Eastern Conference First-Round Playoff Preview
It's finally here. After 82 regular season games, the NBA playoffs are upon us. In this post, we'll take a look at each first round match-up in the East. 97.3 Sixers columnists Brandon Apter and Josh Liddick predict who'll make it through to semi-finals. On Friday, we'll go through the Western Conference.
Toronto Raptors (1) vs. Washington Wizards (8) - Season series 2-2
The top-seeded Raptors head into the playoffs winning four of their last six games with wins over Boston, Indiana, Orlando and Detroit. Toronto has had the best record in the East through the majority of 2018 and will rely heavily on the talents of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry in round one against a pesky Wizards team. The Raptors rank third in the NBA in points per game (111.7), sixth in points allowed (103.9) and field-goal percentage (.472). Toronto has made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, but has been eliminated by LeBron James and the Cavs in the last two years.
Washington stumbles into the playoffs having lost nine of their last 12 and five of their last six, including losses to the lowly Magic, Hawks and Knicks. They just signed veteran point guard Ty Lawson for the playoffs and while the Wizards have a strong core of talent that includes John Wall, Bradley Beal and Kelly Oubre, they seem to be faltering down the stretch. They have been held to under 100 points in four of their last eight games and John Wall is still working his way back from injury that had him miss games from the end of January until the end of March. Their leading scorer, Bradley Beal, averaged 22 points, five rebounds and 4.4 assists over the final five games of the regular season
Prediction - Brandon: Raptors in 5, Josh: Raptors in 5
Boston Celtics (2) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (7) - Season series 2-2
Although they were unable to retain the top seed in the East due to a slew of injuries, the Celtics have still proven to have the ability to win games without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. After winning six in a row to close out the month of March, Boston lost four of six in April, falling to the Bucks, Raptors, Hawks and Wizards. The Celtics are 9-6 since Irving was officially sidelined for the season and playoffs. The Celtics rank 20th in the NBA in points per game (104), but rank third in the league in points allowed (100.4). Boston has been led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford. Brown shot 50 percent from the floor and 58.3 percent from beyond the arc over the final five regular season games and is averaging 14.8 points per game against the Bucks this season. Jayson Tatum has been consistent from beyond all season with a 43.4 percentage.
Milwaukee heads into their series against Boston having won five of their last eight, but their final game of the regular season against Philadelphia was very bad. After winning two in a row, the Sixers and Bucks met in a potential first-round series, but Philadelphia led wire-to-wire and won by 35 points. After missing two games to an ankle injury, Giannis Antetokounmpo only scored 10 points in the final regular season game, but he'll likely ramp things up for the postseason and return to his usual form. Milwaukee is shooting 47.8 percent overall as a team this season, third best in the NBA and rank second in steals (8.8). The Bucks will hope to get big contributions from Eric Bledsoe in addition to Giannis and Jabari Parker as Milwaukee gave up a first-round pick to acquire the vet.
Prediction - Brandon: Celtics in 7, Josh: Celtics in 5
Philadelphia 76ers (3) vs. Miami Heat (6) - Season series 2-2
Philadelphia comes into the playoffs as the hottest team in the NBA. Not ever before has a team in the league won 16 straight games to end the regular season. Just two seasons ago, the Sixers won 10 games, and they finished 2017-18 with 52. Armed with a young core that includes the likes of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz and others, Philadelphia has a real chance to make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals if they keep doing what they're doing. The Sixers are second in the NBA in assists (27.1), lead the league in rebounds (47.4) and are in the top-10 in field-goal percentage and three-point shooting. It hasn't been determined when Joel Embiid will return, but the Sixers have proven that their depth can win them games without the big man in the lineup. Veteran sharp-shooter JJ Redick averaged 23 points on 52.7 percent shooting from the floor and 52.3 percent from beyond in six April games. He missed the regular season finale with back tightness, but should be good to go on Saturday as an integral piece to Philadelphia's lineup.
The Heat ride into the playoffs coming off of a dramatic 116-109 overtime victory against the top seeded Raptors on Wednesday night. The Heat are a team that prides themselves on defense, ranking fourth in the league in points allowed per game (102.9). All-star point guard Goran Dragic is averaging 17 points on 47.8 shooting and 39.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc since the All-Star Break and is a 91 percent foul shooter, so Philadelphia, a team that fouls more than any other in the league, will need to play disciplined in order to keep Miami away from the free throw line. The Sixers will have their hands full if Joel Embiid misses more than a game since Miami boasts one of the more effective centers in the game. Hassan Whiteside is averaging 15.3 points and 9.5 rebounds against the Sixers this season. Kelly Olynyk is also a guy to watch for Miami. The 26-year-old is shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor this season and has the ability to hit the three as well.
Prediction - Brandon: Sixers in 7, Josh: Sixers in 6
Cleveland Cavaliers (4) vs. Indiana Pacers (5) - Indiana won season series 3-1
LeBron James and the Cavs finish the season winners of six of their last eight games, but suffered a 12-point loss to the Knicks in their regular season finale. Cleveland completely switched things up at the trade deadline, dealing Isaiah Thomas and acquiring a good amount of young talent in Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood. Those three only have 11 combined games of playoff experience between them, but we all know the biggest focus here is LeBron James. In 217 playoff games, The King is averaging 28.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 6.9 assists, shooting 48.5 percent from the floor. His shooting percentages sunk in April, but the perennial MVP candidate is averaging 28.8 points, 10.3 assists and 8.5 rebounds on 55.8 percent shooting against Indiana this season. Don't expect the final regular season loss affect James, who will pick things up and be on a completely different level in the playoffs. Cleveland is ranked fifth in points per game (110.9) and field-goal percentage (.476). Forward Kevin Love finished the regular season shooting 54.8 percent from beyond the arc over the last four games. Cleveland swept Indiana in four games in last year's opening round.
Indiana has made the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons, but face a tough test against a team that eliminated them to open the postseason in 2017. They have made two Eastern Conference Finals appearances in the last five years and handled the Cavs in three out of four games this season. The Pacers are led by Most Improved Player of the Year candidate Victor Oladipo. He averaged 23.1 points per game this season and also achieved career-highs in rebounds (5.2), assists (4.3) and steals (2.4). In four games against the Cavs this season, the former second overall pick is averaging 25 points, five assists and 4.8 rebounds. In transition, the Pacers average 1.35 points per chance when Oladipo is on the court, which is second best in the NBA. Myles Turner will be a key guy if the Pacers intend to move past the Case, but the big man is averaging just 4.2 points and 2.6 rebounds over the last five games.
Prediction - Brandon: Cavs in 5, Josh: Cavs in 6
Brandon Apter is a contributor to 97.3 ESPN and managing editor at SportsTalkPhilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @bapter23