The East runs through LeBron James. James has been to five straight NBA Finals winning three. The Cavaliers have struggled this season however and do not look like the juggernaut that have steamrolled through the East the past two seasons. Injuries have plagued their season and finished their final 46 games with an even 23-23 record.
A new challenger has emerged in the Boston Celtics. They have attained the number one overall seed in the East and have home court advantage throughout. A necessary advantage for a team that finished 30-11 at home this season. You can read here on why they may be a legit threat to Cleveland this season here.
The Raptors after acquiring Serge Ibaka and getting a healthy Kyle Lowry to return a week prior to the playoffs believe they have the team to overcome there Eastern Conference Final defeat a year ago and reach the NBA finals this season.
The Wizards feature the best back court in the East with John Wall running the show and Bradley Beal having a career season (23.1 points per game).
The Hawks have a model franchise of consistency being a playoff team in each of the past 10 seasons. This is there 11th consecutive trip to the playoffs.
The Milwaukee Bucks feature an all world talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 22 year old point forward is coming off a season in which he led his team in every major statistical category.
The Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls are veteran teams with superstar forwards in Paul George and Jimmy Butler respectively. Each has little chance of pulling an upset but the stars will shine brightly and it will be interesting to see how far they can carry their teams.
Now onto the match ups:
(1) Boston Celtics (53-29) vs Chicago Bulls (41-41)
The story line to follow here is will the Celtics regret not making a deadline deal for Jimmy Butler when the Bulls were rumored to be seeking a deal? The Celtics were hesitant to meet the Bulls extraordinary demands for Butler which would have included the 2017 Nets pick (best odds at #1 pick). The Celtics made the correct calculated the decision and received the one seed anyone.
The Celtics are a superior team to the Bulls. Isaiah Thomas has become a legitimate MVP candidate and Al Horford has recovered from his early season concussions to post a highly efficient season. The Celtics have four excellent wing defenders they can throw at Jimmy Butler and Dwayne Wade. Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder and Jaylen will all have fresh legs and rotate defending the Bulls duo.
The Bulls need Rajon Rondo to play like he did back in his Celtic days to pull of an upset. Rondo has played well down the stretch but is not the same player he once was. If he can turn back the clock against his former team, the Bulls may have a chance.
Prediction: Celtics in 6
(4) Washington Wizards (49-33) vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks (43-39)
John Wall and Bradley Beal feature a dynamic back court combo that should see no issues scoring the ball against the Hawks. Nothing against the Hawks but Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a bad mismatch for them. Otto Porter Jr. set himself for a big pay day in the off-season by posting his best statistical year and by shooting 43% from three. Mid season acquisitions of Bojan Bogdanovic and Brandon Jennings added more depth to the bench unit.
The Hawks should see an advantage in the front court and would need to slow down the pace of play and limit Wall in transition. Paul Millsap needs to have a big series for the Hawks to compete by both scoring and rebounding the basketball at a high level. Dwight Howard needs to be a physical presence in the paint and control the glass. The Hawks have the edge in experience but the way the Wizards have played in the second half of the season it should not matter.
Prediction: Wizards in 5
(3) Toronto Raptors (51-31) vs Milwaukee Bucks (42-40)
This series will be closer than ESPN BPI projections predict. BPI is giving the Bucks a 17% of winning the series. For comparison sake, BPI gives the Indiana Pacers a 20% to upset the Cavaliers.
Here’s where the Bucks can cause the Raptors some issues. The Bucks rank in the top of the league in limiting the success of opposing point guards as Matthew Dellavedova and Malcom Brogdon each have the size that cause fits for Kyle Lowry. Dellavedova has big experience playing a critical bench role for the Cavs the past two seasons during their Finals runs.
Khris Middleton length will cause Derozan some issues as well as Middleton is one of the NBA’s premium defenders and he has shown that he is healthy since returning for a hamstring injury that cause him to miss a lot of time in the beginning of the year.
Antetokounmpo controls the entire offense and as he goes so do the Bucks. If Antetokounmpo has a big series, the Bucks can pull this series off.
However, the Raptors are the better team with better depth. Lowry might have an off game or two but it’ll be hard to contain him over a seven game series. Derozan is one of the better scorers in the NBA and should be able to get his points. Demarre Carroll and P.J. Tucker are good wing defenders that will be thrown at Antetokounmpo. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valuncianas should be able to easily contain Greg Monroe.
The Raptors will win the series but the games will be a lot closer than BPI predicts.
Prediction: Raptors in 6
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31) vs. Indiana Pacers (41-41)
This will not be much of series. The Cavs may have struggled to end the year but not struggling enough to be threatened by the Pacers. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are too good for this to be a series.
The focus on the series should be how well Paul George plays. If George plays at a high level and showcases his superstar ability in this series, a team may make a move for him the off-season in a trade. The Pacers know he’s as good as gone in 2018 when he eligible to be a free agent so it’ll be interesting to see if they move him to get some value in return. The Pacers may be able to steal a game but would not expect much more.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 4