We have finally arrived at the East’s final four. Both of these star-studded matchups could have easily been the Eastern Conference finals if seedings went a different way; there’s that much talent on the rosters.
As you can see by my picks below, I fully expect these series to be battles to the very end -- unlike the East’s first round, which was laughably one-sided. In fact, none of the four East first-round series reached a Game 6, the first time that’s happened in NBA history (the league expanded the first round to best-of-seven in 2003, but still).
One fascinating scheduling quirk is that we simply haven’t seen these Eastern Conference semifinals matchups play in a really long time. The last Bucks-Celtics game tipped off on Feb. 21 -- more than two weeks after the last Sixers-Raptors tilt on Feb. 5, before Tobias Harris and Marc Gasol joined the fray.
The losers of these series could see major shakeups, as each team has an All-Star hitting free agency this summer: the Bucks’ Khris Middleton, the Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard, the Sixers’ Jimmy Butler and the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving. Buckle in, folks.
1. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 4. Boston Celtics
The big question: Will the Boston Celtics go big to stop Giannis?
These two teams know each other well. Brad Stevens has faced the Bucks 10 times since last April, splitting the series at five apiece including last year’s playoffs. Gordon Hayward wasn’t in uniform for eight of those matchups, but in the Celtics’ lone win against Milwaukee this season back in November, Hayward scored 18 points as the Celtics shattered a franchise record by launching 55 3-pointers, making a franchise-best 24 on the Bucks.
That figures to be Boston’s blueprint: spread the floor, deploy playmakers and create driving lanes against Milwaukee’s top-ranked defense. Stevens settled on an Aron Baynes and Al Horford front line toward the end of the season, but it’ll be fascinating to see whether he sticks with that big formation in this series.
In the first-round matchup last year, Stevens started Baynes initially, but after the Bucks won two straight games to even the series at 2-2, Stevens adjusted by inserting Semi Ojeleye in his place to go at the Greek Freak. The Celtics eventually came out on top, and Stevens has liked that look enough to start Ojeleye twice again this season against the MVP frontrunner.
As I detailed on the BIG Number this week, Ojeleye on Antetokounmpo has statistically been the Celtics’ best option at slowing down Milwaukee’s Giannis-led attack. That may be because it allows Horford to neutralize Brook Lopez, who struggled to make an impact in the season series. Baynes offers more size up front, but it squeezes their spacing a bit. Among Boston’s rotation players, the Celtics’ team 3-point shooting frequency is at its lowest with Baynes on the floor, per NBA.com tracking.
The bet here is that the Celtics go small to get Hayward on the floor as much as possible. Though the Celtics lost the December matchup with Horford and Baynes sidelined, it was telling that Stevens started Hayward at the power forward slot and Ojeleye at center. Because of Lopez’s spacing from deep, sizing up against the Bucks has limited value.
The Bucks had 11 more wins than the Celtics in the regular season, but this series won’t be as lopsided as the standings thanks to the Celtics’ versatility.
The pick: Bucks in 7.
2. Toronto Raptors vs. 3. Philadelphia 76ers
The big question: Can Joel Embiid and the Sixers’ dominant starting five stay on the floor?
The numbers say these are the two best starting lineups in the NBA. The Raptors’ unit featuring Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol outscored their first-round opponent, the Orlando Magic, by a preposterous 84 points in 96 minutes (plus-46.3 net rating). The Sixers were even more dominant. With Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid on the floor, Philadelphia outdueled their first-round opponent, the Brooklyn Nets, by 71 points in 49 minutes (plus-62.2 net rating).
Holy smokes, is this going to be high-level basketball.
Make no mistake about it: The Sixers will need more than 49 minutes of the Phantastic Five in this series. Much of that low count can be traced to Embiid missing Game 3 with knee tendinitis and the Sixers trying to limit his workload, with Game 4 being Embiid’s only game playing more than 25 minutes. If the 76ers want to survive this matchup, they need maximum Embiid, who leads all players in playoff PER thus far.
A lighter workload may make Embiid fresher against Gasol, a supersized and savvy center who has all the bonafides to be Embiid’s greatest foil. According to NBA.com’s matchup data, Gasol held Embiid to just 10-of-29 shooting (34.5 percent) in four games and limited his scoring to just 16.3 points per 100 possessions over the last two years -- less than half Embiid’s average rate of 37.4 points.
Analytically, no one has kept Embiid in check quite like Gasol, not even Al Horford. The Raptors may not have targeted the former Defensive Player of the Year because of his track record against Embiid, but it’s certainly a nice perk on the playoff stage.
With the problems surrounding Embiid’s knee still not solved, I’m hesitant to trust that he and the starting five will be enough in this series. A fully healthy Embiid would make me pick the Sixers, but the Raptors have comparable star power, an extra game at home and a cleaner bill of health.
The pick: Raptors in 7.