Ant may have got all the sexy first round match-ups out West, but I’ve got the two biggest Finals contenders right here baby. Beasts of the East.

1st Cleveland Cavaliers vs 8th Chicago Bulls

A few weeks ago I was reflecting on Cleveland’s playoff run last season. It was a bittersweet run for me. Bitter, because the Cavs destroyed the soul of the Pistons and everyone watching within The Palace, especially in that embarrassing Game 4. Sweet, because Lebron was so flat-out amazing I ran out of adjectives and stopped talking about it. When thinking about that series and the subsequent one against Atlanta, I came to the following conclusion: the Cavs playoff run last year was too easy. So easy that it damaged them.

The first time they were seriously challenged, they lost, in game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s bizarre to think you can make the Conference Finals and not be challenged, but because of the extremely weak East, that is exactly what happened last year for Cleveland. There is a danger of that happening again. Chicago will provide absolutely zero resistance to this Cleveland team. This is a Mack truck running over a skateboard. They won’t feel it, like nothing was there. And that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Mo Williams vs Derrick Rose: The only conceivable matchup the Bulls could win. Rose finished the season on a tear, averaging 25-7-4 throughout April while shooting 54% from the field. He is too quick and strong for Mo off the dribble, and I expect the Cavs to throw a few different defenders at Rose including Delonte and Parker. Thanks to the addition of Jamison, Mo’s role on the Cavs team has been reduced even further, from a second-scorer who bombs threes, to a guy that just needs to bomb threes. But if the Bulls are to win a game in this series – and I doubt they will – it will come from this matchup.

Anthony Parker vs Kirk Hinrich: Similar to D-Rose, Captain Kirk’s last month of the season was by far his best. He’s started to shoot the ball reliably (especially his three-point shot) which has given him the confidence he seems to have been searching for the entire season. Parker has continued to be a solid player for the Cavs, someone I didn’t expect to maintain that starting role, and has stepped up his play during Lebron’s absence. Ultimately these guys are not going to be game-breakers, but will find themselves open plenty of times throughout the series as defenses collapse on Lebron and D-Rose.

Lebron James vs Luol Deng: Deng is an interesting matchup for Lebron because of his size and length. If he can stay in front of The King he just might force him to settle for a few more mid-rangers than Lebron would like. The problem is Deng is going to get very little help – he’s really the only guy on that Bulls roster who stands a hope of guarding Lebron. This means Deng will get tired, be completely ineffective on the offensive end, and Lebron will still thoroughly dominate. I look forward to enjoying this without the pain of watching my Pistons get pummelled.

Antawn Jamison vs Taj Gibson: I have a sneaking suspicion this is going to be Antawn Jamison’s series. I really do. I get the feeling Lebron and Co. will be keen to get Jamison’s confidence sky-rocketing against an inferior team, prior to facing the tougher prospect of KG in the second round (if the Celtics get there). It’s the perfect opportunity for Antawn because as promising as Gibson has been for the Bulls, he is an average one-on-one defender at best, who will have his hands full with the Jamison’s versatile game. I expect a couple of effortless 30-point outbursts from Jamison in this series.

Anderson Varejao vs Joakim Noah: Talk about two characters going up against each other. This matchup will be a hell of a lot more entertaining than the series in general. Who will take home the Floppping Crown? Who will instigate more fights with their scrapping and jawing? Who will get dunked on more viciously? Who will dish out the hard foul to the opposition superstar player? I guarantee you that if series is to be remembered by the history books, it will be because of something Noah or Varejao does, or has done to them.

Key Bench guys: I’d actually like to see the Cavs bench play the Bulls starters 1-through-5 because that has the potential to be a close series. Think about this: Boobie Gibson vs Rose (clearly in Rose’ favour), Delonte West vs Hinrich (even), Jamario Moon vs Deng (even), JJ Hickson vs Gibson (even), and Big Z vs Noah (even). That would be close, right?

Injury cloud: Shaq will most likely return during this series, but he won’t be needed. The rest of the Cavs are healthy which is exactly what you want at this point in the season. The Bulls too are seemingly free of injuries. There are rumours that Coach Vinny Del Negro is dealing with a rare mental condition, but I’m pretty sure Vinny is fully healthy, and just happens to be a terrifically shit coach.

Prediction: All this series does is give Cleveland a tune-up and a chance to look even more scary heading into the second round. I’m hoping D-Rose can lift his team for one epic performance, but I really can’t go past the broom here. Cavs in 4.

I’m neutral. Who should I root for?
Don’t root for the Bulls. It will be a waste of time and effort.

What are we drinking?
Hahn Ice. Something weak that gets out of your system quickly.

I bet…
If you’re a high-volume better, chuck a few hundred Gs on the Cavs to win the series at $1.02. I’m surprised they’re even offering odds on that. Realistically, a bet on the Bulls in Games 3 and 4 will probably get you good money – I’d always bet on a home-team to avoid the sweep in Game 4.

Which player will make a name for himself?
Like I said, I think Jamison is ready to explode in his first real post-season crack with a contender. Look for Lebron to get him involved early and often.

2nd Orlando Magic vs 7th Charlotte Bobcats

I’m really upset that this series has to happen. As I said on last week’s Inside the Game show, Charlotte is a Giant Killer and if they were facing Boston or Atlanta I’d be picking them. I honestly would. Their tough, defensive style is perfectly suited to the playoffs where everything naturally grinds to a slower tempo and defensive stops can decide a series. What’s more, the Bobcats have been one of the in-form teams over the last two months of the season. They’re primed for this

The real shame is that the number #1 in-form team of the entire league is Orlando. It amazes me they’re not getting the love and respect they deserve at this point. They pulled off a 59-win season and unlike every other contender, they came roaring down the home stretch and finished on a 9-1 run. They will account for the Bobcats because of their depth (Reddick, Pietrus, Gortat, Bass, Williams is a brutal bench) and experience. It’s just a shame the Magic couldn’t use someone else for fodder, like Chicago or Milwaukee.

Jameer Nelson vs Raymond Felton: Jameer Nelson this season has not been the player Magic fans hoped he would, and it’s left me seriously doubting whether he’ll ever be the same after that shoulder injury. He has the edge against Raymond Felton in this series, only slightly, but I’m looking for him to step up his game if the Magic seriously want to contend for the title. He ended the season in very good form, and I think he’ll fancy his chances going against Felton. Look for a couple of big games from Jameer this series.

Vince Carter vs Stephen Jackson: A very intriguing matchup. A guy with a well-documented habit of post-season disappearing acts versus a guy who “makes love to pressure”. There is no doubt that since Captain Jack went to Charlotte he’s given them an edge, someone who will never shy away from a big moment or a battle with a superstar opponent. Jacko will be in his element this series, and will try to mentally dominate Vince with snarling looks and courageous acts of clutchness. Most likely he will succeed, or Vince will get injured. Or both. If you’re an Orlando fan, there’s nothing more important than Vince getting off to a good start in this series and proving to everyone that he can carry this team to playoff wins. I’d go as far to say that Vince’s ability to drop 35-40 point games and drag the Magic to victory when Dwight is struggling is the single most important element of their championship aspirations. Very intriguing.

Matt Barnes vs Gerald Wallace: I called Gerald Wallace the most underrated player of the season last week on Inside the Game, and I’m sticking to it. He should earn All-Defensive First team honours, is an underrated scorer, and has all the physical talents of a superstar player without the baggage of the superstar ego. He’s the archetypal Larry Brown player, and singularly most represents what the Charlotte Bobcats have been all about this season: defense, teamwork, and selflessness. Matt Barnes will try to get under his skin, because lets face it, what is Matt Barnes on the court for if he’s not trying to get under his opponents skin? But Wallace will be an absolute handful for Barnes, and I expect Pietrus to get extra court time because of it. Of course what I’m really hoping for is Barnes and Jackson to line up against each other. That is a knife fight waiting to happen right there.

Rashard Lewis vs Boris Diaw: Do you remember Rashard Lewis? The guy that cropped up for more last-second big shots in the 2009 playoffs than I could count on two hands? The guy that caused the matchup problems that sent Lebron home two weeks earlier than he was supposed to? I remember that guy, but only just, because I haven’t seen him in a while. Some people think he’s still hanging around, stoking the fire gently until it needs to be unleashed. Some people think he’s gone for good. All I know is that if he doesn’t resurface against Boris “I can’t believe he’s still an NBA starter” Diaw, then God help him.

Dwight Howard vs Theo Ratliff: Ratliff is the official starter and is important at setting the defensive tone for this Bobcats squad, but I expect Chandler to get the bulk of the minutes here. Ratliff just won’t be able to deal with Dwight’s athleticism, not only because Dwight is a freak of nature, but because Theo Ratliff is 37-years old. When Theo started his basketball career Dwight was still in the womb. That is generally a good sign your opponent will get the better of you. Still, I’ll mightily enjoy watching the league’s #2 MVP Candidate go to work here. And yes, he is #2 without doubt. Sorry KD.

Key Bench guys: Orlando have the best bench in the league in my opinion. Pietrus gives them one of the better, physical perimeter defenders in the league. Reddick gives them three-point shooting and arrogance. Gortat size and rebounding. Brandon Bass hustle and energy. Ryan Anderson shooting and… well, just shooting. And Jason Williams has the championship experience at the point. It is a championship calibre bench that will thoroughly outclass Charlotte’s, although I look forward to seeing what Augustine and Thomas can do – these guys are a big part of the future of that franchise. Also, Larry Hughes. That is all.

Injury cloud: Chandler left the Thursday’s game against the Bulls in the first half with an “undisclosed injury”, but reports are that he’ll be ready come game 1. Wallace and Jackson have had question marks over their heads recently with nagging injuries, and they won’t be 100%. But really, who is 100% at this point of the season? Orlando is largely injury free but expect that to change once Vince steps out onto the court. Ah ha just kidding Vince. We love you.

Prediction: Like I said, any series with Charlotte has “upset potential” written all over it, and this is, without doubt, the most intriguing first-round series in the East with two in-form teams. But I just cannot see the Giant Killers pulling that stunt here, not with the way Orlando have finished the season. Orlando in 6.

I’m a neutral. Who should I root for?
The Bobcats, without doubt. They play hard and they play the right way, and for that they remind me of the Pistons during the Larry Brown era. Tough, no-frills basketball. Of course if that’s not your thing you could always root for the spectacular team who drains threes from everywhere and features the most physically impressive specimen to ever walk an NBA floor. Hmmm I’m not putting together a very good case for this…

What are we drinking?
Glenfiddich 12 Year Old Scotch Whiskey. The best Eastern Conference match-up deserves your top shelf stuff.

I bet…
The Bobcats at 8.70 to win the series is crazy for a team that has a knack for pulling off upsets. I’d chuck a tenner on for fun.

Which player will make a name for himself?
Matt Barnes is bound to do something incredible or stupid, or incredibly stupid. Either way he’ll be making headlines.

3rd Atlanta Hawks vs 6th Milwaukee Bucks

By far the least sexiest of all first-round series, Atlanta vs Milwaukee could have been the most intriguing. Could have, if one Andrew Bogut was suiting up. There are about 356,000 Aussies who are still majorly pissed off at the prospect of watching the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs without seeing Bogey in action. I’d rather not watch them at all. It’s too painful.

The intrigue factor extends beyond the big Aussie’s presence though. How bout the fact we would have seen him go against his All-Star spot-stealing nemesis Al Horford? How much fun would it have been watching Bogut try to swat every shot Horford sent his way? How awesome would an Al Horford Playoff Edition ‘Bogut on Your Face’ poster be? How much fun would it have been watching Squad 6 tear the roof off the Bradley Center with a snarling Bogut leading the way? It’s just not fair.

Mike Bibby vs Brandon Jennings: Just like Westbrook against Grandpa Fisher out West, this matchup is a dangerous one for the favoured team. Despite his early-season outburst, Jennings has proved himself to be a disciplined pass-first team mate as the season has progressed… or maybe that’s just because has been shooting atrociously. I dunno. But I expect his mentality to shift a little towards the shoot-first end of the spectrum facing Bibby, and with Bogut missing there’s no question that Jennings need to ramp up his production for the Bucks to stay alive. As J.O said earlier in the week, Bibby is squarely under the playoff pump and cannot afford to go missing like he has for much of this season.

Joe Johnson vs John Salmons: One of my favourite playoff memories in recent years is still Joe Johnson’s performance against the Celtics in Game 4, 2008. That ripped the heart out of Boston (who were up 10 in the fourth) and pretty much ensured the series would go to seven games. That is the Joe Johnson I want to see again. The Hawks don’t necessarily need those kind of heroics from Joe to get past the Bucks, but they will come second round versus Orlando. For Milwaukee, John Salmons continues to baffle me. No matter how hard I try I just cannot see him as a primary scorer on any NBA team, yet that is what he’s doing for the Bucks and doing well. Can he reproduce any of the post-season form he had with Chicago last season? If he can overshadow Joe, and there’s no reason he can’t, it could be the series-winning matchup for Milwaukee.

Marvin Williams vs Carlos Delfino: Delfino is another guy I never expected to see thriving as a starter in this league, but he has proved me wrong, so far. Marvin Williams has been a very consistent performer for the Hawks all season but still is yet to morph into the player Hawks fans hope he will. This matchup won’t decide games, but Marvin has the edge with his size and could prove a handful for the Bucks.

Josh Smith vs Luc Richard Mbah a Moute: Josh Smith is coming off a career year and looks ready to extend this into the post-season. He gives the Hawks a clear edge at the PF position, especially against Mbah a Moute who has been struggling lately. If I’m Coach Skiles I’d even think about starting Ilyasova, who likes to wander out to the perimeter, but can also use his 6-10 frame to effect in the post. He’s a more challenging matchup for Smith, and is surprisingly athletic for a big European.

Al Horford vs Kurt Thomas: Big Al may find himself playing a bigger role this series thanks to the absence of the Bogey Man. And why shouldn’t he. Kurt Thomas is going to have his hands full running with Horford and keeping him off the block – he finished just 0.1 rebounds away from a double-double average in 2009-2010. The Hawks need Al to step it up in this series to give them some confidence he can handle Dwight in the second round.

Key Bench guys: Jamal Crawford should be 6th Man of the Year and will be stepping into post-season action for the first time in his career. For a big-game player like JC, it doesn’t get any better than this. Mo Evans, Joe Smith and Zaza are all experienced playoff campaigners, but don’t discount the Bucks depth with Ridnour, Stackhouse, and Ilyasova all proving to be worthy contributors for the Bucks – especially in Bogut’s absence.

Injury Cloud: Obviously Bogut is the big name missing here, and he won’t be returning any time soon. Both squads are looking pretty healthy though and the Hawks managed to rest a few starters during their last game.

Prediction: This series could have reeked of upset potential. But without the Bogey man, the Bucks just won’t have the firepower. They’ve done a great job at plugging the hole since Drew was injured, but in the playoffs when you have to beat a team four times out of seven, that hole is just too big. I don’t want to take anything away from the Hawks. I’ve said all season they’re a better, deeper, more complete team, and most importantly, they’re now playoff battle-tested. Hawks in 6.

I’m a neutral. Who should I root for?
The Bucks. Show your support for Bogut by getting behind Milwaukee. These guys have been dealt some cruel luck.

What are we drinking?
Carlton Draught. You owe it to Bogut to drink the beer that was awarded #1 in our 2008 BOTY.

I bet…
If the Bucks last game against Boston is anything to go by, you might want to entertain that 4.40 for a Milwaukee win in Game 1.

Which player will make a name for himself?
Brandon Jennings. The stage is set for this rookie to make a big-game reputation for himself.

4th Boston Celtics vs 5th Miami Heat

I was speaking to a mate the other day who asked me, “Does this Celtics squad remind you of the Pistons between 2005-2007 who thought they could just turn it on in the postseason?” I thought about it, and gave a resounding “no”. The difference is that Pistons team never turned in a mediocre two-month patch at any point between 2004 and 2007. They always looked like contenders, or at least strode into the post-season demanding respect from their peers. You can’t say the same about these Celtics. They have done nothing over the past two months to instil any fear into the hearts of their Eastern Conference foes. Every time they were faced with a winnable game that promised to light the fire under their asses, they lost it. Whether it was Washington at home, or New York on the road. Every time I thought the Celtics were ready to take a step forward, they took a step back.

Miami on the other hand have timed their run beautifully. Hovering around the lower ranks of the East for most of the season, they’ve won 13 out of their last 14 and remarkably only finished 3 games behind Boston. Wade, perhaps miffed with his lack of MVP respect, has raised his game over the last month and averaged 30-5-5 on an impressive 55% shooting through April. So with the Celtics hobbling over the finish line and the Heat roaring home, is this an upset waiting to happen?

Rajon Rondo vs Carlos Arroyo: Here’s a thought for you. There may not be one single Celtic named to an All-NBA team this year. There is so much talent at the Forward spot (Lebron, Dirk, Melo, Amare, Gasol, Durant) that Pierce and KG could easily miss out, while Ray has hardly been consistent enough to warrant a selection. Rondo is the most deserving, but he too will probably miss out and have to take consolation with an All-Defensive Team spot. Quite simply the Celtics best player this season, Rondo should dominate the Arroyo/Chalmers matchup. That is, when he doesn’t find himself guarding Dwyane Wade.

Ray Allen vs Dwyane Wade: A fascinating matchup, because Dwyane Wade could kill off Ray Allen’s career in this series. Think about it this way… if Miami are to get up, it will largely be due to Wade’s heroics. With the embarrassment of a first-round exit following an already woeful regular season, the Celtics may just start chopping off heads, including Ray’s shiny bald one. If the Celtics win on the other hand Ray gets to survive another series, likely churning out a couple of memorable performances that will erase all memory of his lacklustre season. I don’t know which scenario I prefer more, but I do know that Wade will have his way with Ray in this series.

Paul Pierce vs Quentin Richardson: Bring out the wheelchairs folks, its Paul Pierce playoff time! Still my number #2 go-to man for a last-second shot (behind Kobe), Paul Pierce in the playoffs is one of my favourite NBA things. Q-Rich doesn’t pose enough of a threat to keep Pierce busy on the defensive end, but he’ll probably help share the defensive duties against Wade – because as Celtics fans like to keep reminding me, it was Pierce that shut down Kobe in the 2008 Finals. Still, expect to see at least one game where Q hits seven threes and does the head-bop thing repeatedly. He will get a lot of good looks, along with Chalmers and Cook, and if they’re connecting at a good clip this will be a very long series for Boston.

Kevin Garnett vs Michael Beasley: A nice soft start to the postseason for KG, because Beasley is a soft player who will go into his shell if things aren’t going his way. I’d want to see Haslem get more minutes here because he is a tough bastard with championship experience, and he is guaranteed to get you rebounds (unlike Beasley). Garnett’s struggles have been well documented this season. He doesn’t need to be overly aggressive and start putting up big numbers, he just needs to set the defensive tone and command the paint… you know, the little things he did that won Boston a championship two years ago.

Kendrick Perkins vs Jermaine O’Neal: JO has had some ankle concerns lately but should be right for Game 1 of this series. He will have his work cut out for him against Perkins, who is 25 pounds heavier and 35% angrier. But make no mistake, this is a tough matchup for the Celtics. O’Neal has put up career shooting numbers this season – it’s not even close, 53% vs his next best year which was 48.5% back in 1997-98. He’s still blocking shots, and he’s still got a silky smooth mid-range J that will haunt Kendrick Perkins on the pick and roll. I expect KG to match up on JO for most of the time, which puts the pressure back on Beasley to deliver.

Key Bench guys: Boston’s bench has been, for want of a better word, shithouse. Guys like Sheed, Finley and Nate need to step up in these playoffs and do what guys like Eddie House did last year, and Posey the year before. Miami’s bench on the other hand has been a solid contributor – Chalmers, Dorell Wright, Joel Anthony and Haslem have all been playing well lately and are a big reason the Heat won 13 out of 14. They may not have the star-power of Boston’s bench, but right now, I’d give them the edge.

Injury cloud: The Celtics have been resting their players, and despite Rondo and Tony Allen recently suffering flu-like symptoms, they’ll be close to full health come Game 1. Jermaine O’Neal’s ankle is the only worry for Miami, but he’s not expected to miss any game time.

Prediction: Miami are in better form. They have the single best player in this series. Their bench has been playing better, and their chemistry is at a season-high. This series should absolutely reek of “upset”. But it doesn’t. And the one reason I can’t go past the Celtics here, is Pride. I cannot fathom Pierce, Allen and Garnett walking out of this series as losers. There is too much on the line, and they’ve been playing this game too long not to give 110% when the chips are down like they are now. Once this team gets a playoff atmosphere in their building, they will be reborn. They won’t win the championship, and they won’t stop Lebron and the Cavs, but they will damn sure beat the Miami Heat. Boston in 6.

I’m neutral. Who should I root for?
Miami, it’s a no-brainer. Everyone wants to see Lebron vs Wade in the playoffs. If it doesn’t happen this year, it might never happen.

What are we drinking?
Vodka Cruisers, a nostalgic drink from our youth. Remember the good times Celtics fans, that’s all you’ll have in a few weeks.

I bet…
Boston is paying 1.54 at home in Game 1, a reflection of people’s lack of faith in these guys. But that is pretty safe money if you ask me.

Which player will make a name for himself?
Nate Robinson just might be the energizer bunny the Celtics need in the post-season. I’m expecting him to be the difference maker in at least one game this series.

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