- Are the Raptors for real? Can the Heat challenge the 76ers if Joel Embiid sits? And will anyone stop that LeBron guy? The Crossover previews the East's first-round clashes.
No team in NBA history has entered the playoffs on a longer winning streak than 76ers, who’ve won 16 straight headed into the postseason. And Philly is only the No. 3 seed in a baffling Eastern Conference. At the top is Toronto, whose run to the No. 1 spot will be marred immediately if they lose their eighth straight Game 1 against a feisty Wizards team. The Celtics have battled adversity all year, have exceeded expectations, but look vulnerable due to injuries despite being the second seed. And the favorites in the conference, LeBron James’s Cavaliers, finished fourth, thanks mostly to an apathetic defense and an old roster that was overhauled halfway through the season.
All of this is to say, the East lacks a little bit of polish compared to its older sibling out West. What it doesn’t lack is star power. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (when he returns) are budding superstars. LeBron is continuing his quest to be recognized as the greatest of alltime. DeMar DeRozan probably still hates us. And Giannis Antetokounmpo is always appointment watching in the postseason.
The spectre of James hangs over the East every single summer. But if there were ever a time for another team or another star to rise up, it’s this year, with the Cavs looking the shakiest they’ve been since LeBron’s homecoming. The East lacks a Rockets or Warriors-esque juggernaut. This is the best chance the East has had in a long time to snap LeBron's Finals streak.
Most Intriguing Storyline: Can the Raptors Really Do This?
So much ink, on this website and others, has been spilled over the new-look Raptors. They’re shooting threes! They’re playing faster! The bench is incredible! All those statements are true, But there will always be an element of skepticism with Toronto, thanks in large part to their postseason mishaps. Yes, they’ve lost Game 1 of a series seven straight times. Don’t forget: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan’s shooting percentages crater in the playoffs. And will that high-powered bench even matter when teams play their best players more minutes? Masai Ujiri made the right move to keep his core together for another run last offseason. It’s paid off in the best season in franchise history. But that season has resulted in expectations that would create a crushing sense of disappointment if Toronto isn't able to make the Finals.
By all accounts, the Raptors were the best team in the East this year. They had the most wins in the conference, and second most in the entire league. They had the best net rating in the East. The best point differential. The most conference wins. Is that enough to beat one of the game’s greatest players ever, who is seemingly still at the top of his powers?
This Raptors’ season is almost a referendum on the regular season in general. Will their year-long success mean anything? Or can LeBron just decide to turn it on when it matters most? We should find out as early as the second round if Toronto has the makeup of a true Finals contender.
Biggest X-Factor: Joel Embiid
With Embiid injured, the 76ers go from sleeper Finals pick to beatable. I know, I know, Philly is on an incredible winning streak. But 13 of the Sixers 16 straight wins came against non-playoff teams. Eight of the wins came against some of the league’s most shameless tankers. The playoffs will be a different beast for this young squad, and missing their MVP will make a difference. When Embiid plays, the Sixers are one of the best teams in the world. The offense becomes nearly unstoppable while the defense is elite. How many games Embiid misses could end up being the difference between a run to the conference finals or even a first-round exit. Ben Simmons is an outstanding talent, but asking the rookie to carry the team for an extended playoff stretch would be a risky proposition for Brett Brown. By most accounts, Embiid should return to action sooner rather than later. But depending on his health, the Sixers’ postseason ceiling varies wildly.
What to Watch
(1) Toronto vs. (8) Washington: Can John Wall Take Over By Himself?
Asking John Wall, who missed a large chunk of the season after surgery, to return to being the John Wall we’re used to is a little unfair. Still, the Wizards are not your typical eight seed, and it’s because their potential to be great is often fulfilled when Wall is at the top of his game. If Wall can find a way to recapture the energy that makes him one of the league’s most exciting point guards, this series becomes much more interesting. Seriously, at full strength, you can argue the Wizards have the better backcourt in this series. At full strength, you could even argue the Wizards have the best player.
The Raptors bench could end up being the difference in this series. Both teams have solid starting units. The matchups could be so close that the games are won in the margins—those three– or four–minute stretches when one unit or one player takes over. If Wall can do that by himself, the Wizards could make this thing interesting. But it’s asking a lot of a player whose still working himself back into who he used to be.
The pick: Raptors in 6 (But They Win Game 1).
(2) Boston vs. (7) Milwaukee: Can Boston Score Enough?
Even when Brad Stevens had Kyrie Irving, he couldn’t quite put together an offense that clocked in much higher than average. The Celtics are scoring challenged, and it’s going to be a struggle for them to get buckets against the Bucks. The difference in styles will be interesting this series. For all of Milwaukee’s faults, Giannis and Co. still finished with the seventh-best offense in the league this season. But Boston had the NBA’s No. 1 defense. I expect Stevens to find a way to slow down the pace, and throw an array of athletic defenders at Giannis Antetokounmpo.
If the game slows down, Milwaukee may resort to a little bit too much of "your turn, my turn, your turn" between Giannis, Kris Middleton and Eric Blesdoe. That works in Boston’s favor. The Celtics may not be able to score, but the Bucks aren’t quite world-beaters on defense either. Basically, expect an ugly series that will likely come down to a decided coaching advantage of the Boston sideline.
The pick: Celtics in 6.
(3) 76ers vs. (6) Heat: How will Erik Spoelstra defend Ben Simmons?
Perhaps the most intriguing East matchup in the first round. The Heat are a solid collection of talent. No one stands out as great, but they work hard as hell and never take possessions off. The Sixers are easily the more talented team—especially with Embiid—but they lack the organizational experience Miami has when it comes to playoff basketball. The Heat’s best chance to win could come down to slowing Simmons, who is running roughshod through the Association right now. Will Spo have any tricks up his sleeve? Can he find a way to frustrate the young star and get in his head early in the series? No one’s found a way to slow down the 76ers’ offense at full strength. But Spo is playing with house money, and he won’t be afraid to take risks and change his strategies on the fly.
If the Heat are to win, they’ll have to dominate the battle of wits. They’ll have to frustrate the Sixers’ best players. They’ll have to make Embiid and Simmons think instead of playing instinctively. Philly, on the other hand, simply needs to rely on its talent. When Embiid is out, surround Simmons with shooters and let him work. If the big man returns, utilize his post game and let him dominate defensively as possessions shrink. The Heat can be a fun team at times, but talent almost always wins out in the playoffs.
The pick: 76ers in 6.
(4) Cavaliers vs. (5) Pacers: Who guards LeBron James?
The Pacers were a great story this season, and it’s almost mean that they have to play LeBron in Round 1. Seriously, James is having arguably the best season of his career, and since the All-Star break, Cleveland’s net rating is 2.7 compared to Indiana’s 0.5. I hate this narrative on most occasions, but the Pacers may have actually peaked too early this season. Indiana is a great team when Victor Oladipo plays, and a bad one when he sits (0–7). Are you really going to pick Oladipo over James if this becomes a battle of superstars?
And how could the Pacers even slow down James? Who guards him—Thaddeus Young? Bogdan Bogdanovic? Lance Stephenson? None of those options are appealing. Indy is a good team and even solid defensively. But the Pacers won’t have the chops to slow down the Cavs attack, which has been otherworldly with Kevin Love on the floor since his return from injury. Without a true perimeter stopper and a deficit in star power, the Pacers’ postseason run could end up looking a lot like their last one.
The pick: Cavaliers in 5.