The Eastern Conference is not very good. As the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs got underway, it was pretty clear that the best contenders are coming out of the West. You could even venture a guess that three, maybe four of the teams in the Western Conference could legitimately beat the best of the East in the NBA Finals.
But that doesn’t mean the playoffs have any less intrigue. On the contrary, with such a small margin separating No. 1 from No. 8, there’s more of a chance of great first-round matchups, where any team could win on any given night. Given the complaints about the NBA as a top-heavy league, a little more parity could be really good for the league as a whole. So why not take our shot at predicting the first round of the Eastern Conference?
For a refresher, the Boston Celtics surged late to push past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed. The Toronto Raptors improved their roster at the trade deadline. However, losing Kyle Lowry to an injury set them back in the second half of the season.
The Atlanta Hawks started well early in the year but settled into the fifth seed, having to take on the Washington Wizards in the first round. The Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers, and Chicago Bulls rounded out the bottom three in the playoff picture by finishing at or just above .500.
(1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Chicago Bulls
The Celtics started out the season 13-12. But from that point forward they were one of the very best teams in the NBA. They went on a 40-17 run to finish out the year, thanks in large part to the breakout season of point guard Isaiah Thomas.
One of the smallest players in the league had one of the biggest performances of the 2016–17 season, finishing with averages of 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game. That’s not quite good enough to get Thomas into the MVP conversation, with heavyweights like James Harden and Russell Westbrook having otherworldly seasons, but it was good enough to put his whole team on his back.
On the other side of the court, there’s the Bulls. Led by budding superstar Jimmy Butler and aging playoff veterans and NBA champions, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, the Bulls entered the postseason as an extremely underrated opponent. They struggled to be consistent most of the season, in large part due to their inability to consistently shoot well from the outside. But the Bulls are as talented at the top as most of the teams in the East, which makes them a major wild card.
We cannot tell a lie on this one, it would’ve been tough for anyone to pick the Bulls to actually win this series before a single game took place. But with this series underway, Butler proves to be the best player on the floor and Chicago has shut down Boston in every way imaginable. The Bulls are up 2-0 on the Celtics, with wins on the road as they head to the United Center for two. It would take a lot for the Bulls to screw this one up.
Prediction: Chicago in six games
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Indiana Pacers
The Cavaliers are still the reigning NBA champions, but we have some concerns. Cleveland has been a really, really bad defensive team since the calendar turned to 2017. They’re only a handful of games over .500 during that same period of time. LeBron James is still the best player in the NBA, and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are still quality secondary teammates.
Interestingly enough, you could make an argument that this team is better on paper than they were last year. J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson, Deron Williams, and Kyle Korver round out an excellent supporting cast. Now, they face the Indiana Pacers in the first round, which could be interesting.
The Pacers were in the middle of the pack in both scoring and defense this year, leaning heavily on star forward Paul George to keep them in the playoff conversation. They just barely made it, edging out the Miami Heat. But the second-best player on the Pacers is … Jeff Teague? Myles Turner? With George pushing to move to the Los Angeles Lakers, this could be Indiana’s last good playoff run for a few years.
It’s no surprise that the Cavaliers are out to a 2-0 series lead, but the amount that Cleveland has struggled to put the Pacers away is a bit surprising. They’ve won two games by a combined total of seven points, and a C.J. Miles jumper at the buzzer that went awry in Game 1 was all that stood between Indiana and a 1-0 lead in the series. Still, we’d be shocked if the Pacers stole more than one game from Cleveland.
Prediction: Cavaliers in five games
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
The Toronto Raptors made a deal with the Orlando Magic to bring in Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline. He did a great job filling their hole at power forward. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned the Raptors lost Kyle Lowry for a significant amount of time. He returned to the court for a quick tuneup before the 2017 NBA Playoffs, just as Toronto locked in the No. 3 seed. DeMar DeRozan had his absolute best year of his career, averaging 27.3 points on 46.7% shooting from the field.
The Bucks were just 42-40 on the year, but they’re on an upswing. Milwaukee was just 26-33 at one point, but worked hard to finish the season with a 16-7 stretch. That has a lot to do with breakout star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who averaged 22.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game this year. If you can’t find any other reason to give this playoff series a few hours of your life, watching Giannis do all the ultra-athletic things he’s known to do is a big one.
The Bucks went up into Toronto and stole game one behind 28 points and eight rebounds from Antetokounmpo. The Raptors bounced back, of course, taking Game 2 by a score of 106-100 with both Lowry and DeRozan scoring over 20 points. This is one of the more evenly-matched series in the Eastern Conference, which makes it somewhat of a tossup. The Raptors have more talent, but the best player on the court might just be Antetokounmpo.
Prediction: Raptors in seven games
(4) Washington Wizards vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
The Washington Wizards quietly had their best season in decades — something that got lost in all the talk about the weak Eastern Conference. That’s not really saying much, given the putrid history of the franchise since the ’80s, but it’s good for them. John Wall has developed into one of the most underrated point guards in the NBA, finishing the 2016–17 season with averages of 23.1 points and 10.7 assists. Bradley Beal and forward Otto Porter broke out in a big way this year too. The Wizards are sneakily better than their 49-33 regular-season record indicates.
The Atlanta Hawks, however, really aren’t. Things looked good for them early in the season, with a 9-2 start behind newly-signed free agent center Dwight Howard. But the Hawks traded away shooting guard Kyle Korver and accepted their mediocrity in an attempt to better set themselves up in the future.
Atlanta finished 43-39 on the year, only six games worse than the Wizards. Howard and Paul Millsap are both on the wrong side of 30, and Millsap will likely be gone in free agency this summer. But there are good, young players, such as Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dennis Schroder. There’s plenty to like about the Hawks long-term.
But for the short-term, it’s hard to make a case for Atlanta against the Wizards. You could make an argument that the Hawks have an advantage in the front court, with Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris not exactly setting the world on fire. Washington has been getting out-rebounded all season. But talent wins out in a series, and the Wizards probably have the two best players on the floor in Wall and Beal. Oh, and they also have a 1-0 lead in the series, too.
Prediction: Washington in five games