When push comes to shove. After tonight, eight teams will remain. The four everyone expected to emerge in the East have indeed emerged. Here’s my Eastern Conference Semifinal Preview.
(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs (4) Boston Celtics
I’d love to tell you the Celtics have found the proverbial “switch” after sweeping the offensively-challenged Pacers. I’d love to tell you that everything about their rotation (eight instead of nine) has fallen into place now that their best perimeter defender, Marcus Smart, (not likely in first few games, but I’m guessing he convinces the medical staff he can play by Game 5), has been sidelined with an oblique injury. I’d love to tell you that Gordon Hayward is officially back after putting his imprint on the clinching Game 4 last Sunday. I hope the above are all true, but I’d say that there is no “switch,” Smart’s strengths were less needed against a limited Pacers team (no OIadipo meant little dynamism off the dribble), and Hayward will continue to have a few very good games and some decent ones, mostly because he won’t be a main feature of this Celtics offense. Still, the Celtics won four straight games by playing great in the 4th quarters while the Pacers couldn’t match that intensity or hit big shots when needed.
Meanwhile, the Bucks annihilated the both the Griffin-less Pistons (Games 1 and 2) and the Griffin-ful Pistons (Games 3 and 4), just as expected. Giannis is an MVP because he can do everything except shoot from distance. Boston will throw everyone from Al Horford to Jaylen Brown to Marcus Morris to Semi Ojeleye at Giannis. Most experts expect Celtics coach Brad Stevens to gameplan/hope for one of two things: a) Giannis goes for 40, but is rarely double-teamed, which keeps the following Bucks (Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Nikola Mirotic, George Hill) from finding an offensive rhythm and keeps the Celtics in the game. b) Giannis gets in foul trouble and the Bucks became a very human group without their MVP.
Stevens will likely ask help defenders to take countless charges on Giannis in the hopes of getting him out of the game. It’s unlikely the Celtics get those 50/50 block-charge calls in Milwaukee. Stevens will also emphasize limiting turnovers, as the Bucks’ length and speed make them deadly in transition. Keeping Bledsoe and Giannis out of the open court will be a priority.
Meanwhile, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer will grease the wheels for Brook Lopez, Hill, and Mirotic early, hoping one of them gets hot from deep. With their defense, Milwaukee doesn’t need to hit more than 35% of its threes to win, but Boston does a great job of limiting corner 3s, which makes Lopez’ 27- footers (un-blockable due to his height) extra important. Lopez’ size and savvy instincts help Milwaukee limit opponents at the rim. You don’t have to block shots to make life miserable for penetrating opponents, but Milwaukee gets blocks and alterations, making the pull-up/floater extra important. Kyrie has those shots in his arsenal. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum sometimes have that mid-range slashing touch and other times do not.
Even if Al Horford is draining multiple 20–25 footers, and Marcus Morris hits his first few catch-and-shoot 3s, the Celtics offense will be Kyrie-focused and Kyrie will have to play close to 40 minutes to keep them afloat. The Bucks are that versatile and that good defensively, and they’ll keep Brown and Tatum out of transition. They were one of the few teams to genuinely limit James Harden this year, by devising a strategy that overloaded Harden’s left-handed and forced him into the paint (where they defend well without fouling thanks to Lopez and Middleton).
This series will either be a tightly-contested series of chess matches between Stevens and Budenholzer, or the Bucks will simply overwhelm the Celtics and blow them out a couple times en route to a 5 or 6 game series win. My hope is that the Celtics’ experience and Brad Stevens’ adjustments allow them to force a Game 7, squeaking out a win early in the series.
Semi-Educated Guess: Bucks in 7 (hope I’m wrong and Celtics in 7)
(2) Toronto Raptors vs (3) Philadelphia 76ers
Kawhi. Marc Gasol. Danny Green. Pascal Siakam. There are not the old Raptors, and they showed that in Games 2–5 against the over-matched but promising Orlando Magic. These Raptors are not nervous and they won’t carry the baggage of previous Raptors teams, even if Toronto fans remain somewhat snake-bitten from past failures. This is the Toronto team that will gather momentum as these playoffs unfold. They will beat the talented-but-Embiid-heavy Sixers. Likely in 5 or 6 games.
If Embiid’s knee were closer to 90% healthy and this version of the Sixers had another three months to coalesce and gain continuity, then it might be a brutally close 7-gamer. Remember that Butler, Harris, Mike Scott, and the Boban all came over mid-season.
Meanwhile, Gasol’s passing (which also came over at the trade deadline) has enabled Toronto to find a fluidity they’ve never had before. Siakam’s unstoppable penetration and Kawhi’s herky-jerky isolation turn-around jumpers make these Raptors a half-court juggernaut, as well as a defensively-menacing quintet. The fact that egos take a back seat on Toronto is a testament to the quiet greatness of Kawhi, the selflessness of Kyle Lowry, and the unshakable early emergence of Pascal Siakam. With a different mentality, Siakam would feel an urge to lay his claim to All-Star ascendance in these playoffs. Instead, he knows the consensus is that he will get there, and that he could lead a less-talented team right now. First things first. Toronto will get by Philadelphia and then face an equally tough and talented Milwaukee team in the East Finals (unless Kyrie comes up with some serious magic against the Bucks.).
Semi-Educated Guess: Raptors in 6. (Could be Five if Embiid’s knee acts up)