After a wild finish to the regular season, the playoffs are finally here.
The East will send someone other than LeBron James to the Finals for the first time since John Wall was drafted No. 1 overall in 2010. With some fresh new faces and nagging injuries, we’re going to learn a ton about these teams in the first round.
So what are the big questions for each series? What are my picks? And why am I a total wimp?
For those answers, let’s get right into it.
(Click here for my Western Conference Playoff Preview.)
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Detroit Pistons
Will Blake Griffin’s knee cooperate enough to make this interesting?
It’s a shame that Griffin’s left knee isn’t right. Griffin is one of the game’s few complete offensive players, averaging 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists on the season. The only other player to average those numbers this season? Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo. But that’s not all. Griffin made more 3-pointers this season than any big man in the league (189). Read that sentence again. The game done changed.
The Bucks know first-hand how good Griffin can be when his wheels are working. Back in December, Griffin delivered a triple-double on Milwaukee and almost pushed the game into overtime before a last-second 3-pointer rimmed out. That was one of Detroit’s four losses against the Bucks this season, which doesn’t bode well for the Pistons’ chances. (Tough luck for Detroit: if Charlotte had won on Wednesday, Detroit would have faced Toronto, a team it has swept in three games this season).
Griffin’s knee is causing him so much discomfort he missed Detroit’s season finale that sealed their fate. If he gives it a go, he’ll have his hands full. Per NBA.com tracking data, no player forced more turnovers while matched up with Griffin this season than Antetokounmpo, who could very well win Defensive Player of the Year this season. The Bucks like to send an extra man to double Griffin in the post and force him to pass out of tough situations. With their All-Star ailing, this is a nightmare matchup for the Pistons.
No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Orlando Magic
Can the Magic lull the Raptors to sleep again?
On paper, this is an upset in the making. The Raptors just couldn’t put the ball in the basket against Steve Clifford’s squad this season. Here are Toronto’s point totals in the four games: 93, 87, 98, 121.Only once did they look like the Toronto Raptors that sported a top-five ranking in offensive efficiency. The Raptors split the season series 2-2, but were outscored by 30 points, their worst total point differential against any opponent.
So why am I not picking the upset? One, I’m a wimp. But also, the presence of Marc Gasol (acquired at the trade deadline) and Kawhi Leonard (acquired at the Spurs’ summer sale) could make Orlando’s apparent advantage completely disappear. In the Feb. 24 loss against Orlando, Leonard sat for load management. On Apr. 1, the Raptors ran up a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter before both teams called off the dogs. Both Gasol and Leonard played in that one. With Gasol and Leonard on the floor, the Raptors outscored the Magic 72-48 in 24 minutes. Yeah, that duo matters.
You get the sense that Leonard and Gasol are just warming up. Orlando, on the other hand, clawed their way to the postseason and almost never took a night off. Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, D.J. Augustin and Terrence Ross all played at least 80 games this season. Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac played 78 and 75 games, respectively. Slackers.
In pure Clifford fashion, the Magic play the safest brand of basketball you’ll find. They boast the ninth-lowest turnover percentage, sprint back on defense to limit transition points (only the Bucks surrendered fewer transition points this season, per Synergy Sports) and rank dead-last in free throw attempts. On one hand, relying on the whistle is not a smart tactic in the postseason (see: Toronto DeMar DeRozan). But the Magic need easy points where they can find them against this monster Raptors defense. This could be a pitcher’s duel.
No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets (Schedule)
How much will we see Ben Simmons, point-center?
With Joel Embiid’s left knee still nagging him, Philadelphia has some interesting options for backup center. It speaks to the team’s confidence level at that position and in Embiid’s health that they picked up Greg Monroe off the scrap heap to bolster a backline that also features Boban Marjanovic, Amir Johnson and rookie Jonah Bolden.
But the most tantalizing choice on the menu might be their point guard, Ben Simmons. At 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds, Simmons can size up with both Brooklyn centers, Jarrett Allen (listed at 6-foot-11 and 237 pounds) and Ed Davis (6-foot-10 and 225 pounds). It’s not a look that Brett Brown goes to often; Simmons played the center spot defensively for about six percent of his time on the floor, per Cleaning The Glass data.
Simmons at center has worked to some degree in spots during the regular season. With Mike Scott inserted for Embiid in a tweaked starting lineup, the 76ers have outscored opponents 90 to 81 in 39 minutes of action across 11 games. Not a large sample size, but it’s a start.
Once Embiid returns to the court, it’s important to remember that the Sixers’ starting lineup has only played 10 games together, but it boasts the best net rating of any projected starting lineup this postseason at plus-17.6 per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com data. One of those 10 full-squad games came against Brooklyn in a 13-point win in Philly’s favor back in late March. Embiid had an absolute field day on Allen that night, rendering the Nets center unplayable. Overall, Embiid tallied 39 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in just 28 minutes, forcing Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson to go small with 6-foot-7 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson up front in the second half.
We could see a lot of small-ball in this series. With Embiid’s knee acting up, Simmons at point-center could be a thing this postseason, and I’m here for it.
No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers (Schedule)
Was Boston’s regular-season dominance a fluke?
The Celtics put together a head-scratching regular season that probably raised the collective blood pressure of the New England faithful. But through the noise, one thing is crystal clear: Boston absolutely shredded the vaunted Pacers defense.
Despite losing Victor Oladipo with a knee injury halfway through the season, the Pacers were a nasty defensive outfit led by Coach of the Year candidate Nate McMillan. Few could have predicted that they would finish top three in defensive efficiency behind Milwaukee and Utah. Nonetheless, the Celtics had their way against them, scoring a blistering 117.6 points per 100 possessions against the Pacers, a figure so high it is Boston’s best against any of the playoff teams.
How’d the Celtics do it? They don’t play into Indiana’s hands. The Pacers have by far the best pick-and-roll defense in the NBA, holding opponent ball-handlers to just .761 points per play, according to Synergy Sports technology. Big men on rolls didn’t fare much better either. Once you navigate past the pesky web of Darren Collison and Cory Joseph, you’re met by Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Get caught in that gauntlet and life won’t be easy.
But the Celtics aren’t a heavy pick-and-roll team; only six teams ran fewer pick-and-roll plays per game this season. Instead of routinely running high ball-screens, the Celtics like to derive more of their offense in transition, flinging the ball around the perimeter and running off-ball actions to get open looks.
Their diverse offensive approach worked like a charm against the Pacers. After meandering to 101 points back in a Nov. 3 loss in Indiana, Boston’s point totals against the Pacers were 135, 114 and 117 -- all wins. Not a single Celtic scored more than 30 points in any of those games, underlining a collective effort by a deep squad. In fact, all seven of Boston’s’ top shooters (by field goal attempts) in games against Indiana shot 50 percent or better.
With Oladipo sidelined, the Pacers don’t have a current or former All-Star at their disposal, and the Celtics have three -- Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford. Marcus Smart’s absence will be felt, but keep in mind that the feisty guard shot just 5-of-22 from the floor and made only four 3-pointers in the regular-season series against Indiana, and the Celtics still blew the doors off of the Pacers.
Indiana admirably clawed their way to a 16-18 record since Oladipo’s injury, but Boston has starpower, regular-season dominance and the experience of a deep playoff run in their rear-view mirror. This is an upset if the Celtics need seven games to finish off the Pacers.