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The East is the conference of pleasant surprises and its first–round field shares that rosy hue. Gone are the downers in Chicago and Washington, ousted before the playoffs even began by unfortunate injuries and jumbled execution. Those young teams that made the cut in their place (Indiana, Detroit) join the East’s middle class on the incline. Up in the thick of the bracket lie four teams (Miami, Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte) that finished with identical 48-34 records—a mark that assures quality and reliability. Any among them could make noise, though none is positioned quite as well to do so as the No. 2-seeded Raptors. Toronto took to its modest roster changes and sailed to its most successful season in decades.
It’s only the conference–topping Cavaliers who seem to defy the trend. There’s still so much to suggest that Cleveland should be better than it’s been: more fluid, more agreeable, more secure. The playoffs are an invitation to change. We watched last year’s Cavs evolve in every series and with every injury under David Blatt. The current Cavs might not need quite so much on–the–fly reshaping (good health permitting), though they’re in similar need of definition. LeBron James has done incredible work on the floor to move his team forward and curious work off of it to push his teammates’ buttons. All of it came in an effort to settle the conference’s most promising contender—a venture still very much in progress. If there’s a switch to be flipped, Cleveland had best find it.
Most intriguing series: (4) Hawks—(5) Celtics
Two of the best, most aggressive defenses in the league will do everything in their power to keep the other on the ropes. That both teams generally aim to pass their way out of trouble (Atlanta and Boston both ranked in the top eight in passes per game, per NBA.com) only heightens the intrigue. Every possession will present a maze of pressuring defenders. Solving that maze will require smart, consistent ball movement and a fully kinetic offense. Anything less will play right into the opponent’s hands, and anything overly bold or desperate will produce turnover after turnover. Tune in to watch well–matched squads toe a series of fine lines.
Thanks, but no thanks: (2) Raptors—(7) Pacers
This series doesn’t totally deserve such a dismissive categorization, though it takes the title by default. Indiana just isn’t trustworthy enough to forecast this series as a must–watch affair. Those games in which the Pacers come to play could be fascinating. Those in which they don’t look to be easy wins for the Raptors. Nothing in this matchup suggests that Toronto and Indiana might bring out the best in one another—only that they’ll take their turns winning as their counterpart takes the opposite oscillation. Bank on the Raps both riding high for longer stretches and bouncing back more quickly when things aren’t quite working out as planned. Consistency is as important for a series’ entertainment value as it is a team’s playoff viability.
What to watch: Series by series
No. 1 Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Pistons: Cleveland's potential discomfort
Detroit enters its first–round series outmatched in most respects, save one: Stan Van Gundy is the kind of coach who can manufacture a tactical advantage out of thin air. His team’s approach is worth watching closely. To what extent will the Pistons overload on James? How much will we see Kentavious Caldwell–Pope cross-matched against Kyrie Irving and how effective might it be? How will Detroit opt to attack a Cavs defense that lacks for discipline? The only way for an eighth seed to compete in a series like this is to throw its superior opponent off balance. Van Gundy is surely capable, and his choice in strategic devices could test Cleveland early.
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No. 2 Raptors vs. No. 7 Pacers: Toronto’s best chance to push through
Consecutive first–round flame–outs have saddled these Raptors with a burden of proof. An offense reliant on drawing fouls must recalibrate to postseason standards. Some of the team’s more exploitable players (Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola, etc.) must prove reliable under playoff scrutiny. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan need to find ways to propel Toronto through its lean stretches, even as defenses load up against them. There’s an opportunity not only for the Raptors to advance in the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, but also to use this initial series as the grounds to make a statement.
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No. 3 Heat vs. No. 6 Hornets: Miami makes its case
Few teams in the league had a more reassuring regular season arc than the Heat—a veteran outfit that seemed to grow more comfortable in its ways over the course of the year. That progress should carry Miami through its first–round series and beyond. A deep playoff run is entirely possible for a team this capable, and none in the conference would be quite so qualified to test Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals. First comes the matter of getting there. Miami’s letdown loss in the regular season finale demonstrated perfectly that nothing with this team can be taken for granted. Sleeping on the Hornets could get the Heat into quick trouble. Approaching the series with the diligence it deserves would instead advance Miami toward something greater.
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No. 4 Hawks vs. No. 5 Celtics: Boston’s depth, in concept and in practice
Celtics coach Brad Stevens found safety in the fact that his team’s reserves could outplay his opponent’s on a nightly basis. The magnitude of that advantage inevitably wavers in the postseason; under the raised stakes and structured pacing of a playoff run, teams generally trend toward allocating more minutes to their best players and fewer to their backups. Boston’s roster doesn’t lend itself to that kind of shift. It becomes essential, then, that those lineups featuring the likes of Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart, Evan Turner, and Jonas Jerebko hold their ground even against opposing starters.
Biggest X-factor: Dennis Schroder, Hawks
Boston will choke the life out of an offense run by a lesser ball handler, eating up space and denying angles to the point that perimeter creation becomes hopeless. Schroder will have to break free for the Hawks to have a chance. Any offense driven by passing must also rely on a single, created advantage courtesy of players like Schroder. It’s only after he pushes past his defender on a drive that he’s able to kick, and it’s only because of that kick that Paul Millsap can catch and initiate a secondary drive. Al Horford might cut opposite Millsap, tugging at the defense in such a way that it loses track of Kyle Korver or helps off of Kent Bazemore. So much can come of Schroder making moves and keeping poised under pressure. Factor in the additional stakes of Schroder’s defense against guards like Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart and he registers as one of the most critical players in a closely contested series.
Cavaliers over Pistons in 6. This looks to be a physical, challenging series for Cleveland. Expect the young Pistons to push the Cavs and exploit some of their shortcomings, even if they don’t have quite enough to withstand LeBron James at full bore.
Raptors over Pacers in 5. Indiana managed a successful, winning season in spite of its weird roster. Unfortunately, Toronto has been a few steps ahead throughout the year and plays with a more reassuring consistency.
Heat over Hornets in 6. The highest variance of any series in the conference. If healthy and in top form, Charlotte has the pieces—and the tactical guidance—to edge Miami out of the playoffs. If the Heat are able to lock down the three–point line and contain Kemba Walker, they could wrap the series up quickly on their own terms. We’ll split the difference.
Hawks over Celtics in 7. It should surprise no one to see Boston advance out of this series, though ultimately Atlanta gets the nod on the savvy of its bigs. Paul Millsap and Al Horford make the Hawks so difficult to back into a corner; apply pressure on the ball and expose an off-balance defense to their sharp facilitation.