NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs: Preview and Predictions
(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (8) Brooklyn Nets
At 60-22, the Hawks earned the East’s best record. Their reward? A first-round opponent who’s the least inspired of the bunch. Ex-Net Paul Pierce rently ripped into the Brooklyn roster, citing a lack of passion on the team and especially calling out Deron Williams. For an efficient, driven team like Atlanta — who have been playing with a Georgia-sized chip on their shoulder all year — this should make for some fast work.
Verdict: Hawks in 5
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Boston Celtics
The East’s down-to-the-wire race for its two final playoff spots netted us the feistiest of the pack in the form of the Celtics. Brad Stevens’ young team is one of the conference’s surprise stories this year, consistently finding ways to win in the second half of the season, despite a lot of game-changing action at the trade deadline. But they’re no true rival for LeBron James and the Cavaliers, who have improved in every facet as their first year together has gone along. The Cavs are the favorites to break out of the conference, and Boston isn’t the team to break those odds.
Verdict: Cavaliers in 4
(3) Chicago Bulls vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
It’s been a disjointed year for Chicago, who came into the year with title expectations and closed it with uncertainty about whether head coach Tom Thibodeau would still have a job this summer. Make no mistake, though: this is still one of the league’s most talented, potent teams. Their first-round foe from Milwaukee has finished the season with a surprising amount of fight in them, but their unseasoned ways and lack of outside shooting will inevitably do them in against the Bulls, and probably in short order.
Verdict: Bulls in 5
(4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Washington Wizards
Now with the Wizards, Pierce has already made his imprint on this series, too. The veteran has said that the Raptors don’t scare him and his squad, and so this bout kicks off with built-in intrigue. And the Raptors shouldn’t scare Washington, who in John Wall has by far the most transcendent figure of either team. What should scare Wizards fans, though, is their coach Randy Wittman, who has hamstrung their efforts with short-sighted strategy for months now. On talent alone, Washington is the clear favorite — but they lose some chips in their stack by often not knowing what they’re doing out there.
Verdict: Wizards in 7
(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Washington Wizards
Atlanta’s easy times will end abruptly in the second round. Without Thabo Sefolosha (who’s out for the year with a busted leg) and with a potentially compromised Paul Millsap (who’s nursing a shoulder injury), they should have about all they can handle in the Wizards. Washington faltered against the Indiana Pacers in last year’s second round; they had Indiana beat in most games, but coughed up leads in a state of seeming nervousness. Expect them to execute with more confidence in their trip back to this stage of the postseason dance, and make things very interesting. Atlanta, though, should ultimately have just enough to eke by them.
Verdict: Hawks in 7
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (3) Chicago Bulls
And so begins the Bulls’ fight for their coach’s job, and for the right to continue with their core. Several years with their current nucleus seem to have snowballed into a critical mass of organizational pressure to make something happen this year. The Bulls will be playing for this version of their basketball lives, and in their fear they might make this duel with Cleveland into the most watchable series of the playoffs. Kyrie Irving and Co. will have their way in the end, however, and Chicago will be left with some very strained decisions to make.
Verdict: Cavaliers in 7
Eastern Conference Finals
(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron will once again flex his biggest — though often unnoticed — muscle in this series: his health. The Hawks have had an impressive run to the top of the conference, but they’ve been beset by injuries minor and major over the season’s closing weeks, and it seems like too much to ask for them to continue their insane winning pace. They’ll still make life difficult for Cleveland, as they’re just about the smartest team in the game. But without the extra body of Sefolosha to put on James and slow him down, the Hawks aren’t in a fair fight anymore.
Verdict: Cavaliers in 6
— John Wilmes