We’ve been counting down to the Eastern Conference semifinals for months. Even before the new year arrived and the 76ers added forward Tobias Harris, four teams had separated themselves so clearly from the rest of the pack without doing so from one another.
NBA fans have been salivating at the prospect of a riveting semifinal round. The matchups, which we now know would pit the Bucks against the Celtics and the 76ers challenging the Raptors, may wind up being the highlight of a postseason expected to end in a third straight title for the Warriors.
All that needs to happen for the long-awaited duels to come to fruition is for the higher-seeded teams to take care of business in the first round. While that’s always easier said than done, the East hasn’t seen an upset in the opening round of the playoffs since the Wizards swept Toronto in a 4-5 series in 2015. The last time a No. 1 or No. 2 seed went down in the conference came in the strike-shortened 2012 campaign when the top-seeded Bulls fell to the 76ers after Derrick Rose tore his ACL in Game 1.
Presuming no one suffers a significant injury, we should see the East’s top seeds advance past the first round, so you’re not going to get any long shots to watch in this column. As I wrote last week, the Pacers are the team most capable of going on a deep run given the type of defense they play. But they fell twice against Boston over the regular season’s final two weeks and will therefore open the postseason at TD Garden, which means they would have to play a deciding Game 7 there too.
Kyrie Irving had rested down the stretch often, but scored 30 or more points in six of the final seven games he played in during March and averaged 22 points in helping Boston go 3-1 this month. Are there still chemistry concerns? Sure. We’re about to see whether this group can truly galvanize. The Celtics are definitely the team most likely to implode, but beating the Pacers in a pair of must-win games is a promising sign they’ll be able to overcome all of their ego-driven issues.
Irving may leave this summer, which would make Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown awfully happy since there would be more room on stage for them to shine, but you put that aside far more easily this time of year. With Al Horford’s knees having held up over the last few weeks and Gordon Hayward looking like his old self with increasing regularity, Boston is likely to get past the Pacers barring injury. They’ll then play the Bucks, who will also be looking to have Giannis Antetokounmpo overcome the knee soreness that developed late in the season.
Reigning top rookie choice Malcolm Brogdon is going to miss most if not all of the first round after tearing his plantar fascia, but the Bucks will be fine without him against a first-round foe. We’ll preview the Bucks-Celtics when that arrives, but you can believe that the most interesting development to come out of the first round will end up being how the Celtics perform against Indiana. What will the late-game dynamic be? Irving has been able to create winners over the last few weeks and has produced. What happens if isolations go poorly and teammates start grumbling?
Boston and Philadelphia are 4-1 bets to win the Eastern Conference, which is interesting since the 76ers have the much easier road.
An Orlando team that captured the Southeast Division with a late surge due to what has statistically been one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses for weeks and a Nets squad that has one of the East’s deepest rotations will provide solid tests for the East’s No. 2 and 3 seeds, the Raptors and 76ers. The growth of second-year forward Jonathan Isaac has helped the Magic step up and end a playoff drought that dated back to 2012 and Dwight Howard’s departure.
The Nets have ended a playoff drought dating back to 2015. It’s important that both teams will have young talent gain some playoff experience, but we’re not going to see an upset from either of those teams either.
The Bucks own the NBA’s top margin of victory and were the only team to notch 60 wins this season, which should lead to Giannis prevailing as MVP over James Harden. Milwaukee is a 5-4 choice to win the East, but the Raptors probably offer the best bang for your buck at 9-4.
Kawhi Leonard has rested so much this season that we haven’t even seen the best he’s got to offer. Toronto management has catered to him with rest days to try and sell him on staying and should be rewarded with an amazing run over the next few weeks. He’s a Finals MVP and a champion coming in after losing years of his prime to injuries.
Leonard, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry are veterans whose persistence shouldn’t be taken lightly. Pascal Siakam delivered a strong close to the season that will likely deliver him the Most Improved Player award, so the cupboard is full for the Raptors as they look to make their first-ever NBA Finals appearance now that tormentor LeBron James is gone.
They’ll have to get past Philadelphia in the semis, which should prepare them for whatever lies ahead. I believe Golden State will win its third straight title, but riding the Raptors at 12-to-1 to win it all in addition to choosing them to get out of the East is certainly worth a look.
Last week: 1-1
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