NBA Eastern Conference playoffs burning questions: Will Giannis be back in time?

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) is defended by Indiana Pacers' Obi Toppin (1) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023, in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings/AP)

And so it begins. 

With the Play-In Tournament wrapped up and the matchups set, the best month and a half of the NBA calendar is finally upon us. 

It was a ridiculously tight end of season, with outcomes for seeding coming down to the final day of the year. Most eyes were focused on the bloodbath in the Western Conference, but at the same time, only four games separated the two-seed Knicks from the eight-seed Heat once the season had wrapped up. 

Despite having now booked their tickets to the big dance, the final slate of teams are not immune to some criticism or questioning as they head into the most important stretch of their season. 

Here are burning questions for every Eastern Conference team going into the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Orlando Magic

Cavaliers: Will this be the last we see of Donovan Mitchell in a Cavaliers uniform? 

When the Cavaliers dealt for Donovan Mitchell in 2022, they made the move hoping to expedite their rebuild around Darius Garland and Evan Mobley. Their first try ended in a disappointing five-game first round loss to the New York Knicks, and this time around, they face a similarly put together junkyard dog squad in the Orlando Magic, built to shut down guys like Mitchell. 

There have been points this season where the Cavaliers seem to function better in the absence of one of their two guards, including a 15-4 run in December and January with Mitchell running the show while Garland was dealing with a jaw injury. However, Mitchell seems like the more likely of the two to find a new home, as he was already rumoured to be interested in teams like the Knicks and Miami Heat prior to his original trade from the Jazz. 

If they don’t manage to make it out of the first round once against, and with Mitchell set to enter the final year of his contract next season, is there a chance that the Cavaliers opt to trade the star before his deal expires and re-tool around a still growing Garland and Mobley? 

Magic: Can Orlando’s dogged defence carry a wobbly offence? 

Of all the teams to have qualified for the post-season, the Orlando Magic have the worst offence, ranking 22nd overall this season with a 113.4 offensive rating. They hit the least three-pointers in the NBA at 11 a game and take the second least at 31.3 a night. They also have the third-least assists, notching only 24.7 per game. 

Yet they still managed to earn the fifth-seed in the East, taking a massive jump from a 34-48 record last season to 47-35 in this go-round. They did that on the back of their second-ranked defence, allowing only 111.3 points per 100 possessions, behind only the Minnesota Timberwolves. 

Their defence has been spearheaded by third-year guard Jalen Suggs, who has established himself as one of the best man defenders in the league with a propensity for hounding his matchup with a tireless motor. Meanwhile, patrolling the backline is Jonathan Isaac, who finished second in the NBA in defensive rating (102.1) among qualified players. The “Minister of Defence” has proven just how effective he can be when healthy, serving as one of the most dangerous shot deterrents in the NBA despite playing only 15.8 minutes per game. 

A deep playoff run for the young team will depend on their defensive acuity and a hope that the offence can at least keep up. 

(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Philadelphia 76ers

Knicks: How far can Jalen Brunson take a shorthanded squad?

By the end of the regular season, first-time All-Star Jalen Brunson had forced his way into the MVP conversation, scoring an absurd 37.8 points on .493/.400/.857 shooting splits while dishing out 8.3 assists. His ridiculously high-level play helped the Knicks leapfrog the Milwaukee Bucks and snatch away the two-seed, their highest finish since the 2012-13 season. But more than anything, Brunson has brought a renewed hope to the Big Apple. 

The diminutive guard ended the year with the sixth-highest usage percentage among qualified players at 31.1, and in his last 10, it skyrocketed to 37.5, 10 points higher than the second-place Anthony Edwards. There may not be a team more dependent on a star player than the Knicks are with Brunson, especially with Julius Randle out for the season and OG Anunoby and Mitchell Robinson still rounding into form. 

Though Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo (and the power of friendship) have helped keep them afloat, the ship is being steered by Brunson. Earning the second seed could just be the start of something incredible in New York. 

76ers: Does Philly have enough in the tank if Embiid is only playing at 75 per cent? 

Though Joel Embiid looked much like his old self in the fourth quarter of the play-in win against the Miami Heat, it’s clear that he’s nowhere close to being 100 per cent healthy. Hard to blame a guy for looking tired after coming back from meniscus surgery in two months though. 

For much of the game against the Heat, Embiid had his hands on his knees as much as he did on the ball. Playing in only six games since returning on April 2 will do that to you. But Philly doesn’t have time to condition the big man for an extended load right now. New York is a do-or-die opponent with a defence more than ready to test Embiid’s ability to handle a physically demanding workload. 

The 76ers will go as far as Embiid can carry them, as in his absence, they crawled to a brutal 16-27 record this season. Even with a breakout year from Maxey and solid contributions from Kelly Oubre and deadline pickup Buddy Hield (and Nic Batum apparently?), this team runs through the middle. If Embiid can’t play up to his usual abilities, it could be a short-lived spring for Philadelphia. 

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(1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Miami Heat

Celtics: Can Boston get through the first round without showing their hand? 

The Boston Celtics’ playoff aspirations reach much further than the first round. This isn’t the stage of the season that this team was built for. 

So far, the Celtics have looked like the team to beat in the NBA, coasting to a league-leading 64-18 record and did it seemingly without breaking a sweat. Their off-season additions of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday have fit seamlessly, helping turn them into the top-ranked offence (123.2) and the third-ranked defence (111.6) in the league. 

That record could’ve been even better had they not started experimenting near the end of the season, with coach Joe Mazzulla throwing out two-big lineups with Porzingis and Luke Kornet, or giving trade deadline acquisition Xavier Tillman extended minutes at the five with a smaller lineup. The team has been trying to see what they can get away with leading up to the playoffs. 

As they enter this first round matchup against the Heat, they should, on paper, make quick work of their opposition. What matters in this long run will be whether or not they can make it out without tipping their hand and showing what’s up their sleeve to future opponents. 

Heat: Does Miami stand a chance without Jimmy Butler? 

It was no Butler, no problem for the Heat as they steamrolled the Bulls to earn the eight-seed. Tyler Herro stepped up big-time, improving on his 9-for-27 stinker against Philly to put up a solid 8-for-17 for 24 points in a near triple-double performance. Rookie Jaime Jaquez filled in for Butler adding in 21 points of his own. Those were the kinds of performances the Heat will need should they want to take down the juggernaut that is the Boston Celtics. 

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Butler doesn’t seem likely to return anytime soon, with reports fearing that the wing has suffered an MCL injury and could be out a few weeks. Three-time all-star centre Bam Adebayo will have to find his form, Herro, though streaky, will have to provide a consistent scoring touch, and Heat Culture will have to run full blast. They’ve been known to pull off miraculous upsets in the past, but could this be a bridge too far?

(3) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (6) Indiana Pacers

Bucks: Will Giannis be back in time to stave off another first round upset?

Giannis Antetokounmpo refused to call last year’s first round elimination at the hands of the Miami Heat a failure. But going into the playoffs this year, after acquiring Damian Lillard in the off-season and positioning themselves as the favourite at the outset of the year has prohibited him from leaning on the same sort of philosophy should they fall short once again. 

The two-time MVP had a valid excuse last season, as he got injured in Game 1 and missed Games 2 and 3. Without him playing at 100 per cent in Games 4 and 5, the Bucks just couldn’t keep up with Jimmy Butler and the Heat. Unfortunately for the Bucks, the superstar could be hobbled once again and is at risk of missing the start of the series against the Pacers. 

What’s worse is that Indiana has had Milwaukee’s number all year long, winning the season series 4-1 including a one-sided elimination in the In-Season Tournament. 

If they can’t get over their kryptonite and prevent another first-round upset, major questions will have to be asked about the pairing between Lillard and Antetokounmpo and whether or not this aging roster and questionable coaching staff is the right fit around their superstar for the long haul. 

Pacers: Can Haliburton recapture his early-season mojo and make some noise in his first-ever playoff series? 

Before the all-star break, Tyrese Haliburton looked like a lock to make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career. He was averaging 21.8 points on stellar .492/.400/.853 shooting splits while leading the league in assists with 11.7. He would go on to close the year averaging 17.3 points on .450/.303/.859 splits while only dishing out 9.6 assists per game. 

Haliburton had the Pacers humming, helping lead them to the No. 1 offence in the NBA, and though they still finished the year 2nd in the league behind the Celtics, it’s clear that the team saw a drop-off once their star guard started to cool down. 

With the addition of Pascal Siakam ahead of the trade deadline, the Pacers saw themselves as a team with a legitimate shot to make some noise in the post-season for the first time since the 2019-20 season, but they’ve slowed down. If they want to take down a presumptive juggernaut in the Milwaukee Bucks, they’ll need Haliburton to recapture his mojo and show off how much of a force the pairing with him and Siakam should be.

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