Hello NBA fans. It is that time of year again. The NBA Playoffs are here!. We will be previewing the Eastern Conference Playoffs now. Remember, we will have up to date coverage of the entire NBA playoffs right here at In The Gym Range. Here are our Eastern Conference first round predictions.
#1 Boston vs. #8 Chicago
The question is for the Boston Celtics, entering the 2017 NBA Postseason: now that they’ve won the #1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference, what are they going to do with it?
Boston may have finished with the best record in the East, but they still have plenty of work to do, as far as showing that they’re really the best team in the conference. Many people believe that Boston “backed into the #1” seed, with Cleveland effectively giving up their pursuit of the top overall seed down the stretch of the season; that belief was only amplified, given the fact that Cleveland decisively beat Boston by a 114-91 margin, in Boston.
On top that, the Celtics simply don’t have the experience of handling the pressures associated with being the top overall team in the conference, and the expectations that come along with that distinction. This Boston team has the leas collective playoff experience (5,461 minutes) of any No. 1 seed in either conference since the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns. By comparison, Dwayne Wade of the Chicago Bulls — Boston’s opponent in the opening round of the playoffs — has 6,380 minutes of playoff experience alone.
Still, there’s a reason this team won 53 games this year — their highest win total in five seasons — with 30 of those wins coming at home (tied for the third most in the NBA). This team is deep, reliable, explosive, and well-coached. They might not have a true bona-fide superstar (though people may begin to put point guard Isaiah Thomas in that discussion), but they do have a formidable cast of players with a multitude of strengths. Al Horford is a skilled big man with three point range, making him a lethal option in the pick and roll game. Jae Crowder is a solid outside shooter who happens to also be really good around the basket. Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart are defensive bulldogs who come up big in clutch moments. Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson are both big men who can shoot the ball from deep. And, of course, there are few players in the world who can heat up and change the entire narrative of a game like Thomas can.
But this Chicago team is not going to make things easy for Boston. At one point just a few short weeks ago, the Bulls looked like they were ready for a total implosion. Yet, they not only managed to right the ship, but also slipped into the playoffs along the way. In an twist of irony, the best player in this entire series might be a guy on Chicago who Boston has always reportedly had interest in: forward Jimmy Butler. The versatile scoring forward also happens to be one of the league’s best one-on-one wing defenders. This season, Butler has transformed himself from a really good NBA player to perhaps an All-NBA selection. He’s someone that can not only be “the guy” to make the big play on offense when the game is on the line, but he’s also the guy who can go and lock down the opponent’s best player (ie, Thomas).
History provides numerous examples of the #8 seed beating the #1 seed in the NBA playoffs. The Celtics need to be very careful in ensuring they’re not the latest upset.
#3 Toronto vs. #6 Milwaukee
When it comes to the Eastern Conference, everyone spent the second half of the season talking about the Cleveland Cavaliers and their pursuit of another title, the Boston Celtics challenging for the top overall seed in the conference, and the resurrection of the Washington Wizards after their miserable start to the season.
With that, many people happened to overlook another fascinating story-line in the East: how this year’s Toronto Raptors not only looks like the best squad this franchise has put out in years, but also is the squad with the most legitimate chance of winning the conference.
Even with the seemingly disastrous loss of All-Star guard Kyle Lowry, the Raptors went 18-7 after the All-Star break, even with Lowry absent for most of those games. Toronto head coach Dwayne Casey has faced his share of critics, after the team’s unsavory departure from the playoffs in years past, but he appears to have done the very best coaching job of his career this past season. Between dealing with the injuries to Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and also integrating newcomers Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker into the rotation (both of whom were acquired before the 2017 NBA trade deadline), Casey has done an excellent job with the team this season, and doesn’t really get the true recognition he deserves for it. Toronto has the best point differential among all teams in the Eastern Conference, at plus-4.2 points per game.
But Toronto will have the unenviable task of facing what could be one of the scariest young teams in the NBA, as their opponents in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs: the Milwaukee Bucks. After the return of Khris Middleton (who missed most of the season recovering from injuries) and the placement of rookie sensation Malcolm Brogdon into the starting five, Milwaukee closed the season with a 20-10 record over their last 30 games.
While guys like Middleton, Brogdon, and the ultra-raw but uber-talented Thon Maker are interesting pieces for the Bucks, Miwaukee’s present (and future) exploits all revolve around the efforts of “The Greek Freak” himself, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo has basically run away with this season’s “Most Improved Player” award, posting averages of 22.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game this season, and becoming a nightmarish point forward that stands 6’11 but runs the floor as well as anyone in the NBA. His ability to attack the basket and finish around the rim is easily his forte, meaning Toronto must focus on making him take (and make) jumpshots — an aspect of his game that he’s not quite comfortable with. That shouldn’t be too much of an issue for the Raptors, as they franked in the top 10 in preventing points in the paint this past season.
Expect a tightly contested series for however long this one might go. No matter how many games it takes a team to win this series, expect each and every one of those games to be close. In the end, it all really comes down to the idea of whether Toronto can truly come together as a team at the most important time of the year, reincorporating guys like Lowry and DeRozan back into the lineup, alongside the team’s new additions. If they do, they represent a very formidable obstacle to the Cleveland Cavaliers, whom they’d face in Round Two (assuming both teams win their round one match-ups).
#2 Cleveland vs. #7 Indiana
Can an NBA team simply “flip the switch” when it matters most? Does that switch really even exist?
The Cleveland Cavaliers are poised to answer that question, as the 2017 NBA Playoffs begin.
Cleveland ended their season by losing to the Toronto Raptors by a 98-83 margin. Sure, the Cavaliers justified that loss by giving rest to LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love as the playoffs approached. Still, that loss marked their 14th loss in 24 games since the beginning of March. Since St. Patrick’s Day, they’ve lost 8 of their past 14 games, and seemed very disinterested in playing any type of defenses for long periods of time.
But even then, there were signs that the championship-contending Cavaliers team still lurked somewhere near the surface. They began the month of April by beating the very Indiana Pacers they’ll face in Round One of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, in a double-overtime thriller. Two nights later, they thoroughly dismantled the floundering Orlando Magic. Just one night later, on a back-to-back, they thoroughly defeated the Boston Celtics, who most thought was supposed to be the team with the best chance to dethrone Cleveland in the East.
Lest we forget: James is still one of the five best players in the NBA, if not THE best player in the NBA, frankly. Irving is only a couple of a couple of made jump-shots away from putting up gaudy scoring numbers. Love has proven that he can produce big plays in big moments, like he did in last year’s playoffs. J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver are still lethal shooters.
In other words: don’t write off the champs until it’s really all over for them. As long as James is on the floor, and as long as he’s the engine that powers the Cavaliers, they’re going to be extremely difficult to beat. He’s coming off one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.7 assists, while shooting 54.8 percent from the field and 36.3 percent from the 3-point line. That’s a big reason why he continued to play an extraordinary number of minutes this past season, leading the league in 37.8 minutes played per game.
Of course that workload isn’t going to diminish in the postseason; if anything, it’s only going to amplify. On top of being the guy who facilitates their entire offense, James will also have the responsibility of guarding Paul George, who closed the season with 12 straight games of 20 points or more, and averaged 30.8 points in that stretch. At one point, George and the Pacers represented the biggest foil to James and the Miami Heat (when he was a member of the team). Both players now have very different supporting casts around them, but the mini-rivalry between these two players likely hasn’t gone away.
Even with their uninspiring finish to the season, Cleveland’s 113.6 offensive efficiency rating this season is better than any of the last 10 title-winners, including the 2013 Heat (112.3) and the 2015 Warriors (111.6). They’re still well positioned for a deep title run, given the mix of stars, depth, and role players they’ve accumulated. It’d be one of the biggest stories of 2017 if Indiana were to somehow pull of the upset. But, that just doesn’t appear to be anything close to likely.
#4 Washington vs. #5 Atlanta
Just two years ago, the Washington Wizards felt they were a healthy John Wall away from facing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. But, they ended up losing to the Atlanta Hawks in six games in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
Don’t think the Wizards don’t remember that playoff exit.
The Wizards enter this postseason with one of their best teams in decades. Up until they snapped the streak this year, it had been 38 years since Washington was a division champion. But the Wizards won the Southeast division, finishing with 49 wins — their best finish since 1978-79 — despite a very ugly 7-13 start. But as head coach Scott Brooks began to right the ship, Wall and back-court mate Bradley Beal both came through with career years. The latter, enjoying his healthiest season in years, averaged 23.1 points per game, making 48.2 percent of his shots (including 40.4 percent from the 3-point line).
But while Beal played the role of a sweet-shooting Batman for the Wizards, Wall was undoubtedly the team’s Superman. In a year where the MVP ballot was already tremendously difficult to make a selection from, Wall’s incredible season got overlooked because of all the other worthy candidates. His 23.1 points (18th in the NBA), 10.7 assists (second in the NBA), and 4.2 rebounds per game notwithstanding, he was the engine that propelled the Wizards into the fourth highest scoring team in the NBA this season. Simply put, he was the best point guard in the Eastern Conference, all year long.
The proverbial Achilles’ heel for the Wizards has been their defense. Washington is down to 20th overall in the NBA for the season in points allowed per possession, after ranking ninth before the break, and a very encouraging fifth over a three-month stretch in which they zoomed from 2-8 to 34-21. They allow the most points per game among all playoff teams in the East, and 2nd most among all 16 playoff teams in general (only Portland allows more than the 107.4 points per game allowed by the Wizards).
Conversely, Atlanta seems to have almost made the playoffs almost by accident. They have been the definition of inconsistent all year long. They started 9-2 and followed that up with a 1-10 stretch. For every three-game winning streak they had a three-game losing skid usually followed. They flirted with a full-bore fire sale in January that would have involved moving Paul Millsap, but actually stopped it when the team responded positively. But, having started the season 32-23, they lost 16 of their final 27 games. The Hawks back in the playoffs for the 10th straight year, but very few — if anyone — has any real aspirations in terms of how far this team can go. When your second and third most important players are Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroder, the situation doesn’t look bright.
Washington’s preferred starting lineup of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat has been one of the best starting fives in the NBA, and with a bench rotation that includes Kelly Oubre Jr, Bojan Bogdanovich, Brandon Jennings, and perhaps Ian Mahinmi (when he returns from yet another injury), they simply have too much depth and talent to not advance past Atlanta.
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