The 2016-17 NBA season ended with a bang on Wednesday night as the final teams and final seeds were decided for the postseason, which begins this weekend. If the end to the regular season is any indication, we’re certainly in for a treat as the Cleveland Cavaliers look to defend their championship.
Speaking of those Cavaliers, perhaps the biggest development to come out of Wednesday night’s regular season finale, was that Cleveland lost against the Toronto Raptors, with it losing the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. That belongs to the Boston Celtics, who have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA down the stretch. They’ve proven they can be a formidable foe to Cleveland in the East, a conference which has been won by a LeBron James led team each of the last five seasons.
Boston will have their work cut out for them if they want to dethrone Cleveland as the top team in the East, but they’re already off to a good start wrestling that top seed away. It’s very likely the road to the Eastern Conference championship runs through these two teams, but, nothing is guaranteed and with some young, hungry squads emerging late in the season, it’s true that come postseason time, anything can happen.
Make sure to check back tomorrow for our preview of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Firstly, here we give our Eastern Conference playoff preview with predictions and picks.
#1 Boston Celtics vs #8 Chicago Bulls – Game 1 – Sunday, April 16 – 6:30 PM ET – TNT
It was an up and down season for the #1 ranked team in the Eastern Conference, who won 53 games during the regular season. The Celtics benefitted from various stretches of great basketball but overall, their success came in large part thanks to the weaker Atlantic division they won easily. Against teams seeded 2-5 in the East, Boston posted just a 5-10 record. They also split their season series against an underperforming Bulls team that they’ll face in the first round.
A few years ago, the Bulls were the team in the East that stood the best chance of dethroning the Miami Heat and now Cleveland Cavaliers atop the podium. But injuries always seemed to plague Chicago during the postseason and most of the staples of those great Bulls teams of the early 2010s have moved on. However, Chicago has rebuilt with a new core and despite a .500 record during the regular season, did manage to find success with Dwayne Wade, Jimmy Butler, and perhaps most importantly for this series, Rajon Rondo. The former Celtic is remembered as being a postseason star and a big piece of Boston’s 2008 championship run.
The key to a Bulls victory could be a formula that worked last year for the Atlanta Hawks as they beat Boston in the playoffs. That would be to limit the production of Isaiah Thomas, who is averaging 29.1 points and 5.9 assists per game. Last year, Atlanta held him to just 75 total points in four games forcing other teammates to step up. To be fair, the Celtics didn’t have Avery Bradley last year, who is averaging 16.4 points per game. If he can step up to help Thomas off the double team, Boston, which has become a strong defensive team as of late, has a great chance of not just getting past the Bulls, but of getting back to the conference finals.
- With regards our predictions & picks, take the Celtics to win the series in five. As for game one, Bovada favors Boston to win by 7.5 points. Take the Bulls to best this spread in a close game one. Go for the under on 207 total points to be scored too.
#2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs #7 Indiana Pacers – Game 1 – Saturday, April 15 – 3:00 PM ET – ABC
The defending champion Cavaliers had a good season but they were not good enough. On the final day of the year the Celtics managed to steal the top seed from them. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if history is any indication. Only twice in the last six years has a LeBron James-led team had the top seed in the conference, but in each of those years, regardless of seeding, those teams have reached the NBA Finals. This year could be no different if the Cavaliers regain the momentum that had them as the best team in the league at last year’s end.
Indiana could give Cleveland some trouble as the Pacers have somehow charged back from oblivion to make the postseason again on the back of Paul George. Because of George’s impending free agency, it’s quite possible this is the last chance Indiana has to recapture playoff glory. While not as strong offensively as the Cavaliers, this Pacers team is playing with urgency and sometimes, when all of the chips fall into place, miracles can happen.
That being said, if the Cavaliers play at full force and most importantly full health, short of the Golden State Warriors, there is no better and more tested core than that of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
- Take the Cavaliers to win the series in four. As for game one, Bovada’s odds favor Cleveland by 8.5 points. Take the Cavs to cover in the victory and bet on the over 213pts as defense is really not a strength for either of these teams.
#3 Toronto Raptors vs #6 Milwaukee Bucks – Game 1 – Saturday, April 15 – 5:30 PM ET – ESPN
No team has played better down the stretch than the Raptors and they’ll have a chance against the Bucks to show that their final month of the season success is more than just a fluke. In fact, with a second 50-win season in a row and last year’s run in the conference finals, Toronto has positioned itself as one of few teams that could pose a legitimate threat to Cleveland’s stranglehold over the Eastern Conference. Demar DeRozan had a career year and Kyle Lowry is back from a wrist injury. Add in Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker, who have been great mid-season acquisitions and this could be the year the Raptors fully establish themselves as the conference champions.
They won’t face an easy task though. Despite the Bucks basically just being happy to have reached the postseason after that goal alluded them last year, this is a talented young team with one of the best and most exciting stars in the league. Standing in at 6’11 with a 7’0 wingspan, the 22-year old Giannis Antetokounmpo aka the Greek Freak, has shined for Milwaukee all season long. A candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year, Antetokounmpo ranked top 20 in the NBA in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
Unfortunately the Bucks lost Jabari Parker to a knee injury which is a huge blow to their chances to pull off an upset here. They should play Toronto well but the Raptors are just too good and have the experience and potential to reach heights the franchise has never seen before.
- Take the Raptors to win in four. As for game one, take Toronto to cover the -7 point spread they are favored by Bovada. Take the under on 202 total points to be scored in the game.
#4 Washington Wizards vs #5 Atlanta Hawks – Game 1 – Sunday, April 16 – 1:00 PM ET – TNT
Of course the best chance for an upset would be here as neither Washington nor Atlanta has really emerged as that much better than the other despite the Wizards receiving the higher seed. This is a rematch from 2015 as well, where the Hawks won the series in six games. Now two years later, both teams look radically different and both are looking to remain relevant in the Eastern Conference.
Expect this series to go the distance as Atlanta will put its depth and scoring variety up against Washington’s consistency and strong ability to push in transition and identify scorers. This is largely because John Wall, who missed much of the 2015 series with a broken hand sustained in game one, has emerged as one of the best point guards in the game. As good as the Hawks are now with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard replacing Jeff Teague and Al Horford, Wall is the one who could end being the difference maker.
- This preview’s betting prediction is for the Wizards to win the series in seven. As for the game one picks, look for Washington to get on the board first at home, covering the five point spread favored to them by Bovada and the rest of the top sportsbooks. As for the total points, take the under at 211pts.