The NBA playoffs are finally here. Will the top four seeds in the East bracket advance (Celtics, Cavs, Raptors, Wizards), or could we see a huge first-round upset?
No need to wait until the series start. Sporting News' Sean Deveneyis here to give his ironclad NBA playoff predictions—but don't blame him if he's wrong. Let's dive in.(Eastpicks are below, and Westpickscan be found here.)
NBA playoff bracket
NBA playoffs 2017: Eastern Conference predictions
(1)Celtics vs. (8)Bulls
Much intrigue here. The Celtics backed into the No. 1 overall seed, losing a big matchup with the Cavaliers last week but taking advantage of the Cavs’ subsequent fold-job to close out the year. Boston comes into the playoffs a deep and well-rounded team, but without a secondary superstar behind Isaiah Thomas. That’s an issue the Celtics have tried to address, both last summer and at the February trade deadline. One of their targets just happened to be Bulls star Jimmy Butler, who was put on the block at the deadline, but only cautiously. Butler stayed in Chicago, and now will star against the Celtics — along with former Boston All-Star Rajon Rondo — to open what should be a wacky playoff first round in the East.
The key player
There has been a lot that Al Horford has done well in his first season in Boston, most notably the way he keeps the offense moving with his excellent passing (5.0 assists, easily a career high). He’s also been a good floor-spacer, making 35.8 percent of his 3s, but he has not been a particularly aggressive offensive player. Horford has averaged 14.0 points this year, his lowest output since his second season, but when he scores15 points or more, Boston is 22-8, with a 23-14 record otherwise. Defenses will key on Thomas in the playoffs, and Horford needs to provide a relief valve.
The big number
In seven games against the team he helped bring to two Finals appearances, Rajon Rondo has averaged just 9.4 points, fifth-lowest against any team in his career. After being removed from the Bulls rotation in the middle of the season, Rondo has come back strong in recent weeks, averaging 12.2 points, 8.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds in his last 12 games. The Bulls have a thin margin of error in this series. If they’re to give the Celtics a run, they’ll need to good version of Rondo to show up.
Not a cakewalk for the East’s top seed here — a top seed that is woefully short on playoff experience. The Celtics should win it, but put it down as Boston in 6 games.
(2)Cavaliers vs. (7)Pacers
We shall see whether the Cavaliers of late — the team that closed with a 9-12 record down the stretch and looked lazy and uninterested on defense — are the same Cavaliers we can expect to see in the playoffs, or if they’ve got a bit of a postseason bounce in them. They’re likely to have a bounce, if only because the level of competition in the East is underwhelming, and Cleveland still has LeBron James, by far the biggest difference-maker in the conference. The Pacers yanked their season from the depths of disaster with a five-game winning streak to close the year, but don’t expect that good fortune to continue against an experienced Cavs bunch.
The key player
Of course it’s James, who will have to take over this postseason the way he took over the latter part of the Finals last spring, at both ends of the floor. Not only will James have to carry the offense, but he will have to check Pacers star Paul George, who closed the season with 12 straight games of 20 points or more, averaging 30.8 points in that stretch. At 32, James had one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.7 assists, while shooting 54.8 percent from the field and 36.3 percent from the 3-point line. He also led the league in minutes, with 37.8, an indication that the Cavs simply can’t keep up when he is not on the floor. Beyond Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the supporting cast has been dodgy. The Cavs are still the best in the East, but James will need to exceed his regular-season excellence to get them back to the Finals.
The big number
The Cavaliers score 20.4 points per game in transition (fourth in the NBA), and at 16.4 percent of their possessions, that’s significant. They average 1.16 points per possession in transition, which is fourth in the NBA in terms of efficiency. The Pacers do a very good job of keeping teams out of transition, allowing only 14.7 points per game on the break. If Indiana has any chance to make this a good series, the Pacers will have to keep the Cavs from running.
The Pacers are outmatched in this series, and it will take defensive discipline and huge scoring bursts from George to keep things close. There isn’t enough firepower to keep up, however, so the pick is Cavs in 5.
(3)Raptors vs. (6)Bucks
This might have been the best coaching job that Dwane Casey has done in his career, coping with major injuries to indispensable stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and still coming away with 51 wins, the second-most in franchise history. That speaks to how well Casey employed his bench and integrated newcomers Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker into the rotation. But the Raptors will face a tricky challenge with the Bucks, a team that was remade once it got Khris Middleton back and moved Malcolm Brogdon into the starting five. The Bucks closed at 20-10 in their last 30 games, and present considerable matchup problems for Toronto.
The key player
It’s been a breakthrough year for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who wrapped up with averages of 22.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists. His last playoff showing did not go well — he was ejected for hip-checking Mike Dunleavy in a blowout Game 6 loss to Chicago in 2015 — and he would like to atone here. He figures to get a tough challenge from a variety of Toronto defenders, including DeMarre Carroll, P.J. Tucker and maybe even Serge Ibaka. Antetokounmpo still does not trust his jumper very much and relies on forays to the basket to score. The Raps defense is in the top 10 in preventing points in the paint, however, and it might be time for Antetokounmpo to attempt some elbow jumpers.
The big number
Lowry still has to get healthy and playoff-ready against a team that looks like a credible candidate to pull an upset. He has been the best player in the league when it comes to running the pick-and-roll, averaging 1.07 points per possession on a play that accounts for more than eight percent of his offensive chances. The long-limbed Bucks, though, figure to give him a problem — they’ve allowed only 0.77 points per possession on ball-handling pick-and-roll players, second-lowest in the league. It’s not the most pleasant way for the Raptors to welcome Lowry back to the fold. Something will have to give.
Can’t quite get over the hump when it comes to calling an upset here, but it should be a good series. The Raptors needed seven games in each of their first two series last year before reaching the conference finals, and it’s easy to imagine that being the case again. Toronto in 7.
(4)Wizards vs. (5)Hawks
It has been 38 years since Washington was a division champion, which is pretty difficult to comprehend. But the Wiz took the Southeast and landed with 49 wins, their best finish since 1978-79, despite a 7-13 start as star guard John Wall struggled to return from an injury. The Hawks have gone in a different direction, having started 32-23 before slumping to close the year, losing 16 of their final 27 games. Atlanta flirted with a full-bore fire sale in January that would have involved moving Paul Millsap, but pulled back because the team wasplaying better. In retrospect, the Hawksprobably should have stuck with the rebuild. But they’re back in the playoffs for the 10thstraight year, the longest active streak in the East.
The key player
Finally healthy and on the same page as Wall, Bradley Beal had a breakthrough year in Washington, averaging 23.1 points and making 48.2 percent of his shots, including 40.4 percent from the 3-point line. The Hawks have the fourth-rated defense in the league, and with Millsap and center Dwight Howard, are especially adept at keeping foes out of the paint. That’s going to make Wall’s drives to the rim tougher, and add more pressure on Beal to keep up his hot shooting from the 3-point line.
The big number
For Tim Hardaway Jr., a pretty important number this year was 8.4. That was the net difference in the Hawks’ offense with him on the floor vs. off the floor, according to Basketball-Reference. The Hawks scored 109.0 points per 100 possessions when Hardaway was playing, but only 100.6 when he was not. The Hawks have a rugged defense, but they’ll need to score in order to keep pace with the high-powered Wizards, and Hardaway’s production will be critical.
A competitive series for sure, but Wizards are a more balanced team, and that should win out in the end. Washington in 6 games.