The Beasts of the East: NBA Playoff Preview

By Frank W. Gillespie | Posted 2 years ago

Twenty NBA teams are currently in contention for the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, and the play-in games began on April 12. The first Eastern Conference play-in game had the Brooklyn Nets defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers 115-108 at Barclays Center. 


The Nets clinched the seventh seed and a difficult first-round matchup with a beast-mode Boston Celtics team. Cleveland gets one more chance to make the big dance. The Cavs will face the winner of the Hawks and Hornets contest taking place on April 13, with the eight-seed and a trip to Miami at stake. As of this writing, Draftkings has Atlanta listed as one-point home favorites vs Charlotte. 


The competition in the Eastern Conference has been especially tight. The top 10 teams in the East are separated by 10 games, the slimmest of margins. This is the tightest the standings have been since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976-1977. The first-round playoff matchups are projected to be fierce, hard-fought battles of true grit. 


1 Miami vs 8 Cleveland/Atlanta/Charlotte (TBD) 


The Heat secured the top spot in the East with solid defense, balanced offensive attack, and deep bench. Miami’s 53-29 record was primarily built on the consistent and exceptional play of Jimmy ButlerBam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro. Herro should run away with the Sixth Man Award, averaging 20.7 PPG, five RPG, and four APG. 


We know that Duncan Robinson can shoot the lights out on any given night. Max Strus has also emerged as a regular contributor and a reliable option for the Heat. Both Robinson and Strus went undrafted, but clawed their way to starting NBA positions. 


Regardless of who Miami plays in the first round, its opponent is in line for a probable thumping. The Heat defeated the Hawks, the Hornets, and the Cavs the last time they faced off. This season Miami is 3-1 vs Atlanta, 4-0 vs Charlotte, and 1-2 vs Cleveland. 


2 Boston vs 7 Brooklyn


Brooklyn went from being preseason favorites to win the NBA title, to fighting for life and positioning in the play-in. Between Kevin Durant’s injuries, Kyrie Irving’s vaccination status, and the James Harden-Ben Simmons swap, it’s been a roller-coaster ride.


Simmons (herniated disc) has not played a single game for the Nets and was a scratch for the play-in. However, Durant and Irving have proven to be a formidable duo, and Brooklyn is not to be taken lightly. This series should be a heavyweight brawl. 


The Celtics took three out of the four regular-season meetings against the Nets. The most recent outcome represented what a playoff series between the teams might actually look like. Boston beat down Brooklyn 126-120 in Beantown on March 6 with both Durant and Irving in the Nets' lineup. 


Durant scored 37 points, but Jayson Tatum led all scorers with 54. Everyone in the Celtics’ starting five scored in double digits, and Boston killed Brooklyn in fast-break points 21-7. Simmons looms as a Wild Card for the Nets, but he may not be enough. 


The Celtics posted the best record in the league since the All-Star break, going 17-5, and they’re on fire. Tatum and Jaylen Brown are a wicked 1-2 punch, and Marcus Smart is the frontrunner to win DPOY. Ime Udoka is a serious contender to win Coach of the Year. Al Horford and Daniel Theis are picking up slack in the absence of Robert Williams III (knee). “Time Lord” is recovering extremely well and is expected to return at some point during the playoffs. Boston is primed for a legitimate run at title #18.  


Milwaukee vs 6 Chicago 


The reigning NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks have a tough first-round opponent, but have dominated the Chicago Bulls. The Bucks are 4-0 against the Bulls during this campaign, and that supremacy is likely to continue. Milwaukee is tied for the third-best home record in the East at 27-14, and Chicago is 19-22 on the road. 


Giannis Antetokounmpo has performed at an MVP-caliber level once again, averaging 29.9 points, 11.6 boards, and 5.8 assists per game. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday combine to average close to 40 PPG, 10 RPG, and 12 APG. After missing most of the regular season, center Brook Lopez is back protecting the rim and scoring paint points. 


The Bucks’ overall defensive prowess has slipped slightly, but it’s reasonable to expect them to clamp down against the Bulls. Chicago started the season with a surprisingly hot start, but fizzled and faded following Lonzo Ball’s knee injury. Ball is out for the season, and the Bulls went 8-15 after the All-Star break. 


The Bucks have an impressive 15-7 record following the break, and are hitting stride. 


DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are superb talents, and the future seems bright for the Bulls. However, it’s quite unlikely that this Chicago squad advances past Milwaukee. The Bucks still have tremendous talent and the taste of champagne on their lips. 


Philadelphia vs 5 Toronto


Joel Embiid won the NBA scoring title, becoming the first center to do so since Shaquille O’Neal. In another amazing MVP-caliber campaign, Embiid averaged 30.6 PPG, 11.7 RPG, and 4.2 APG. The addition of Harden has Philadelphia fans believing that the 76ers have a chance to end its 39-year championship drought. 


The problem is, Toronto is gritty and well-balanced. The Raptors rely heavily on their starting five, and that group has been extremely durable and productive. All of Toronto’s starters are in the top 30 for minutes played per game, with Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet tied for third at 37.9 MPG. Only Zavier Simpson and Melvin Frazier Jr. of OKC rank higher in this category. 


This core Raptors group has been getting in more reps with each other on the court than any other starting five in the league. Will Toronto’s cohesion translate to four wins against Philly in the first round? Or are all of the minutes that have piled up in the regular season going to result in a fatigued playoff push? 


Only time will tell, but don’t label the Raptors as extinct just yet. Rookie Of The Year candidate Scottie Barnes is surely salivating over his first opportunity to play on the big stage. Look for Toronto to be organically lifted by the intense energy that Barnes brings. Barnes may ultimately be the key to winning the series for the Raptors.  



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