1. Milwaukee Bucks (60–22) vs. 8. Detroit Pistons (41–41)
This will be billed as Giannis vs Blake. Giannis is everything a team needs in one very large human being. His length gets all the attention, but his speed and agility are insane. The way he contorts himself makes him impossible to defend in the post. He’s as nimble a power forward as we’ve seen in NBA history, and his pure speed gives him openings in transition that simply wouldn’t exist for most players. And he can’t even shoot threes (25.6%!). Giannis can maneuver around pretty much any defender except maybe Gobert. Andre Drummond, despite his own improvement offensively, is not going to bother Giannis too much. Blake Griffin has vastly improved his range, and is unleashing with zero hesitation (attempting 7 threes per game this year, which is astounding, when you consider what his jumper looked like in 2014. Griffin has become the consistent play-making whiz that he occasionally showcased when CP3 was injured in Clipperland, which Giannis has showcased since Day 1. Blake even stayed healthy…until the last few days of the regular season. Now his knee status is uncertain, which begs the question: If a tree falls in a Michigan forest when no one is around to hear it, during the first round of the playoffs, did the Pistons really make the playoffs?
Also..the Bucks are legit. Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe are very skilled two-way players, with Bledsoe finishing at the rim better than he has in years, thanks to the space created by…Brook Lopez, who is altering shots and clearing out would-be rebounders with his masterful tae-kwan-do down low. Don’t expect these games to be close.
Semi-Educated Guess: Bucks in 4
2. Toronto Raptors (58–24) vs. 7. Orlando Magic (42–40)
Somehow, despite the fact that Kawhi Leonard has had a redemptive and all-around wonderful season, and Pascal Siakam has risen to the status of Giannis Jr., and the depth makes their bench better than most others…and Marc Gasol gives them well-oiled passing mojo…somehow I can’t shake the fact that Raptors have problems in the playoffs…even if it’s only Kyle Lowry and a few others that linger from those years of frustration.
Orlando’s ascendance from a motley crew of skilled players with no chemistry or much coaching to a second half juggernaut (22–9 over the last 31). The last time Orlando won more than 37 games was 2012..so let’s appreciate the progress they’ve made to get to the second season. How have they done it? If you don’t have a point guard, then make your small forward (Aaron Gordon) and your center (Nic Vucevic) distributors. And play defense. Coach Steve Clifford seems to understand how to convey pick-and-roll defense better than most.
Still…Toronto is far too talented and level-headed now (Kawhi, Gasol) to break under the playoff pressure.
Semi-Educated Guess: Raptors in 6
3. Philadelphia 76ers (51–31) vs. 6. Brooklyn Nets (42–40)
It’s not hyperbole to say Joel Embiid’s knee may very well determine who wins the Eastern Conference portion of the playoff bracket. Embiid’s on/off numbers are shocking. He has been an MVP candidate..he just hasn’t played enough games (64) to compete with Giannis and Harden for the award. Embiid is still only 25. Philly stocked up on shooting by adding Tobias Harris at the deadline, and they can score without Embiid by going to Jimmy Butler, but Embiid is the fulcrum, while Ben Simmons towers over opposing defenders, finding passing angles…and J.J. Redick and Harris wait for the swing pass in the corners. The ceiling of this Sixers team is similar to the Bucks because of Embiid and the fact that their lack of depth is less likely to hurt them in the playoffs, where few go more than eight players deep, barring injury.
Meanwhile, the Nets have emerged from the last several years of draft pick emptiness with talented, gritty swagger. D’Angelo Russell (only 22) is like a more talented Sam Cassell. After a rocky beginning to his career, he’s landed himself on the NBA map with the freedom to shoot (37% from deep is much more of a threat than 32%) opening up his skittery drives. Caris LeVert is back from injury. Spencer Dinwiddie is a craftsman, but his lack of explosiveness is a bigger problem against playoff defense. The Nets have emulated the Warriors and Bucks, integrating the defensive philosophy of switchable 6'5" to 6'8" wings being a priority and containing the pick-heavy NBA. They have one of the game’s best shooters in Joe Harris (47% from deep). They just can’t beat Joel Embiid. Few can.
Semi-Educated Guess: 76ers in 6.
4. Boston Celtics (49–33) vs. 5. Indiana Pacers (48–34)
The Celtics survived this regular season. That’s all that can be said about the last 82 games. Expectations that were borne out of razor-thin playoff success (they won only one road playoff game last year), and the absence of two stars started things off with leprechaun rainbow delusion, which was rekindled by their mid-season dominance. Sadly, the .500 stretch they finished the last third of the season with hasn’t provoked much optimism. And yet..Al Horford is healthy and there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs! Kyrie is still capable of doing ridiculous things with the basketball and his spins. What Boston gets from Hayward, Tatum and Jaylen Brown offensively will likely determine how long they last this April..and/or May…and/or June.
Marcus Smart’s oblique is torn. Kyrie Irving is torn about staying or going after June. Celtics fans, after expecting so much this year, are torn about what to expect in the playoffs. Brown gets a huge opportunity to prove last year’s playoff success was no fluke. Hayward gets a chance to show his performance over the last six weeks is closer to the genuine Gordon article.
The Pacers need Bojan Bogdanovic to have two huge games: he had 30 in Game 3 of the Pacers 1st Round series with Cleveland last year. Thaddeus Young remains the Gumby of the NBA. Myles Turner’s range and interior defense can create problems. Domantas Sabonis comes off the bench with a fury on the glass and his passing is downright peripheral. Still…not enough off-the-dribble-crunch-time scoring for the Pacers. That’s where Oladipo’s absence will hurt the most.
Semi-Educated Guess: Celtics in 7