Friday, April 15, 2016

Your NBA Playoff Primer: The East

After a year out of the playoffs, could Dwyane Wade and the Heat challenge LeBron James and the Cavs?
By Adam Lowenstein (@StatsAdam)

Ed. Note- The NBA Playoffs begin this weekend, so our buddy Adam Lowenstein will be breaking down each conference. We begin in the Eastern Conference, where most expect LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to again rise above the field. But, as you'll see, there is a group of intriguing teams that may be able to give the Cavs a run for their money.

#1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. #8 Detroit Pistons

Is this still King James’ Eastern Conference? With how the future odds have shaken out, it seems like it will be. In addition, his team will be rested heading into the playoffs. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Mo Williams all sat for Wednesday’s 112-110 loss, which was coincidentally against the Detroit Pistons.

The Cavs were not the only team resting players on Wednesday, as starters Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond all did not play in the game for the Pistons. That starting lineup did impressively defeated the Cavaliers in Cleveland on February 22, however.

The Pistons held LeBron James to 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting that  night.

In fact, the Pistons beat the Cavaliers in three of their four meetings this season. In the three games that were played with most of the active playoff rosters, the Pistons were 2-1. Detroit will have to hope that Stan Van Gundy has something up those sweaty sleeves, because the regular season series rarely matters for King James’ teams.

Prediction: Cleveland in 5.

#2 Toronto Raptors vs. #7 Indiana Pacers

If April 8’s contest between the Raptors and Pacers at Air Canada Centre was any indication, the Raptors will finally get the monkey off their collective back, and win a best-of-seven playoff series. Head coach Dwane Casey rested DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola in the game, and the Raptors still won by double digits. Rookie shooting guard Norman Powell, who has stepped up recently, scored a then career-high 27 points in that contest.

Casey has improved Toronto’s record every one of the five years that he has been with the team, but the Raptors have lost both of the first-round series they've played in under him. In fact, they have never won a best-of-seven playoff series. The only playoff series that they have won in franchise history came in the best-of-five first round of 2000-01.

Meanwhile, there is some hope for the Pacers, who finished the season on a three-game winning streak and went 6-1 in April. They also seem to be getting C.J. Miles back from his shoulder injury.

The only victory the Pacers had in four tries against the Raptors this season came in a team effort on December 14. That victory stopped Toronto’s four-game winning streak, and the Raptors coincidentally finished the regular season on a four-game winning streak.

The Pacers look to do the same in ending the Raptors’ winning streak on Saturday.

Prediction: Toronto in 6.

#3 Miami Heat vs. #6 Charlotte Hornets

In the oddest of tiebreaker situations, the Heat, Hornets, Hawks and Celtics all finished the season with 48-34. Although Miami lost its 26-point lead at Boston on Wednesday, Erik Spoelstra’s squad was able to get the third seed.

The Heat and Hornets, neither of whom made the playoffs in 2015, split their season series and went 1-1 at each of the two arenas. Injuries could be key in this series, as Nicolas Batum (ankle) and Udonis Haslem (foot) each missed the 82nd game of the season. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (shoulder) is already out for the playoffs, and so might be Chris Bosh (blood clots). Tyler Johnson (shoulder) is in jeopardy of not playing as well.

The Heat, who still haven't lost consecutive games in March or April, host the former Bobcats, which is what Charlotte’s franchise name was the last time this organization was in the playoffs. In fact, Steve Clifford’s only playoff games as an NBA head coach have come against the Heat. The first four playoff games against the Miami LeBrons were not so competitive. However, it appears this series will be, as Charlotte looks for its first postseason win since 2002.

The Hornets lost consecutive games just once in March and April, and the two losses were on the road against the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference. Charlotte’ 109-106 victory over the Heat in Miami on March 17 was one of the Hornets’ 13 wins in March, their only month this season with more than 10 wins.

Similarly, March was the only month the Heat scored double-digit victories this season.

These two hot teams will make a much more interesting series this time around. Although that is not a high bar, this series should last at least six games.

Prediction: Miami in 6.

#4 Atlanta Hawks vs. #5 Boston Celtics

The Hawks played their starters in the season finale, and they played horrendously against the backups of the Washington Wizards. Atlanta lost 109-98, in a game in which all its starters had double-digit negatives on plus/minuses scale.

Fortunately for the Hawks, they kept their homecourt advantage in the first round. Unfortunately for both the Hawks and Celtics, the winner of this series faces the winner of the Cavaliers and Pistons series... I mean, the Cavaliers.

An interesting note about Atlanta and Boston is that both teams were healthy through most of the season and had just 10 or fewer starting lineups, and it was both their fewest different starting lineups since the 2009-10 season. Both teams finished the season with their main lineups, which were Teague/Bazemore/Korver/Millsap/Horford and Thomas/Bradley/Crowder/Johnson/Sullinger, respectively. In addition, each of those starting lineups had a winning percentage of 60 percent this year.

However, the Celtics’ three losses against the Hawks this season came with their frequently used starting lineup. The only victory Boston had this season against Atlanta, which was the first meeting between the teams, was with Marcus Smart starting instead of Bradley.

With the average margin of victory being 14 in their four matchups and the smallest margin of victory being eight points, this could be a weirdly uninteresting series, due to the lack of superstar power.

However, the teams’ rosters are similarly structured and the Hawks shoot better than the Celtics while the Celtics rebound better than the Hawks. This series should be a hard-fought one.

Prediction: Boston in 7.

For more sports coverage, follow Adam Lowenstein on Twitter at @StatsAdam. Statistics used from and

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