NBA Eastern Conference Semis: Picks, Analysis

Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat will take on the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals (Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports)

Exhale, Toronto: the Raptors have won a seven-game playoff series.

It wasn’t easy — and did you really think it would be? — but it’s a bottom-line business, and the Raptors survived. Now, a date with the Miami Heat awaits. Does this mean the pressure will be off having won that first series and the Raps will advance, or did Toronto expend too much energy squeaking past Indiana?

More on that in a moment.

The other half of the bracket is a rematch of last year’s conference finals. The Atlanta Hawks threw one skeleton out of their closet by finally winning a postseason game in Boston, but now come the all-too-fresh wounds of last year’s sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals. And the Hawks were the No. 1 seed, to boot.

A closer look now at the two Eastern Conference playoff series:

(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (3) Miami Heat

Regular season series:   Raptors won, 3-1

The Raps were whitewashed, 96-76, in the teams’ first meeting of the year on Nov. 8 in Miami. Chris Bosh was the leading scorer in that contest with 23 points, and he will be sidelined for this series with a blood clot.

Simply winning a seven-game series isn’t enough, but for a franchise that had never done it, a weight has undoubtedly been lifted for the Raptors and their fans. Miami won a championship in 2006, then two more in 2012-13. Without Bosh, however, there is that much more pressure on Dwyane Wade, Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng, and Joe Johnson.

But on the subject of pressure, doesn’t it just seem like the Heat are playing with house money in this post-LeBron James, Chris Bosh-less era that we’re living in? The Raptors may feel relieved to finally get out of the first round, but the massive struggle cannot be ignored.

While the Heat were cruising to 106-73 win over the upstart Charlotte Hornets, the Raptors were clinging for dear life to a fourth-quarter lead against the Pacers. Their 11 fourth-quarter points were the fewest ever in a shot-clock-era Game 7, and they shot 4-for-20 from the field. Kyle Lowry shot just 32 percent from the field for the series, and Lowry and DeMar DeRozan became the second tandem in playoff history to shoot less than 33 percent for a series despite being their team’s top two scorers.

Yes, the Raptors still won in spite of all that, which in its own strange way is encouraging. But Miami’s relative advantage in playoff experience and fact that they’ve learned to win without Bosh is a major benefit. They won two elimination games against Charlotte, and just need to split the first two at Air Canada Centre to swing momentum in their favor heading home.

This will be a competitive series, but Miami’s depth and experience will prevail. Prediction: Heat in 6.

(1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (4) Atlanta Hawks

Regular season series:   Cavaliers won, 3-0

Last year, the Hawks were the darlings of the East when they earned the No. 1 seed. All that got them was a date with the Cavs, and they were unable to win a single game in that series. This year’s regular season wasn’t any more fruitful, with Cleveland winning all three meetings. So is there reason to believe this year will be any different?

The short answer is a resounding “no.”

There is a prevailing feeling that winning the East is the Cavs version of an NBA title, because the ultimate basketball champion will be the winner of the inevitable Golden State-San Antonio Spurs showdown.

Atlanta has a semblance of balance, but when you consider that its leading scorer is averaging 2.3 fewer points than Cleveland’s third-leading scorer, that spells trouble. Jeff Teague’s 16.5 average pales in comparison to even that of Kevin Love’s 18.8, let alone Kyrie Irving’s 27.5 or LeBron’s 22.8. For Irving, this is sweet redemption after missing out on most of the NBA finals with a knee injury. And it’s bad news for Atlanta.

Cleveland is on a mission to at least give itself and its championship-starved city another crack at an NBA title, and the Hawks are not the team to stand in the way. A LeBron vs. Miami conference finals showdown seems like the best possible scenario for TV ratings, and that’s exactly what I’m predicting we’ll get. Prediction: Cavaliers in 5.

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