Monday, May 2, 2016

Your NBA Eastern Conference Semifinal Primer

After carrying Toronto past Indiana in Game 7, can DeMar DeRozan top Hassan Whiteside and the Miami Heat?
By Adam Lowenstein (@StatsAdam)

Ed. Note- We know that the second round has already begun in the West, but we wanted to wait until all the NBA's playoff matchups were set to post our previews. Deal with it.

Anyways, here are Adam's breakdowns of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

#1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. #4 Atlanta Hawks

After sweeping the Detroit Pistons in arguably the closest four-game, best-of-seven, series in NBA history, the Cavaliers are well on their way to consecutive Eastern Conference titles.

Although the Cavaliers are under a different head coach this postseason, they have a stronger, healthier roster in 2016. Of course, they have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but Kevin Love seems to be the x-factor.

He did not make it through last year’s sweep of the Boston Celtics, but he will continue to play a crucial role in what could be the second and final run at the title for the Cavaliers’ big three.

Love is the only player to register a double-double in all of the games he has played this postseason. He closed the first-round series with some poor shooting, but if he continues his overall 2016 playoff performance, LeBron and company will be happy.

Tyronn Lue’s team had a relatively easy time with the Hawks during the regular season. Just one year after sweeping Atlanta out of the playoffs, Cleveland looks to continue its lengthy winning streak against the Hawks.

However, the Hawks did conquer some demons in the first round, as they snapped their 10-game losing streak in playoff games in Boston with their commanding victory in Thursday’s Game 6 at TD Garden.

Atlanta’s dominance of Isaiah Thomas in Game 5 signified the clearing of an important hurdle for the Hawks. Although he scored 25 points in Atlanta’s first ever series-clinching victory in Boston, Mike Budenholzer’s squad exploited the Celtics’ weaknesses on both ends of the court.

For the majority of Games 5 and 6, the Hawks forced everybody, except Thomas, to beat them. In doing so, they made Brad Stevens feel helpless, as he witnessed his bottom-10 shooting team miss again and again, especially from 3-point distance.

In terms of the Hawks’ offensive end, they knew they could get to the hoop and either drive and score or drive and kick against the Celtics’ weak interior defense. Unfortunately, Budenholzer and his coaching staff had to suffer through two defeats in Boston before being able to fully exploit an Avery Bradley-less Celtics team with a hobbled Jae Crowder.

Atlanta will not have the same luxury in Round 2, as it heads into a series as a heavy underdog and having not won in Cleveland since 2014. Atlanta will also be going from a weak-shooting Celtics squad to the Eastern Conference’s best offensive team.

The Hawks showed some impressive hot stretches against a Boston defense that is better than Cleveland’s, but the Cavaliers still have a top-10 defense and that was strong enough to sweep the regular season series from the Hawks.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 6

#2 Toronto Raptors vs. #3 Miami Heat

The only two Game 7’s of the NBA’s first round involved the Raptors and Heat. Both were played on the first day of May, and each team won each of the first third quarters of their respective contests.

However, as always, Toronto did not make it easy on Sunday night.

After seeing the Heat carry its momentum from the Game 6 victory in Charlotte to dispatch the Hornets on Sunday afternoon, the Raptors were cruising to their first best-of-seven playoff series victory. However, Toronto let the Indiana Pacers back into the game by scoring just 11 points in the fourth quarter.

After Kyle Lowry’s layup gave Toronto a 12-point lead with 5:35 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Raptors turned ice cold. The only points Toronto would score over the next five minutes would be just one more Lowry layup.

Fortunately, the Pacers had too little time to make a comeback. In addition, the fact that Indiana was a bottom-10 offensive team during the regular season helped Toronto survive with an 89-84 win.

As you read this, you might be able to guess that I am a bit sour on the Raptors, and you are absolutely right. Here is a fun ESPN statistic for you: “The Raptors scored 11 points in the 4th quarter, the fewest of any Game 7 winning team in the shot-clock era.”

This is not how a 56-win team should perform. Toronto had the fourth-best winning percentage and fifth-best point differential during the regular season, but some teams just do not know how to put their games together during the postseason. In Games 6 and 7, Miami knew how to put it together against an untested team.

In Game 7, Goran Dragic matched his third-highest point total with the Heat, as he scored a game-high 25 points in the Heat’s drubbing of the Hornets. He accomplished this feat in just 32 minutes. Miami also had the game-high rebounder in the contest, as x-factor Hassan Whiteside grabbed the most rebounds for the fifth time in the seven-game series; he also registered double-doubles in each of those five contests.

Looking back at Game 6, Dwyane Wade stared down a Hornets fan and showed him who’s boss. In that game, Wade also passed Michael Jordan, who was in the building, for the most blocks by a guard in playoff history.

Miami has a championship pedigree and veteran leadership, while the Raptors’ longest tenured player is Lowry, who shot worse than 40 percent in all seven games of the first-round series.

Additionally, in Game 6 of the Toronto series, the Raptors’ “superstar” (sure, call me a Mark Cuban-like “idiot” for saying that) DeMar DeRozan scored a whopping eight points in Indiana, and that came two games after he scored a whopping eight points in Game 4 in Indiana. That also came after scoring a combined 24 points on 27 percent shooting in the first two games of the first-round series.

I understand I left out DeRozan’s 13-point first quarter in Game 7, which was a part of a game-high 30-point performance, against the league’s third-best defensive team, but Miami’s top-eight defense does not have slouches. DeRozan and Lowry will need to consistently step up for the Raptors to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Prediction: Heat in 6

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

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