Raptors (1) vs Wizards (8)
Before the season began, it seemed unlikely that Toronto would be able to collect the first seed in the Eastern conference. The Celtics made enormous additions to their already great lineup, and Cleveland still had some guy named LeBron playing for them (for now). But with Boston undergoing a modern day plague, the Cavaliers falling apart midseason (worse than usual), and Dwayne Casey and his staff completely redesigning Toronto’s offense, the Raps destroyed their season over-under, finishing up with a very respectable 59 wins atop the Eastern conference. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
Coming off their most successful season in franchise history, the Raps have been cursed with seemingly the worst path for a first seed in playoff basketball. In the past three years, Toronto was swept by the Wizards, beaten by the Cavs, and swept by the Cavs. This year, they’ll play the Wizards, and if they make it to the second round, will most likely play the Cavs. That’s a tough schedule – but the Raps have to capitalize. Boston is as weak as they will ever be for the foreseeable future, and the Cavs look the “worst” they have since LeBron’s return. But to get to that point, they’ll first have to go through Washington.
The Wizards have had an awkward season – despite John Wall missing 41 games – half of the season – the Wiz still won 43 and came close to their pre-season over/under of 47.5 games. And this Washington team is no slouch in the postseason. With mostly the same squad as last year, when they went to seven games in the second round against Boston, Wall, Beal and co. will not be going down easy. Toronto and Washington split the regular season series 2-2, so this will be a 1-8 matchup worth tuning in for.
Celtics (2) vs Bucks (7)
Unfortunately for Boston, the Celtics do not have half of the firepower that they walked into the season with. Kyrie Irving has already been ruled out for the playoffs, and Gordon Hayward is not returning either. Marcus Smart had surgery on his thumb and will most likely not return until the second round of the playoffs, and rookie forward Daniel Theis, who played surprisingly well in the minutes given to him this season, had season-ending surgery in March. That’s a big blow to any team. Fortunately for Boston, the Bucks are the easiest possible matchup in the East.
The only thing keeping Milwaukee alive is the Greek Freak – he put up an astonishing 27/10/4.8 this season, but not even Giannis will be able to outplay whatever cockamamy rotations that Brad Stevens will put together to bring Boston to the second round. Looking ahead – assuming the Celtics take the series (which they will) – they’ll have to deal with the winner of the 76ers vs. Heat series. All in all, the severely damaged Celtics squad couldn’t ask for a better path in the playoffs.
76ers (3) vs Heat (6)
Speaking of Heat, the 76ers are hot. Despite Embiid going down with an injury, Philly ran an insane 15-game win streak to end the season and nabbed the 3rd seed from the Cavs. With Embiid coming back sometime early in the first round, it’s hard to expect anything less than W’s from this momentum-filled Sixers squad and their rowdy home-court advantage (now adorned with this sweet decal). Ben Simmons is playing out of his mind, dropping dimes and locking up guards left and right, Markelle Fultz has returned from his mysterious injury and just put up the youngest triple double of all time, and JJ Redick is shooting 42% from three on the season.
Spoelstra is one of the best coaches in the league, but Miami is going to have a rough time stacking up against the young guardians of The Process. Hassan Whiteside matches up against Joel Embiid better than anyone else – and has a habit of getting under the big man’s skin during games – but that’s where their advantages end. Miami is very guard-dependent, and the Sixers front court defense is one of the best in the NBA.
Cavs (4) vs Pacers (5)
The Pacers blew their 31.5 game over/under out of the water, and are better than anyone predicted. Indiana decidedly won the Paul George trade which landed them Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, both of whom have greatly exceeded expectations. Oladipo is by far the frontrunner for the 2018 Most Improved Player as Indiana’s leading scorer. Sabonis has more than doubled his counting stats from last year, putting up a clean 11.6 points and 7.7 rebounds with only 20% more playing time. Despite their rejuvenated spirits, however, the Pacers are in for a killing.
Don’t let the Cavaliers’ regular season record fool you – the King does not mess around in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter how weak the Cavs may seem, LeBron will stop tweeting, pretend to read The Godfather, drop 40 a game, and suddenly five of his teammates will be shooting 55% from three. That’s just how it goes. Down the line, however, the Cavs will have some real competition. Toronto has been biding their time, steadily improving their roster and playstyle since Demar broke out in the 2014 season, and is playing the best basketball the Eastern conference has seen since LBJ’s return to Cleveland. Even more intriguing is the potential ECF matchup – if the Cavs were to make it, they would presumably play Philly. That 76ers squad might be inexperienced, but they are a hellish matchup for this volatile Cavs team.
While the incapacitation of Boston has slightly reduced the entropy of the playoffs, it feels like, for the first time in a while, there is some real competition in the Eastern Conference.