The key: 3 point defense
Giannis Antetokounmpo is likely the Defensive Player of the Year. Brook Lopez is one of the best shot-blockers in the league. This gives the Bucks one of the best frontcourts and paint defenses in the league. ESPN’s Tim Bontemps recently had an article questioning Milwaukee’s 3 point defense, which is a completely valid concern. With all their elite paint defense, the Bucks might be giving up too many open looks behind the arc. The Heat and the Raptors, arguably the biggest threats to the Bucks in the East, are first and fourth in the league in 3P% this year, which could spell trouble for Milwaukee in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo and the Bucks don’t have many weaknesses, but the 3 point defense is a potential Achilles heel for them.
The key: 3 and D
Not even Drake thought the Raptors would be this good this year. One of the best players in the league left the team, and now Kyle Lowry is 34 years old and Marc Gasol is 35 years old. With this in mind, it only makes sense for Toronto to have their best season in franchise history. Coach Nick Nurse is a huge reason why Toronto is competitive this year, but their 3 point shooting and defense is what makes them as good as they are. The Raptors are top 5 in the league in both 3 point percentage and 3 pointers made. Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Terrence Davis, Serge Ibaka, and Mike Gasol are all shooting 38.5% or better from 3. These are players that play significant minutes for Toronto and take a lot of shots, and they will be the key to defeating the Milwaukee Bucks, whose weakness is 3 point defense. On the other side of the ball, the Raps have the second-best defensive rating in the league. Back to back championships won’t be easy, but their 3 point shooting and defense gives them what it takes to bring a second championship to Canada.
The key: Centers step up
Boston has some of the best players in the league, offensively and defensively, at every other position, which is why they are legitimate championship contenders. In order for the Celtics to go all the way this season, they need a few of their five centers on the roster to do more. Daniel Theis is a good starting center, and Kanter is good offensively off the bench, but he is a huge liability on defense. Robert Williams III was playing well before the season was suspended, so he could potentially get some important minutes in the playoffs as well. Tacko Fall and Vincent Poirier round out the depth at the center position, though neither of them are likely to play much down the stretch. Boston will be playing the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, so they’ll get a good test at center right away, having to face Joel Embiid.
The key: Be healthy
The last two years’ Pacers teams overachieved when they were healthy. And that was before Sabonis started playing at this level and before adding star Malcolm Brogdon, current leading scorer TJ Warren, and many more role players. So you take the very talented 2017-18 Pacers team, add Brogdon, Warren, and several great role players who replace Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, and Thaddeus Young. You elevate Sabonis to an all-star level, and you add years of experience to the rest of the roster. Once you do that, the Pacers become one of the best teams in the East. This Pacers roster is exactly what was just described. If they were healthy, they’d be up there with the Bucks and the Raptors. However, Domantas Sabonis has a significant foot injury and has left the bubble. No one really knows what Victor Oladipo’s health status is. He’s somewhere between almost completely healthy and still has a ways to go before playing like his old self. The playoffs will not be kind to Indiana without Oladipo and Sabonis. With a healthy Oladipo and Sabonis, however, Indiana will be a force capable of winning the East.
The key: Win individual matchups
Between Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, the Heat can put an elite defender on the other team’s best player at all times, no matter the position. This has proven successful against almost all of the East’s best teams. Miami is 2-1 against the Milwaukee Bucks, 2-1 against the Toronto Raptors, and 3-1 against the Indiana Pacers. It’s no secret that the best players on each of these teams are power forwards, who Adebayo is especially gifted at guarding, and shooting guards, who Jimmy Butler excels at guarding. As long as coach Eric Spoelstra and the Heat keep playing this matchup game to cancel out the best players on the opposition, Miami’s useful role players and extremely talented, versatile bench will get the rest of the job done.
The key: Utilize their depth the right way
Going into the season, there was an argument to be made for Philly having the best starting five in the league (Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid). Some fans even went so far as to deem this squad as having the potential to be one of the best defensive teams of all time. However, the bench was viewed as one of the worst in the league at the time. While the starters have not nearly lived up to expectations, the potential is still there for a surprise playoff run because of the new depth. Yes- even with Ben Simmons out. The emergence of Matisse Thybulle and Shake Milton and the acquiring of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III is what will make a playoff run possible. Not that Philadelphia is definitely better with these bench pieces than with Ben Simmons, but their seeding might have been better if this was their rotation since the beginning of the season. Either way, this is the roster that they have, and it’s a darn talented one. An upset over the Boston Celtics in the first round is absolutely possible if they utilize their depth the way coach Brett Brown should have been doing all along.
The key: A star
The Nets have an excellent supporting cast around superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, their prized offseason acquisitions, including Deandre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen. The problem is, only LeVert, Harris, and Allen remain. They did add Jamal Crawford, who is currently injured, but the rest of the roster is not championship or even playoff-caliber. It’s easy to say that if everyone plays their best, anything can happen. But the team just isn’t good enough for that to be true. This is a team that needs to be carried. Caris Levert needs to play out of his mind. Joe Harris needs to shoot like he’s never shot before. Jarrett Allen needs to assert himself as a dominant big man. Jamal Crawford needs to play like it’s 2008. This is the only possible way the Brooklyn Nets will win the East.
The key: Overcome injuries defensively
Losing Al-Farouq Aminu hurt. Losing Jonathan Isaac hurt a lot. Now losing Mo Bamba hurts, and losing Jonathan Isaac again hurts even more. These guys have contributed a lot to Orlando’s top 11 defense in the league in defensive rating. Nikola Vucevic isn’t known for his defense, but he’ll have to take on a bigger role for the Magic to make up for the loss of Bamba. Vucevic is in the top 100 in the league in terms of defensive rating, so it’s not impossible. As for replacing Isaac, that will have to be by committee. Aaron Gordon, Terrence Ross, and Evan Fournier are all solid defenders that can help fill the gap. Unfortunately, Orlando is used to trying to replace defensive cornerstones, as Aminu and Isaac have each missed much of the season due to injuries. Orlando is facing the highest-scoring offense in the league in the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. If the Magic will achieve this historic upset, they need to overachieve on defense and slow down MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.