Now that the 2016-’17 regular season has officially concluded, lets take a look at some of the teams in the East looking to make a playoff push.
Boston Celtics v. Chicago Bulls: The Celtics have had an amazing year led by their diminutive star in Isaiah Thomas, finishing their ’16-’17 campaign at 53-29 and snagging the one seed. With the creative coaching of Brad Stevens, this Celtic team has ascended to the ninth best team in the league when it comes to offensive efficiency. Boston is also one of the best in the NBA when it comes to ball security, only committing 13.3 turnovers a game in comparison to their 25 assists per contest. Boston’s bench has been coming alive as of late, and I believe big contributions from Marcus Smart and Amir Johnson will be a necessity if they hope to avoid an upset in the opening round. The Bulls, on the other hand, had a less than stellar season, finishing with a .500 record of 41 wins and 41 losses. Addled by various injuries, internal issues, and a lack of perimeter shooting, Chicago was in a dogfight to make the post-season, but made it nonetheless. With that being said, don’t count Jimmy Butler and the Bulls out just yet. Despite their current seeding at eight, Chicago is a hard-nosed team that thrives off of defensive-rebounding leading to fast break points (13.8 per game) against the Celtics (12.3). While only a small aspect of the game, if Chicago can come out aggressive in games and control the glass, they will give themselves a fighting chance against the Celtics smaller front court. The Bulls also have some favorable match ups on the defensive end with a versatile lineup filled with solid perimeter defenders such as the former Celtic Rajon Rondo, Dwayne “The Flash” Wade, and Jimmy Butler. If Chicago can contain Isaiah Thomas, through either trapping him or forcing him to take bad shots, Boston will be forced to find offense elsewhere.
X-Factors in this Series: The X-Factor for the Bulls in this series will be veteran guard Rajon Rondo. If Rondo can be an effective defender and control the tempo of the game for Chicago, he will give them a legitimate chance at upsetting the Celtics. The Celtics X-Factor is going to have to be the defensive-minded forward, Jae Crowder. Crowder will most likely be matched up on Butler for a majority of the Series, and if he can contain the Bulls best offensive player, he will increase Boston’s chances of putting the Series away early.
Prediction: I expect this to be a dragged out low scoring series that will ultimately end with Boston winning in seven games.
Cleveland Cavaliers v. Indiana Pacers: Of all the Series set up in the East, this one has me most excited. There are just so many great storylines at play in this Series; the “slipping Cavaliers,” the rising Pacers looking to make a final push, and potentially exhilarating matchup between LeBron and Paul George. Cleveland had a storybook season last year, making it to the Finals and beating the reigning champion Warriors in seven games. And while the ’16-’17 regular season has not been as kind to the Cavs, who is to say they won’t dominate again in the post-season? Despite their losing record since the All-Star break, the Cavs are still one of the best teams in the NBA, and I honestly don’t think they will be tested in this opening Series. Ignoring the fact that playoff LeBron is an absolute monster, Cleveland has a lot of stats supporting their superiority to Indiana. On a basic note, the Cavaliers averaged 110.3 points per game in comparison to Indiana’s 105. 1, a clear indicator that the Cavs not only score more, but also get consistent three-point shooting. Cleveland also gets an average of three more rebounds per game than Indiana, a number I believe will be exaggerated due to the high-stakes nature of the post-season. On the other side of the Series, we have the upstart Pacers, another team who made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. Indiana finished the 2016-’17 regular season at 42-40, ending the year strong on a five game win-streak. Unfortunately for all you Hoosiers out there, I don’t expect this winning to carry over into the post-season. While the Pacers are a relatively dominant team when it comes to scoring down low, 42 points in the paint per game, as well as the fact that they have a nice mix of young and veteran players, they are simply too inconsistent to win a seven game Series against a battle-tested team such as Cleveland. While I have no doubt Paul George will do his best to outgun LeBron and keep his team close, at this point in both of their careers, James is still the better player and will ultimately win this matchup. Irving and Teague will duel, but I have a feeling the defense of George Hill will be missed when it comes to this point guard battle. Sharpshooter C.J. Miles will do his thing as the deep ball specialist on Indy, and the defense of Myles Turner will be an annoyance to Cleveland, but the sheer number of big men the Cavs have to throw at the young center will ultimately be too much.
X-Factors in this Series: The X-Factor for the Pacers in this two v. seven matchup will have to be their bench. With some bona-fide solid players as a second unit, Monta Ellis and Al Jefferson in particular, Indiana’s bench will need to provide some strong offensive power while their starters rest in order to push the Cavs. Kevin Love is the X-Factor for Cleveland in this first round matchup, as his rebounding will be a deciding factor in games.
Prediction: The Cavs should win this Series in five games, but I hope/expect to see an otherworldly performance from either Paul George or Myles Turner that will extend this first round battle to six games.
Toronto Raptors v. Milwaukee Bucks: While not as good as their 2015-’16 campaign, the Raptors have had a phenomenal year nonetheless, finishing the season as the three seed in the East at 51-31. The Raptors are a team in a good spot as they are getting healthy at the perfect time, and they seem to be improving the teams chemistry in recent weeks with the return of Kyle Lowry. A team that can beat you down with their offense, the 11th best field goal percentage in the league, Toronto is a team with not only lots of fire-power, but lots of pieces as well. DeMar DeRozan is one of the league’s best scorers, Serge Ibaka is still an elite-level defender, Kyle Lowry is a guard that can cook on both ends of the floor, Valanciunas is a solid rebounder and an improving post-up player, and the Raptor’s bench is one of the stronger ones in the NBA. On the season, Toronto has held teams to an average of 102.6 points a game, something that does not bode well for Milwaukee when you consider the fact that the Bucks only score an average of 103 points a game. But hold on before you count the young Bucks out just yet. Milwaukee has had a year of redemption after missing the post-season in an embarrassing showcase in ’15-’16, and I think they will find some success in this first round matchup. The Bucks are a fast team that thrives off of transition offense, they average 14 fast-break points per game, as well as a team that likes to pound it down low (48 points in the paint per game in comparison to Toronto’s 43). Milwaukee also benefits from a high-scoring bench that averages 39 points per contest. Looking at their lineup, Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo has had an absolute year, one worthy of the Most Improved Player award. Tony Snell has proven to be a great addition to the Bucks, as he provides a consistent 3-and-D option for Jason Kidd. The return of Khris Middleton has been a blessing for the Bucks, as his consistent shooting and strong defensive play is a reason the Bucks were so good in March. Rookie of The Year candidate Malcolm Brogdon has also been great for Milwaukee as a smart player and a quality passer/defender, but the Bucks would be foolish to depend on a rookie in a Series like this. When you add all of these factors together, the Bucks actually appear to have a chance; if Kidd and his team punch the ball down low and get the Raptors into some early foul trouble, they give themselves a strong chance to steal a game or two.
X-Factors in this Series: The X-Factor for Milwaukee is the low-post-load in Greg Monroe. A strong player who can score in the post as well as on face-up looks, Monroe will need to be an effective offensive player for the Bucks either coming off the bench or starting. Toronto’s X-Factor in round one is Kyle Lowry; Lowry has a reputation for disappearing in playoff Series, and if he wants to help his squad advance to the next round, he will need to assert himself defensively and allow DeRozan to be the focal point of the Raptors offense.
Prediction: The Bucks are young and scrappy, so I see them fighting out at least one win at home against the Raptors in what will ultimately be a five game Series in favor of Toronto.
Washington Wizards v. Atlanta Hawks: The Washington Wizards are one of the success stories of the 2016-’17 NBA season. A team that started off near the bottom of the East finally came together this year, and by utilizing everyone’s specific skills, eventually ascended to one of the top squads in their Conference. John Wall has had an outstanding year worthy of recognition, while fans were finally able to see how effective a healthy Bradley Beal can be. Otto Porter has finally taken that step forward, and has displayed an ability to be not only a solid third option, but a potentially elite three-point shooter. And the two bigs on the Wizards, Morris and Gortat, have remained consistently solid players on both ends of the floor, something that will be huge in Washington’s upcoming playoff push. The Wizards have a high octane offense and average about 109 points a game, but their defense will need to improve in the post-season, as they give up 107.4 points a contest as well. To go along with that high-octane offense, the Wizards get 16 fast-break points a game, a focus of their game I know will help them in this upcoming Series. While I wouldn’t exactly call the Hawks 2016-’17 a “success story,” they fought through a season of change and have made it to the post-season. But what type of noise will they make? The Hawks are a 43 win team that likes to play with a balance of both attacking from the perimeter as well as pounding the ball down low, creating a slowing tempo that can actually play to their advantage in this round one series. On the defensive side of the ball, the Hawks are a strong and physical team that is not afraid to body guys up when necessary(avg. 53.7 boards per game), a fact that I believe will be very apparent when playing the Wizards (avg. 50.6 rebounds per game). Taking a wider look at the Series, the Hawks have a solid squad with an fringe All-Star in Paul Millsap, a rejuvenated Dwight Howard, and rising stars in both Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr. With that being said, I believe that though the Wizards starting lineup is the superior one in the series. Marcin Gortat is a physical guy who won’t back down to Howard, and though Millsap outmatches Morris, the dynamic duo of Wall/Beal in the Wizard’s backcourt is still superior to the Schroder/Hardaway Jr. combo.
X-Factors in this Series: The X-Factor for ATL in this first round battle is going to have to be Kent Bazemore. Bazemore has struggled since the All-Star break for the Hawks, he is shooting an abysmal 70% from the free-throw line, has been losing minutes to Taurean Prince, and is shooting a lowly 40% from the field. If Bazemore does not get his game together and return to the form he was in last year as a defender and capable scorer, the Hawks could be in for a rough Series. The X-Factor for the Wizards is going to be Otto Porter Jr. I know John Wall and Bradley Beal will be ready when they are called on, but Porter has a bit of a habit of disappearing and missing assignments, something he will need to focus on in this years playoff festivities. I can see this first round matchup being a national stage for Otto to either shine or fade into darkness missing a golden opportunity.
Prediction: I believe that this Series has game seven potential due to the veteran nature of this Hawks team, but realistically, I see it going six games in favor of the Wizards.
All Stats via ESPN.com/TeamRankings.com
All Images via Google