NBA Playoffs 2018 First Round Predictions: Eastern Conference
Last year, devoted NBA fans were forced to watch what were the most insufferable NBA Playoffs in recent memory. With both Cleveland and Golden State cruising easily to the NBA Finals, it became abundantly clear that the rest of the league was ill-equipped to contend for a NBA Championship in their current forms. Simply put, it appeared that the other 28 teams in the NBA had all but conceded to their lack of competitiveness and apathetically stood back to allow the two juggernauts of professional basketball to go toe-to-toe in a predictable fashion.
While this years NBA playoffs may ultimately result in Cleveland and Golden State meeting up in the NBA Finals yet again, the road for both of those franchises to get there will much more arduous as the league has become far more competitive and deep than it was only a year ago. The Eastern Conference in particular has a host of up and coming NBA teams that are on the verge of dethroning LeBron James and the Cavaliers as being the perennial championship contenders to come out of the east every year. With both Toronto and Philadelphia having the requisite pieces to challenge Cleveland for a coveted spot in the NBA Finals, this could be a postseason that is rife with intriguing surprises and unique results, the likes of which we have not been privileged to witness in some time.
Washington Wizards vs. Toronto Raptors
Without their consummate superstar in John Wall during the latter half of the regular season, the Wizards found themselves in dire straits as they had to battle valiantly down the stretch just to clinch the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. Backed by a prolific offense led by Bradley Beal (22.6 PPG), the Wizards were able to win their fair share of shootouts to keep their postseason hopes alive when everything seemed on the verge of collapsing in epic fashion. For the Wizards to have any type of chance of pulling off the shocking upset in this first round affair, they will need to be much more efficient defensively (106 PAPG, 15th in NBA) while attacking the boards with a newfound zeal to garner themselves extra opportunities for their offense (43.1 RPG, 21 in NBA).
By far the most dominant team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, the Toronto Raptors will look to finally get over the hump to make it to their first ever NBA Finals. Of course, all eyes will be on DeMar DeRozan (23 PPG) and Kyle Lowry (6.9 APG) as the explosive offensive duo has notoriously come up short time and again in the NBA Playoffs. In order for the Raptors to shake of their misfortunes of yesteryear, they will need to be tenacious when it comes to attacking the glass, with Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka being the primary rebounders for the Raptors (combined to average 14.9 RPG). Coupled with their cerebral defense (103.9 PAPG, tied 6th in NBA), the Raptors certainly have the dynamic playmakers needed to go far in the playoffs.
While the Wizards clearly have the offensive game changers to challenge the Raptors initially, their lack of size and discipline defensively will prevent them from pulling off the massive upset over the best team in the Eastern Conference. Raptors in 6.
Miami Heat vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Utilizing their gifted defense down the stretch of the season, the Miami Heat emphatically won their division and clinched the 6th spot in the Eastern Conference. What this team lacks in a productive scoring unit, they more than make up for with physical defensive rebounders that never back away from contentious confrontations near the rim of the basket (four Heat players averaged 4.1 defensive rebounds or more during the regular season). Given this teams notable length and adeptness at rebounding the basketball, it's a bit of a surprise that only Josh Richardson averages more than one steal per game. If the Heat want to keep up with the more athletic and offensively efficient Philadelphia 76ers, they will need to force several turnovers to prevent their opponent from executing their offense undeterred in the half court.
Possessing what many consider to be the rookie of the year in Ben Simmons (15.8 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 8.2 APG), the 76ers have relentlessly yet intelligently picked apart opposing defenses with a blend of mid-range shooting and well-timed steals. Although the youth movement of the 76ers has been the main reason for this teams recent resurgent after several years of being the most competitively inept franchise in the NBA, it has also been the vital contributions of veterans J.J. Reddick (17.1 PPG) and Robert Covington (12.6 PPG) that have allowed the flourishing Sixers to be incredibly successful this year. Assuming dyamic big man Joel Emiid can return sooner rather than later, the Sixers will be a difficult opponent to overcome regardless of who stands in their way throughout the playoffs.
Although the gritty defensive players of the Heat will make it somewhat difficult for the Sixers to execute their versatile offense, Philadelphia has several more budding superstars and a strong defense themselves that will allow them to move on to the second round of the playoffs. Sixers in 6.
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Boston Celtics
Without question, the Milwaukee Bucks are by far the lengthiest and most physically imposing team in the NBA as they possess the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.9 PPG, 10 RPG), Khris Middleton (20.1 PPG) and John Henson (6.8 RPG). Posting an incredible two-point FG% of 53.1, the Bucks are at their best when they are anywhere near the rim and are especially difficult to stop when they are able to get out in transition. Although their two point guards in Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker are not the best rebounders, they both provide intriguing skill sets as capable scorers that can hit mid-range shots and effectively feed their bigger playmakers in transition. The only noticeable drawback to the Bucks exciting potential as a competitive franchise is their noticeable lack of three-point shooters (35.5 3P%), a detriment that could come back to haunt them against a stout defensive team.
Although the Boston Celtics have been ravaged with injuries and will be without Kyrie Irving for the rest of the season, they are fortunate to be one of the most efficient defensive teams in the NBA. Averaging 44.5 rebounds per game while allowing just 100.4 point per game, the Celtics have been able to perform far better than their given talent thanks to the cerebral coaching abilities of Brad Stevens. While the presences of Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and, to some extent, Jayson Tatum will be tremendously vital in preventing the Bucks from scoring at will, their noticeable lack of depth will be especially difficult for them to overcome, especially in a seven game series.
While the Celtics uncanny ability to persevere in the face of adversity has been nothing short of inspirational, their overachieving ways will come to an end against a Bucks team that is adept at using their size and quickness to wear down their respective opponents. Bucks in 7.
Indiana Pacers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Losing superstar Paul George during the offseason seemed like an obvious indictment against the Indiana Pacers having any chance of being competitive in the Eastern Conference. However, since that devastating departure, the Pacers have never looked back as they are not only an intriguing playoff team but they have actually looked better without their once coveted two-way playmaker. With shooting guard Victor Oladipo stepping up on both offense and defense to lead his team confidently throughout the regular season (23.1 PPG, 2.36 SPG), the Pacers have rallied behind their new leader as they have been relentless at pursuing the basket offensively and have been far more tenacious when it comes to taking the ball away from their opponent. Unfortunately, the Pacers will have to face an immensely tough opponent in the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite how poorly the Cavaliers have played defense this season, they have been fortunate to have the best player in basketball in LeBron James on their roster. While the omnipresence of James has obviously been vital in the Cavaliers overcoming their defensive woes, they do have several intriguing pieces that will need to step up in a big way if they hope to go far in the playoffs. Of particular importance will be the sustained health of Kevin Love who is by far Cleveland's best defensive playmaker outside of James. Beyond that, the Cavaliers will need Rodney Hood, George Hill and Jordan Clarkson to step up emphatically on offense if this team hopes to continue to cover up it's ugly blemishes defensively.
While the defense of the Pacers will not be intimidated by LeBron James or the Cavaliers, their lack of all-star talent outside of Oladipo will prevent them from winning enough games against a team that has more to offer from a shooting perspective. Cavaliers in 6.