2017 NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

The NBA Playoffs are here! Let's take a look at the first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference and see what the key storylines might be.

#1 Boston Celtics vs. #8 Chicago Bulls: A Referendum on Jimmy Butler
Should the Celtics have traded for Jimmy Butler? Should the Bulls trade Jimmy Butler this offseason or commit to building around him? 
Those are the questions that are going to be at the forefront of this series. Add in questions about Dwyane Wade's future in Chicago and Rajon Rondo's return to The Hub with the fact that the eight-seeded Bulls actually split the season series with the Celtics and you have an intriguing set of games on the horizon.
The Bulls are a consistently inconsistent squad. While they've pretty much danced around the .500 mark all season, with their playoff lives on the line, they managed to beat Cleveland and then lose to the Knicks and the Nets. 
I feel like the playoffs will bring the best out of the Bulls but it still won't be enough to take down the Celtics. Part of me wants to say this one stretches to seven games but for now I'll go with:
Prediction: Celtics in 6

#2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. #7 Indiana Pacers: The Return of Sir Lance-alot

LeBron James vs. Paul George is the marquee matchup but much of the talk could be around the return of Lance Stephenson. Lance helped make the Pacers dangerous a few years ago and then he became more dangerous to the Pacers' own locker room than to the opponent on the court. A short stint in NBA purgatory has helped Lance, who is now embracing his role and helped the Pacers make the second season. 
The Cavs have struggled in the back half of the season. They lost ten games in April; no team with that many losses in a month has ever won the NBA championship. Still, it's the playoffs now and I'm sure the Cavs will regain their stride. The Pacers could steal a game or two but their lackluster defense isn't going to be able to keep the Cavs from marching on.
Prediction: Cavs in 5

#3 Toronto Raptors vs. #6 Milwaukee Bucks: The Greek Freak Has Arrived!
The frontrunner for NBA's Most Improved Player award and darling of the blogosphere, Giannis Antetokoumpo will be the main attraction of this series. Meanwhile, the best team that nobody respects - the Toronto Raptors - will probably be used to life outside of the spotlight. The Raptors won three out of four vs the Bucks in the regular season and the one loss came when Kyle Lowry was out. The Bucks do have Khris Middleton now but they are also without Jabari Parker, who could've made this a more interesting matchup. The Bucks do have a number of wild cards who could add a surprise boost but ultimately, I think Dwayne Casey will have the Raptors ready to handle their business.
Prediction: Raptors in 5

#4 Washington Wizards vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks: Big vs. Little
I actually thought the Hawks were going to miss the playoffs. They hadn't been playing well and had the toughest closing schedule of anyone. Instead, they ripped off wins against the Celtics, the Cavs (twice), and Charlotte. And now they head into a series against a team that I think is susceptible to being overpowered by opposing bigs. Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard could put up some numbers against the Wiz.
The problem for the Hawks, however, is that the modern NBA is a little man's game and the Wizards have the much better players in the backcourt. Tim Hardaway Jr's quiet emergence as a legitimate NBA starter (17.5ppg since the All-Star break. 47% fg, 37% 3pt FG) helps Atlanta but I just don't see anyone stopping John Wall. I wouldn't be stunned if there was a disappearing act by Otto Porter and maybe Bradley Beal and Atlanta stole this series but my gut says the Wiz have enough to make it to the 2nd round. 
Prediction: Wizards in 6

After that, I see the Celtics duking it out with the Wizards but ultimately taking the series in 6. The Cavs shouldn't have much trouble with the Raptors, wrapping that one up in 5 games. 

As much as I'd love to bet on my Celtics to win the Eastern Conference, I think the Cavs just have too much and should be able to take care of business. It should be a five games series but if the Cavs take their foot off the pedal, it could go six or even seven. 

Kevin MendoncaComment