Fadeaway World's writers break down the playoff match-ups in the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta Hawks (60-22) vs Brooklyn Nets (38-44)
Regular Season: Atlanta leads 4-0
A great starting lineup with five guys that can really shoot. Atlanta has had 4 All-Star players this year, the first team since the Pistons in 2006 to achieve such a feat. They are ranked in the Top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Every Atlanta starter is an expert in one thing; Teague is a slasher capable of creating shots and running the game, Korver is an other-worldly shooter, Carroll emerged as a lockdown defender, Millsap is a perfect pick n pop option who can secure boards and Horford is a versatile big man who can do it all, but his efforts on defense are something really important for the Hawks. Coach Budenholzer has established a game philosophy similar to those of the Spurs, which is pretty obvious because he served 16 years under Popovich. Hawks’ motion offense is almost unguardable, floor spacing flawless and finding open teammates brought to near perfection. The scariest thing is their bench mob though, with Sefolosha, Bazemore, Schroder, Antić, Scott, Mack and Jenkins. You simply don’t know which guy is a bigger threat. The Hawks are an elite team in terms of shooting, passing and stealing the ball, all while offering huge entertainment for the fans.
There are few, but not that . The Hawks are committing a lot of fouls, allowing a bunch of free throws and have some troubles with rebounding, especially offensive but with their high-octane attack they don’t have to worry. There is no obvious leader on the team and that can cause issues when it comes to taking the last shot in a tight game.
They prove they can beat Golden State Warriors this season. Well, Hollins' squad ain't good at any basketball category, but they certainly have the individual quality to make this matchup competitive. After trading for Thaddeus Young they look much better. Brook Lopez has found his old form and reminded us why he was an All-Star center. Jack, Bogdanović, Anderson and Plumlee are bringing steady contributions off the bench. Deron Williams is a shell of himself from Utah days, but he can still make some noise and he can shoot. Johnson is doing his job of scoring, though his game has been worsening ever since coming to Brooklyn. His clutch instinct means much to the Nets. Brooklyn is in the top half in terms of turnovers produced and that is maybe the only aspect of the game where they are solid.
Awful defense. They have good shooters, but as a team, the Nets are bottom 7 in the three-pointers made per contest. They are slow in transition and have serious scoring issues in some cases. They shoot free throws poorly. Though not ugly, they are average or below-average in rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.
The Hawks don’t need an x factor to win this series, but if they did it would be Thabo Sefolosha (his defense) whose assignment would be either Williams or Johnson, if they’d somehow managed to throwback their game in Utah/Atlanta mode.
For the Nets, Jarrett Jack is that factor. A grateful guard who can play both guard positions and spark the team coming off the bench, plus he is an experienced and clever player.
Fadeaway Prediction by Marlon: Hawks in 5 games.
Toronto Raptors (49-33) vs Washington Wizards (46-36)
Regular Season: Toronto leads 3-0
Dynamic backcourt duo Lowry-DeRozan which can perfectly control the offensive flow of the game. How far they will go will mostly depend on them. They fought through some injuries in the second half of the season, but they are finally ready for the big scene. The bench is another strength of this team, led by one of the most serious candidates for the 6th man award, Lou Williams. They can really score in bunches and spread the floor alongside with Patrick Patterson.
Defense, defense, defense. That was the problem the whole season, but for the last few months they literally haven’t been able to stop anything.
Lack of the inside game. Valanciunas is only a threat in the post, but he is too inconsistent and can easily go into foul trouble. Without that, there is no easy way to close out the playoff game since they often become a one-dimensional jump shooting team.
They have a great mix of youth and experience. It’s a balanced team led by John Wall who is having his career year. He has become an elite point guard in every aspect and has continued to improve since his last year’s success. Nene and Gortat are important factors when the game slows down- they can really use their height advantage and dominate the paint.
A solid defensive team.
Paul Pierce effect - The truth is he is the main difference and upgrade in this season. His experience and clutch plays can help them go even further in this year’s playoff.
Randy Wittman- he is really awful and in my opinion the main reason why Wizards are not a better seed.
Too many black holes and empty minutes through the game where they can't score.
Questionable second unit and a lack of reliable shooters.
The main goal for Toronto will be to slow down John Wall and his great pick and roll game and try to be competitive in rebounding. Let's face it, they can hardly win that battle, but they must minimize the 2nd chance points on some reasonable number.
Toronto proved that they could match up Washington very well, but 2 out of 3 wins came in very close endings.
Washington has to find the way to slow down the rhythm and play low scoring games. They have to find the rotation which can keep up with Toronto’s bench unit.
This should be a very interesting series because they are totally different.
Fadeaway Prediction by Steph: Wizards in 7 games.
Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29) vs. Boston Celtics (40-42)
Regular Season: Series tied 2-2
Lebron James. Durant’s injury-prone season helped James to remain the best player in the NBA. After a slow start he had a 2-week rest and returned looking like himself again. Though his numbers are little worse than in Miami, Lebron posted strong 25/7/6 campaign. His defense isn’t as good as it was, but he is still a plus defender. The Cavs have two more go-to scorers in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Kyrie played great alongside James, scoring the franchise record- 57 points against the Spurs and 55 against the Blazers. His sick handles, speed and athleticism allow him to do things on the court that few other guards can. Unlike Irving, Love hasn't impressed and lost All-Star spot this season. His game is reduced and the ball is way less in Kevin's hands than in the previous years with Minnesota. Love is still capable of delivering 20/10/5 and if he gets hot, the Cavaliers will have a real shot of making the NBA Finals. After trading Dion Waiters and bringing in J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov, the Cavs started playing well and meeting expectations, finishing second in their conference. Their offensive rating is the third best in the league and to keep on winning they’ll have to score at this rate.
Defense. They have only three plus defenders on the roster – James, Shumpert and Mozgov. The Russian center has anchored the Cavaliers’ defense since coming from Denver, but he isn’t exactly Mutombo or Mourning. The lack of interior defense will especially hurt Cleveland’s hopes of winning it all. How to guard the rival’s frontcourt when Mozgov is resting on the bench? Tristan Thompson is a good energy guy but he doesn’t understand defensive schemes and lacks elite athleticism that would help him correct some flaws while Kendrick Perkins is useless. Irving, Smith and Love are also very questionable defenders and Blatt can’t hide all three of them. The Cavs are making a lot of fouls and don’t block opponents almost at all.
Team chemistry. The Great head coach. Lack of pressure. Nobody expected the Celtics to make the postseason, but they did. After trading for Isaiah Thomas they flourished. The little guard averaged 19 ppg and 5.4 apg in green jersey coming off the bench and he is a strong candidate for the 6th man of the year award. They will go as far as he takes them.
The Celtics don’t have elite players or stars, but Turner, Olynyk, Jerebko, Smart, Bradley, Sullinger, Crowder and Bass are guys who know their jobs and roles and will always play for the team’s sake. Boston is also one of the best passing teams in NBA, averaging plenty of assists as a result of team-first philosophy.
The Celtics are dead last in blocks per game, they are an average rebounding team, they almost don’t shoot free throws because they don’t have elite slashers or dominant big men. Stevens’ squad is average on both sides of the court, and being average will throw you out of the playoffs sooner rather than later. Boston is lacking an option to contain, or even slow down Lebron James on the wing.
The Cavaliers bench unit (Shumpert, Thompson, Marion, Dellavedova, Jones) will have to produce serious scoring and help the main players preserve their energy and talents for more dangerous rivals like Chicago and Atlanta.
For Boston, like I mentioned before, Isaiah Thomas is the man the whole postseason success depends on. If he maintains this level of play, then the Celtics have a shot to at least give the Cavaliers a run for their money.
Fadeaway Prediction by Marlon:Cavs in 5 games.
Chicago Bulls (50-32) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (41-41)
Regular Season: Chicago leads 3-1
A healthy starting lineup. With Rose and Butler in the backcourt, and Noah and Gasol in the frontcourt, the Bulls should have the playoff intensity and an easy 1st round vs. Jason Kidd and co. Chicago is one of the best teams in the league when they have all players in the roster.
In-the-paint: Who can stop Paul Gasol in the offense? Milwaukee doesn't have the players in the post who are good enough for Gasol. Noah will bring energy, and with Taj Gibson they can lock the paint versus Bucks. The Bulls are among the top 3 teams in the rebounds per game.
Butler is an all-around player and he is having the best season in his career. But, he must prove himself in the playoff. He has great intensity and the Bucks don't have a defender for him and healthy Derick Rose.
The Bulls’ 6th man of the year is Nikola Mirotic. He can play mismatch versus John Henson or Jared Dudley, and he is the secret Bulls’ weapon in the playoff.
Derick Rose's health. In the last six seasons, the Bulls had 2-4 in the 1st round in the playoff. In the last three seasons, they won only one playoff series versus Brooklyn Nets, when they won in Game 7.
When the Bulls aren't healthy, everyone can beat them. And they must improve their FG%. That is the second problem.
They don't have any pressure in this playoff series. You will probably say "it's not possible", but the Bucks are better than the Bulls in the defense (-0.4 points). They have two young players: Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams and any playoff experience will count. Jason Kidd did a great job with the team’s harmony and the 6th place is a great success for this roster, without Jabari Parker and Larry Sanders. Milwaukee can surprise the Bulls with great team efforts and with pick n rolls game, but Kidd needs more than players in this roster to beat healthy Chicago Bulls.
Michael Carter-Williams is a turnover-prone point guard. In the playoff, you must play with more responsibility and with more control. The Bucks don't have a frontcourt guy, beside Ilyasova, who can score against the Bulls. Milwaukee has young players and this is probably a chance to gain some experience. Next year, with a new logo and with Parker...we should watch better Bucks than this year.
The Bulls’ playoff intensity, energy and rebounds. The Bulls have Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson in the bench unit. They are a force versus any bench in the league. The Bucks’ inexperience versus the Bulls’ experience. The Bucks can't play 48 minutes versus healthy Bulls.