The NBA's Eastern Conference is no longer a one-man show ran by LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers. It has drastically improved, and now threatens more than ever to break King James’ five-year streak of NBA Finals appearances.
Now that we’re entering the postseason, the beasts of the East have gathered to battle each other. Which team can score a major upset? Can Cleveland sail smoothly into the second round? Can the Toronto Raptors replicate their dominance of the conference in the Playoffs?
Here's our preview of the Eastern Conference match-ups.
Click here to check out the wild, wild Western Conference
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (1) VS. DETROIT PISTONS (8)
Regular season record: November 17: DET 104 - CLE 99; January 29: CLE 114 - DET 106; February 22: DET 96 - CLE 88; April 13: DET 112 - CLE 110
The Cavs, despite their accomplishments, are still a huge basketball enigma. At their best, they're a steamrolling locomotive that can outrun and outgun opposing teams with their balance of athletic plays and accurate perimeter shooting, with their Big Three of James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving providing star numbers. At their worst? They look like a lost cause with heavy isolation sets and blames each other during missed defensive assignments. Their record against the Pistonsindicates just how much of a bipolar team they are.
Detroit, on the other hand, has finally ended its postseason drought after six grueling seasons. Reggie Jackson has proven that he’s worth every penny the Pistons paid him, while Andre Drummond is has turned into a monster in the paint, which of course earned him his first All-Star selection. They’ve also won their regular season series against the Cavs and are coached by Stan Van Gundy, one of the few men who have figured out how to beat LeBron. So are we going to see another #8 over #1 upset?
Key players to watch for: Irving, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
LBJ will deliver and will still be the most important man in Cleveland when the buzzer officially sounds, but it is Irving who will dictate what kind of team the Cavs will be on the floor. With his elite handles, deadly perimeter stroke, and crafty ways to get to the rim, Kyrie is a huge headache for any opposing team. However, his knack for scoring can also put his team on the wrong side of a ball-hog.
Kyrie has been criticized as a shoot-first-pass-later point guard, something that allegedly makes his teammates hate him. Yes, he finished the season averaging 5.6 assists per game, a modest average for NBA PGs. What that number doesn't show though is the number of shot attempts he puts up every game. He’s at 16 shot attempts per game, which will probably shoot up to the mid-20s in the playoffs. It's all good if he’s swishing most of them. But if not, well, we can already see LeBron’s hairline receding again.
Irving's shot-happy ways has the tendency of stopping the ball on offense. During their loss in Detroit last February, he scored a game-high 30 points, making 11 of his 21 shots, most of it forced buckets that disrupted the Cavs offensive flow all throughout the game.
KCP has always been acknowledged as a lengthy defender that can effectively lock down assignments especially on the perimeter. In fact, that’s the main reason why the Pistons drafted him as the eighth-overall pick during 2013 Draft.
Fast-forward three years and he has now transformed himself into a two-way perimeter player. This season, Caldwell-Pope has increased his scoring average from 11 the previous season to almost 15 points per game. He scores a tad better against the Cavs, averaging 19 points against them.
Prediction: Let’s make this short and sweet: No, you won’t be seeing an upset. Yes, the Pistons did beat the Cavs 3-1 during the regular season. But the Playoffs is a different environment. There’s just no way Cleveland will be caught napping now that they’re starting their “real mission.” Cleveland sweeps Detroit, 4-0
TORONTO RAPTORS (2) VS. INDIANA PACERS (7)
Regular season record: October 28: TOR 106 - IND 99; December 14: IND 106 - TOR 90; March 17: TOR 101 - IND 94; April 8: TOR 111 - IND 98
Key players to watch: Kyle Lowry, Monta Ellis
Together with Demar DeRozan, Lowry has put the North back on the playoffs map once again. The 2016 All-Star starter finished the season averaging 21.2 points, six assists, and almost five boards a game. The same type of number he puts up every time he plays the Pacers.
It’s interesting to think what Pacers head coach Frank Vogel has in mind in order to stop Toronto’s little general. Ellis is too small and can be easily bullied by Lowry on his way into the paint. Paul George will have his hands full with DeRozan, and George Hill is, well, still finding his game after bleaching his hair blonde. The Pacers don’t have anyone to stop Lowry, so expect him to put up huge numbers this series.
However, if the Pacers want to steal this one from Toronto, they should make Ellis operate in his natural habitat and wake his scoring instincts back again. Playing under Coach Vogel has forced Ellis into a facilitator and it really hasn’t worked that well.
Setting aside his rookie season, he has the lowest scoring average of his career with 14 points a game while having a career low 12 shot attempts per game. Ellis is a streaky shooter and he needs to have the ball in his hands most of the time—looking to score on the first dribble.
Still, we all know that Ellis is one fearless son of a gun, especially in important moments. We expect to see him unleashed this postseason and help PG13 on the scoring load.
Prediction: This is one first round series you might want to buy snacks and a few bottles of beer while watching. It’s going to be competitive for sure. The Pacers are no pushovers. There’s just no way George is going to sit still and watch the Raptors do as they please.
Still, Toronto has an elite backcourt in Lowry and DeRozan. They've been performing at a high level, punching tickets to the All-Star team and clinching the second-best record in the East. Toronto wins, 4-2
Regular season record: October 28: MIA 104 - CHA 94; December 9: CHA 99 - MIA 81; February 5: MIA 98 - CHA 95; March 17: CHA 109 - MIA 106
Miami has done a good job replenishing their depleted roster. The addition of Joe Johnson has been nothing but wonderful. Coach Erik Spoelstra has found another diamond in the rough in rookie Jordan Richardson, and Hassan Whiteside’s quick development from a mere shot blocking monster to an elite big is quite scary. And yes, there’s old man Dwyane Wade cheating time.
Charlotte has never been considered as a contender, and is a fringe-playoff team at best. But no one also expected them to be this good—almost clinching the Number Four seed in the East if they didn’t lose their duel against the vacation-bound Washington Wizards a week ago.
Key players to watch: Goran Dragic, Jeremy Lin
Dragic was still trying to get used to being in a Heat uniform—and then the second half of the season began. Chris Bosh again got sidelined for possible blood clots (we miss you, CB!), so the Heat opted to play faster, unlocking the Dragon from his chains.
With a faster pace, Dragic has been consistent on the offensive end, scoring nearly 20 points per game. The Heat is also 2-0 every time he loses a tooth.
Just like Dragic, Lin’s name is showing up on headlines once again. He closed the season not just as an effective role player but virtually led the Hornets game after game.
His 29-point showing against the San Antonio Spurs last March 19 showed that he still had some Linsanity magic left in him. He also ended the season leading the charge for the Queen City against the Boston Celtics, draining 21 first half points. Charlotte is still Kemba Walker’s team, but Lin is showing that he is more than just a backup.
Prediction: This is one series that could go either way. Miami has the stars and the stat-stuffing names, but Charlotte is rolling right now with their space-and-pace offense. This series is really too close to call. But we have to, so here goes: Miami in 7
Regular season record: November 13: BOS 106 - ATL 93; November 24: ATL 121 - BOS 97; December 18: ATL 109 - BOS 101; April 9: ATL 118 - BOS 107
The Celtics are this year’s top underdog story. This should be a team drafting a blueprint to rebuild. This is a team composed of unproven youngins (Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynk), and league castaways (Evan Turner, Isaiah Thomas). Instead, they engineered their way to the postseason and even clinched the fourth-best record in the East. Coach Brad Stevens trusted his players, putting them the in the best position to succeed as a team.
After losing Demarre Carroll to free agency, the Hawks have never been the same. They are still a capable team, albeit inconsistent. Al Horford is stepping too damn far from his true range, Kyle Korver is missing open shots, and Jeff Teague’s only getting his act right in the final quarter. They’re still a strong team but we bet the Celtics won’t wait for them to wake up first come game time.
Key players to watch: Thomas, Teague
Isaiah and all of his 5’9” frame have been playing big all through this season. After being tossed around the league for a couple of years, he has found a home in Bean Town, and man, he really does like it there. Thomas shot his way through the season with 22 points and six dimes per game, earning him a much-deserved All-Star selection.
Atlanta has two quick guards, Teague and Dennis Schröder, who can run along Thomas. Teague is a savvy scorer and an able passer, making it hard for his defenders to commit to double-teaming him.
He’s also one of the most explosive guards in the league—as proven by this clip:
He may have dropped down a notch due to missing games, but Teague is still a high caliber point guard. He can still pretty much slice defensive sets at will and suck in the defense, freeing shooters like Korver, every time he penetrates.
He may also have found his element during the end of the season, putting up numbers reminiscent of his All-Star averages last year: 20 points and five assists per game.
Prediction: Boston wins series 4-2. We’re not choosing the Celtics because it’s a feel-good underdog story. The team is really hot right now. Remember when they beat the Warriors in Golden State? Or how about their last game of the season, where they came back from 20-something points down to beat the Heat. It just doesn't feel like their amazing run is gonna end soon.