It was an interesting year in the Eastern Conference as we had the familiar faces in Cleveland and Toronto return the playoffs, but also a few surprises as the Celtics grabbed the #1 seed and Milwaukee Bucks returned to the playoffs. Below are my previews and predictions for all four Eastern Conference playoff series.
#8 Chicago Bulls vs. #1 Boston Celtics
Thanks to a lackluster regular season performance by Cleveland, 53 wins was all it took for the Boston Celtics to clinch home court throughout the Eastern Conference. The big signing over the summer was free agent center Al Horford, who left the Hawks to join Boston. However, the biggest story of the season for the Celtics was Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 29 points per game (3rd in NBA) and dominated the fourth quarter all season to the point of being in the MVP conversation. The Bulls have been an up and down team all year, but with a trio of playoff veterans on their team, it will provide a tough matchup for the Celtics. Rajon Rondo will have some excellent motivation against his old team and has the ability to expose Thomas on defense, while Jimmy Butler had a fantastic season and is arguably the Bulls best player. Throw Dwayne Wade into the mix and the Celtics may have their hands full right off the bat in these playoffs. However, I think they break through and win their first playoff series since the The Big 3 era. Celtics in 7.
#7 Indiana Pacers vs. #2 Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers begin their quest for a third straight Eastern Conference title by taking on the Indiana Pacers in somewhat of a renewed rivalry. Lebron James faced against the Pacers three straight years, including two straight Eastern Conference Finals, as a member of the Heat and won the series every time. The key matchup will of course be Lebron James against Paul George. George had another great season, but the team around him is nowhere near as good as it was when he was playing Lebron in the Conference Finals. James is having yet another MVP caliber year, and with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving healthy, the Cavs should have no problem disposing of Indiana. Cleveland sweeps Indiana.
#6 Milwaukee Bucks vs. #3 Toronto Raptors
The young Bucks surprised many people this year by returning to the playoffs, and look like a team that wants to make a run as well. Giannis Antetokounmpo, aka the Greek Freak, became the first player in NBA history to finish Top 20 in the NBA in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. With young stars such as Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton, this may be the beginning of things to come for the Bucks. On the other side, Toronto is back in the playoffs again led by their star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan. The Raptors took the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year before losing, and will be looking to make a return appearance. The addition of Serge Ibaka at the deadline helps improve their front court depth and teams an excellent shot blocker up with fellow big man Jonas Valunciunas. I think this will be the biggest upset of the first round. The Greak Freek will have a monster series and Bucks will beat the Raptors in 6.
#5 Atlanta Hawks vs. #4 Washington Wizards
There weren’t a lot of expectations for the Atlanta Hawks this year after losing star center Al Horford to free agency over the summer. However, the addition of Dwight Howard and the excellent play of Paul Millsap and Dennis Schroeder have Atlanta back in the playoffs for the tenth straight year. Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards may have exceeded expectations even more than the Hawks did this season. The dynamic back court of John Wall and Bradley Beal not only carried the Wizards to a playoff berth after a miserable year last year, they got home court advantage in the first round. The Wizards went 3-1 against the Hawks this year, but after briefly owning the #2 seed at one point they were mediocre down the stretch. Meanwhile, Atlanta put together impressive wins against Boston and Cleveland (twice) in the final weeks of the season to finish strong. I think Atlanta’s veteran team will carry them past the relative newcomers in this series. Hawks beat Wizards in 6.
Let me know what your predictions are in the comments down below.