NBA Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference Round Two

For the Western Conference, click here.

Just like that, we’re onto round two. Basketball tends to get better as the playoff wear on and we have some excellent series in store, after a lacklustre first round where every series ended in five games or less. The Celtics fought valiantly behind Jayson Tatum but were ultimately outmatched, the Heat were a shadow of the team they were expected to be and deserved to be swept. The Knicks concluded their best season in a decade with a home playoff win and will be exciting to watch next season, whilst the Wizards shocked the world to avoid a sweep. Now that the forgettable basketball is over, we can really get into the meat of the matter. Who’s next?

(3) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (2) Brooklyn Nets

Break out the brooms, because Milwaukee holds the only sweep on the playoffs so far, despite hosting the reigning Eastern Conference Champions: the Miami Heat. They put on a suffocating display, blowing their opposition out in numerous matchups, and sealing the deal early. The Nets did exactly what they were expected to do behind one of the most dominant scoring trios in NBA history, but a shorthanded Celtics team frankly gave them more trouble than they should have. Is that something to be worried about in this matchup? The Bucks narrowly took the season series 2-1, but the Nets didn’t get to feature more than 2 of their ‘Big 3’ in any of those games, so take what you will from that.

The Bucks do pose a far more significant threat to this Brooklyn team than just about any unit in the playoffs, due to a slew of reasons. Primarily, Milwaukee is going to dominate the paint: Blake Griffin wasn’t the final piece that the Nets thought they needed, and it’s going to show. For clarity, the Nets ranked 27th in offensive rebounding and they’re going up against the top rebounding team in the NBA. This won’t be a matchup to watch as much as it will be a dominant and one-sided aspect of the game. An area that they’ll have to improve in to win this series is in 3-point defense. The Nets have shot a ruthless .392% from behind the arc this season, good for 2nd in the NBA, and the Bucks have been allowing the most long-distance attempts per game in the NBA. They’ll need to either force misses from range and mop up the rebounds or force the Nets to start shooting contested shots from inside. The final point of focus for the Bucks will be trying to avoid foul trouble. Brooklyn’s ‘Big 3’ are all notorious for drawing contact and putting up big numbers at the free throw line, led by James Harden: the NBA’s leader in free throw attempts every season for the past 6 years. If they successfully draw them off the 3-point line and into the paint/mid-range, they’ll need to be extremely careful about who’s guarding who, because this series could get bad quickly.

You may have gleamed, from the previous paragraph, what will be required of the Nets if they intend to win this series. They are led by a group of players who expect their shots to go in and who expect their teammates to grab their rebounds, but following up on their attempts is going to be crucial for their long-term success in both this series and potentially the rest of the playoffs after that. Their style of play will make this series competitive, and their sheer scoring capability will keep the Bucks guessing, but they’ll need to hit their shots from distance and get back into the paint quickly on defense in order to last this one out. If anyone is able to close the shooting gap, it will be Milwaukee, so Brooklyn has to control the pace and keep it slow. By limiting the Bucks’ shooting chances, they can use their prowess from distance to take a lead and hold onto it.

The timer is already on for the Nets incredibly short championship window, but they’re lined up against the only offense in the NBA that outscored them in 2021, and a defense that is significantly better as a unit and downright dominant in the paint. The Nets have the capability to win any game if they allow under 120 points, but they’ll be hard-pressed to hold off the Bucks’ onslaught. Milwaukee proves that they’re finally ready after a tough few seasons of playoff disappointments. Bucks in 6.

(1) 76ers vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks

The 76ers may not have swept the Washington Wizards, but their only real concern in the series was the health of Joel Embiid. He went out in game 4 with a ‘small’ meniscus tear, and wasn’t able to return in time for the decisive game 5, leaving his healthy in question for this upcoming series. The Hawks, however, put down the crowd-favourite New York Knicks in hardly any time at all. Trae Young may be turning into the man that NBA fans love to hate, but it’s a relatively well-earned title. Plus, who doesn’t love a good villain? The 76ers are the clear favourites in this series, dominating the recent matchups between these two sides, but do the Hawks have enough firepower to topple the top seed?

There’s only one thing that Philadelphia needs to do to take this home, and that is to exercise caution. These 76ers are in the best spot they’ve been in to win a championship in 20 years, and understanding that keeping Joel Embiid on a minutes restriction and not rushing his full return to action (even if he thinks he can take it) should be a priority. Outside of Embiid’s health, they should focus on playing their consistent style of team defense that they have been known for over the past few seasons, and trust in their role players such as Seth Curry and Matisse Thybulle to produce effectively. Shutting down the red-hot Young isn’t as much as a priority as the Hawks might want you to believe.

Obviously, the Hawks are going to have their hands completely full with Embiid playing in this series, but if he misses some time then they’re going to be in some winnable games. In order to take some games away from the 76ers, they need to keep Simmons outside the paint. He’ll likely be aggressive against a relatively weak Hawks defense, so boxing him out and forcing him to go into his mid-range will keep the rest of the Philly lineup honest. Shockingly, the Hawks won’t have difficulty getting Trae Young working, but their ability to get him the ball in catch-and-shoot situations will be severely impacted as their passing lanes are clogged by this suffocating defense. They’ll need special performances from their bench scoring, and consistency from both Clint Capela and Bogdanovic.

This is where it gets hard to predict; You never know what to expect with injuries. This Hawks team is hot, and the impact Embiid may or may not have in this game cannot be understated, so what’s going to happen? As Embiid works towards 100%, Atlanta could steal a game, but this series feels like the 76ers 1st-round matchup: decided before it even begins. 76ers in 5.

At this point, we’d like to take the time and put our name in the books for a finals contender. Things seem to be aligning very well for this Philadelphia team as they coast towards a conference finals appearance, but iron sharpens iron, and there’s only one team that has looked truly dominant and consistent up until this point. The Milwaukee Bucks might be in exactly the right situation after two consecutive disappointments in the postseason, and Giannis finally looks comfortable. If they can topple the powerhouse Nets, they might just earn their chance to beat whoever crawls out of the West, and they could beat any of them.

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