The NBA postseason is upon us as 16 of the league’s top teams prepare for stiff competition en route to crowning the champion.
Eight of these teams come from the Eastern Conference, which this year has provided for quite a surprising playoff bracket. You can read about the Western Conference bracket and predictions for who will win the conference here.
As far as the East goes, there has been a definite shakeup at the top as for the first time in close to a decade, a Lebron James-led team is not one of the top-three seeds in the East. Those honors belong to the Toronto Raptors, who secured the top seed for the first time in franchise history. Then there is the Boston Celtics, who overcame an injury to Kyrie Irving to stay in the second seed. Most surprisingly, there is the Philadelphia 76ers, who have finally completed their journey from tanking to trophy-chasing, earning the third seed over Cleveland in a finish that saw them win 16 straight.
In all, four of the East’s eight playoff teams won at least 50 games, with all eight winning 43 or more. This marks the first time in several years that the conference isn’t sending any teams with a winning percentage below .500. It just goes to show how competitive the Eastern Conference has become and also suggests how closely contested these first round series could be.
#1 Raptors vs #8 Wizards
Toronto’s 59 wins set a new franchise record for the team as they earned their first-ever top seed in the Eastern Conference. Led by a formidable unit, the Raptors were the class of the conference this year, thoroughly dominating en route to the NBA’s second-best record this year. They’ll be taking on the Wizards, a team that has had a disappointing season by most metrics. Washington was without top player John Wall for much of the year and just snuck into the playoffs compared to last year, when they were the East’s fourth seed.
That being said, the Wizards were one of few teams this season that can say they had a .500 record against the Raptors, as the two teams split their four-game series during the regular season.
Toronto should be headed for the second round thanks to the presence of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, both of whom have been spectacular this year. If the Raptors can avoid reverting to their historically bad playoff habits, they should be fine. Washington will look to steal a game or two behind Wall, and if the Raptors do embrace their negative playoff ways, could even steal the series. But as things look, our predictions and pick with the United States of America-friendly sportsbooks would be Toronto (-600) in five. However this preview could never realistically recommend such short betting odds, so just enjoy the series.
#2 Celtics vs #7 Bucks
For the first-half of the season, it seemed that the Celtics were once again headed for the top-seed, which would have been their second year in a row of doing so. Then the team was dealt a devastating blow as top-star and one of the league’s top players, Kyrie Irving, was injured. Irving is out for the playoffs meaning that Boston could struggle.
It was a bumpy road for the Bucks, who looked absolutely terrible in their season finale against the Sixers. But some said Milwaukee was almost glad to lose that game as it set them up for the seventh seed and a chance to pull off an upset against a less-than 100 percent Celtics team.
Without the injured Irving, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart, Boston could have trouble with their offensive production. If Milwaukee and Giannis Antekuompo can take advantage of that on both ends of the court, this series could go the Bucks’ way. Our betting pick and prediction is the Bucks (+150) in seven.
#3 Sixers vs #6 Heat
Five years ago, the Sixers were the laughing stock of the NBA. They were in the middle of a great tanking experiment, one that would see the team win no more than 20 games and fail to reach the playoffs since the 2011-12 season. It would also see the Sixers pick up once-in-a-generation talents such as Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, thanks to high draft picks. Those guys are why Philadelphia enters the postseason as the third seed and as the league’s hottest team, having won their last 16 regular season games.
Miami is an incredibly postseason-tested and veteran team by contrast. They’ve been in this position before and while they lack the pure raw talent of Philadelphia, that experience could yield major dividends if playoff yips strike the Sixers.
If the Heat can find a way to control the pace and stifle the dynamic Sixers offense, they could be in position to win this series. However, even with Embiid potentially out for the entire first round, Philadelphia has shown they can win without him. This preview expects the Sixers (-400) to grind this one out in five.
#4 Cavaliers vs #5 Pacers
This is an unfamiliar situation for Cleveland and Lebron James, who find themselves outside of the top-three for the first time in close to a decade. What is not unfamiliar is the matchup however, as this is the second year in a row Indiana and Cleveland will be meeting in the playoffs.
The Cavaliers have failed to play consistently all season long and after a slow start, notably blew up the entire team midseason with a new crop of players. Those moves worked out for Cleveland but not enough for the team to surpass the Sixers for the third seed. The Pacers meanwhile have been one of the league’s biggest surprises, and actually won their season series with Cleveland, 3-1.
But Cleveland with James is so good that all they need to do is flip the switch and everything could change in an instant. Indiana will give them a challenge no doubt and this should come down to the wire, but James will single-handedly make sure his team doesn’t have a first round exit. It is not a betting proposition, but the prediction is the Cavaliers (-700) in six.