The first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs played out the way it was designed; with all the favorites advancing in convincing fashion. For those of you who seen my 1st round predictions, you know I had one upset in the Eastern Conference, and that was the Brooklyn Nets beating the Philadelphia 76ers. It was a long shot that did not pull through, and as a result the “Big 4” teams in the East are set for what should be a great round of basketball.
(1) Milwaukee vs. (4) Boston
This matchup is a rematch from last years first round series where the Jason Tatum led Boston Celtics beat the Milwaukee Bucks in 7 games. Although just a year has passed, the two teams are completely different. The Boston Celtics have all the pieces in place form last season, plus a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, who appears to have found a rhythm for the first time since his gruesome leg injury. For the Bucks, this years team has become dominant, a far cry from the weak team they featured while getting bounced in the 1st round last year. For some perception on just how bad the Bucks were a year ago, here are a few guys who got big minutes in Game 7.
- Thon Maker started at Center, played 25 Minutes. The Bucks traded him midseason because he wasn’t good enough to find minutes behind Brook Lopez.
- 40-year-old Jason Terry played 20 minutes off the bench. He is currently an analyst on NBA TV.
- Jabari Parker played 29 minutes; he is currently struggling for constant minutes on a bad Chicago Bulls team.
- Shabazz Muhammed was apart of the rotation in Game 7.
When those guys are getting significant minutes in a win or go home game, you know the chances of winning are slim.
This year the Bucks have transformed into one of the deeper teams in the league, which will play a huge role in this series which will go 6 or 7 games.
The biggest reason I’m leaning Bucks in 7 is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo’s ability to dominate the paint on both ends of the court, while surrounded by elite three point shooting at nearly every position is a recipe for success. There is not a soul on the Celtics who can prevent Antetokounmpo from getting to the rim, and the undersized Al Horford is not much of a threat to meet Antetokounmpo at the rim. As a result, the defense will have to collapse, leaving guys like Middleton, Lopez, Mirotic, and Bledsoe wide open for uncontested three pointers. They are all veterans who will knock down open shots and should not wilt beneath the bright lights of the second round.
I like the Bucks when it comes to the individual matchups as well. The only position the Celtics have a decisive advantage is at point guard with Kyrie Irving, and even there the Bucks have a good player in Eric Bledsoe to combat some of what Kyrie brings to the table. The Jason Tatum-Khris Middleton matchup will be fun for sure, and despite the hype Tatum gets, I’ll take the all-star Middleton. When it comes to overall depth, I like the Bucks there too. With the injury to Marcus Smart, the Celtics rotation and defense takes a hit. Terry Rozier has not been “Scary Terry” at all this season, and the fight for minutes between Brown, Hayward and Tatum seems to be clunky at times.
The Celtics are a frustrating team to predict because we never know which team is going to show up night in and night out. Are we getting the elite Celtics, where Kyrie, Tatum and a third guy score in the high 20’s, while playing good team defense, or are we getting the bad chemistry Celtics? In my preseason predictions, I had the Celtics as a 60 win team, a trip to the finals, and going deep into a series with the Warriors. The Celtics appeared to be the team that could challenge for a championship after the impressive sweep of the Pacers, but what does it mean in the grand scheme of things. The Pacers were a feel good story still making the playoffs after the Oladipo injury, but were clearly no match for the Celtics. So right now the chemistry is all good in the Celtics locker room because they’re winning. But what will happen when the Bucks come out game one and catch them in the jaw with an uppercut? Will the loss upset the chemistry? Will the battle between the young guys and veterans over shot attempts and minutes return after a loss? These are all reasonable questions for a team that has been inconsistent both on the court and in the locker room all season long. The inconsistency of the Celtics, combined with the ultra consistency of the Bucks has me leaning Bucks in 7.
Prediction: Bucks win in 7 games
(2) Toronto vs. (3) Philadelphia
Despite picking against the 76ers in round one, I have to admit this matchup is one I am looking forward to.
The Toronto Raptors reminded us why we are always tentative to pick them to win a playoff series in Game 1 against the Orlando Magic when Kyle Lowry went scoreless on 7 shot attempts and watched his counter part D.J. Augustin to hit a game winner. But the team rebounded nicely and ran the Magic out of the arena for the rest of the series. The Raptors have the best player in the series, and matchup very well with the 76ers. Kawhi can lockdown any Sixers player with the exception of Joel Embiid. And for Embiid, the Raptors can throw multiple big men at him who will be able to hold their own and slow down the Sixers big-man. Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and even Pascal Siakam will all have their chances at guarding Embiid, and I expect they’ll have some success. The question mark that remains for the Raptors is Kyle Lowry. If Lowry’s playoff woes continue to haunt him, the Raptors will lose. When his counterpart at point is Ben Simmons who is a walking triple double, Lowry can’t afford to go scoreless. If Lowry is able to be respectable for at least 4 games in the series, the Raptors chances of advancing will be astronomical. The Raptors defense on Simmons drive and kick out passes will be a key to winning the series. If the Raptors are able to prevent Simmons from getting to the rim without help, the three point shooters will become non existent. JJ Redick and Tobias Harris will struggle without the uncontested looks Simmons’ penetration usually creates. My guess would be the Raptors throw a lot of Siakam and Leonard at Simmons and play him man to man, while the rest of the defense stays at home on the shooters.
I said it before, the Sixers have the most talented staring five in the NBA, Golden State included. They showed their ability to dominate and impose their will with their wins in the previous series against the Nets. Ben Simmons reminded everyone that he is a star in the making, Embiid showed us that he can be dominant on both ends of the court, and JJ Redick found his zone after quiet playoff performances in his past. It is not crazy to think the Sixers could find themselves in the Eastern Conference finals, but things will have to go their way. Embiid’s health is key. He can not miss any games in this series, this is the 2- seed Raptors, not the surprising young Nets. If he misses games in the series, the Raptors will run through the Sixers. Ben Simmons needs to be aggressive in getting to the rim and collapsing the defense to allow JJ Redick and Tobias Harris to get clean looks. It all sound easy but the Raptors defense will make it tough on both Simmons and the 3-point shooters.
Ultimately I think the Raptors pull this one out and advance after a long, competitive series. Expect Kawhi Leonard to have a monster series on both ends of the floor, and keep an eye on Pascal Siakam. I think this could be his coming out party for the casual NBA fan. Also look for plenty of dust ups between Embiid and Serge Ibaka. At some point in the series, I expect those two to get into it.
Prediction: Raptors win in 6 games.
Photo Credits: The Action Network; Complex; NBA.com