2017 NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference round one preview

Ah yes, welcome to the Eastern Conference Playoffs, a.k.a. the annual LeBron James-is-gonna-win-this-entire-thing-but-we-have-to-play-it-anyway-because-formality.

It took the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, and Miami Heat up to the final day of the NBA regular season to determine if they were going to be part of the festivities, and more importantly, if they have actually earned themselves the very much coveted… right to be swept by the Cavs in the first round.

The Pacers wounded up with the seventh seed, while the Bulls took the last playoffs ticket. Unfortunately, the Heat fell short in spite of their remarkable resurrection from an 11-30 record, denying us all what could have been a Dion Waiters revenge series against the Cavs.

Depending on how you want to look at it, the Cavs seem to have also done themselves a favor by avoiding the Bulls, who dominated them in their regular season head-to-head series. That’s thanks mainly to the defending champions coughing up huge leads twice against Atlanta Hawks towards the tail-end of the elimination round, before dropping their final game to the Toronto Raptors in Edy Tavares’ debut.

The Celtics did an impressive job all year, being carried by the best sub-six foot All-Star we’ve seen in ages. Numbers-wise, the Toronto Raptors put up their best regular season in franchise existence, while the Washington Wizards also came up with a milestone, winning 49 games to notch their first division title since 1979.

Whether these teams can turn it on in the playoffs and pose a serious threat to the Cavaliers in the East remains to be seen. Unless that happens, only the inevitable will, which is LeBron again owning what has been his conference for the past seven years.

Nevertheless, here are some key points from every playoff series in the East.

#1 Boston Celtics vs #8 Chicago Bulls

Regular season series: Tied, 2-2

The polarizing Bulls are in the playoffs!

YES! That the Bulls — who indeed dominated the Cavs in their regular season head-to-head and yet failed to win against the New York Knicks in another head-to-head — are even in the playoffs goes to show the sad state of the Eastern Conference.

The transition of Fred Hoiberg’s Bulls from Pau Gasol, Derrick Rose, and Joakim Noah, to Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, hasn’t been that smooth, but here they are now, with a chance to prove they actually belong in the mix, especially after missing the postseason last year in spite of a slightly better record.

The Bulls and Celtics actually split their regular season series, which makes people wonder if the Bulls actually have a shot at this. Which version of the Bulls will show up against the Celtics? That will mainly depend on this second bullet point:

How will Jimmy Butler play against the Celtics?

Jimmy Butler has been splendid this year, averaging 23.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 5.5 APG, all career-highs. But he’s had his problems against the C’s. In four games, he averaged just 20.3 PPG on 36.2 percent shooting. With a handful of perimeter defenders like Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Jae Crowder, Boston looks to make it tough again for Butler. Butler is arguably the most important player in this series, and the outcome of this series will likely depend on his performance.

Will the Celtics regret standing pat?

The Celtics had chances to secure another star player prior to the trade deadline, but instead, Danny Ainge and co. opted to stand pat. Sure, the Celtics have stars in Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, and a handful of complementary pieces, which allowed them to top the Eastern Conference. But is that enough to go deep in the East? The Bulls may pose a problem here for the Celtics, and we’ll know in a few weeks if IT and company have enough to advance.

Rondo returns to Boston

It has been a rollercoaster season for Rondo, starting it by landing on his fourth team in three seasons, while figuring in DNP-CDs midway through the season with Hoiberg burying him deep in that Bulls bench.

But he’s in the playoffs again, returning to Boston where he first blossomed into a key piece for a playoff-contending (and eventually championship-winning) squad. What kind of reception will he get? And the better question is, will he be able to put up quality numbers and actually provide impact for the Bulls?

Prediction: Celtics in 7

#4 Washington Wizards vs #5 Atlanta Hawks

Regular season series: Wizards 3, Hawks 1

DC’s 1-2 punch might be too much for Atlanta

Had the Wizards won a few more games this season, John Wall arguably could be in the MVP debate right now. He’s been exceptional this year, especially with his playmaking, joining elite company with his 57.3 percent assist rate, which falls just behind James Harden (58.3), Russell Westbrook (58.3), and above Chris Paul (56.2).

The Wizards hold a 4.7 net rating when Wall is on the floor. The scarier part? That’s not even the best among Wizards. Bradley Beal has clearly played All-Star level basketball this season, averaging 23.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG, and 3.5 APG, while shooting above 40 percent from deep for the third time in his five-year career.

When he is on the floor, Washington scored 112.1 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, that number plummets to 100.7, while the net rating drops from 5.6 to negative 6.8.

Howard gets playoff burn at home

Dwight Howard is shooting at an eFG of 63.3 percent, the best in his career. His per-36 minute rebounding output of 15.4 a game is also his career-best. His scoring may have dwindled down, but it’s just mainly due to Mike Budenholzer’s balanced system. Howard is in fact averaging a career-low in minutes at a shade under 30 per contest.

The Playoffs are nothing new for Dwight Howard, but it’s still always a different feel playing in front of your home crowd. Howard has a chance to shine and win a series at home.

Who among the younger Hawks will step up?

This version of the Hawks has been led by Howard and Paul Millsap, the only remnant from that January 2015 Eastern Conference Player of the Month crew.

That being said, more Hawks should step up in the playoffs. They won’t have any shortage of options anyway.

Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder, Tim Hardaway Jr., Mike Muscala, and even Ersan Ilyasova are all capable of double-digit outbursts for Atlanta. In fact, Hardaway and Schroder have posted career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, minutes, and PER. Muscala also has had a breakout season.

The late-season acquisitions of Ilyasova and Jose Calderon have bolstered the Hawks’ depth. If they are to get out of the first round for the third consecutive playoffs, team success is the key for coach Bud.

Will the Wizards bench show up?

At 27 bench points per game, the Wizards rank second-worst in the league, above Minnesota (22.8 bench PPG) and just under the Cavs (29.1 bench PPG). They will need whatever they can get from guys like Kelly Oubre and late-season additions Bojan Bodganovic and Brandon Jennings against this Atlanta team that has a lot of pieces.

But that’s assuming their key guys like Markieff Morris, Otto Porter, and Marcin Gortat struggle. After all, the starpower of Wizards’ starting unit might be enough to overcome the Hawks.

Prediction: Wizards in 6

#2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs #7 Indiana Pacers

Regular season series: Cavaliers 3, Pacers 1

It’s playoffs time for the Cavaliers

The Cavs had a regular season that’s been both boring and entertaining. The “process” is finally over, and they’re bracing for the playoffs #whereitallmatters.

They had to deal with a handful of problems throughout the regular season, but of course, they’re still the Cavs. They still have LeBron on the team. LeBron owns the East. Just when James Jones aired his two cents about the Cavs’ problems a couple of weeks ago, saying there is no switch… the Cavs flipped the switch against Boston.

Ty Lue has also mentioned before that they have a secret plan on defense for the playoffs. Looks like they’ve hidden that switch well just in time for the playoffs to turn it on for good.

The Pacers are a good opening round match-up for them. They’ve won three straight against the Pacers and haven’t lost a game at The Q against them since 2014. This is an opportune time for the Cavs to morph into their postseason selves like how they opened the first rounds of the last two years.

LeBron vs Paul George!

Ah yes, LeBron James vs Paul George.

George is playing his best basketball in terms of scoring (career-high 23.7 PPG) and shooting percentages (free throws, three-pointers, overall shooting). LeBron still played at an MVP level after finally bringing a title to The Land.

The last time these men met, they put on a scintillating back-and-forth showdown. We would love to see more of that, whether this series ends up being a long one or not.

LeBron’s minutes

When his Cavs sucked for certain portions of the regular season, LeBron had the grueling task of playing extensive minutes and basically carry his team in all aspects.

Should we be concerned? On one hand, yes. He’s averaging 37.8 minutes a game this year, playing even longer minutes in the last two months. He’s logged more minutes now in his career than other NBA legends.

On the other hand, he spends a ton of money each year for health and maintenance. He has sat out games (even sparking debates left and right). Ultimately, only he knows how much gas is left in his body. After all, he’s LeBron, a superhuman. The Cavs score 16.2 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the floor than when he is not. They should be fine.

Prediction: Cavs in 4

#3 Toronto Raptors vs #6 Milwaukee Bucks

Regular season series: Raptors 3, Bucks 1

This Raptors team has a chance to be the best ever

Although the Raptors didn’t surpass their 2015-16 win total, they still had a historically good season in terms of numbers. The Raptors tallied their best offensive season ever, averaging close to 107 points per game on an offensive rating of 109.8, sixth-best in the league. Their net rating of 4.7 is the fourth-best this season, and the best in franchise history. The difference-maker for them is their defense this year, which is eighth-best, a huge leap after missing the top 10 level the previous years.

The Raptors also reached the 50-win plateau despite Kyle Lowry missing a huge chunk of the games. Now they’re back at full-strength, with a better power forward in Serge Ibaka (who carries a lot of playoff experience), more serviceable bench guys not named Terrence Ross, and their all-star backcourt duo out for more. Lowry is averaging career-highs in points and PER, and his best assists average since the 2013-14 season. DeRozan has tallied his highest points average and PER.

Only time could decide if people are witnessing the best Raptors group in a long time. A return trip to the East Finals would solidify that label.

Are the Bucks more mature now?

For the second time in just three years as their head coach, Jason Kidd has led the Bucks to the postseason anew. He is bringing with him Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is set to be the next constant force in this league.

The Bucks have a combination of good youngsters and complementary veterans. Bigs John Henson and Greg Monroe are both shooting above 50 percent overall. Matthew Dellavedova has thrived in his new role. Malcolm Brogdon has played like a legitimate Rookie of the Year contender. The Bucks also have the best bench production among all playoff teams.

However, they have been struggling recently. They registered a sub-100 ORTG in April, a negative 8.4 net rating, and their lowest eFG percentage since October.

Will they show up just in time against this legitimate Raptors team?

Khris Middleton could give this Bucks squad a chance

Since returning from an injury, Middleton has been a spark for Milwaukee. The team has went 19-10 with him playing, including a nice six-game winning streak and a 14-6 month of March.

Middleton is shooting a career-best rate from three-point area, and when he is on the floor, the Bucks outscore opponents 6.7 points per 100 possessions better. He might be able to give the Bucks a fighting chance here against a more experienced Raptors side.

Prediction: Raptors in 5.

Photo by David Liam Kyle, Getty Images

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