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Prepare for high-stakes and high-level Eastern Conference second round

Celtics Bucks Basketball

Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving (11) forces a jump ball against Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, center, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)


Two of these sets of players will enter free agency coming off a second-round loss:

  • Bucks: Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Mirotic
    • Raptors: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green
    • 76ers: Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, J.J. Redick
      • Celtics: Kyrie Irving

      If Milwaukee loses that early, will ownership pay the luxury tax to keep this team intact? Will Giannis Antetokounmpo remain happy with the organization’s direction?

      If Toronto loses that early, will Leonard stay and make Masai Ujiri’s huge bet pay off? If Leonard leaves, will the Raptors – the oldest Eastern Conference team this postseason, weighted by playing time – rebuild?

      If Philadelphia loses that early, will the front office and in-season acquisitions Butler and Harris find common ground? If either forward leaves, how much more pressure will that add to the already-somewhat strained Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons pairing?

      If Boston loses that early, will Irving bolt for the Knicks or some other team? If the Celtics view Irving as even an increased flight risk, will they still aggressively try to trade for Anthony Davis?

      The second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs could shape the entire NBA landscape for years to come.

      And the games should be pretty good, too.

      Beyond all the long-term considerations at play, there’s an immediate incentive – a spot in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bucks and 76ers both last got that far in 2001. The Raptors have made it only once in franchise history, 2016, when they suffered the most-lopsided six-game loss in NBA history. The Celtics have appeared in the last two Eastern Conference finals, but after all their turbulence this season, returning would be a nice achievement.

      Advancing won’t be easy. Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston are each capable of, not only winning its upcoming series, but winning a title this year with the right breaks. The Bucks have been the NBA’s best team throughout the season. The Raptors’ postseason rotation, which includes includes in-season addition Marc Gasol, looks elite. The 76ers and Celtics have the requisite talent. Even if it’s getting late for it to jell, there’s still time.

      Milwaukee (60-22), Toronto (58-24), Philadelphia (51-31) and Boston (49-33) give the East such a strong second round, it’d pass for a Western Conference second round.

      Not only were all four teams good in the regular season, they kicked it up a notch in the first round. The Bucks (vs. Pistons) and Celtics (vs. Pacers) swept. The Raptors (vs. Magic) and 76ers (vs. Nets) won in five. And most of those games weren’t even close. The four series winners outscored their opponents by 14 points per game – the largest disparity ever in a conference’s first round.

      Combing Milwaukee’s, Toronto’s, Philadelphia’s and Boston’s regular-season and first-round games, the four teams have outscored opponents by 6.0 points per game. That’s the best mark by an East’s final four in a decade and one of the best ever for either conference.

      Here is the combined scoring margin of second-round teams by year/conference since the NBA implemented a 16-team postseason in 1984. Teams are listed with their seed:


      Not just good teams, the East’s second round features good matchups.

      The Milwaukee-Boston is a rematch of last year’s first-round series, which the Celtics won in seven games. Boston wants to prove Antetokounmpo was wrong when he called the Bucks the better team after the series. This is a shot at redemption for Milwaukee point guard Eric Bledsoe, who got shown up last year.

      The Bucks excel at defending the paint, but the Celtics are content shooting jumpers, anyway. In clutch situations, Irving is far better at creating his own shot than anyone else in this series. As good as Milwaukee is, Boston presents a particularly tough matchup.

      In the other series, Embiid has dominated these playoffs. But Gasol is a formidable foe, an on-ball interior defender Brooklyn lacked.

      Yet, as much as their roster has changed, it’s still tough to completely trust the Raptors in the postseason – especially considering they dropped Game 1 to Orlando. Not that the 76ers have earned benefit of the doubt at this level, either. Both teams are trying to establish themselves.

      It should be great.