The field of 16 is set. All of them have strengths, weaknesses and questions that need answering.
On paper, the East is weaker than the West. Houston (55), San Antonio (61) and Golden State (67) have the league’s three best records, and the Rockets have a two-game edge on the one-seeded Boston Celtics, who ripped the East’s top seed away from the Cavaliers.
Of the eight teams, Cleveland is the one to beat. LeBron James is still playing, and each squad is keeping the Cavaliers in the back of their minds. Even Celtics coach Brad Stevens knows not to take the Cavs for granted despite their skid toward the end of the season.
Below is the biggest question for each team.
Boston Celtics, 53-29 – Will Isaiah Thomas Be Able To Carry Them?
For most of the season, Thomas was a legitimate fifth in the MVP race. Since then, the others have separated themselves, but Thomas has kept himself as one of the East’s best players. The leap he made was tremendous, and the 5-9 assassin finished third in the league in scoring with 28.9 a game and he do so while shooting 46.3 percent from the field 37.9 from three.
As sensational as he’s been, Boston doesn’t have a second option who can take over the game when Thomas is on the bench. Their dilemma is especially troubling because opponents are now bottling up Thomas late in games and forcing those around him to make plays. The final frame heroics are few and far between compared to the start of the season and, if they play Cleveland, they’re going to need that guy.
Avery Bradley is the most viable option. He finished second on the team in scoring at 16.3 points a night, and he’s got all skills to create for himself despite spending most of his time at the two. Now in his seventh season, he’s playing his best basketball, and his offense is more well-rounded.
The Celtics love to have Bradley work off the ball and come off screens for long jumpers. He moves extremely well, and Boston has a handful of bigs who set robust screens along the perimeter, allowing Bradley to get the step for a three or a one-dribble pull-up.
If it doesn’t work out with Bradley, the Celtics have a third option — Al Horford. After inking his huge deal over the summer, Horford’s made Boston better despite posting modest numbers. The intangibles don’t show up in the box score, and he’s still a threat to score 15, grab seven or eight boards and dish four or five helpers.
For Boston to make a run, one of those guys will need to step up and alleviate late-game pressure from Thomas. Additionally, all of the role players will need to be almost perfect.
Cleveland Cavaliers, 51-31 – Is It Too Late To Flip The Switch?
Since the All-Star break, the Cavaliers have been a mess. The defense is lackadaisical and full of mental errors and lapses. Offensively, they’re disjointed and forgot how to play without LeBron on the court. A 12-15 record is a cause for concern, but a fair amount of people believe that Cleveland took it easy to prepare for the postseason.
It’s plausible because we’ve seen them do it before. However, it’s never gotten this bad, and Cleveland ended the season on a four-game losing streak.
What makes the worry compound is that the other teams in the East — and across the league — were figuring themselves out as Cleveland “had the switch flipped off.” Golden State is playing out of their mind; Boston overtook them for the one seed; Toronto and Washington separated themselves from the middle of the conference.
Throughout it all, the Cavaliers never looked distraught outside of the argument between James and Tristan Thompson a few days back. They’ve been beaten by a handful of playoff teams during the second half of the year, but maybe — just maybe — they laid off the gas a little bit to instill false hope in their opponents.
Toronto Raptors, 51-31 – Will DeRozan And Lowry Show Up?
The Raptors are hoping to replicate the success they had last year, and, as expected, it starts in the backcourt. Lowry and DeRozan are bona fide All-Stars who are having career seasons, but their reputation says it’s unsustainable through the playoffs.
Despite getting to the Conference Finals last year, the two guards were atrocious. They both shot under 40 percent throughout the postseason and went seven games apiece with the Pacers and the Heat — two teams they were better than. DeRozan’s drop-off had been particularly alarming because not many guys in the league can check him. He routinely shoots above 45 percent, but he just couldn’t buy a bucket last spring and finished with a clip of 39.4 percent; Lowry was .3 points higher.
This year, failure to show up will be crushing. DeRozan’s old-school style torches defenders, and he rode his mid-range jumper to the third 2,000-point season in franchise history. Lowry is, well, Kyle Lowry. Not only is he a lights-out shooter who can take over a game, but he’s also going to grind it out defensively with whoever he matches up with, and that takes some pressure off of DeRozan.
A big reason for them being able to advance last season despite subpar play from their stars was because the bench stepped up, and Masai Ujiri went out and got Serge Ibaka this year to give them a legitimate third option. It’s worked out rather well. The defense is strengthened, and the offense runs more fluidly, but it’s the responsibility of DeRozan and Lowry to carry this team to the promise land.
Washington Wizards, 49-33 – Can They Continue Their Magic?
If I told you after 17 games that the Wizards would be the East’s fourth-best team, you’d laugh at me. “Nah, no chance, fam. Bradley Beal and John Wall are detrimental to each other, and it ruins the chemistry.”
That thesis is no longer valid. Both Wall and Beal have been playing lights-out this year, and they’ve answered some huge questions. With Beal, it remained to be seen if he was worth the nine-figure deal he signed; for Wall, no one took him seriously as a top point guard.
Now that they’ve answered those, new questions arise that pertain to the postseason and whether or not the team rises to the occasion. As of late, the defense has been dreadful despite the offense being more lethal. That’s rooted in the moves they made for Bojan Bogdanovic and Brandon Jennings, and they compromised second unit’s defense for bench scoring, something the Wizards needed badly.
Wall and Beal are still playing well, though. And Kelly Oubre Jr. has stepped up as well. Otto Porter is still a threat, and Scott Brooks has gotten great minutes out of Markieff Morris and Ian Mahinmi. Unfortunately, the latter of the two is expected to miss the entire month of April with a calf injury.
Washington can make some noise in the postseason, especially with seeing the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.
Atlanta Hawks, 43-39 – Will They Find Their Offense?
The Hawks have been one of the streakiest teams in the league this season. They started the season 9-2 before going 1-9 over the next 10. Then, later in the year, they had a seven-game winning streak followed by a seven-game losing streak about two months later.
Almost all of their issues are rooted in the offense. With Paul Millsap the go-to guy after Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Demarre Carroll and Kyle Korver all left, the Hawks are just 22nd in points a game and 27th in efficiency — and they’re the league’s 10th-fastest team. Dennis Schroder (17.9 points) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.5) have had surprisingly great seasons, but they’re young and still trying to figure themselves out.
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To offset their inept offense, Atlanta creates a wall on defense that’s headed by Dwight Howard. They crack the top-10 in points allowed per game and efficiency but, if they get into trouble on that end, it’s essentially game over. Above all, I’m worried that their streakiness translates to the playoffs. If Atlanta’s unfortunate enough to get into one of their grooves where nothing goes right, it could spell disaster and they’d get embarrassed by a more dominant team.
Milwaukee Bucks, 42-40 – Will They Surprise Us?
If they had Jabari Parker, it would be a different question. With him alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton, the Bucks are super-fun to watch and are also super-talented, a perfect mixture for an NBA team.
Sadly, Parker’s been out with an ACL injury, and we won’t see him until next year. Because of that, Milwaukee’s offense takes a huge hit, and they’re forced to rely on their defense to win games. The Bucks have suffocated opponents during their 17-10 post-All-Star run, and their points per game allowed have dropped drastically — 105.4 to 100.6.
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That problem is similar to what the Hawks have. It’s great to lock people down, but you have to be able to create offense when it counts, and I’m not sure the Bucks are capable of doing that yet. They have the pieces and, of course, Giannis, but being so young means that there are going to be a tremendous amount of growing pains.
Indiana Pacers, 42-40 – Is Paul George Enough?
The Pacers had lofty expectations heading into this year. Not only did they expect to be a top team, everyone else thought so too. Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young were added to help George, and the Pacers gave Myles Turner a platform to dominate on both ends of the floor.
They’ve had their ups-and-downs with the offense and defense, and George has been very critical of his team publically. It must be working, and Indiana finished the season incredibly strong following the example set by their vocal star. He averaged 32.8 points a night in April while also playing a bit of defense, but the help is going to be necessary because I’m not sure he can sustain that throughout the postseason.
It’ll be excruciatingly hard because they’re matched up with LeBron in the Cavs in the first round. Turner and Young are going to have to exploit Cleveland’s weak interior defense to make life easier for George, but he’s going to have to wrestle with James on the other end, and his cohorts must capitalize on any chance they get.
Chicago Bulls, 41-41 – What’s Their Identity?
Seeing Chicago in the postseason is odd. They’re a mess. On the court, they have no brand outside of Jimmy Butler, and their entire offense is built around him creating points. Here’s the kicker — the rest team isn’t constructed to produce offensively. Dwyane Wade was a nice pickup, but he’s not the player he used to be.
Rajon Rondo has caused headaches all year long and there isn’t anyone who puts fear in opponents outside of Butler.
They make up for it on defense, but, again, it’s because Butler’s the tone setter. And it’s obvious that he has no issues taking on such a huge role. He’ll still go out and battle against the best player on both ends, but a team with multiple options is going to make quick work of Chicago.
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