For much of the season we’ve confidently known who the four best teams are in the East, and the long shadow of LeBron James has made it tough to put all the chips behind anyone else but the Cavs. It’s also because of LeBron that the consensus can willfully ignore how downright vexing the Cavaliers have been for the last two months and peg them comfortably as the East favorite yet again. The Celtics, of course, won the conference, and the Raptors put together the most convincing final month, but whether anyone can beat a healthy Cleveland team four times in seven games remains to be seen. To answer "yes" requires some healthy exposition.
Down the line, the Heat, Hornets and Pistons are gone this time around, with Miami just missing on one of the more remarkable turnarounds in recent history (they went 30–11 in the second half of the season, the best-ever mark for a team that missed the playoffs), and the latter two failing to recapture much, if any of their mojo. In their place, we have the good-again Wizards, upstart Bucks and a Pacers team that could be making its last stand with an unsettled star. The Hawks are back for a remarkable 10th consecutive year, and the Bulls are also here, somehow. The East remains the junior circuit, but there’s still plenty at stake.
From roles to schemes to performance, the playoffs always supply change at every level. The Cavs displayed their mastery of the uncertain a year ago, forcefully careening to the Finals and back from a seemingly insurmountable series deficit. Time to do it all over again.
Most Intriguing Series: Cavaliers vs. Pacers
Things were so, so different in the spring of 2014, the last time Lance Stephenson blew softly into LeBron’s ear canal in a hotly-contested playoff series. Since then, James has left Miami and won another title, Paul George got hurt, recovered and dragged this team back to the playoffs, and Lance, well, he’s been around the league and back. There’s a lot of plot to unpack here, beginning with Cleveland’s repeat bid, which is presently blowing wildly in the wind as the Cavs deal with a short bench (again) and poor team chemistry (again). Then again, east of Golden State, there’s still no core more formidable than James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. There’s another gear lying around in there.
Then there are the Pacers, who rode George to the playoffs, closed the season strong, have an interesting secondary scorer in Myles Turner, and yes, Lance. Indiana doesn’t feel like a solid threat, but there’s also a sense of desperation here as George approaches a major contract juncture after trade rumors swirled at the deadline. We’ve got defending champs searching for themselves, a superstar playing for keeps, and the makings of an interesting round, albeit one that could be over quickly if Cleveland hits full stride.
Thanks, But No Thanks: Wizards vs. Hawks
This could get ugly. The Hawks were the league’s least-efficient team on offense after the All-Star break, the Wizards had the third-worst defense in that span, and we could be in for some classically ugly Eastern Conference basketball. Washington has been by and large more consistent and won the season series 3–1, but Atlanta also dealt with key second-half injuries. I’m all for watching John Wall on a regular basis, but there are just too many ways this devolves into uninspiring territory. Anyone into Otto Porter—Tim Hardaway Jr. three-point duels? All that, and I didn’t even get to Dwight Howard yet. At the very least, hacking is way down this season.
What To Watch: Series By Series
No. 1 Boston vs. No. 8 Chicago: Celtics hit crunch time
The clock for the Celtics has quietly been ticking this season. Their well-constructed roster will force Danny Ainge to make some tough choices this summer. Isaiah Thomas has played himself into max contract territory and face-of-the-franchise status, and Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart are also due for extensions. That and the fact that an elite prospect is on the way to further complicate the picture means this is go time for the C’s. They’ve got talent, depth and experience, but also some key weaknesses: Boston will need to mitigate some of its rebounding issues, defend on the interior and find ways to score as teams try to clamp down on Thomas. The Bulls may or may not provide a true test, but the Celtics can prove the postseason formula works before the going gets thornier.
No. 2 Cleveland vs. No. 7 Indiana: Pull it all together, Bron
The stumbling Cavs are looking to avoid unnecessary 3–1 deficits as they eye a repeat championship, and though it’s still hard to see a team this talented fall on its face this early, Cleveland needs to earn some trust back, not to mention trust one another. The smart money is almost always on LeBron James, who’s proven he’s not only a masterful player, but an expert motivator and of course, three-time champion. It’s wildly difficult to be the fuel that makes the engine go while also acting as the glue that holds all the parts together, but few if any in NBA history have shouldered ridiculous responsibility in the spotlight as well as James. The Cavs were an uninspiring 21–20 in the second half and finished the season 4–7, but LeBron still averaged 28.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists in those last 11 games. His next task is getting Cleveland’s defense and approach back on track.
No. 3 Toronto vs. No. 6 Milwaukee: Giannis does Canada
Despite the fact Toronto has earned legitimacy and boasts one of the deepest, most playoff-tested rosters in the conference, the most fun storyline here centers on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who returns to the playoff stage as a budding superstar. Lest we forget, Milwaukee managed to push a good Bulls team to six games in the first round two years ago, deploying a high-pressure defense and grinding out a pair of surprising wins. We watched Giannis bloom this season as he led the team in every major counting stat and pushed the limits of what’s possible athletically on most nights, and it’s obvious the Bucks need him at his best to try and turn the tables. Milwaukee’s built a competitive roster to support him, and it’s time for young Giannis to spread his wings and spice things up.
No. 4 Washington vs. No. 5 Atlanta: Revenge in the air
John Wall and the Wiz remain openly salty about the last time they saw the Hawks in the playoffs: the 2015 East semis were clouded by Wall’s broken hand in Game 1, leading to the Wizards eventually bowing out to Atlanta in six. Both teams look radically different two years later. Wall and Bradley Beal are leading a legitimately cohesive Wizards offense and the Hawks now trot out Dennis Schröder and Dwight Howard instead of Jeff Teague and Al Horford. The Washington backcourt is good enough to end this series quickly if the Wiz come out focused.
Biggest X-Factor: Jimmy Butler
It kind of defeats the purpose to name a prominent star here, but in the context of the entire first round, Butler’s in a position to make at least a few waves. The Celtics are plenty good and don’t appear in much danger at the moment, but Butler is the type of player who can shift the tenor of a series with a couple of big games, and the type of personality that will seek out the responsibility and the moment. There’s a scenario here where Boston comes out a little flat, things get nervous, and the Bulls’ position regarding a possible Butler trade gets even more complicated. As frustrating as Chicago has been all season, we’re here for Jimmy’s potential star turn.
Celtics over Bulls in 5.
Boston scoots to a gentleman’s sweep with strong play from Isaiah Thomas and slows Butler effectively enough to remind us all that the Bulls have little else going for them. We’ll get some pettiness from Rajon Rondo, a couple vintage Dwyane Wade moments, and probably some contentious basketball. But Chicago’s wheels have been slowly falling off all year, and Boston punches its ticket to the semis.
Cavaliers over Pacers in 5.
It feels like the Cavs have too many LeBrons (one) not to figure this thing out. They’re discombobulated enough to drop a game, but still too talented to lose four on this side of the bracket. Cleveland makes it click and everyone gets along by the time this whole thing is over. Remember that James is 40–7 lifetime in first-round games.
Raptors over Bucks in 6.
The Raptors are an eye-popping 13–2 in the last 15 meetings here, but have a penchant for making things unnecessarily interesting come playoff time. It took Toronto seven games to advance through each of the first two rounds a year ago. Thankfully, this version of the team is tougher, deeper and more tested (and mostly healthy). Count on Milwaukee to steal a game or two and make things uncomfortable, but save for a gargantuan effort from the Greek Freak and a few strokes of luck, this isn’t the trendy upset you’re looking for.
Wizards over Hawks in 7.
Washington has fielded one of the league’s better starting units that in its best moments has looked capable of winning a series or two. Atlanta’s been truly unpredictable, but finished the season strong and has Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore back from injury. The Hawks have a definite depth advantage and a variety of scorers. But if the Wizards are able to consistently push in transition, find shooters and stifle ball movement on the other side, they should get this done. It just might take a while.