NBA: Eastern Conference Playoff Preview, Predictions & Picks

LeBron JamesConference quarterfinals kick off this Saturday April 16th with match-ups between the #2 Toronto Raptors and #7 Indiana Pacers (12.30pm ET) and the #4 Atlanta Hawks and #5 Boston Celtics (7pm ET).

While often considered the weaker conference in the NBA, this year the East is full of teams who are poised and ready to dethrone the Cleveland Cavaliers as Eastern Conference Champions, including two who play on the first day of games.

However, it is fair to say that doing so won’t be easy as LeBron James (pictured), current Cavs star and one of the best all-around players in the league, has won the East and reached the NBA Finals every year since 2011.

[quote]The Sportsbooks’ Odds: Cleveland Cavaliers -260, Toronto Raptors +500, Miami Heat +1400, Boston Celtics +1400, Atlanta Hawks +1400, Charlotte Hornets +3300, Detroit Pistons +5000, Indiana Pacers +6600.[/quote]

James, who is averaging a line of 28.8 PPG, 7.8 APG and 8.4 RPG in the month of April and who enters the postseason coming off of back-to-back 30+ point games, isn’t the only reason why Cleveland are definitive odds-on favorites.

Even though the team is 1-5 when James has been out of the lineup this season, the way they have shown the ability to play cohesively as a unit has been one of Cleveland’s biggest strengths.

In addition to James’ production, Cleveland is bolstered by a top of the line starting unit featuring Kyrie Irving, who is averaging 21.4 points and 6.4 assists per game in the month of April. Irving, who was rested in the regular season finale, is also coming off of a 30+ point game, 35 to be exact, tied for his season high.

Beyond Irving, is Kevin Love, who is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in the month of April. He is coming off of back-to-back double doubles and has recorded a double double in seven of his last 11 games. Like James and Irving, he was rested in the regular season finale.

Together, this trio is playing some of their best basketball of late and if you add in the consistent production of JR Smith (16 PPG in April) and Tristan Thompson (7.1 RPG in April), Cleveland boasts one of the best all-around teams in the conference.

The team averages an Eastern Conference second best 104.3 points on offense and also second best, 98.3 points to their opponents on defense. Only Boston (105.7) has more on offense and only Toronto (98.2), just barely bests the Cavs on defense. And when looking at teams that could possibly knock the Cavaliers off of that pedestal, these two would be the ones to do so.

Toronto enters as second favorites and really is the only other team close to Cleveland in that regard. The Raptors wrapped up the regular season with franchise bests in wins with 56 including each of their last four and six of their last eight.

Leading the way has been DeMar DeRozan, who is averaging 23.5 points on the season. The six-year veteran has really come into his own this year as his points, assists, free throw percentage and three point field goal percentage are the highest they have been in his career.

Alongside Villanova graduate, Kyle Lowry, who is averaging nine year career bests as well with 21.2 points per game, 2.1 steals per game, 4.7 rebounds per game and a .388 shooting percentage from behind the arc, these two have been a great one-two punch for the Raptors all season long. They have been the biggest reason for the team’s success thus far and will continue to determine how far Toronto can go in the playoffs.

As for the Celtics, they are a bit of a dark horse and a longshot at +1400. However, this team has achieved more this season than most would have expected and have done so with a rock solid starting five, all of whom average at least seven points per game and four of whom are in double digits for scoring.

The team, which is the highest scoring in all of the NBA, also has a stacked bench with both Evan Turner (10.5 PPG), Marcus Smart (10.1 PPG) and Kelly Olynyk (10 PPG) averaging in double digit scoring marks as well.

Boston is riding a hot stretch, coming off of wins in five of their last seven including the season finale, which saw the Celtics storm back from a 26 point deficit to defeat the Heat by 10. Isaiah Thomas, the team’s leading scorer, averaging 22.2 points and 6.2 assists per game, had the game high with 21.

The Match-Ups

  • Indiana Pacers vs Toronto Raptors
  • Boston Celtics vs Atlanta Hawks
  • Detroit Pistons vs Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Charlotte Hornets vs Miami Heat

There are some pretty cut and dry match-ups here with the only potential for upset being Boston vs Atlanta. These two teams were as close as close could be in the regular season standings with Atlanta just barely edging out their playoff opponents by one game.

These two teams have faced each other in the postseason 11 times with Boston winning 10 of those series including first round meetings in 2008 and 2012 most recently. Psychologically, these kind of streaks have a way of playing mind games and given the discrepancy between the two teams is at the bare minimum, this might be all Boston needs to emerge victorious. Home field advantage could play into things for Atlanta’s favor but Boston has been a better than average team on the road this year so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. I’ll take Boston in six for this one.

As for the other series, like I said, don’t expect any grand surprises. There is a hierarchy between the top seeds and the bottom, especially in the East where not every team that makes the playoffs would in fact make the playoffs if they weren’t determined purely by conference.

My preview’s betting picks verdict would be: Toronto in five. Cleveland in a sweep. Miami in five too.

So your Final Four would be: Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. At that point, the match-ups that are set up have a lot of intrigue and if Cleveland is to be dethroned as conference champ, expect the pieces to start falling into place at the conference semifinals.