It’s tired and clichÃ© but it’s still true: the playoffs are a different animal than the regular season. What worked during the 82-game run may not work in the playoffs. Still, normally you can find clues to determine who will move on and who’s starting the summer early, and it’s not always the big names that make the difference. It’s the supporting cast, the good players, the guys only the bloggers and hardcore fans who watch the same team every night of the year truly appreciate. (Guys like James Harden.)
With that, here are my key players for each series:
Indiana and Chicago
Key number: 15
Don’t expect a big series from Darren Collison. He’s checking Derrick Rose, who has a penchant for destroying smaller, slippery guards. In fact, in four meetings this year, Collison shot under 35 percent from the floor against the Bulls. Chicago has been one of the best teams all year at contesting off the dribble, and figures to tear down the Pacers’ outside shooting just as they did in three of their four regular season games.
The biggest question mark is going to be Roy Hibbert. It’s unbelievable, but in the Pacers three losses against Chicago this season, Hibbert scored 10 points combined. In their one win, he had 15. While he had one of the odder years in recent memory â€“ playing like an All-Star early, then completely falling off only to regain at least some consistency â€“ Hibbert has to be a factor if Indiana even hopes to win a game or two. The Bulls feast on creating bad-shooting nights on defense, and if Hibbert can’t create enough easy shots to average 15 points, then this series will be over quick.
My prediction: Chicago in four
Philadelphia and Miami
Key number: 17
Williams was up and down this season against Miami, having games of 15 points and seven assists, and 24 points and five assists while also putting together a night with only four points. Miami has advantages at nearly every position; the Sixers’ best players â€“ forwards Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala â€“ are unfortunately matched up with Chris Bosh and LeBron James, and in three regular season games, the Heat won each game by at least nine points.
The Sixers face a tough test, but one advantage they do have is their bench play. Between Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams, they should be able to dominate Miami’s second unit. Williams especially will have to win his matchups with Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers. Actually, he needs to destroy Miami’s point guards. If he an average 17 points a game, up from 13.7 this season, it’ll give Philly a shot.
*Lou is a game-time decision with a hamstring injury, but he plans on being out there.
My prediction: Miami in five
New York and Boston
Key number: 40 percent
Fields has been a revelation as a rookie, and looks to have found a home as a role player next to Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. And despite the Knicks 0-4 record against Boston this season, Fields played Ray Allen really well at times.
In the first two games they checked each other, Allen was just 1-9 from beyond the arc while shooting 33 percent. But in their final meeting, Jesus brought Hell down on the Knicks’ heads, scoring 26 points and hitting four threes. If Fields can hold Allen to around 40 percent from the field for the series, it’ll give the Knicks a chance at the upset.
My prediction: Boston in five
Atlanta and Orlando
Key number: 22.6 percent
Very few people are giving Atlanta a shot in this series even though they won three of four against Orlando during the regular season. That’s what happens when you lose six straight to start the playoffs and half of your players already seem mentally checked out.
Still, Atlanta had success using a blueprint against Orlando that revolved around…Jason Collins. With Collins in to defend Dwight Howard one-on-one, the Hawks stayed clasped to the Magic’s three-point shooters, disrupting the entire rhythm of the offense. Against the Hawks this season, one of the league’s most dangerous deep-ball teams instead shot 22.6 percent from beyond the line. In Atlanta’s three wins over Orlando, they held Dwight & Co. to 82, 81 and 74 points. If they want any chance in this series, they’ll have to limit Orlando’s three-point shot, something the Hawks didn’t do in the playoffs like year.
My prediction: Orlando in five