As the NBA’s best teams prepare themselves for the grind that is the playoffs, there are some very interesting matchups that comprise the first round. Below is a preview of each series; as each team begins the quest for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (8) Brooklyn Nets
Atlanta should feel fortunate that they are facing the Nets as opposed to the Indiana Pacers, who would have provided more mobility and versatility to the series matchup. Despite late season struggles on and off the court, Atlanta has been cemented as the conference’s top seed for quite some time. The free-flowing Atlanta offense will be well utilized against a more plodding Nets squad. While Brooklyn may steal a game at home, the Hawks are a deeper and more versatile team and will win the series easily. Atlanta may not be 8th of the stronger top seed playoff suds in recent years, they do utilize a tried and true approach that the Spurs have dominated the past 15 years. Of the eight playoff teams, Atlanta is the most unpredictable. An easier first round compared to others should give them needed footing going forward.
Prediction: Hawks in 5
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Boston Celtics
One of the league’s biggest surprises has been the ascent of the Boston Celtics from projected lottery participant to a playoff berth. After a series of trades (Jeff Green, Rajon Rondo jettisoned), it was universally believed the Celtics were in full rebuild mode through the draft. After posting a record consistent with a lottery team (16-30 record to start their season), the Celtics have run off one of the best records over the season’s last 36 games (24-12), bringing the city of Boston an unexpected spring treat; playoff basketball at the Garden. Much credit and Coach of the Year consideration should be given to head coach Brad Stevens for remaining steadfast in his approach despite all the roster unrest.
The Celtics now approach the NBA’s “second season” with a high confidence, which creates were each roster player would ask “why not us” which can be parlayed into a win or two in this series.
Despite the recent success and good vibes in Beantown, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been one of the league’s elite teams; posting a 32-9 record since re-configuring the roster through a couple of key acquisitions (J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov). In doing so, Cleveland went from a good team with some vulnerabilities to a significant championship contender. The Celtics enter the playoffs with little postseason experience but a lot of confidence. Back-to-Back wins over Cleveland in the past week will provide additional incentive for James and Company to dismiss Boston.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 6
(3) Chicago Bulls vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
The Chicago Bulls have trudged through the regular season; positioning themselves for a top playoff seed. The loss of Derrick Rose (knee) for 20 games late in the season slowed the team’s progress after the All Star break; but Chicago will be a far more formidable team with the former MVP on the court. The improvement of the Bucks; going from cellar dweller to a .500 squad overshadows the fact that this inexperienced team played poorly late in the regular season, not the best way to enter the postseason
An expected return o Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson will bring their projected rotation back into the fold. Add to the mix Tom Thibodeau’s defensive-oriented approach; and the Bulls will be too much for an unproven Buck’s team to handle. Regardless of rumors suggesting Thibodeau is on thin ice with Bulls ownership, the team is long, deep and talented enough to be a playoff force.
Prediction: Chicago in 4
(4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Washington Wizards
Perhaps the most difficult series to handicap, and for good reason. The Raptors benefitted from a weak Atlantic division at the start of the season. Toronto began their campaign getting out to a 16-5 record and early seven game lead; but would later stall as the regular season drew to a close (12-16 record). Likewise, their opponents are also a team that has gone through fits and starts since mid-season. Washington has extensive veteran leadership and playoff experience; more so than Toronto; but the Raptors have a younger, more athletic and versatile rotation; which will be the key factor in the series win.
Prediction: Toronto in 7
It is not surprise to most, but it is fair to say the Eastern Conference is very top-heavy; with only a couple of teams built for a sustained playoff run. Despite having solid regular season records, many of the top seeds’ style of play doesn’t translate to playoff conditions; where a more grinding, methodological approach achieves success. Of the eight teams previewed, one has the firepower to be a legitimate championship squad.
Conference Champion: Cleveland Cavaliers