2017 NBA Playoff Preview: East, Part One (Celtics-Bulls and Cavs-Pacers)

(1) Boston Celtics vs (8) Chicago Bulls

Overly Simplistic Storyline

Plucky and gritty us-against-the-world Celtics face clumsily and oddly assembled Bulls.

Simplistic subplot: Isaiah Thomas and the Cs versus Jimmy Butler and the Bulls

Weaknesses

Boston’s rebounding is non-existent and Isaiah is still their only reliable creator on offense. Boston’s streaky three-point shooting has been an overall plus on the season, but, other than Isaiah and Jae Crowder, it can leave them when things get tight. Playing with a lead (within each game, as well as within the series overall) would go a long way to keeping them loose.

Chicago’s chemistry is closer to junior-high lab-partner level than University research lab level.

Big Picture Questions

Can Boston advance to the Conference Finals? This is the question most are waiting to have answered. Unfortunately you have to play the first round…first. If Isaiah has a strong playoff performance, it will go a long way toward convincing Danny Ainge to consider a long-term deal. If not, Isaiah’s dominant offensive season will fade into the background and the doubters will grow. Going forward in these playoffs, the Celtics will need two of these four (Horford, Bradley, Crowder, and Olynyk) from their supporting cast to score consistently. Jaylen Brown’s slashing ability will be put to the test if none of those four can get hot.

Isaiah Thomas had a fantastic regular season. Can he make it a fantastic playoff run?

Why were both Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo added to this team? In a league that demands spacing more than ever, the Bulls shrank the court for their excellent two-way star, Jimmy Butler. Then, as things predictably fell apart, they benched Rondo, experimented with all sorts of lineups, traded two of their better role players (Gibson and McDermott) and eventually Wade went down with a fractured elbow. Then they started playing well. Nikola Mirotic went on a three-point rampage, knocking down 41% from deep, averaging 14 points and 6 rebounds in 27 min/game after the All-Star break. Now Wade is back, and the rudderless Bulls are guaranteed to implode around their unfortunate star, Jimmy Butler.

Prediction: Celtics in 5.

***

(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs (7) Indiana Pacers

Overly Simplistic Storyline

Bored Cavs team that stopped playing defense after January faces Paul George and a mediocre supporting cast.

Simplistic subplot: The Cavs played so well without Tristan Thompson (against Boston on April 5) because they had four shooters surrounding LeBron, and Kevin Love grabbed six offensive rebounds in the first half. They can out-shoot Indiana 4 games out of 5.

Weaknesses

With the exception of a playoff-ready performance in Boston, the Cavs haven’t found a sense of urgency in their final twenty games, which finally dropped them to the second seed. Does it matter? Probably not. LeBron’s six straight Finals-runs seem to have sapped everyone around him and inevitably, taken a mental toll on himself. Still, the Cavs are loaded with shooting and have LeBron. They’re still the clear favorites in the East, but look vulnerable…at least until they show they can flip the switch.

Paul George’s biggest problem is similar to Jimmy Butler’s. A lack of spacing and rim protection means that too much of the weight (offensively and defensively) is heaped on one man’s shoulders. Indiana is 4th in 3-Pt% but 27th in three-pointers attempted. This tells us they took good looks. Those will dry up in the playoffs. Rebounding is also a real issue for Indiana. They prefer to play small and jump passing lanes, which will enable Kevn Love and Tristan Thompson to have some fun on the glass.

Big Picture Questions

Incorporating Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and Derrick Williams in the last two months has given them much needed depth. Getting J.R. Smith back healthy will provide a defensive boost in the playoffs. LeBron played too many minutes in the first half and was wisely thought to be conserving himself for the playoffs. But the body language doesn’t look great in Cleveland. More like this year is a desk job, not a vision quest.

How many more great years does LeBron have in him? Eastern foes hope by the 2020 Election, we will see an end to his dominance.

Indiana is at a crossroads. Will they sell their souls to the devil? Will Paul George don the purple and gold of the Lakers in October? Four years ago, when the Pacers made their improbable playoff run, George took a major leap. He was 23. The world opened up for him. Roy Hibbert was Dikembe Mutombo. Four years later, the Pacers are hoping and praying that George wants to stay.

Prediction: Cavs in 5.

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