We will be previewing the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. The top 4 seeds all made it through the first round. Here are our previews for the Eastern Conference 2nd Round (Semi-Finals).
#1 BOSTON CELTICS VS #4 WASHINGTON WIZARDS
There might not be the same level of hatred, vitriol, and brutality as what we were accustomed to seeing from bitter rivals in the Eastern Conference back in the 1980’s and 1990’s. But, it’s good to see that there are still two teams out there who just plain don’t like each other, and aren’t afraid to make it well known.
Of course, for NBA fans, the fact that the two of them — namely, the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards — are squaring off against each other in a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, it’s even better. From the Jae Crowder-and-Randy-Wittman dust-up in 2016, to the “funeral game” in the subsequent season, as well as all the sniping in the media back and forth, the level of animus between the two teams should make for one hell of a series.
For observers around the league, but especially fans of the Celtics, the question must be asked: which Boston team will show up in this series? Will it be the Celtics team that went down 2-0 to the 8th-seeded Chicago Bulls, while being outplayed and outclassed in those two games? Or will it be the team that bounced back and engineered a “reverse sweep” of the Bulls, winning four-straight games after said two-game deficit? Objective fans can make the argument that the entire series turned when Chicago lost the services of Rajon Rondo during game two. After a tumultuous season in Chicago, Rondo was the X-factor against Boston, seemingly knowing what the Celtics were going to do before they were going to do it themselves.
Boston can’t rely on a series-swinging injury, or the fact that their opponents are secretly aware of their own flaws (like the Bulls were), when playing the Wizards. Washington has shown a level of resilience that’s unique to this team, in comparison to squads of recent years. More importantly, this team wants to take on the very best that the East has to offer, in order to get where they think they can go (at least as far as the Eastern Conference Finals).
The edge, swagger, and toughness that the Wizards have shown at numerous points during the 2016-2017 season is certainly refreshing for fans in Washington. Forward Markieff Morris represents an enforcer of sorts, for the Wizards. He’s the “tough guy” who’s not afraid to get in the face of the opponent’s biggest and best player, say whatever he wants, and then double-down on those comments by publicly stating them in the media. His “MMA”-themed comments, in regards to the level of physicality that the Wizards showed against Atlanta earlier in the series (as well as his own physicality when playing against Paul Millsap), helped the Wizards “get in the heads” of the Hawks from the onset, making Atlanta focus more on the style of play the Wizards were using, versus the style of play they wanted to employ.
Superstar John Wall, who is quickly cementing his status as the best point guard in the Eastern Conference, is far more understated and composed in the media, but he has not been afraid to stare down opponents and give them a piece of his mind after making a big play. Bradley Beal is even more understated than Wall is, when it comes to the media, but plays the game with a quiet — although ferocious — tenacity. He’s well known for his ability to shoot the basketball and put up points in bushels, as witnessed by his 25.8 points per game on 46.2% shooting in the series against Atlanta, but his efforts on the defensive side of the floor have drawn praise from head coach Scott Brooks, and is certainly that the Celtics will have to take note of.
Boston’s strength is its depth. They have the tough guys (Crowder, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley), the utility guys, the bench, and the superstar (Isaiah Thomas). They have one of the brightest minds on the game leading their team (head coach Brad Stevens). But will that be enough to stop a Wizards team that has almost the same level of star power and depth?
We will see.
#2 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS VS #3 TORONTO RAPTORS
Looking back on all the headlines and chatter that was devoted to the perceived “demise” of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks laughable now. Yes, Cleveland’s four wins against Indiana Pacers in the opening round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs might have come by a grand total of 16 points in four game. But as much sense as this statement might not make, none of those games were as close as they might appear to be. At no point in the series did Cleveland not look like the markedly better team.
History will tell us that when these two teams faced each other in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, the Raptors gave the Cavaliers a tough go of things, extending the series to six games. But in reality, that’s not even close to the truth. In Cleveland’s four wins against Toronto, the average margin of victory was a comical 30.5 points. The Cavaliers won each of the first two games of the series by 29 points, and then won Games 5 and 6 by 38 and 26 point margins. In other words: Cleveland didn’t just defeat Toronto; they humiliated them, repeatedly.
In a twist of irony, given how Cleveland dismissed Toronto last year, and given all the discussion about Cleveland’s so-called “issues,” the Raptors might be playing against an even better version of the Cavaliers. The team suffered because of numerous injuries over the second half of the regular season, but many of those guys are back and rounding themselves into basketball shape.
And then, of course, there’s that LeBron James guy, who keeps on doing the legendary stuff that we’re used to seeing him do. At this point, we’re simply running out of superlatives, when describing the level of play from James. He basically averaged a triple-double against the Pacers — perhaps reminding the rest of the league who the best player in the world truly is — putting up 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and nine assists per game. That’s not even mentioning the three steals and two blocks he averaged per game during the series.
One interesting wrinkle will be how the additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, whom the Raptors brought over in the “arms race” between Eastern Conference teams at the 2017 NBA Trade Deadline, impact how they’re able to defend James and the Cavaliers. Cleveland went 3-1 in the regular season against Toronto, but none of those games featured Ibaka. The Cavs won the first three meetings by a total of 11 points before Ibaka joined Toronto, and then Ibaka — like the “big three” of the Cavaliers — sat out the last match-up, which came late in the season. Cleveland’s players themselves noted that Ibaka brings experience, energy, and athleticism to a Toronto lineup that boasts an ample amount of each, while Tucker brings a highly physical presence and edge to the team, doing so many little things that many not appear on the stat sheet.
But the NBA Playoffs are when superstars are supposed to shine their brightest. James continues to be transcendent. Kyrie Irving is one of the ultimate “heat check” players in the league, scoring more than 25 points in two of the four games against Indiana. Meanwhile, the backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan have been maddeningly inconsistent for much of the second half of the season for the Raptors.
It’s just too hard, if not downright impossible, to see a scenario where Toronto rewrites history, and shocks the world by pulling off an upset over Cleveland in a seven game series.
NOTE: VIEW HERE to read our entire NBA Playoff Preview.