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Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

This week, we’ll be doing overall playoff previews for each conference and individual series previews for each matchup. Find all of our NBA playoff content here and on Twitter (@GamblingPodcast and @NBAZachB). The Western Conference preview can be found here. Here, the Eastern Conference.

Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

Before you do anything, think about this: the last time Lebron James lost a playoff series to any Eastern Conference franchise, iPads didn’t exist yet. The year was 2010. Luke Walton was playing for the Lakers, not coaching them. I had just turned 14 years old.

It is vital that you focus on that astonishing fact for two reasons. First, it is perhaps the most powerful example of just how dominant Lebron has been in this conference throughout the 2010s, and just how extraordinary his career has been despite a losing record in the NBA Finals. You can mess around with the order all you want, but he’s one of the greatest players this league has ever seen and ever will see — and the destruction he’s brought to this conference, singlehandedly forcing teams to question their existence and rebuild because of the implausibility of making the finals in Lebron’s presence, has been silly.

Secondly, however, and perhaps more important now than ever to consider, is the mental taxation that “The King’s Reign” has taken on each and every one of the other teams in the Eastern Conference. They all measure their success against him, but more importantly, they all fear him. He’s embarrassed the Raptors. Killed Indiana. Rocked Philly. Swept Milwaukee. Hell, his Cavs did this to Boston on the road last year. They were up 40 in an f’ing playoff game:

This stuff just weighs on you emotionally. I’m not saying they can’t beat him. I’m just saying it’s going to take an extra gear to overcome the PTSD that Lebron brings to the Eastern Conference in the months of April, May, and June.

Now, take a sip of water.

Cleveland has been kind of shitty this season. Indeed, they are 20 games over .500 but still have just a +.9 Point Differential, far below that of the elite regular season teams this season. They don’t have a true #2 guy since losing Kyrie Irving and had such a dysfunctional locker room that they were forced to blow up their roster at the trade deadline. They are so hard to predict, thus, because while all signs point to their luck finally running out this year, the great variable of the King looms over everything.

The rest of the conference has been just as unpredictable. Gordon Hayward, arguably the biggest offseason addition in the conference and one who everyone expected to factor heavily into Boston’s potential to reach the Finals, gruesomely broke his leg not even five minutes into the season. Kyrie Irving, likewise, is now done for the year. Boston astonishingly won 50+ games without an extended performance from either of these guys in an unbelievable coaching job from Brad Stevens. Though the standings suggest otherwise, this team seems very fade-worthy in the playoffs as they just don’t have the talent of a traditional #2 seed.

Indiana, a team who was rated in the preseason with just a 31 O/U win total, won 48 games behind an outstanding season from Victor Oladipo, who was acquired in a trade that was twitter-universally mocked. Everyone expected Milwaukee to make the leap this year, and yet even despite the midseason acquisition of Eric Bledsoe, they still seem a year or two away. Washington is limping into the playoffs. Miami has been solid, but nothing special, and their postseason run has been clouded by the locker-room distraction of Hassan Whiteside, who is disgruntled over minutes and usage.

The two bright spots of the conference, outside of Indiana, have been Toronto and The Process. Toronto completely revamped their offensive approach, leaving their old-school isolation midrange offense in the past and adopting a more modern approach, focusing on sharing the ball and shooting threes. They’ve also proved that it is possible to acquire and develop young talent without tanking, amassing the best bench in the NBA that is full of youth, bounce, and energy.

Philly, likewise, exceeded just about everyone’s expectations, led by sensational play from both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. They’ve now won 16 straight and are on everyone’s radar headed into the playoffs. What was supposed to be a building year now has expectations of at least one playoff series win. And how impressive was that 35-point win on the last night of the season? Markelle Fultz is a PROBLEM. He’s brought an added dimension to this Sixers team off the bench:

Cleveland can be beaten, and especially by Toronto. You just have to do your best to get over the Lebron effect and play ball from there. Toronto, and perhaps even Philly, are a better team than Cleveland. Lebron is the best player, yes, but will have the worse team around him. And while he has proven time and time again that his body defies human physics, he has played the most minutes of anyone in the NBA this year, at age 32. He’s got to run out of gas someday. So, despite everything I told you at the beginning of this article, don’t fear. I think the East will, at the very least, be interesting. Lebron is a juggernaut, his team kind of sucks.

In summation, the East is what it has been for the past few years. It is still far worse than its counterpart out West, yet full of youth and potential surprises. And, more than anything, Lebron looms large.

Key Questions Facing Each Team

Toronto: Why should we trust this year’s iteration of Lowry-DeRozan?

Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have a playoff curse. They just haven’t been able to get over the hump, and that’s started and ended with dreadful shooting from its star backcourt. Lowry is a career 43/37/80 shooter in the regular season. In the playoffs, however, that sinks to 39/31/78. DeRozan, likewise, falls from 46/31/83 to a woeful 40/20/85. It’s pretty unexplainable without making things personal. They just haven’t had the juice in the postseason. 

Boston: How high is this team’s ceiling?

This team will be without Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart as it enters the playoffs as a #2 seed. They have Brad Stevens on their side, but I’m not sure their series against Milwaukee should be anything more than a Pick Em, considering Giannis will be the best player on the floor every night. In the regular season, the Celtics won with elite effort, defense, and timely execution offensively. In the playoffs, every team should theoretically bring those qualities to the table. For a team that plays hard every night, it’s tough to upgrade them, while everyone else will bring more energy. Stevens will have to do a magical job if the Celtics want to make noise this year.

Philadelphia: When can Joel Embiid play, and how healthy will he be?

Though the Sixers haven’t lost since Joel Embiid went down with a facial fracture that has kept him out indefinitely, it’s undeniable that they need him back ASAP in order to go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the conference. He is not expected to play in Game 1, per himself. His health, and ability to play major minutes each and every night he’s out there will factor heavily into who wins the East. The Sixers have a +11 Net Rating with him on the floor and a -3 Net Rating with him on the bench. That should speak for itself. 

Cleveland: What will the supporting cast bring to the table?

We know what we’re going to get from Lebron James. We have no idea, however, what his new supporting cast will bring to the table in what will be the first playoff appearance for many of the young Cavs. If he has no help, the road back to the Finals suddenly becomes quite bumpy. Kevin Love needs to play like an all-star and guys like George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, and Rodney Hood will have to take and make big three-pointers off of kick-outs from Lebron.

Indiana: Is there a regression on the horizon?

Indiana was pegged by many to finish close to the bottom of the East this season, having just traded their franchise cornerstone and seemingly headed to a rebuild. They responded with 48 wins. Will the real Indiana Pacers please stand up? In reality, they are probably somewhere in between the two, and just got pinned with a devastating first-round matchup against Cleveland. When everybody else elevates their game, I worry that this Indiana team, which relies heavily on consistent effort and the heroics of Victor Oladipo, could falter against improved competition. This is a team that went 22-4 as a home favorite. Impressive, yes, but that also means they were 26-30 in all other game types. 

Miami Heat: What will Hassan Whiteside bring to the table?

Just days after calling his role on the team “bullshit” and being fined for conduct detrimental to the team, Hassan Whiteside has now publicly apologized for his comments and seems ready, on the surface, to commit to the Heat’s playoff run. I’m not buying it, though, and Whiteside’s mercurial personality should be even more inflamed when he’s likely forced off the floor again in fourth quarters against Philadelphia who, without Joel Embiid, will play small-ball. Can this locker room stick together?

Milwaukee Bucks: Are the Bucks good?

A simple question, yes, but one that needs to be addressed. The Bucks are the only team in the playoffs with a negative point differential and yet they desperately need a win in a playoff series to prevent a dramatic offseason. I’m worried about Milwaukee because they just can’t seem to put it together for more than a couple of quarters at a time. They were 16-26-2 ATS after wins, a sign of a team that can’t stay focused overnight. And key playoff metrics work against them: they are the worst rebounding team in the league and give up the 3rd-most free throws.

Washington Wizards: Can Wall & Beal put aside their differences?

Discord seems to be running through this Washington locker room ever since JJ Barea and John Wall beefed back in January: 

Telling someone his teammates don’t like him cuts deep to the core, and really makes things awkward if it’s true. That relationship needs to be sanctified. Alas, Washington woefully failed to meet expectations this year after looking like a real challenger in the playoffs last year. They’re limping into the playoffs, losers of seven of their last 10 games. Still, though, the talent is undeniable, and nobody wants to see this team if they can get it going. 

View from Vegas

Toronto Raptors (+200 to win the conference): 59-23, 43-38-1 ATS. 40-40-2 O/U.

+200 on the best team in the conference is pretty juicy. The only problem is they are now slated to face Cleveland in the second round, not the conference finals. Might as well just mechanically parlay their series prices, I think.

Boston Celtics (+3000): 55-27, 50-30-2 ATS. 42-37-3 O/U.

Boston has covered all year despite their injuries, so if they’re disrespected by spreads in individual games, jump on them. They’re comfortable in close games and will get tight lines against a Milwaukee team that should be pretty public given the presence of the Greek Freak. 

Philadelphia 76ers (+375): 52-30, 48-32-2 ATS. 40-41-1 O/U.

You and I both wish we had grabbed this way earlier, before the price adjusted to how good this Philly team really is. They were closer to +1000 just in the past couple of weeks. Most importantly, however, they get to avoid Cleveland until the conference finals.

Cleveland Cavaliers (-110): 50-32, 31-50-1 ATS. 39-41-2 O/U.

It’s comical how poorly priced this is, but it’s just the Lebron effect. They had a season-long point differential of just .9 and were the worst ATS team in the league. They will be so public in the playoffs, too. Still, I think they are a lock to beat Indiana and, if they get past the Raptors, will be huge favorites in the conference finals and open up a solid hedge opportunity.

Indiana Pacers (+10000): 48-34, 47-35 ATS. 31-49-2 O/U.

I think they can grab a game or two off of Cleveland, but nothing more. I don’t like that they were just 6-9 ATS as a home dog, which they may be against Cleveland. Also, buck the trend of both Cleveland and Indiana going under. Lebron will have his offense buzzing, but their defense stinks. I think these games will be in the 110s. 

Miami Heat (+10000): 44-38, 40-36-6 ATS. 36-44-2 O/U.

They’re just not talented enough, sadly, to win the conference. That being said, they played Philly tight all year, and if that series price looks good it might be worth a shot. The two teams split the season series, and three of those four games were within six points. Those games will be close. 

Milwaukee Bucks (+5000): 44-38, 33-44-5 ATS. 47-35 O/U.

This team isn’t worth touching unless you just think it will be fun to root for Giannis in the playoffs. I expect them to be heavily backed in the Boston series and can’t wait to see that price. It’ll be interesting, because as I said earlier, Milwaukee is a bad team who just happens to have the best player.

Washington Wizards (+4000): 43-39, 37-44-1 ATS. 36-44-2 O/U.

Washington is one of the most talented teams in the conference. I like them to make some noise, though the road will be tough starting with Toronto in Round 1 and Cleveland looming. They will have nice series prices.

The Favorite

Cleveland is the favorite by pricing, of course, but based on performance this season, there’s a lot more to say about Toronto. Similarly to Golden State’s situation out West, Lebron will either do this thing or he won’t. It’s more important to evaluate his competition than continue to praise his greatness — the question is not what he will bring to the table but rather if anybody else’s stuff can match his.

Toronto is a vastly different and much-improved team from the one that lost in the playoffs to Cleveland a year ago, albeit with almost the same roster. Their point differential was just three last year and is now close to eight, a remarkable improvement for a team that did not add a superstar in the offseason. Instead of changing personnel, they changed persona. Often maligned for playing “hero-ball” with Derozan isolating in the mid-post whenever the going got tough, Toronto refocused their offensive approach around sharing the basketball and spacing with the three-point shot. The fact that this team is sixth in assists per game is remarkable. Just a year ago, they were worst in the league. Similarly, they are now up to third in three-point attempts per game. If you watched Toronto play a game in the last five years, that should be an equally shocking improvement.

For Toronto, however, the question will always be whether or not they can get it done in the playoffs. Similarly to the OKC team that went up 3-1 on Golden State two years ago, Toronto moves the ball fantastically throughout the first three-quarters of the game but revert to hero-ball and mid-post iso’s in the last six minutes of close games. That just cannot happen again. It is too easy to defend, and even someone as skilled as DeRozan can not, in isolation, match the expected value of a possession when his team is already fifth in effective field-goal percentage operating as a five-man unit. It continues to astonish me that, despite the modern game showing us the value of pace, space, passing, and shooting, teams who run a ridiculously good offense for three and a half quarters decide their best chance to score late in a game is just to throw it to one guy and watch. It is such a killer and will be Toronto’s downfall if they revert back to hero-ball.

The signs are subtle, but still present. Toronto’s offense regresses throughout the game, even now. They average right around 28 points in the first, second, and third quarters and only 26 in the fourth. I hope that’s just a coincidence.

With the pressure on them this season more than ever, the onus will be on Head Coach Dwayne Casey to not only keep his team steady in their offensive approach but more importantly confident that Toronto, like Golden State before them, is better as a five-man unit than Lebron is on his own. DeRozan and Lowry too often, in the past, have tried to out-superstar Lebron. That is not the formula to take down the King, as the Warriors have shown. It needs to be the Raptors vs. Lebron, a democracy vs. a dictator.

The Team Nobody Wants To Play

The Philadelphia 76ers are the hottest team in the NBA, coming into the playoffs absolutely scorching off of 16 straight wins. Ben Simmons has worked his way into the All-NBA conversation, and he has the keys to the car in an offense that is suddenly quite scary. Simmons is surrounded by shooting and slashing and uses his tremendous vision and size to find the open man over and over again. The midseason additions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova were vital to filling out this rotation, as they are now never lacking in shooting across the floor outside of their primary ball-handlers. Neither Fultz nor Simmons can shoot, but that’s not a problem because they have the ball in their hands and are decision makers, not shot takers. Of course, the big problem is that the two can’t be on the floor together due to spacing concerns, which, given Fultz’ emergence, should frustrate Brett Brown if he wants a more athletic and downhill lineup on the floor.

Still, though, the Simmons-Redick-RoCo-Saric-Embiid lineup is weirdly long, can still shoot, and can really get after you defensively. They clean the glass like absolute maniacs, leading the league in rebounds per game. When they get out and run, with Simmons leading the break, it’s joyous to watch. Embiid either trails or rim-runs, and given how defenses tend to play off of Simmons, he essentially has a free run from free-throw line to free-throw line to scan the floor for shooters and cutters. This will be interesting to monitor during the playoffs, as teams are faced with the dilemma of how to play Simmons. Of course, he can’t shoot at all, so playing off of him seems like a logical decision to prevent him from getting to the basket. Yet, ball pressure is the only way to bother a guy who is such a passive facilitator, and playing so off him lets him survey the floor without having to worry about his handle.

The big worry for Philly has to be turnovers. They are the most turnover-prone team in the league, and this is their first rodeo in the playoffs. Every possession counts, now more than ever. Simmons likes to have fun in the open floor, but at this time of year, it’s more about making the right play than the spectacular one. Teams will be defending more intensely than they have all year, and now is the time for Simmons to prove he can razzle and dazzle against ball pressure and legitimate off-ball defense. It will be nowhere near as easy.

Still, though, this is the team with the highest ceiling of anyone outside of Cleveland. Simmons and Embiid are not still processing… they’re here now. They won 52 games and are not fucking around with anyone. The East better be on the lookout.

The Pick

It’s still Lebron’s conference to lose, and I think they will beat Toronto in the second round. Philly’s push for the #3 seed will have been worth it as their path is carved out.

Cleveland -110.

Philly at the best odds you can get ’em at.

Zach is currently a college senior on the East Coast, and loves to write about sports as well as record his NBA podcast. An avid fan and notable consumer of sports content, the descent into the application of the handicapping lens to sports analysis was only inevitable.

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