The NBA season ended with little excitement, as the final two available playoff spots were basically awarded before the games even started, and Cleveland showed little interest in engaging in a race with Boston for the top-seed in the East.
But all that is done now, and we can look forward to the playoffs. I already covered the first-round of the Western Conference Playoffs, and today we’ll take a look at the LeBron Conference Playoffs, I mean Eastern Conference Playoffs.
Joking aside, this is the least confidence I have had in a LeBron James-led team to come out of the Eastern Conference. You’ll have to keep reading to find out how skeptical I am towards the defending NBA Champions.
Chicago Bulls vs Boston Celtics
The Bulls won seven of their last nine games to steal the last playoff spot in the East. But before we get hyped that Chicago is finally clicking, it should be noted that six of those games came against non-playoff teams. The Bulls’ 41-41 record tells you exactly what they are: mediocre.
In spite of possessing a couple very gifted offensive players, the Bulls are actually winning with defense. They only shoot 44.4-percent from the field (25th) and 34-percent from behind the arc (24th) and average 102.9 PPG (23rd). However, Chicago rebounds the ball well and defends the perimeter, leading to a sixth-overall defensive rating (104.5). The Bulls come down with 51.7-percent of all rebounds (fourth), only allow opponents to shoot 34.5-percent from long-range, and surrender just 102.4 PPG (sixth). It also helps that they play a very disciplined game, only committing 17.7 fouls per game (second-fewest).
Go ahead and throw your hands up if you had the Boston Celtics entering the playoffs as the top-seed in the East. (Put your hands down, liar!) Whether you predicted it or not, the Celtics did in fact take the top-spot in the East. How, you ask? They’re a really well-rounded team. Boston averages 108.0 PPG (seventh), and ranks 12th in defensive rating (105.5).
There’s no doubt as to who their leader is offensively, as Isaiah Thomas averages 28.9 PPG. But the Celtics do share the ball very well, racking up 25.2 assists per game (fourth). They also do a very good job protecting the ball, only committing 13.3 turnovers per game (eighth).
While that sounds great, this team is far from a juggernaut.
Boston has its issues on the glass, only securing 75.3-percent of their opponents’ missed shots (27th). This stems from a small lineup that features 6’10” Al Horford as the top rebounder. This could be troublesome, since the Bulls average 12.2 offensive rebounds per game (second).
The two split their four matchups this season, with the home team always coming out on top. This series will be much more competitive than the 1/8 matchup in the West, but Boston is much deeper and much more talented.
Pick: Boston Celtics (6 Games)
Indiana Pacers vs Cleveland Cavaliers
This is a series that will resemble the 1/8 matchup in the West. I don’t care that Paul George took the Cavs to double-overtime earlier this month, or that Cleveland ended the regular season with four straight losses. The Cavs have LeBron James and are capable of shifting into a gear that very few can keep up with.
Sure, Cleveland has shown some weaknesses: they allow 44.5 points in the paint per night (19th), 13.7 second-chance points (24th), and only lockup 75.8-percent of defensive rebounds (21st). Unfortunately, Indiana isn’t the team to exploit those flaws. The Pacers only score 39.8-percent of their points in the paint (22nd), and only average 9.0 offensive rebounds per game (23rd).
Paul George is good enough to steal one on his own, but the Pacers are in way over their head here.
Pick: Cleveland Cavaliers (5 Games)
Milwaukee Bucks vs Toronto Raptors
When Jabari Parker tore his ACL in February, the Bucks were 22-29 and their immediate future did not appear promising. But in his absence, Milwaukee has adopted a more team-oriented approach on offense. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the alpha, leading the team in points (22.9 per game), rebounds (8.8 per game), assists (5.4 per game), steals (1.6 per game), and blocks (1.9 per game); as a team they average 24.2 assists per game (fifth), ultimately leading to their ultra-efficient 47.4-percent shooting from the field (fourth).
They’ll need to remain efficient when they take on the new-look Raptors. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are still up in Toronto, but this is not the same offensive-minded team that we saw at the beginning of the season. Since March 1st, only the Spurs have allowed fewer points per game than the Raptors (98.9). The acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker have led to a culture change, and it makes Toronto a very dangerous team.
Kyle Lowry appears to be fully recovered from the wrist injury that kept him out for five weeks, and he has had four games to get accustomed to his new teammates. The two newcomers have also helped create an offense that doesn’t just rely on isolation plays, but actually sees the ball move a little.
Giannis will be the best player on the court, but the next four are all Raptors.
Pick: Toronto Raptors (6 Games)
Atlanta Hawks vs Washington Wizards
On the surface, these two teams look very different. The Wizards’ focus is on the offensive end, evident by their 109.2 PPG (fifth) on 47.5-percent shooting from the field (third); while the Hawks put their effort into defense, ranking fourth in defensive rating and only allowing 104.0 points per game (tenth).
But when you look a little deeper, these two have a lot in common. Both teams share the ball on the offensive end and create a lot of turnovers on D, while also being sloppy with their own possessions at times. So who will emerge?
The key for Washington will be slowing Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard in the high pick-n-roll. The problem for the Wizards is that Marcin Gortat isn’t the most athletic big-man, while Markieff Morris is a little undersized at 6’10”. If Ian Mahinmi has to play too many minutes, it will greatly harm their offense.
For Atlanta, defending the perimeter will be of paramount importance. Washington shoots 37.2-percent from behind the arc (eighth), and the Hawks are allowing 35.7-percent from downtown (16th).
Washington has taken three of the four games between the two this season, and won the final two by a combined 30 points. Both of those came after Atlanta traded Kyle Korver. I foresee John Wall, and the duo of Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr from deep, being too much for the Hawks to handle.
Pick: Washington Wizards (6 Games)
Photo Credit: Keith Allison (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]