Mark Bacon—Main Event Sports DC
The last night of the NBA season was absolutely chaotic, with the Wolves and Nuggets playing an overtime–thriller for the final playoff spot in the West, while the bottom half of the East fought for seeding. It was a fitting end to a fascinating season. But now it’s time for the postseason, where legends are born and narratives are created.
Here are some immediate thoughts on each first-round matchup.
(1) RAPTORS VS. (8) WIZARDS
The Wizards are backing into the playoffs after losing to the Magic (!!!) on the last night of the season. Hmm. Toronto has also looked creaky for the last few weeks, though the Raptors probably lost a little bit of motivation after creating a lot of separation in the East. At first blush, this isn’t a typical one vs. eight matchup. Washington arguably has the best player in the series in John Wall, though he’s not quite at 100% after midseason knee surgery. The Raptors always seem to struggle in the playoffs, and playing a talented Washington team seemingly won’t make life comfortable. This series could come down to the benches. Toronto’s is great, while Washington’s is not. The Raptors have the edge, but don’t be shocked if this one is a little close.
(2) CELTICS VS. (7) BUCKS
There’s some serious upset potential here, with Boston missing Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis from the lineup. (Smart does have a chance to return mid-series.) The Bucks will have the most talented player on the floor in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and that means something in the postseason. This series will be a clash of styles—Milwaukee’s high-powered offense against Boston’s stingy defense. I expect a lot of close, grind-it-out games as the Celtics try to slow down the pace. The Bucks will be a trendy pick, but Boston will have a decided coaching advantage between Brad Stevens and Joe Prunty. Do you really want to bet against Stevens, who’s had an answer for every injury so far?
(3) 76ERS VS. (6) HEAT
This may be the best matchup in the East bracket. The precocious Sixers against the hard-working Heat. Process vs. Culture. Both teams are well coached, though Erik Spoelstra has quite an experience advantage over Brett Brown. (In Brown’s defense, he was on the sidelines for many deep Spurs playoff runs.) Philadelphia enters the series as the hottest team in the NBA, with 16 straight wins, 13 of which came against non-playoff teams, however. If Embiid misses extended time, this one could be a little close. These squads played four hotly contested regular season games, with both winning twice on their home floor. Hope for an expedited Embiid return just for more trash talk with Hassan Whiteside. Philly is definitely the more talented team here. We’ll find out if the Heat’s playoff experience means anything.
(4) CAVALIERS VS. (5) PACERS
The Pacers finished only one spot ahead of the Cavs in net rating after perhaps peaking a bit too early in the year. Cleveland, however, has the ninth-best net rating in the league since the trade deadline, when Koby Altman re-made the roster. Indy has been one of the best stories of the NBA season, and drawing LeBron James in the first round is an extremely unfair reward. Who guards LeBron for Indy? Who slows down Kevin Love? How can we ignore the George Hill revenge factor? We can spend time analyzing this series, or we can just acknowledge that there’s no way LeBron goes out this early.