While the Western Conference playoff order has been set for a while, the Eastern Conference went down to the final day of the regular season. The Pacers and Bulls punched their tickets to the postseason with wins against the Hawks and Nets respectively, and the Celtics held on to the No. 1 seed with a victory over the Bucks. That matched the Bulls up with the Celtics, the Pacers up with the Cavaliers and the Hawks with the Wizards, leaving the Raptors facing the Bucks in perhaps the most interesting first-round matchup.
The top four teams dominated the conference for most of the season, but there’s more parity in the East when compared to the West. From whetherthe Pacers can contain LeBron James at point-center to Bradley Beal’s off-ball movement, let’s look at which factors could swing each series.
(Deciding factors for the Westbracketcan be found here.)
NBA playoff bracket
The Pacers need an answer to LeBron James as point-center
Although the Cavaliers took a huge step back defensively this season, they’ve been a historically good team on offense. They finished the season behind only the Warriors and Rockets in offensive efficiency with 110.9 points per 100 possessions and had some of the highest scoring lineupsin the entire league.
Of those lineups, one in particular should terrify the rest of the NBA: LeBron James at point-centerwith four knockdown shooters surrounding him. We’ve seen a variation of it in the past — the Cavaliers destroyed teams last season with James at power forward and Channing Frye or Kevin Love at center — but this one with James taking over as the biggest player in the lineup packs an extra punch that few teams can handle. After all, with the amount of spacing on the floor, James can easily make plays for himself with the ball in his hands or be used as a rim-runner in pick-and-rolls.
As soon as a second or third defender get involved in an attempt to slow him down, James can obviously kick it out to one of four shooters on the 3-point line.
Even if the Cavaliers don’t flip a switch and become the defensive team they were last season, it’s those sorts of lineups that’ll help them make their third consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals. James is still the best basketball player in the world and only the Warriors have the personnel to match up with him when he becomes the most versatile center in the NBA —in theory, at least. We’ll see what Paul George and the Pacers have up their sleeves first.
The Bulls need an answer to Isaiah Thomas in the fourth quarter
By the end of February, Thomas was on pace to do something historic. With an average of 10.5 points per fourth quarter, he was set to surpassKobe Bryant, LeBron James and Tracy McGrady for the highest fourth-quarter scoring since the NBA began tracking the stat in 1996. While Thomas finished the season with 9.8 points per fourth quarter — still more than Bryant (9.5), James (9.1) and McGrady (8.6) — Westbrook ended up leading the league with 10.0 points per fourth quarter.
The 0.2 points per game separating Thomas from Westbrook obviously doesn’t mean much in the big scheme of things because the Bulls still need to have an answer to Thomas’ late-game heroics, especially when you consider he got those numbers shooting 46.7 percent from the field, 37.6 percent from the 3-point line and 89.3 percent from the free-throw line. Simply throwing two defenders at him when he has the ball in his hands isn’t the solution, either, because Thomas was one of the best off-ball scorers this season. 33.8 percent of his offense came from spot-ups, hand-offs and scoring off of screens, according to NBA.com, and he ranked in the 80th percentile or better in each of those plays.
With Boston’s ability to always surround him with four 3-point shooters — Al Horford, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko can each step out to the perimeter as centers — it gives the defense a mighty small margin of error in those situations.
Assuming the Bulls can keep games close enough to try and find a solution to Thomas in crunch time, it could make for an interesting first round series. Jimmy Butler is one of the best two-way players in the NBA, and he could find himself checking Thomas down the stretch. Thomas is nearly impossible to slow down in one-on-onesituations, but Butler has as good of a shot at it as anyone.
The Bucks need an answer to DeMar DeRozan’s pick-and-rolls
While most of the NBA’s pick-and-roll leaders had career years shooting pull-up 3-pointers, DeRozan went about his business as usual. According to Basketball-Reference, 54.5 percent of his shot attempts this season came from the long 2-point range variety. That’s up from 46.1 percent last season and down slightly from 56.6 percent two seasons ago. And even though DeRozan didn’t make the most out of the 3-point line like others did, he still ranked in the 84.3 percentile with 0.97 points per pick-and-roll possession.
A lot of that has to do with DeRozan’s comfort taking and making contested shots. They made up an incredibly high percentageof his total attempts in the season and he made almost half of those opportunities. His size at 6-7 makes him a nightmare for shooting guards to match up with in the post — it helps that he’s picked up a few tricksfrom Kobe Bryant — but he’s just as capable of getting to his spots in the pick-and-roll and shooting over small defenders.
The Raptors big men also play a big role in his success. You’d think it would be easy for DeRozan’s defender to slip under screens and force him into 3-pointers, but they’ve mastered how to switch screens at the last secondto put him in positions to attack downhill for midrange pull-ups and floaters.
There isn’t one way that works better than others when it comes to containing DeRozan. However, the Bucks have enough length on their roster to make his already difficult shots tougher, and they just have to hope it’s enough to prevent him from scoring the efficient 27.8 points per game he averaged in the regular season. Otherwise, with all the spacing they can now put around him, the Raptors become nearly impossible to stop on offense.
The Hawks need an answer to Bradley Beal off the ball
Beal blossomed into a scary all-around scorer this season. Not only can he create his own shot in the pick-and-roll as a secondary playmaker, he’s developed into the perfect complement to John Wall by being one of the best spot-up shooters in the NBA who is also comfortable running his defender off of multiple screens for 3-pointers and midrange pull-ups.
Put it this way: Beal averaged 4.6 points per game this season coming off of screens. They made up for 22.4 percent of his offense in total, and he ranked in the 60.4 percentile with 0.98 points per possession. The only player who scored more frequently than him in those situations was Klay Thompson, and he averaged 6.6 points off of screens per game. Thompson was more efficient overall, although Beal converted his attempts at a slightly higher rate.
Beal’s ability to play off ball adds an interesting wrinkle to the Wizards’ offense overall. Wall is a one-man team by himself — he’s one of the league leaders in transition opportunities, and he’s a volume scorer in the pick-and-roll — so pairing him with someone who can curl off a screen makes it harder for defenses to load up on him. It means he doesn’t always have to be in attack mode for the Wizards’ offense to succeed.
Wall can even be used as a decoy, fooling the defense into thinking he’s going to run a pick-and-roll himself before Beal darts around a screen for a 3-pointer.
Keeping up with Beal off ball is obviously difficult. It takes discipline, strength and speed to be able to fight through screens and take away easy looks while still being in position to contain dribble penetration. The Hawks have a couple of wing defenders who have the tools to do so in Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha, but it’ll take a team effort to stick with him.