The Eastern Conference is starting to look a lot different; Dwayne Wade has played his last game, Lebron is on the Lakers, and the Cavaliers won’t be in the playoffs for a while yet. It seems like a changing of the guard has come, and the playoffs may benefit from a lack of familiar faces. That being said, there are 8 teams worth knowing about in each conference now that the playoffs are here and there is nowhere else that you need to look to get the rundown of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Let’s get started:
Boston Celtics (4) vs Indiana Pacers (5)
After a competitive end to the regular season, the Boston Celtics narrowly beat out the Indiana Pacers for the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. Of their last 7 regular season games these two teams played each other twice, giving fans plenty to talk about heading into the first round of the NBA playoffs.
In their season series the Celtics dominated, taking it to the Pacers on three of their four meetings and winning the series by a combined 48 points. The Pacers sole victory came back in November, where they eked out a 1 point win. The Pacers earned their spot in the playoffs this season with a record of 48-34, identical to last season, which ended in the first round against Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 7 games. The Celtics also got the boot in 7 games by LeBron last postseason, exiting only one win short of facing the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals. The Celtics currently own the all time regular season series between these contenders, boating a 98-79 record. The playoffs are a different game however, and in that series the Celtics only lead by one game at 13-12 over 5 postseason series. Of those series, all of them took place in the first round featuring two sweeps as well as two ‘win or go home’ games, both teams taking one apiece.
What to Watch
Gordon Hayward has been quietly but consistently improving, rising in every relevant figure despite limited minutes coming off the bench. There have been flashes of his former Utah Jazz self this season, his first year back from the horrific ankle injury that ended his first season as a Celtic after only 5 minutes. Those flashes have become increasingly less surprising to see over time and his style of play has become more confident. If Hayward can step up and play to his ceiling then the Pacers may be in trouble this series.
The Pacers offense is regrettably almost indistinguishable to last season’s, shooting at nearly an identical level from both inside and outside of the 3-point line. Therefore, the reason the Pacers look like more of a threat this season is clearly their improved defensive play, ranking 3rd in the NBA (an improvement from 13th last year). Indiana allowed an NBA lowest 104.3 points per game (PPG), and consistently boxed out the opposition, forcing turnovers and making moves in transition. If the Pacers can keep up the defensive pressure than the Celtics will be hard pressed to outscore them.
Prediction: Celtics in 6
Philadelphia 76ers (3) vs Brooklyn Nets (6)
Something that was expected by few to none, the Brooklyn Nets became a surprise playoff contender this year. Even more surprising was perhaps the fact that they weren’t scrambling for a playoff spot with a game or two to go, but instead calmly and surely stepped up and took the 6th seed as though it were already theirs. The work is not done for the Nets however, with the 3rd seeded Philadelphia 76ers waiting patiently for them at Wells Fargo Centre.
These two franchises held an even season series, going blow for blow at 2-2 on the year, though Brooklyn outscored Philadelphia by 12 on the season. These teams have met in the playoffs just twice before this series, taking one matchup each, but the most recent set of games came in 1984 (For reference: Larry Bird was named league MVP, and Michael Jordan had yet to be drafted) where the upstart New Jersey Nets toppled the reigning champs from Philadelphia in the first round. They’ve played just 7 playoff games against one another, which Philadelphia took 4 of, and neither team has won a championship since the year before they last met.
What to Watch
D’Angelo Russell may be one of the most viable candidates for most improved player this season, and it shows in this entire squad. One of the few teams remaining in this league where there is a clear and unanimous leader, the Nets have flourished under Russell, and his massively entertaining play has brought Brooklyn to its feet this year. Shooting his career-best from both in and outside the 3-point line, as well as a career high of 7 rebounds per game (RPG), Russell will need to put Brooklyn on his back if the Nets expect to pull out a win in this series.
It may be plain to say that the performance of a star player is key to their playoff success, but what about 3 star players? Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, and Ben Simmons may have no excuse to fail in these playoffs considering they all share a starting lineup. After his explosive and heavily questioned ‘Rookie’ season, Simmons has been quietly putting up consistent numbers each game, and there is nothing stopping him from doing that in the playoffs too. Jimmy Butler could also be considered quiet this season. Once his trade from Minnesota was finalized, the media forgot about Butler and began to find newer, more exciting storylines, letting him sit comfortably in Philly with one of the top supporting casts in the NBA. Joel Embiid is probably the most memorable figure of the 76ers season, and rightfully so, earning every penny of his contract with dominant physical play and immediate impact on the court. Any of these players could prove to be Brooklyn’s undoing, but it’ll be their ability to succeed as a group in playoff play that will decide if their season continues past the first round.
Prediction: 76ers in 6
Toronto Raptors (2) vs Orlando Magic (7)
Canada’s one and only team made strides in the NBA this season, proving they were no longer going to settle and be LeBron’s punching bag as they had been in recent seasons. The Kawhi Leonard trade might prove to be one of the greatest or most foolish moves in NBA history with the hopes of re-signing him likely resting on the teams playoff success. The real story this matchup might not be about Toronto at all, but Orlando. The Magic stepped up 7 places in the east over the course of just one season, going from 14th in 2018 to 7th in 2019. It remains to be seen if the Cinderella story stops here.
The Magic improved a great deal from last season, and that may not be shown by any stat-line more than that of their head to head against the Raptors. The Magic were swept last season and improved to split the series this year, 2-2, outscoring Toronto by 30 over 4 games. These two franchises have only met 85 times in the regular season, taking into account that they’ve only been in the league since 1989 (Orlando) and 1995 (Toronto), but Toronto leads that all-time series by 7, with a record of 46-39. With histories so brief, it’s little surprise they’ve only ever met once in the playoffs, Orlando taking Toronto in 5 games back in 2008.
What to Watch
Pascal Siakam may not be the flashiest of players, but he’s been dependable for the Raptors this year and really stepped up to the minutes they asked him to play. Going from 7.3 PPG and 2 assists per game (APG) in just over 20 minutes played every night to 16.1 PPG and 3.1 APG in 32 minutes. If he can handle the increase in minutes when the playoffs kick off, and Kawhi Leonard can continue his stalwart defensive play, then the Raptors might be able to put this series away early.
Orlando went from a lottery pick team last season to a contender this year, and jumps like that come with growing pains. Team shooting has remained consistent, both in shots attempted and shots made, which shows that defensive growth may be the secret to their substantial improvement in play, but the real hidden factor has been ball security. Keeping the rock under wraps has allowed the Magic to go from 17th in the league in turnovers to just 5th, and they’ll have to repeat that performance in this series if they want to topple a Raptors team that sits 9th in steals and 5th in defensive rating.
Prediction: Raptors in 5
Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs Detroit Pistons (8)
The Pistons and Bucks are extremely storied franchises, both going back long before modern NBA fans were even thought of, but this fact doesn’t make this matchup dull, or even slow. These teams are young, hungry, and ready to compete.
It’s been the Bucks’ year this time around, sweeping the Pistons in their season series and only winning one by single digits, with 59 points more than Detroit. Time makes all stories better, however, and the story between these teams is no different. With 245 regular season games under their collective belts, the Bucks have a slight lead over the Pistons, holding a record of 133-112. The story changes drastically, taking a turn for the dominant when the page is flipped to show the playoff record, where Detroit has won every postseason series these two giants ever played. In 4 series, the Pistons took all 4, leading 14-3 in games and painting a picture of pride for the motor city.
What to Watch
Eric Bledsoe was crucial for the Bucks in their 7 game series against the Celtics last postseason, and the fact remains this year that he is one of the best shooters on Milwaukee’s roster. With a career-best .484 from outside the paint this season, Bledsoe will need to continue complementing Giannis Antetokounmpo’s style of play and give him room in the paint by drawing defenders with his shots consistently hitting from range in order to control the series against the Pistons.
Blake Griffin is still injured, and he may not be fully healthy for a game until the start of next season, but all is not lost for the Pistons. Griffin will be well enough to play in this series, and if his load is well managed, he may just make it tough for the Bucks through the first round. It will take role players throughout the Pistons roster stepping up in their time of dire need to balance the reality of Griffin playing whilst hurt in order to keep Detroit’s playoff hopes alive.
Prediction: Bucks in 4