The NBA Playoffs are about to start on Sunday (IST) with the Cleveland Cavaliers taking on the Indiana Pacers in Game One at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Following a record-breaking regular season which saw Russell Westbrook etch his name in history while players like Isaiah Thomas, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden all had astounding numbers, teams gear up for the gruelling four round-long task to determine the next NBA Champion.
Will the Golden State Warriors look for redemption after blowing a 3-1 lead in last year’s Finals? Will Cleveland repeat or will Boston finally be the team to overthrow the Cavs from their throne in the East? In this article, we examine the first round of the NBA Playoffs in the East and predict who goes to the Conference semi-finals.
Boston Celtics Vs. Chicago Bulls
Boston took the first seed in the Eastern Conference after a late-season collapse by the Cleveland Cavaliers and are faced with a matchup against Chicago, who just about managed to squeak into the postseason following a three-team battle for the final two spots in the East (I’m sorry Miami). Isaiah Thomas has had an MVP-calibre season this year and the Celtics have consistently improved under Brad Stevens over the last few years. A lot will ride on this young squad managing to stay injury-free and on Thomas’ play if they are to have a chance at taking the East.
Chicago is lucky it is in the postseason at all but does come in with good form. Jimmy Butler is their star player- there is no question about it but Dwyane Wade has shown glimpses of his former self during this year and Rajon Rondo is still a very good point guard. A lot will depend on how who guards Butler- whether it is Jae Crowder or Avery Bradley and on whether the Bulls are able to prevent an implosion and stick together when the stakes are higher (looking at you and your Instagram post, Rajon).
Prediction: Boston Celtics 4-1 Chicago Bulls
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers
Cleveland is still the best team in the East on paper but they are not exactly inspiring confidence with their play. The most recent example, of course, is the 26-point collapse against the Miami Heat. Of course, it was a game which didn’t feature Kyrie, Love or LeBron in it. However, even with the Big Three on the floor, the Cavs aren’t exactly blowing teams out of the water. One thing they can take heart in is that when the big regular season games have come- like against the Celtics and the Raptors, not to mention the epic game with the Wizards- they have turned up and beaten them. However, despite their sketchy form, they still remain the team in the East. However, with the Celtics, the Raptors and the Wizards all playing well, it won’t be as straightforward as last time.
Indiana rides on Paul George. There is no question about it. Paul George will have to play at his highest level through every game of the series if Indiana even needs a chance of pulling off an upset. That is not to mention that all of his teammates are going to need to dig deeper. Lance Stephenson’s return to the Pacers side that he was an integral part of during their run to the Eastern Conference finals a few years ago is something to watch out for.
Prediction: Cleveland Cavaliers 4-1 Indiana Pacers
Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks
These are traditionally some of the better games in the first round- the third seed against the sixth seed and the fourth against the fifth. Toronto finished with the same record as Cleveland and only narrowly lost out on the Atlantic Division title to the Celtics so they will feel they have a good chance of going far during the playoffs. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry remain the lynchpins of this Raps team but Serge Ibaka (who was traded for near deadline day) adds some much needed defensive depth in the front court while also stretching the floor offensively. Jonas Valanciunas complements him as a scorer who puts up solid numbers even if they are not All-Star calibre. Of course, Lowry is only back just in time for the playoffs so how long it will take for him to get going is a question. The good news is that in his absence, DeRozan had a monster year.
Toronto’s defensive attentions will no doubt be focussed on Giannis Antetokoumpo- a first time All-Star this year in New Orleans. Since being drafted, he has morphed into one of the most freakish athletes in the league as well as being one of the most all around players. Consider this, he is the first player in history to be in the top 20 in points, assists, rebounds, steals and blocks in a season. In a season dominated by headlines that read Westbrook or Harden, the Greek Freak has silently become a player to watch. However, Milwaukee is a young team and in all likelihood, while they will put up a fight, this is going to be a learning curve for them- albeit a steep one, going against last year’s Eastern Conference finalists.
Prediction: Toronto Raptors 4-2 Milwaukee Bucks
Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks
This is going to be one of the hardest-fought series throughout the playoffs. The Hawks are a playoff-hardened team riding on the balanced nature of their side while the Wizards feature one of the best back-courts in the NBA in John Wall and Bradley Beal. The battle between the Wizards and the Hawks will come down to a few individual plays and how well each side is able to handle the other’s star players.
More accurately, it will come down to how well Atlanta is able to handle John Wall. The problem with a balanced team is that Atlanta does not have a star player whom you can give the ball to when the game needs to be closed. Paul Millsap is probably the closest they have but he’s not at the level of Wall. In a series that could be decided by a few key plays, this might make the difference.
Predicition: Washington Wizards 4-3 Atlanta Hawks