The NBA Playoffs are set to take off and on the Eastern side of things, it looks like Lebron and the Cavaliers are once again the overwhelming favorites to make the NBA Finals. Of course, that’s not if the 2nd-seeded Toronto Raptors have anything to say about it. The Raptors finished just a game behind the Cavaliers in the conference standings, with Kyle Lowry and company knocking off the Cavs twice during the regular season. However, the Raptors must first try and exorcise their first round playoff demons against a dangerous Pacers team led by Paul George. The first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs is full of intriguing matchups with four teams that have identical 48-34 records. That should prove be very exciting over the next couple of weeks. Let’s take a closer look at each series…
1. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (57-25) VS 8. DETROIT PISTONS (44-38)
Season Series: Pistons 3-1
The Detroit Pistons were able to sneak into the last and final playoff spot with the combination of a strong finish to the regular season in their own right and a disastrous end to the season for the dismal Chicago Bulls. Take one glance at this series and you think the Cavs should win in a cakewalk. But the Pistons are actually a pretty talented and dangerous team. Led by streaky-shooting point guard Reggie Jackson and the NBA’s leading rebounder Andre Drummond, the Cavs can’t just expect to show up and make this a short series. The Pistons won the season series and should come in confident they can hang with the Cavs. The Pistons deal at the trade deadline with the Orlando Magic also brings in guys like Tobias Harris that have enough skill to make Lebron and company sweat. Head coach Stan Van Gundy is also quite accustomed to coaching in the playoffs. His counterpart Tyronn Lue is not. In the end, the Cavs ‘Big 3’ (Lebron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love) should prove to be too much. However, Van Gundy will have his young squad ready to go. Despite taking the regular season series, the Pistons aren’t ready to win this series. Don’t be surprised though if they win a game or two. CAVS in 5
4. ATLANTA HAWKS (48-34) vs 5. BOSTON CELTICS (48-34)
Season Series: Hawks 3-1
Now, we get to the series that could be a lot of fun to watch. The Celtics and Hawks are two pretty evenly matched teams. Actually, the same can be said for three of the four Eastern Conference first round series. Both teams are really good passing the ball and getting everyone involved. No one expected the Celtics to be here. Before the season, Boston was looked at as a team that might sneak into the playoffs again as they did last season. Finishing fifth was never even a possibility. Well, here they are and the Hawks are going to have their hands full. Finishing fourth is a far cry from finishing second as they did last season. But the Hawks have actually had an impressive season. Not much has changed about them from last season or three seasons ago for that matter.They’re led by All-Stars Al Horford, Paul Milsap, and Jeff Teague. The Celtics are lead by point guard Isaiah Thomas. Head coach Brad Stevens has a team that does everything by committee. In a playoff setting that’s usually a bad thing. Thomas, is a great talent and certainly capable of scoring in buckets. But he alone won’t be enough. Who’s going to step up and be that consistent second or third option? Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, Evan Turner off the bench? The Celtics have done it all season as a team and that will be enough to make this series interesting. But in the end…………HAWKS in 6.
2. TORONTO RAPTORS (56-26) vs 7. INDIANA PACERS (45-37)
Season Series: Raptors 3-1
Pacers forward Paul George has been very good (23 ppg.) in his return to the NBA from that gruesome leg injury he suffered while preparing to play with the U.S. National team in the 2014 World Games, and after playing in only the last six games of last season. There’s also been the emergence of rookie Myles Turner (10.4 ppg). Other than that, the Pacers have been pretty much the same team they were last year with point guard George Hill running the show and C.J. Miles knocking down perimeter jumpers and playing solid defense. The Raptors are largely unchanged from last also. But the stars of this team – Kyle Lowry (21 ppg.) and DeMar Derozan (23.5 ppg) – seem to get better every year. They both made All-Star game appearances. But now it’s time for them to deliver in the playoffs. The Raptors enjoyed home court advantage each of the last two postseasons last season but were defeated in seven games by the Chicago Bulls and swept by the Washington Wizards, respectively. For that to change, their stars have to be the stars they were in the regular season. If they are, the Pacers probably don’t have enough firepower to pull the upset. But if Lowry and Derozan struggle or if they don’t get help from guys like DeMarre Carroll who is finally back after being injured most of the season, the Pacers are more than capable. Regardless, this looks like a series that will take six or seven games to decide. RAPTORS in 7
3. MIAMI HEAT (48-34) vs. 6. CHARLOTTE HORNETS (48-34)
Season Series: 2-2
It doesn’t get much more even than this. Both teams with identical 48-34 records, plus a split of the four games each team played against the other. You wouldn’t expect that though when you look at the young, wet behind the ears roster of the Charlotte Hornets and the veteran roster of the Miami Heat. But here the Hornets and they are very dangerous. Kemba Walker leads the way for Charlotte. But he has help from guys like Al Jefferson inside, Courtney Lee and Marvin Williams outside. Williams, has really stepped his game up lately, especially from beyond the arc. Jeremy Lin has proven to be an outstanding pickup and gives the Hornets scoring punch off the bench. The Heat along with experience, they also have balance offensively and are pretty good on the defensive end as well. Dwyane Wade, isn’t the dominating player he used to be. But he’s still capable of scoring 25-30 points on any given night. Goran Dragic is playing better after he went down to injury earlier in the season. Joe Johnson was picked up late in the season to bolster a lineup that looked like it could compete with maybe even the Cavaliers. But with Chris Bosh being out that is no longer the case. The key to at least beating Charlotte is finding points from someone other than Wade, Johnson, and Dragic. Can Hasaan Whiteside be that guy? Maybe. He’s of course one of the best rim defenders in the NBA. However, he’s not a consistent scorer. For Charlotte, can their young team grow up and a playoff setting? Probably not. But this series may go the distance. …………HEAT in 7.