The Eastern Conference playoff matchups have been decided, and for the first time in nearly a decade, a team led by someone other than LeBron James will represent the East in the NBA Finals. Boston was a game away from making it last year, but this year they find themselves as just a 4th seed.
Will the 60-win Bucks dominate the postseason like they did the regular season? Can Joel Embiid’s knee stay healthy through a lengthy playoff run? Are the Raptors free to reign now that #23 is in the Western Conference? Many questions will be answered this postseason – here’s what the first round will entail!
Matchup: Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs. Detroit Pistons (8)
The season series between the Bucks and Pistons wasn’t really close. Milwaukee easily went 4-0, averaging 114.5 points per game to just 99.8 from Detroit. Both teams will be entering the first round at less than 100%, but the Bucks will still have a mostly-healthy Giannis, while Blake Griffin seems significantly held back by his knee injury. The Pistons barely scraped their way into the 8th seed, but it looks like they’ll run out of gas now that they’ve made it.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo, likely MVP winner, scored fewer points per game against the Pistons than any other team that they played multiple games against this season. In 4 games, he averaged 20.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7 assists on 58% shooting. This is down from his season averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists that were good for a league-leading player efficiency rating of 30.95.
- Blake Griffin did average 24.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 7 assists in 4 games against Milwaukee on 42% shooting. He totaled just 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists in his last 2 games combined, and didn’t play in the Pistons final game of the season. Griffin is essential for Detroit to have any chance of winning.
- For the Bucks, Nikola Mirotic might play in Game 1, Malcolm Brogdon is expected to miss the entire series, and Tony Snell won’t play in the first few games. For Detroit, Griffin is questionable.
Series Prediction & Game 1 Odds: Milwaukee Bucks -12.5
The Bucks didn’t lose a single game to the Pistons all season and Game 1 is being played in Milwaukee, where the Bucks went 33-8 this season. Giannis has been fairly quiet against Detroit this year, but without a fully-healthy Blake Griffin, the Pistons don’t really stand a chance against a well-coached Milwaukee squad. The Bucks will certainly cruise to a 1-0 series lead, and will finish the series in 5 games or less.
Matchup: Toronto Raptors (2) vs. Orlando Magic (7)
Even though this is a 2-7 matchup, the regular season didn’t show any indication of that. The season series finished even at 2-2, but consisted of just 1 close game and 3 blowouts. 2 of those wins were blowout victories for the Magic, which gave them a lopsided point average of 107.3 to just 99.8 from Toronto. Nothing to discredit wins from Orlando, but in both games they won, the Raptors didn’t have Kawhi Leonard or were missing Kyle Lowry. Now we’ll see what a healthy Toronto team can do to Orlando.
- The most important matchup for this series is Nikola Vucevic vs. Marc Gasol. Vooch has had a career-best year this season, and against the Raptors he’s averaging 20 points, 15.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists on 55% shooting. Gasol has consistently been an excellent low post defender, although is now 34 and starts to show signs of decline. He compares at 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists on 52% shooting in just 2 games against the Magic.
- Some have questioned the effort of Kyle Lowry this season, who posted his lowest scoring average since his first season in Toronto. His assists are up though, and he did turn it up a notch in last year’s playoffs after another fairly quiet regular season. Lowry’s efficiency and aggression should increase in Game 1.
- Who steps up as a consistent 2nd option for Orlando? Aaron Gordon averages 16 points, Evan Fournier averages 15.1, and Terrence Ross averages 15.1. Gordon and Ross both struggled against the Raptors, while Fournier had a mix of 2 good and 2 bad games against them.
Series Prediction & Game 1 Odds: Toronto Raptors -8.5
The regular season was fairly close, but slightly favored the Magic. The playoffs should be a completely different story, as the Raptors are one of the few teams that won a ton of games this season with minimal effort. They brought over Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol for one reason: a championship. It’s hard to say whether they’ll make it to the Finals, but they’ll certainly make it out of the first round. Expect Toronto to go up 1-0, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this series take as long as 6 games.
Matchup: Philadelphia 76ers (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)
The Sixers and Nets did manage to split the season series, 2-2, and those were all games Joel Embiid played in. The Nets are a solid team highlighted by excellent guard play. D’Angelo Russell is maturing into a capable leader, while Dinwiddie is flexing his chops when it comes to running an offense. The 76ers have the best roster in the Eastern Conference, but it hasn’t fully translated to wins on their record. Can Philly’s lack of synergy open the door for a young Nets team with zero expectations?
- Spencer Dinwiddie torched the 76ers this year. He averaged 23.8 points and 5.5 assists on 58% shooting in their 4 games, and will be the X factor for Brooklyn in this series.
- Watch out for the Ben Simmons vs. D’Angelo Russell matchup. While they both play point guard, it’s far more likely Jimmy Butler or JJ Redick will guard Russell. Even if Simmons does cover, all 3 are elite defenders. Simmons was great, averaging 17.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.8 assists, and 3 steals against Brooklyn this year. DLO averaged 21 points and 7.3 assists on 47% shooting against Philly.
- Can JoJo stay healthy? Since the All-Star game, Embiid has continued his dominant play, but only participated in 8 games in March, and just 2 so far in April. Philly is 7-3 in those 10 games.
Series Prediction & Game 1 Odds: Philadelphia 76ers -5.5
Despite the achey knee of Joel Embiid, the 76ers do still have a respectable lineup that would still be a playoff team without him. That team is certainly good enough to beat this inexperienced Nets roster, who will benefit just from playing in this series in the first place. The 76ers will ramp up their defense this Saturday, sending them to a 1-0 series lead. Embiid’s health largely will determine how long this series goes, but if he’s fairly healthy, it’s over in 5, otherwise it might take 6.
Matchup: Boston Celtics (4) vs. Indiana Pacers (5)
Of all Eastern Conference matchups, this one between the Celtics and Pacers should be the most interesting one. The Celtics were just a game away from the Finals last year, and they now have a healthy Kyrie Irving. They were pretty lazy during the regular season and didn’t look like they cared to try. The Pacers have largely overachieved this season without Victor Oladipo, and the playoffs are the exact time when that becomes exposed. Can Indy’s excellent team play outshine the individual talent of Boston?
- Kyrie Irving will undoubtedly deploy his usual tricks, but who will be the clear second option for Boston? Against Indiana this season, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward are all averaging points in the double digits. Tatum and Brown were excellent in last year’s playoffs – do they become more aggressive this year?
- The key matchup in this series will be Al Horford vs. Myles Turner. Neither players are first options nor do they lead their team in scoring, but they’re both crucial to their team’s success and both anchor the defense. Horford can rely on the rest of his team for scoring, but Myles Turner must be at least a 20/10 player if the Pacers have a chance. In 3 games, he’s averaging just 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 1 block on 52% shooting.
- Marcus Smart is likely to miss the entire series with an oblique injury. While he didn’t amaze against the Pacers, he’s their best backcourt defender at a time when defense is the most important aspect of the game.
Series Prediction & Game 1 Odds: Boston Celtics -7.0
Even though their season record is fairly close, Boston came to play everytime they faced the Pacers, and quite honestly dominated them all season. The Celtics are one of a few teams that coasted through the regular season, so they’re far better than their record suggests. Playing in the Garden tonight, the Celtics will almost certainly go up 1-0. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see this series go 7 games, but I can’t see any scenario where Boston loses.