After years of playing second fiddle to the NBA’s mighty Western Conference, the NBA’s East has been quietly gaining this year, edified by lottery picks and a handful of trades. In total, after Wednesday’s regular season finale, the East went 218-232 versus the West. That may sound like the East was the weaker conference, but that’s close to .500, mugh more balanced than it was in 2013-14, when the East won 166. And closer than 2014-15 when the East won 187. A 31-win jump for the East this year came mainly from four teams: Charlotte (+15 wins), Detroit (+12 wins), Orlando (+10 wins), and Boston (+8 wins). Of course, several teams in the West were absolutely devastated by injuries (Phoenix, New Orleans, and Memphis), while only Washington can make a case for injuries sinking their season in the East.
None of this year’s Eastern conference playoff representatives come from New York City. The Brooklyn Nets mortgaged their future a few years ago by acquiring aging Celtics Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in return for a trio of future lottery picks, beginning with their 2016 pick. This year’s pick has a 31% chance of becoming a top 2 pick, and a 47% chance of becoming a top 3 overall selection on May 17th’s draft lottery. The Knicks began the season with some excitement thanks to last year’s 4th pick Kristaps Porzingis, who established himself as a uniquely skilled 7-footer whose range extends to 25-feet. As the year progressed, Porzingis faded, hitting that proverbial rookie wall. The Knicks are desperate for a point guard to help take the pressure off of Carmelo and Porzingis. For now, the East’s strength exists without help from NYC. Though most of the national NBA stories have been predictably focused on the record-setting 73-win Golden State Warriors, the improved and improving East is a long-term trend. The 5th and 6th seeded Celtics and Hornets may be better than their 5th and 6th seeded West counterparts (Portland and Dallas). On to the first round match-ups in the East.
(1) Cavs vs (8) Pistons
NBA TV recently aired a one-hour playoff preview for each conference. Their East preview started with this series. Guess how many minutes were devoted to Cleveland? 15. Guess how many minutes were given to Detroit? 0. Pistons fans, thirsty for a playoff team, will be deafening to start Game 3. If the Reggie-Drummond pick-and-roll can create some easy corner threes, Detroit can make things more interesting than most are predicting.
Stan Van Gundy should play that preview before every game of this series. It won’t lead to the Pistons upsetting the massively favored Cavs, but the extra motivation might help them steal a game or two. Drummond gets to wet his feet in the playoff waters. Detroit simply doesn’t have enough perimeter defense to stay with Irving off the bounce. LeBron is rested. Casual viewers will be googling “Tyronn Lue” until the East Finals.
Role Players: Cleveland has too many weapons to be threatened in the first round. It will be interesting to keep an eye on the Cavs’ reserves. Channing Frye’s range will be a factor in the ensuing rounds. Detroit needs both Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris to help create offense around Reggie Jackson, with Drummond diving to the rim. In any close game, expect Drummond to be fouled repeatedly and forced to shoot free-throws. This rule will be adjusted by next season. Adam Silver mentioned adapting the last-two minute of the fourth quarter rule (No intentional fouling for free-throws) to all four quarters, which would help.
Prediction: Cavs in 5.
(2) Raptors vs (7) Pacers
If you haven’t paid much attention to the Toronto Raptors this year, you’ve missed out. Lowry and DeRozan dedicated themselves to off-season workouts and development, while GM Masai Ujiri brought in much-needed reserve depth in center Bismack Biyombo, forward Luis Scola and point guard Cory Joseph, in addition to headline free-agent swingman DeMarre Carroll. Despite Carroll missing most of the season with a knee injury, the Raptors steamrolled competition with Kyle came back in incredible shape, which helped alleviate the back issues he’s dealt with by the end of previous seasons. DeRozan came back with an unflinching ability to find his way around defenders and attack the rim, in addition to his typical hard-to-defend mid-range game. DeRozan and Lowry have combined for 15 free-throw attempts per game, connecting on 12. As a team, the Raptors were 2nd in the NBA in free-throws per field-goal attempt, which allowed them to win by slowing the pace and taking control in the half-court. This style bodes well for the playoffs, assuming the defense continues to give them an edge. By playing stifling team defense without Carroll, who they signed for his tenacious defensive versatility, and his corner-three-pointer, the Raptors finished the year with 56 wins and with a newfound sense of purpose and belief. If Carroll can shake the rust off and can gain stamina as the series progresses, the Raptors will be a menacing second round opponent, with eyes on the Cavs in the East Finals.
Paul George was stymied by the Raptors defense throughout their regular season match-ups. Myles Turner is a year or two away from joining George as a formidably consistent pick-and-roll force. Monta Ellis was a perfect pair in the pick-and-roll with Dirk Nowitzki. In Indiana, Ellis’ lack of range is once again exposed. C.J. Miles is good for one flaming hot stretch every three games. It won’t be nearly enough for the Pacers, who need one more off-the-bounce threat with range (if they could morph Monta and George Hill into one player, that’d help), in addition to bench help and another year of seasoning. Expect PG to have one eruption, and the Pacers avoid the sweep.
Prediction: Raptors in 5.
(3) Heat vs (6) Hornets
Goran Dragic might be the most important player in this series, which is pretty insane when you consider Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Hassan Whiteside, Nic Batum, and Kemba Walker are all involved. The Dragon has been playing well since regaining his health and the Heat have been much better (16-8) since the All-Star Break, when they acquired Joe Johnson from the Nets in what was essentially a give-away. With Whiteside coming off the bench, and Johnson providing range, Dragic has had room to operate. As a reward for his solid play, hustle, and acknowledgment of his role as defensive cog and offensive lob-catcher, Whiteside was rewarded with a starting nod over the past few games of the regular season. Unfortunately for the Heat, the intimidation on the defensive end comes with extremely awkward passing, something resembling dribbling and questionable free-throw shooting (though he has made progress at the line). Whiteside’s value will be interesting to see measured in free agency this offseason. His insane length and shot-altering presence make him rare. His commitment and intensity have been the issues. Clearly, he’s made real progress and is a legit force. Still, how does he fit within a team concept?
Miami’s offense ground to a halt after half-time of the season finale against Boston, when they managed a franchise-record-low five point quarter. Unless Dragic can create and the defense can lead to transition offense, Miami will get bogged down and depend on the elderly Wade to kick-start the half-court offense. It’s hard to trust Joe Johnson at this point, even if he’s shooting 41.7% from deep after the trade.
At the same time, is it easier to trust Charlotte’s free-flowing three-point happy offense? Can they maintain that flow against high-level defense? Much of that question hinges on the health of Nic Batum’s ankle. Batum’s decision-making is the grease that keeps the chain running smoothly. The long-armed physicality of Luol Deng is a perfect antidote. This will force Kemba Walker to create much of the attack by himself, unless Steve Clifford opts to play Jeremy Lin alongside Walker. Lin has had moments this year (especially in the last month) that remind observers of his glorious run in New York. In a shocking win over San Antonio, Lin went for 29 points. Against Toronto, Lin played a great all-around game. When Charlotte beat Boston on Monday, Lin put together a remarkable line of 25/7/5 with 5 steals.
If Miami can slow down Batum and/or limit Lin, the Hornets become less dangerous. However, Justise Winslow has the defensive chops to stay in front of Lin.
Which brings us back to the point guards. Dragic and Kemba. This is going 7 games, and depends on health.
Prediction: Heat in 7.
Separate post coming for Celtics playoff match-up: (4) Hawks vs (5) Celtics