Playoffs Preview: Eastern Conference Round 1

Playoffs Preview: Eastern Conference Round 1

Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs Detroit Pistons (8)

This series is practically over before its even begun and that’s a real shame for fans of the Motor City but it will come as no surprise. Milwaukee made easy work of most of the NBA this season and swept the Pistons four times, thanks in large part to Eric Bledsoe.

Bledsoe, who has looked rejuvenated under head coach Mike Budenholzer, averaged 20.5 points and 6.5 assists in four games against Detroit. He shot 51.6 percent from the field and 40 percent from the three-point line, all while playing as the primary defender against Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson, who had a great final run to end the season and was a key factor in Detroit’s second half turnaround.

The Bucks have been incredible to watch on both ends of the court and no team has been stingier when it comes to giving up points in the paint. Brook Lopez has been turned into a defensive force and his presence under the rim has acted as a good deterrent for would-be drives. If Detroit is to have any success in this series, they have to be dynamite from beyond the arc because Milwaukee has allowed opponents to shoot high volume three-pointers all season. If you can score on them from downtown you have a chance and that for Detroit might be its only hope. The Bucks are a terrible match-up for them.

The Quick Release:

  • The Bucks allowed only 23.9 percent of opponents shots to be at the rim, lowest in the NBA
  • If Detroit can catch fire from the perimeter, they can beat Milwaukee. Teams shot 36.1 percent from beyond the arc against the Bucks during the regular season
  • Pistons head coach Dwane Casey went from running into LeBron every postseason to running into Giannis Antetokounmpo…. ouch
  • Detroit could make a series of it if it gets hot from the three-point line, but they can’t win four out of seven

Toronto Raptors (2) vs. Orlando Magic (7)

The Raptors enter the playoffs under as much pressure as any team, certainly in the East. An outstanding season has resulted in great seeding and home court advantage if they make the Finals and yet many still doubt them. This team, however, is not the team of Playoffs past.

Gone is DeMar DeRozan, replaced by Kawhi Leonard, who had an outstanding comeback season in Toronto, averaging 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 49.6 percent shooting. Kawhi brings with him immense postseason experience, having won an NBA Finals MVP award during his time with San Antonio Spurs. Danny Green and Marc Gasol, also represent significant upgrades to a roster, which is now loaded with proven postseason talent. On paper, this Raptors team has as strong a chance as any to win the conference but Orlando will not go down without a fight.

This Magic team has nothing to lose, it was not supposed to be a playoff team entering the season and was considered in the tank zone at 20-31 before rallying to finish the season 22-9. For the Raptors, their area of concern will undoubtedly be All-Star Nikola Vucević, who averaged 20.0 points, 15.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists in the four regular season games this year.

Vucević presents immediate problems for the Raptors due to his ability to play the perimeter game as a shooter and passer. The Raptors forwards are quite old and cumbersome. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka just can’t keep up with Vucević, which will surely force Raptors head coach Nick Nurse to utilize Pascal Siakam, who is a tad undersized, in a match-up with the Magic big.

The Quick Release:

  • The Raptors and Magic split the season series 2-2, which will leave Orlando fans optimistic
  • The Magic are one of the best teams in the league at limiting turnovers, ranking sixth (13.3) during the season
  • According to NBA.com stats, Orlando’s Aaron Gordon guarded Leonard on 43 possessions in three games this season and caused him to struggle to find a rhythm offensively. The Raptors will undoubtedly need more production out of their offensive superstar.
  • Further to the above point, Kawhi did not fare well when facing Orlando, averaging only 18 points per game and struggling against versatile Magic forward Aaron Gordon
  • Toronto lays claim to the league’s fifth best defense (106.8) and offense (112.5)

Philadelphia 76ers (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)

This is an intriguing series. On one side of the coin you have Philadelphia, which possesses an immensely talented starting five. On the other, Brooklyn was not supposed to be here this soon, but the Nets are, so it’s time we all shut up and tasted some good old humble pie.

The Nets are here thanks in large part to D’Angelo Russell, a Los Angeles Lakers cast-off, who has put together an outstanding regular season campaign. But their success isn’t just down to his heroics. Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and NBA three-point leader Joe Harris are all fantastic fits in this system and have adapted to whatever tasks have been thrown at them this season. The Nets have a roster stacked with problems for Sixers head coach Brett Brown to solve.

So, we’ve established that Brooklyn is here because they deserve to be and that their roster is as capable as any in the Eastern Conference. However, Philadelphia built itself for the postseason. The team traded for Tobias Harris because it saw a chance to win the conference and they traded for Jimmy Butler because… they wanted dysfunction in the locker room. Butler is the cold-blooded closer this team has needed for years. And yet despite Philadelphia’s ballsy moves, its fate in this series and indeed the Playoffs fall squarely on one man, Joel Embiid.

Embiid is a once-in-a-generation talent and a joy to watch. If Embiid plays, this series will be over and it will be over fast. Why? Well, he torches the Nets interior, in particular the often-used combination of Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis in the middle.

This effectively erases whatever advantage the Nets might have on the perimeter. In his last appearance against Brooklyn, Embiid had 39 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists. He is the single biggest factor in this series. If he misses time, the Sixers must slow down the game (which in general tends to happen in the postseason) because neither team is particularly efficient in transition. This series is going to be brilliant.

The Quick Release:

  • Sixers General Manager Elton Brand said he was “optimistic” that Joel Embiid would be ready for the playoffs
  • If Embiid misses time, the heavy minutes load early on this season – he averaged 33.7 on the season, a career high – will be questioned by everyone and their dogs
  • Slowing things down would play more to Philadelphia’s advantages
  • Kendall Jenner is dating Ben Simmons (I’m sorry, I had to)
  • The group of Embiid, Harris, Butler, JJ Redick and Ben Simmons has been together in the starting five only 10 times this season

Boston Celtics (4) vs. Indiana Pacers (5)

This match-up can be summed up easily. It’s the overachieving Indiana Pacers vs the underachieving Boston Celtics. These two teams could not be further apart in terms of locker room chemistry but on the court, there isn’t much to seperate them at all. In fact, the one clear advantage Boston had over Indiana was talent. This talent has looked disjointed all season long. 

Marcus Smart, who has been one of the few bright sparks in a strange season for the Celtics, will miss this series, which is a real shame. He would have matched up against Bojan Bogdanovic, who has been the Pacers’ best offensive weapon since Victor Oladipo went down with a season ending quad injury. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens is no stranger to adversity of making changes and he will be forced to do so plenty in this series.

Opening night could see the Celtics running out a starting lineup with Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward, the latter of whom has looked better as of late. Hayward performing well could prove to be a critical factor in the outcome of this season, but Boston’s greatest threat is and will be Kyrie Irving.

The point guard is one of the most creative offensive players in the league, a guy who thrives under the bright lights and clutch moments of the postseason. Expect him to be the real difference maker in this series. Boston goes as far as Kyrie takes them.

Indiana could really upset the apple cart here. Ever since Oladipo went down, this team, under the guidance of head coach Nate McMillan, has found ways to win. The Pacers beat bad teams and they keep pace with the more-talented ones. They were right in with the Sixers and their Round 1 opponents Boston until the final days of the regular season. It speaks volumes as to how well this locker room is functioning right now. This strong Pacers roster is anchored by center Myles Turner, who has turned himself into a defensive stalwart and a shot-blocking machine averaging a league-leading 2.7 rejections per game. Turner, Bogdanovic and sixth man Domantas Sabonis have done an incredible job at taking up the reigns left by Oladipo but I think there season will end in Boston. Talent and depth should be enough to get through to the conference semifinals.

The Quick Release:

  • Kyrie Irving was one of the most efficient high-volume players in the NBA this season, averaging 23.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game
  • The Celtics scored 117.6 points per 100 possessions in their four games against the Pacers this season, which was the most efficiently Boston scored against any of the other 15 teams that made the Playoffs
  • The Pacers defense is very good at one thing, limiting scoring. They limited opponents to a league-best 104.7 points per game during the regular season.
  • If Gordon Hayward continues to improve (last eight games, scoring 16.4 points on 58.5 percent shooting), I don’t see how Indiana can keep up with the Celtics on offense – there’s just too many good offensive threats wearing green

Feature photo – Getty Images / NBAE / Tom Szczerbowski / Double Clutch illustration