The variety of teams in the second round of the East bracket is intriguing. The Celtics are missing their two best players, but are making up the difference with shrewd coaching and impressive performances from young stars. The Raptors are a veteran-laden squad with high expectations, though their hopes are slightly tempered by the past failures of the current core. The 76ers have the best top-end talent left in the conference, but their utter lack of experience could become more apparent as the stakes rise. And the Cavaliers have a championship pedigree, but they seemingly need to wring every last drop out of LeBron James to compete in the postseason.
If the Raptors are to ever make the leap, this feels like it has to be the year, with the Cavs teetering on the ropes like a heavyweight legend in the late stages of their career. Meanwhile, the Sixers have gone from upstart to the establishment, now expected to defeat a Boston team playing with house money and make the make the conference finals. Here’s what to be on the lookout for in the East semis.
Most Intriguing Storyline: Is LeBron James Alone Good Enough?
It sometimes almost feels as if the Cavs don’t deserve to win. The Pacers outscored Cleveland by 40 points in their first-round matchup, yet it’s LeBron and Co. who will be playing the Raptors in Round 2. James has been the obvious driving force for Cleveland's success. The Cavs played only 27 minutes without James on the floor across seven games against the Pacers, and the team’s defense absolutely cratered in that time period. Cleveland is more reliant on James than ever, and so far he’s delivered with some epic postseason performances. The worry is that the Cavs are running into a much better team in the second round, and perhaps at some point, James will start to show the signs of a player who is forced to carry his team for over 40 high-leverage minutes each game.
And still, it’s hard to pick against James. The Raptors, for all of their improvement this season, aren’t 100% trustworthy. Toronto has too many deflating playoff losses at the hands of Cleveland for this to be an easy pick, and the Raptors’ first-round win over the Wizards had more uneasy moments than a typical one vs. eight matchup. Toronto is a better team than Cleveland. The Raptors should rightfully be favored in the series. But James will make them sweat. Last year, James averaged 36/8/5 in a sweep over Toronto, shooting 57.3% from the field, including 48.1% from three. If LeBron can replicate that performance, or somehow top it, the Raptors will be in for the fight of their lives.
Biggest X-Factor: Al Horford
Al Horford was the glue that held Boston’s defense together in the regular season, and he’ll be put to the test in the East semis. The 76ers are a juggernaut. Philly has won 20 of its last 21 games, and it just ran roughshod over a Miami team that was top 10 in defense during the regular season. Boston’s first-round series with Milwaukee was the second slowest in pace during the first round, but the Celtics likely won’t have an opportunity to catch their breath against the Sixers. Philly has played the most possessions per game during the playoffs, and Brett Brown will likely instruct his players to turn this series into a track meet.
Horford will be the key to the Celtics having a chance to slow down the Sixers. When Joel Embiid is in the game, Horford will have to check him in the post. He’ll constantly be fighting Embiid for position, and Horford will also have to be comfortable extending his defense out to the three-point line. When Embiid is out, Horford will probably have to run around the perimeter and chase a shooter like Ersan Ilyasova. Philly’s small lineups—with Ben Simmons surrounded by shooters—have become their own terror for defenses, and Miami didn’t have the personnel to keep up.
If the talented Horford can keep up with Philly’s versatile bigs, Boston has a better chance at playing the series closer to its own terms. If he fails, the games will speed up and the Celtics’ offense will likely be exposed. Oh, and speaking of offense, Horford will almost definitely be needed to contribute significantly on that end as well.
Boston’s schemes for defending Philly’s attack will be fascinating to watch, and the Brown vs. Brad Stevens coaching matchup alone will be worth the price of admission. If Horford can dominate his matchups defensively, the gap between these teams shrinks ever so slightly.
What to Watch
(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (4) Cleveland Cavaliers: Can Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan Keep It Up?
Lowry and DeRozan entered this postseason with much to prove. Both have always been standouts in the regular season, but have left a lot to be desired in playoff play. Lowry entered this latest run with one of the lowest field-goal percentages in postseason history, while DeRozan hasn’t been known to elevate the Raptors to new heights. Both have unfinished business against the Cavs. Last year, Lowry played in only two games of the sweep due to injury. DeRozan, meanwhile, struggled, averaging only 20.8 points per game on 42.6% shooting, going the entire series without hitting a three.
Fortunately for the Raptors, Lowry and DeRozan looked closer to their peak selves against the Wizards. Lowry averaged 17.2 points per game during the first round. DeRozan averaged 26.7 points per contest, while shooting 38.5% from three on 4.3 attempts per game. Toronto’s role players will certainly play a significant part in this series. The Raptors will need to dominate any minutes LeBron is not on the floor. But Toronto’s best players playing as the best version of themselves will go a long way in this series. It sounds simple enough, but it’s something that hasn’t happened much for that franchise in the past. If DeRozan and Lowry continue to perform like they are capable of, and don’t stumble like they have too many times before, the Raptors should finally be able to exorcise some LeBron-shaped demons.
The pick: Raptors in seven. It’s now or never.
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (3) Philadelphia 76ers: Will Ben Simmons Continue to Impose His Will?
Simmons was the best player on the court during the Sixers’ first-round win over Miami. The Heat threw the kitchen sink at Simmons, and it didn’t matter. Miami tried guarding Simmons with speed, length, or brute force, but none of it made a difference. The Heat tried making Simmons a shooter, and they tried crowding his airspace, and he still dominated nearly every game. Simmons is basically a cheat code at this point, and at 21 years old he’s somehow already a terrifying presence every time he has the ball in his hands.
Simmons again has the chance to be the best player on the court against the Celtics. Joel Embiid is still rounding into form after his orbital bone fracture, while Simmons has been playing the best basketball of his life for the last six weeks. If the rookie point guard continues this streak of success, the Celtics may not have any answers. Simmons alone can push the pace of a game, but he works equally well in grind-it-out halfcourt situations. Simmons has seemingly mastered altering his style of play to his surrounding cast, letting Embiid get involved whenever he’s on the court, while also running and gunning when the Sixers go small.
If the Celtics can’t find a way to slow down Simmons, who is averaging 18.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 9 assists through his first five playoff games, they may not last long in this series.
The pick: Sixers in six.