Tommy Beer

Basketball Daily Dose

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Dose: Eastern Conf. Preview

Friday, April 13, 2018

Dr. A previewed the Western Conference in Thursday’s Dose. Today, we examine the East. 

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1. Raptors vs. 8. Wizards
Game 1 — Wizards at Raptors, Saturday, April 14 at 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2 — Wizards at Raptors, Tuesday, April 17 at 7 p.m. (NBA TV)
Game 3 — Raptors at Wizards, Friday, April 20 at 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 4 — Raptors at Wizards, Sunday, April 22 at 6 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary) —Wizards at Raptors, Wednesday, April 25 (TBD)
Game 6 (if necessary) — Raptors at Wizards, Friday, April 27 (TBD)
Game 7 (if necessary) — Wizards at Raptors, Sunday, April 29 (TBD)

There is understandable cause for concern and angst amongst Raptors fans as we enter the 2018 postseason tournament. Despite winning a franchise-record 59 games and finishing as the top seed in the East, their playoff history is disconcerting, to say the least. Toronto has won at least 48 games and advanced to the postseason in each of the past four seasons. However, they are just 17-24 in the playoffs over that four-year stretch. And this season, they enter the playoffs lacking the momentum one might expect from a squad that nearly notched 60 wins. The Raps won just six of their final 12 games to close out the season, including two disheartening losses to the Cavs in Cleveland and another to the Celtics.

The Wizards, although undoubtedly talented on paper, stumbled to the finish line of the regular season as well. Washington lost 14 of their final 21 games. Fortunately, John Wall returned to the lineup in late March and looked great. He appeared in four games and averaged 20.3 points, 12.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been on the same page as his teammates all year long. The reported discord in the locker room was a constant theme throughout the season. Washington's disappointing performance on the floor didn’t put any of the rumors to rest. Again, talent isn’t the issue here. Bradley Beal is a stud who has excelled in past postseasons. Otto Porter remains underrated by the public at large despite his massive contract. However, the Wiz need to get on the same page if they want to make a run this Spring.

Thus, despite the Raptors previous problems in the playoffs and their late-season stumbles, this is still a very, very good team. Consider this: Toronto was the only team in the league to finish in the top-5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season - they ranked third in OffEff and fifth in DefEff. The only other teams that came close to matching that execution on both ends of the floor were the Warriors (first in OffEff and ninth DefEff) and the Rockets (second and sixth, respectively). Game 1 will be crucial in this series. If the Raps can secure a win and jump out in front of the Wizards, they should be put the demons and doubts to bed, and establish themselves as clearly the better team. If they can regain their mid-season swagger and play confidently from in front, they should be able to dispatch the Wiz rather easily.

Prediction: Raptors in 5

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2. Celtics vs. 7. Bucks
Game 1 — Bucks at Celtics, Sunday, April 15 at 1 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2 — Bucks at Celtics, Tuesday, April 17 at 8 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3 — Celtics at Bucks, Friday, April 20 at 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4 — Celtics at Bucks, Sunday, April 22 at 1 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5 (if necessary) — Bucks at Celtics, Tuesday, April 24 (TBD)
Game 6 (if necessary) — Celtics at Bucks, Thursday, April 26 (TBD)
Game 7 (if necessary) — Bucks at Celtics, Saturday, April 28 (TNT)

Expectations in Boston were sky-high at the start of this season. However, those lofty expectations were built around their two colossal offseason acquisitions, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The C’s won’t have either in uniform during the playoffs, and they’ll also be without super-sub Marcus Smart (thumb) for the first round. As a result, the Celtics are going to have to lean heavily on a trio of unproven players. Rookie Jayson Tatum was phenomenal during his debut campaign, but asking any mere mortal to matchup with Giannis Antetokounmpo is unfair. Jaylen Brown took a significant step forward as a sophomore, how will he respond to the pressure of playing heavy minutes in the postseason? Danny Ainge-favorite Terry Rozier exceeded expectations this season (he averaged 15.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists in the 16 games he started), but Eric Bledsoe will be a handful on both ends of the floor.

Unlike many other pro sports, one player can have an enormously outsized impact on a game and a series in the NBA. When looking at matchups between two teams, it’s often wise to ask which squad has the best player. In this case, the answer is obvious. It’s the Greek Freak by a wide margin. In 2017-18, Antetokounmpo became just seventh player ever, and the first since David Robinson in 1993-94, to average at least 26 points, ten rebounds and four assists, while also shooting over 50 percent from the floor. Don’t forget Giannis also had over 100 blocks and 100 steals this past season. He can literally take over a game on both ends of the floor. Yet, the Bucks aren’t just a one-man show. Khris Middleton is a proven scorer that can also defend on the perimeter. Eric Bledsoe is a physically-imposing point guard that is at his best when playing downhill. The wildcard in this series may be Jabari Parker. Over the Bucks final six games of the regular season, Parker averaged 19.5 points and 8.2 rebounds in 31.9 minutes, while shooting 49.5 percent from the floor, 45.8 percent from downtown. If he can provide a consistent offensive spark off the bench for the Bucks, he could tip the series in favor of Milwaukee.

Prediction: Bucks in 6

3. Sixers vs. 6. Heat
Game 1 — Heat at 76ers, Saturday, April 14 at 8 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2 — Heat at 76ers, Monday, April 16 at 8 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3 — 76ers at Heat, Thursday, April 19 at 7 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4 — 76ers at Heat, Saturday, April 21 at 2:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary) — Heat at 76ers, Tuesday, April 24 (TBD)
Game 6 (if necessary) — 76ers at Heat, Thursday, April 26 (TBD)
Game 7 (if necessary) — Heat at 76ers, Saturday, April 28 (TNT)

There is so much for Philadelphia fans to be optimistic about. The Sixers enter the postseason riding a franchise-record 16-game winning streak. Ben Simmons put the cherry on top of his ROY-worthy debut campaign over this final month. He averaged 14.7 points (on 60.8 percent shooting), 10.1 rebounds and 10.6 assists over the first 15 of those 16 victories (before playing limited minutes in the season finale). In the process, he became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double during a winning streak of more than 12 games. In addition to an improved overall offense, the Sixers defense has been excellent all season. Philly finished the year ranked third overall in Defensive Efficiency, allowing just 102.0 points per 100 possessions. It’s surprising for such a young team, but a testament to the job head coach Brett Brown has done. Having Joel Embiid dominate the paint and Robert Covington patrol the perimeter was obviously crucial to their success as well.

However, Philly should be anxious about matching up with the Heat in round one. Miami is a tricky draw for any team in the postseason. They have a proven, experienced head coach who has been there and done that. They have an exceptional point guard running the show in Goran Dragic, and a bunch of hungry guards and wings eager to prove themselves (Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Wayne Ellington). The combo of James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo form a formidable frontcourt. Then, for good measure, throw three-time champion Dwyane Wade into the mix. This is a dangerous team.

The unknown variable here is when we can expect Joel Embiid (face) to return to game action. Assuming the Masked Man makes his series debut in Game 2 or 3, the Sixers should be able to survive and advance, even if they have to rely on home court advantage in a final deciding game. In the end, I’ll Trust the Process and roll with the Sixers.

Prediction: Sixers in 7

4. Cavs vs. 5. Pacers
Game 1 — Pacers at Cavaliers, Sunday, April 15 at 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 2 — Pacers at Cavaliers, Wednesday, April 18 at 7 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3 — Cavaliers at Pacers, Friday, April 20 at 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4 — Cavaliers at Pacers, Sunday, April 22 at 8:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary) — Pacers at Cavaliers, Wednesday, April 25 (TBD)
Game 6 (if necessary) — Cavaliers at Pacers, Friday, April 27 (TBD)
Game 7 (if necessary) — Pacers at Cavaliers, Sunday, April 29 (TBD)

There are plenty of reasons to believe the Pacers can give the Cavs a real run for their money. For starters, Indiana beat Cleveland three of the four times they squared off in the regular season. Secondly, the Cavs have been terrible defensively the entire season, allowing a whopping 109.5 points per 100 possessions. That ranks 29th in the NBA; only the Phoenix Suns were worse. It is extremely rare for a team to advance deep into the playoffs when they were that porous defensively during the regular season. In fact, few teams ranked outside the top-10 in DefEff had advanced to the NBA Finals, let alone teams at the very bottom of the barrel.

Just as importantly, the Pacers are certainly no pushovers. The public buried them after the Paul George trade, yet Indiana somehow found a way to win the same number of games as George’s new team (the OKC Thunder). The primary reason for their unexpected success has been the impressive play of Victor Oladipo. ‘Dipo is considered a lock to take home the Most Improved Player award after becoming the only player in the NBA this season to average more than 20.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game. In fact, the only other players to average at least 20/5/4/2 over a full season this decade are Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry. Domantas Sabonis, who came over with Oladipo, has exceeded expectations as well. Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison are proven vets who bring plenty to the table. Lance Stephenson and Myles Turner are enigmatic wildcards but are undeniably talented.

Still, despite the numerous to factors working in the Pacers favor, there is one reason to believe their season will end sooner rather than later: LeBron James. To say King James has been dominant in the first round of the playoffs would be a dramatic understatement. Incredibly, James has won 21 straight first-round postseason contests. Yup, 21-0. That includes five straight series sweeps. The last time LeBron lost a first-round playoff game? That would be May 6th, 2012, when the Knicks beat the Heat at MSG to avoid a sweep behind Carmelo Anthony’s 41 points and a 20/10 double-double from Amar’e Stoudemire. Yes, it’s been that long. As noted above, having the best player in a series is enormously consequential. The Cavs have the greatest player of this generation, and one of the three greatest players of all-time. And, based on his production this season, including career-highs in assists and rebounds, the King is still in his prime.

Prediction: Cavs in 6

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