Now that the NBA’s regular season has come to a close, let’s rest our eyes on the East’s playoff teams (while looking at a screen with words on it):
1st seed: Atlanta Hawks (60-22)
The Hawks have been rightfully praised all year for their ball movement and exquisite spacing. I probably read two pieces each week in January and February about one Hawk or another. Kyle Korver-love was overflowing. Al Horford appreciation was everywhere. Mike Budenholzer was given the credit he deserves for instilling an egalitarian, share-the-wealth culture, in which assistants work diligently on player development. Everyone contributes and communicates on defense. However, the questions about the Hawks playoff potential never quite stopped. Korver missed time with a broken nose and the Hawks spacing was more like a wobbly tire than a perfect circle. Paul Millsap’s recent shoulder scare raised another red flag. The Hawks are remarkable for their unity and selflessness, but where will they go in crunch time against a gritty defense? They may never face a gritty defense in the East playoffs. Even if Indiana sneaks into the 8th spot, they have 15 minutes per game from Paul George and have no continuity at the moment.
Other than Milwaukee, the East is full of offensive-based playoff teams.
2nd seed: Cleveland Cavs (53-29)
You may have heard about this team. They play all their games on national television because of a certain player whose first name begins with an “L” and whose last name begins with a “J.” No, Larry Johnson, aka, “Grand-mama” has not come out of retirement. No, Luke Jackson has not been on the Cavs since 2006 (he’s currently on the Idaho Stampede for those NBDL obsessives). Anyway, the Cavs have been lethal since they traded for actual role players (Mozgov doing his best Asik impression, Shumpert defending the wings, and J.R. Smith on his best behavior). Smith is a genuine wild-card, as always. He set an NBA record for most field-goal attempts without attempting a two-point shot (8 of 17, all from deep), in a hard-fought win over Chicago on April 5th. Cleveland-Chicago has the makings of an intriguing second round match-up.
In certain match-ups, watch for Tristan Thompson to grab Kevin Love’s minutes because of his defensive prowess. Love can’t seem to shake the idea that he’s best suited to camp out in the corner on this team. Taking the ball out of the hands of that certain man named whose name begins with “L” and his uniquely skilled (handles!) backcourt mate Kyrie Irving is not happening.
3rd seed: Chicago Bulls (50-32)
Even the sleeping giants in Chicago are more of an offensive force (Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic) than they used to be, while their defense has suffered with Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson missing time and last year’s DPOY Joakim Noah looking like he needs a new knee or one of those experimental German blood spinning treatments. The Bulls have faced too many injuries to bother documenting this season. Despite all the depth in the world, the Bulls have been without Rose for huge stretches, Jimmy Butler for most of March, Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy for months, and Joakim Noah can’t move the way he used to, post-knee surgery. The Bulls still have enormous potential, with Gasol, Butler, Rose, and Mirotic providing all kinds of offensive possibilities, but roles are not certain and Thibs is ready to bolt for New Orleans after dealing with ongoing front office drama.
4th seed: Toronto Raptors (49-33)
If you watched last year’s playoffs, you had to feel for Kyle Lowry and the fun-loving bunch north of the border. The scenes outside the Air Canada Centre (don’t forget to move that “r” in Canadian spelling) were ecstatic as happy-go-lucky Ontarians jumped with glee for their Raptors. The team came together and home court still mattered. However, one Paul Pierce deflection of a Lowry floater pushed the Nets into the 2nd round.
This year, Toronto sprinted out to a 24-8 start, tops in the East. The caveat: they had yet to face the league’s best teams, they weren’t forced to play much defense yet, and Kyle Lowry was healthy. GM Masai Ujiri wishes the playoffs would’ve started on January 1st. Instead, his team finished 25-25 over their final 50 games.
In a fitting twist of fate, the Raptors will face Pierce again this April, only this time Pierce is a Washington Wizard. The Raptors started off The who played much of the last month without their heart-and-soul point guard Kyle Lowry (back) since March 18th. Lowry returned on April 10 against Orlando. In the two games since, he’s shot 7 of 26 from the field and 1 of 13 from deep. How quickly can he knock off the rust? Will James Johnson’s new Rodman-style look alter game plans?
5th seed: Washington Wizards (46-36)
The John Wall-led Wizards have struggled through losing streaks of three and four games, but seemed to be righting the ship defensively in the last month. Like Wall’s offensive game, the Wizards are brilliant at times, but come with flaws (Wall’s range is impacted by the lack of Trevor Ariza’s three-point shooting). The Wizards expected much more than a two-win improvement on last year’s 44-38 season, but injuries and a lack of depth punished the team, not to mention old legs that can’t keep up with Wall.
The Wizards will depend on the crusty legs of Nene and Paul Pierce heavily in the playoffs. Pierce recently aired his dirty laundry to Jackie MacMullan. Is he a wise motivator or Grumpy old man? We shall see what happens.
Bradley Beal’s absence through the team out of sync for stretches. Few believe the Wizards can get past the second round. The health of Nene and the three-point shooting of Pierce may go a long way in determining if they can get out of the first.
6th seed: Milwaukee Bucks (41-41)
The young Bucks are full of piss and vinegar and long-armed defenders who never stop moving. Giannis, Khris Middleton, Jared Dudley, John Henson, and newly-arrived Michael Carter-Williams provide the blueprint for modern defense. Switching and communicating is more important than ever. Having Inspector Gadget arms makes the whole process easier. The Bucks are a great story and easy to root for. Unfortunately, since they traded Brandon Knight to Phoenix for MCW, their lack of shooting has been even more noticeable. Frankly, they can’t score. They won’t score in the playoffs. I’d say 85 points if Middleton and Dudley are hitting their shots from deep.
Imagine what this team might look like with Larry Sanders anchoring the center spot? Yikes. Jabari Parker has been out since December (late November?) with a torn ACL. Hopefully, he makes his mark next year.
7th seed: Boston Celtics (40-42)
Goodness gracious, typing that record feels absurd today, even if I tweeted that back on October 29th. I’m sure if I put any small wager on it, things would’ve turned out differently. This was a 20-33 team, floating tepidly along until the roster churn finally stopped, and they found themselves with Isaiah at the point, and some decent shooting (Jerebko and occasionally Bradley or Olynyk) nearby. The team started playing feisty defense and stopped turning the ball over, thanks in large part to Evan Turner’s surprisingly steady hand. They weathered the storm when Thomas went down with a back injury. Fast-forward a few weeks, and with two games left, they’ve won six of their last seven. They’ve had the leprechaun back on their side, facing a resting Cavs team (Kyrie missed both, LeBron played one half out of the two games). As the final week of the season begins, Brad Stevens’ club sits with a 98.3% chance of making the playoffs.
Many outside observers wondered why the team wanted to make a playoff push. The question: would you rather have a sliver of a chance at a top 3 pick or continue an attempt at restoring a culture of winning among your very young team? In the Eastern Conference, a team on the rise can rise rapidly (Washington Wizards last year). All teams won’t put their fans through what Sam Hinkie has done to his Sixers faithful (how faithful can they be at this point?) and expect long-term success. Rebuilding is always an experiment, so why not rebuild on the fly when you’ve already got an abundance of youth on the roster?
Boston matches up better with Atlanta (who may be dealing with a dinged-up Millsap) than they do with the mighty offensive juggernaut that is the Cleveland Cavs. The Cavs will likely finish off Boston within six games, if I’m allowed green-tinted optimism I’ll say six instead of five. The reductive folks with no rooting interest in Boston will say that winning one or two playoff games is useless in the big picture, but what they fail to recognize is the importance of playing games 65 through 82 on the regular season schedule as well. By beating out the meager Hornets, the deflating Nets (sans Pierce and Garnett), and the Bosh-less Heat, the Celtics youth brigade has undoubtedly gained confidence and experience. One or two potential playoff wins in a series will be the icing on the development cake. I guess if the Cavaliers sweep the Celtics, blowing them out several times that might not taste like some delicious icing, but I’m betting the series won’t end in disaster for Brad Stevens’ club.
8th seed: Brooklyn Nets (38-44)
I don’t have anything to say about the Nets except they spoiled a much more intriguing storyline: Pacers face Hawks in first round rematch of last year’s series. Paul George gave the Pacers a lift and they started winning games and feeling inspired. But Brooklyn got healthy, Brook Lopez remembered he will be a free agent and started dominating, and Deron Williams found some combination of health and inspiration. Now the Nets face Atlanta. I can’t wait for the Hawks to sweep these spoil-sport Nets.
Quick and Dirty Takes on the First Round:
Darko Index Predicts
(1) Atlanta over (8) Brooklyn in 5 games.
(4) Toronto over (5) Washington in 7 games.
(3) Chicago over (6) Milwaukee in 5 games.
(2) Cleveland over (7) Boston in 6 games.
Enjoy! The Playoffs Can’t Stop and Won’t Stop. Just like those Pesky Celtics.
Here’s a link to the playoff schedule: