season-ending scare when Finals MVP Wade was sidelined for two months with a dislocated shoulder. Despite these setbacks, the Heat return to the postseason hoping to bring a repeat to South Beach. With the same lineup as last season returning to the postseason, the Heat still have a chance to take the title again this year. The Heat is talented enough minus Wade to get out of the first round this postseason but no further. Miami loses in the second round and has to wait until next year to bring the Heat back to South Beach.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Difference Maker: SF LeBron James
King James has been the X-factor for Cleveland since entering the league just three years ago. Leading the Cavs in scoring this season with 2,090 points, 1,000 more than the next highest Cleveland scorer, James will have to improve on his sensational playoff performance from last season if Cleveland wants to make it to the conference finals this year. James single-handedly took the Cavs on his shoulders last season, beating Washington in the first round and helping Cleveland force seven games against Detroit last year. This postseason should be no different.
Bottom Line: Finishing only a half game back from Chicago in the East and 3.5 games behind Detroit, the Cavaliers head into the playoffs looking to improve on last year’s postseason performance in which Cleveland finished one win short of advancing to the Eastern Conference finals, losing in seven games to the Detroit Pistons. LeBron is a year older, and the Cavs are much better. Cleveland’s bench has developed along with its strong starting five. The time has come for the king to get his crown. He can turn it on at the drop of a dime and makes everyone around him play better. Cleveland is ready for the postseason and should go further than it did last year. Cleveland should make it to the Eastern Conference finals, and we could see the Cavs and King James play for the NBA crown in the championship series.
2. Chicago Bulls
The Difference Maker: C Ben Wallace
With dominant guard play last year, analysts argued that strong forwards and experience were the only things missing from the Bulls lineup. If Wallace turns in dominating performances this year like he has in past postseason appearances on defense and on the glass, the Bulls talented, young core of outstanding guards should be able to play deep into the postseason.
Bottom Line: Finishing just three games behind the Pistons in the Central Division and Eastern Conference this season, the “Baby Bulls” are hoping to go deeper into the postseason this year on the shoulders of their biggest offseason acquisition, a former NBA champion from Detroit, Wallace. While the Bulls have the talent to make a good playoff run, they lack the experience and consistency needed to endure the draining two-month-long NBA postseason. Look for the Bulls to make it out of the first round and lose in the second, gaining more experience for their young players that will have Chicago as one of the East’s top contenders next season.
1. Detroit Pistons
The Difference Maker: SG Richard Hamliton
With three starters, Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince, scoring more than 1,000 points this season, and Rasheed Wallace not far from four digits this season, it is hard to pick one standout player who will be the difference maker for Detroit this postseason. On pure numbers alone, “Rip” Hamilton, the team’s leading scorer and second in assists, will need to continue dominating in the playoffs to help Detroit return to the NBA finals.
Bottom Line: Once again, the Pistons hold the best record in the East and the No. 1 overall seed. Given its playoff history, both experience and success, coupled with roughly the same starting lineup from its championship team in 2003-’04, Detroit is the East’s team to beat this postseason; they have the talent to win the championship. Detroit controls the pace of the game, can score at will and is one of the best defending teams in the NBA. It can match up with nearly every team in the East and are by far the scariest team to play in the postseason. The Pistons should at least advance to the Eastern Conference finals, if not the NBA championship, yet again.