NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs Round 1: Easy tests for high seeds

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) shoots over Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) during the first half of an NBA basketball game. (Willie J. Allen Jr./AP)

Somehow, after what feels like eons, post-season basketball has returned.

Only a few months ago, no one was certain whether or not the NBA playoffs would even occur this year. Yet, here things stand, with the Orlando bubble operating smoothly and teams warmed up and ready to duke it out for a chance at immortality.

What follows here is a preview of the Eastern Conference matchups for round one of the playoffs, with predictions for each series stamped at the bottom of the ramblings.

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

(1) Bucks vs. (8) Magic

Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo goes in for a shot as he gets past Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon, left, and Khem Birch during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (John Raoux/AP)

Based on the season they’ve had, the Milwaukee Bucks should easily be considered the favourite to come out of the East, and probably should be considered the favourite to win the whole thing.

They sport the best defence in the league by a significant margin (102.9 defensive rating as compared to the Toronto Raptors’ second-best 104.9) as well as the eighth-best offence, and aside from Wesley Matthews dealing with a potentially concerning right adductor injury, the team will be entering the post-season healthy and rested.

Milwaukee’s defensive prowess largely hinges on not allowing opponents inside in any meaningful capacity, and even when penetration does happen, the Bucks’ team-wide length and athleticism (with Brook and Robin Lopez acting as the anchors) make any attempt to score on the interior monstrously difficult. They rank third in the league in blocks (5.9), have a startling defended field goal percentage (shots that are right at the hoop) of 53.6, and rarely foul (they rank seventh in the league).

While the Bucks simply stymie every attempt on them within the arc, their game plan does lead them to surrender three-pointers (they rank dead-last in threes allowed), and if any team hopes to defeat Milwaukee over the course of seven games, they will likely need to be above average on their looks from deep.

Of course, Milwaukee’s defence is airtight for a reason, and even in the looks they allow they make sure to control what they can. Despite letting opponents shoot so many triples, those attempts are often coming above-the-break (30.7), rather than from easier spots like the corners (4.1 from the right, 4.2 from the left), making their 20.9 wide-open threes allowed a little deceiving and the opponent mark on those threes more understandable.

Unfortunately for the Orlando Magic, the ability to exploit what thin margins there are against the Bucks is beyond them, especially considering they are missing key figures in Jonathan Isaac (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (knee), and also have Aaron Gordon dealing with a hamstring injury.

The Magic own the 10th-best defence on the season (109.5), but also the 23rd-ranked offence (108.5), and a healthy version of the team ranked 25th in three-point percentage (34.3) and 27th in two-point percentage (50.2).

Add to that the loss of Isaac (the team’s best defender) and a hobbled Gordon, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will likely win the Most Valuable Player award for the second consecutive season (and who averaged 26.7 points, 15.7 rebounds and 7.7 assists in a 4–0 regular season sweep of the Magic), is set to run rampant.

Gordon did manage, impressively, to hold Antetokounmpo to 38.1 per cent shooting while guarding him over the course of three games for more time (14:18) than any other player this season. But the playoffs are another animal, and if Gordon’s hamstring drags him down, the Magic’s chances slip from minimal to nil.

Unsurprisingly, the Magic don’t have the firepower or the manpower needed to hang with the Bucks, and so this series will be a shock if it’s anything other than a swift obliteration.

Prediction: Bucks in four.

(2) Raptors vs. (7) Nets

Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka (9) scores past Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Harris (12) during the first half of an NBA basketball game. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

In the history of the franchise, the Toronto Raptors have never swept another team in the playoffs.

That should change this post-season.

The Brooklyn Nets’ roster has been decimated, either by injury or players opting out of traveling to Orlando to play in the bubble, and what’s left after the removal of Kevin Durant (Achilles), Kyrie Irving (shoulder), DeAndre Jordan (opted out), Spencer Dinwiddie (opted out), Taurean Prince (opted out), Wilson Chandler (opted out), Nicolas Claxton (shoulder) and Jamal Crawford (hamstring) is an interesting albeit inferior cadre of misfits.

Attempting to peg what precisely this team is as presently constructed is difficult, seeing as this group has only really existed over the past seven games. And yet, despite the sample size being comically small, looking at them through such a lens is probably the best way to analyze them.

Put simply, Brooklyn has been a little better in the bubble than what most people expected (they finished 5–2). They own the ninth-best net rating (0.5) over their Orlando stretch, though it hinges largely on their ninth-place offence (114.6) and is bogged down significantly by their lacklustre 17th-place defence (114.1).

This, immediately, spells good news for the Raptors, who thrive off their stalwart defence (second-best in the league and best since entering the bubble) and whose greatest struggles lie in their half-court offence (ranked 15th overall). Should Toronto muster the grit to slow Brooklyn offensively, they shouldn’t find much resistance when it comes to scoring themselves.

The path to bottling up the Nets is quite clear, though there’s a chance it may prove to be a little more difficult than first glance would predict. Over the past seven games, Brooklyn has moved away from the isolation-heavy basketball it played for the majority of the season (the team ranks fourth in isolation possessions, but in just the 27th percentile) and has instead become more egalitarian, averaging the sixth-most assists (27.4) out of the clubs within the bubble.

To all appearances, that would seem to be a boon for the Raptors, who thrive against pass-happy teams by generating turnovers (they snagged 8.8 steals per game on the season) and subsequently getting out on the break and scoring at a lethal rate — Toronto is second in the league in points off turnovers (19.4) and ranks first in transition (93rd percentile).

And yet, the Nets have impressively managed to limit their turnovers (13.1), ranking as the sixth-best team in the bubble when it comes to holding onto the rock. Even so, continuing to accomplish that feat over the course of seven games against a team like Toronto will undoubtedly prove arduous, and the Raptors are certainly prepared to put their defence to the test against any foe standing in their way.

Brooklyn will also rely heavily upon Caris LeVert as their go-to guy — he owns a 32.1 per cent usage rate through the five games he’s played in the bubble. He’s been good in that tiny sample, and could potentially cause problems for the Raptors if his isolation play keeps the ball from moving and allowing for the possibility of turnovers.

However, while LeVert has been successful against Toronto’s defence this season (averaged 23.3 points on 60 per cent shooting), he hasn’t been particularly dangerous as an isolation scorer, ranking eighth in the league in isolation possessions per game (3.8) but generating just 0.78 points on those possessions, putting him in the 30th percentile.

Add to that the fact that OG Anunoby, the Raptors’ best defender who will surely see the bulk of his time devoted to LeVert, only spent 3:38 of game time (through three contests) guarding him this season, and Toronto probably isn’t too concerned about LeVert swinging the series.

Overall, the Nets just don’t have the personnel to make this an intriguing series against the Raptors, and their defence is so porous that Toronto’s half-court offence shouldn’t even be that much of a concern here.

Prediction: Raptors in four.

(3) Celtics vs. (6) 76ers

Boston Celtics’ Marcus Smart, center, drives betwen Philadelphia 76ers’ Al Horford, left, and Tobias Harris (12) during the first half of an NBA basketball game. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Of the four first-round series taking place in the Eastern Conference, this one should have been the most electric, with the Boston Celtics finding a comfortable, humming gear as the year went along and the enigmatic Philadelphia 76ers having won the regular season series against them, 3–1.

And then Ben Simmons went down with a knee injury that required season-ending surgery, leaving the 76ers without an All-NBA-level defender and one of the focal points of their precarious offence.

Against a dynamic do-it-all team like the Celtics, the 76ers are now left with a solitary game plan: Surround Joel Embiid with some combination of four shooters and hope that both the spacing and the perimeter play will be enough to unnerve their opponent’s potent defence.

There hasn’t been much precedent for these sorts of units, however, with Philadelphia’s most-played Simmons-less group — featuring (Shake MiltonJosh RichardsonTobias HarrisAl Horford-Embiid) — having spent just 76 total minutes on the hardwood together, where they’ve recorded a dreadful net rating of minus-6.6.

Embiid, at least, has given the Celtics fits in a vacuum this season, taking advantage of their undersized bigs in Daniel Theis and Grant Williams. He averaged 21.3 points and 10.3 rebounds over the course of three contests, including a 38-point, 13-rebound performance that proved to be one of his better showings on the year.

When it comes to scoring in the post this season, few players rank better than Embiid, as he sits in the 91st percentile and generates a stellar 1.11 points per possession on a league-leading 8.3 post-up plays per game (the next-closest player is LaMarcus Aldridge, who posts up 5.8 times on average).

The Celtics, then, will send double teams at Embiid on the catch in an attempt to have him relinquish the ball back to the perimeter, where they’ll bank on Philadelphia’s shooting (36.6 per cent from deep on a mere 31.5 attempts per game) not being dangerous enough to punish them too badly. And while Embiid has improved his passing out of doubles considerably this season, he still commits 3.1 turnovers a game, tied for 12th-most in the league.

If trying to force the ball into Embiid and his passing out of the post proves ill-fated, then Boston will certainly capitalize by getting out in the open floor, where their plethora of athletes are fatal. The Celtics rank fifth (86th percentile) in transition this season, and 13.4 per cent of their points come via fast break scenarios, good for seventh-most in the league.

While Boston will rely on its fourth-place defence (107) to fabricate opportunities, it may be their fourth-place offence (113.3) that proves to be the death knell for the 76ers.

Jayson Tatum has broken out of his shell this year, and without Simmons there to take that assignment (he guarded Tatum for 24:23 minutes through four games this season, more than any other player, and held him to 31.3 per cent shooting), the 76ers will be left scrambling to find an answer. Tatum is too quick for Harris, and too big for Richardson.

Kemba Walker has also begun to round into form in Orlando, and the idea of Milton guarding him in any pick-and-roll scenario isn’t a pleasant one for Philadelphia. Add in the typical threats that the likes of Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart present, and this version of the 76ers will be hard-pressed to push the Celtics to any point of legitimate concern.

Prediction: Celtics in six.

(4) Heat vs. (5) Pacers

Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Warren, centre, defends Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. Warren was called for his second technical foul latter in the play. The Heat won 122-108. (AJ Mast/AP)

In terms of surface-level intrigue, this series is tantalizing: Jimmy Butler facing his arch-nemesis T.J. Warren, Malcolm Brogdon in a larger role after his fantastic post-season display against the Raptors last year, Bam Adebayo in his first meaningful series as a young rising phenom, etc.

But dig a little deeper, and the allure vanishes.

The Indiana Pacers, while they boast the sixth-best defence (108.3) in the league, also have a putrid offence (19th; 110), and scoring consistently against the Miami Heat’s 11th-ranked defence (109.6) will prove laborious without All-Star Domantas Sabonis (foot) and with the present version of Victor Oladipo, who is still working his way back from a torn quad tendon he suffered in 2019.

It also doesn’t help the Pacers that one of the main things the Heat’s defence concedes are three-pointers (they are 28th in threes allowed), since Indiana ranks dead-last in the league in attempts from deep (27.9) and prefers to launch from the midrange, where they take the second-most attempts (17.3) only to the San Antonio Spurs.

Indiana will hope that Butler’s attention is placed on Warren, at least, so that its four primary guards (Brogdon, Oladipo, Justin and Aaron Holiday) will be free to attack some of Miami’s weaker defenders like Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic. If the Pacers are to stand a chance without their regular degree of star power, then those matchups will need to be exploited every single game.

But the bubble hasn’t provided much confidence aside from Warren’s ineffable explosion, with Indiana’s most-used lineup (and, presumably, their starting unit going forward) posting a minus-4.1 net rating in 82 minutes.

Miami, on the other hand, has reinvented itself during its time in Orlando, committing to Adebayo at centre and surrounding him with shooters. In an admittedly tiny sample of 24 minutes together through three games, such a unit has a blistering net rating of 28.8 (for the full season, said group has spent 51 minutes together and has a comparable net rating of 27.5), fifth-best among all lineups that have averaged at least three games and 20 minutes together in the bubble.

In fact, the Heat’s trio of Butler, Adebayo and Robinson alone have a net rating of 11.7, the best of all three-man units that have played at least 1,000 minutes together. Attempting to stop a pick-and-roll with either of the two wings while the other is parked on the perimeter is as difficult a task as they come, and it may be enough by itself to keep the Heat out ahead of the Pacers.

With the league’s seventh-best offence — powered by its first overall ranking in three-point percentage (38.1) — the Heat should have more than enough to overpower the wounded Pacers in perhaps fewer games than one might think.

Prediction: Heat in five.


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