Power Ranking the Playoffs: Eastern Conference

Hey hey hey sorry for the hiatus. Between the madness of March and my absolute unwillingness to write a dozen “predicting first round match-ups” for the four jerky teams who refused to settle into their seeds until the very last night of the season, it’s been a while since we’ve caught up. But now, in the wake of Kobe giving 60 middle fingers to all the haters praying on his downfall and that whole 73 wins, 400 threes thing, I’m baaaaaack. And just in time of the postseason.

So without much further ado, and with four games to choose from on a single Saturday, here’s my guide to the first round. The must-catch appointment television, the strategic nap-time after that early morning wakeup, and everything in between.

4.) Indiana Pacers at Toronto Raptors (2 v 7)

Now this one does comes with a little bit of intrigue. After two incredibly painful Paul Pierce led playoff upsets in the last two postseasons, it’s show and prove time for the most winning regular season in Raptors’ basketball history. An early exit at the hands of a 7 seed means serious consequences for everyone from head coach Dwayne Casey to soon to be free-agent, max player Demar Derozan to Mr. Fuck You himself, Toronto General Manager Masai Ujiri. While this has been an exciting season for the Raptors, and quite easily the best year in Kyle Lowry’s career, this could all come apart at the seams very quickly.

You could even build the case that Indiana could be the team to shock the North for the third season in a row. Despite a conservatively ho-hum offense during the regular season, the Pacers have the right mix of defense, size, and star power in Paul George that could make them a much more formidable opponent in the slower, pressurized playoff atmosphere. Last season aside, they even have the nod in the experience category as PG, George Hill, and head coach Frank Vogel spent years in the Conference Finals playing the obnoxious thorn in the Miami Heat’s side. If Demare Carroll still isn’t 100%, the Raptors will be hard pressed to come up with a good defender for George and look like the obvious pick for an ugly round 1 meltdown.

Not only do I not see that happening, I don’t want it to. I’d love for someone to be able to challenge the Cavs in the East this year, and with the way Lowry and DeRozan have been able to light up Cleveland’s backcourt, Toronto is the best team for the job. And, for all of the devil’s advocate I’ve been playing, Indiana is a truly depressing, grind-to-a-halt offense that shouldn’t be able to score with Toronto or match their versatility off the bench. So, if I have to choose between a team that passes the ball less than almost any other in the league and an outdated, dinosaur offense, I have to go with the actual dinosaurs.

Raptors in 6.

3.) Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks (4 v 5)

This series beat out the one before it on the base of competitiveness only. As much as I’ve come around on the feisty Celtics this year, they’re a league average team at best to root for as a true Knicks fan. So congratulations to the Hawks then for being one of the most boring watches in the league and to this whole series for lacking a single superstar or a team that was able to take a single game off the Cavaliers in last year’s playoffs. Just rough.

Even without the starpower, though, these are two damn good teams. The Celtics led the Eastern Conference in point differential for a good chunk of the season while Atlanta finished second in defense to an All-Time Spurs team, and actually outperformed them in that category since the All-Star break. Both of these guys force a ton of turnovers, pass the ball extremely well, and can feature lineups with three point shooting at every position. Hell, even their coaches are top-tier, as both Mike Budenholzer and President Brad Stevens are solidly in the conversation for that second tier after the Poppoviches and Kerrs of the world.

I can’t blame anyone who might want to put this series a little higher, particularly that certain special league pass aficionado (read: nerd) who favors smart, selfless basketball over the kind of chest-pumping, exhilarating action that comes with a Lowry or a Paul George or even Lebron. The kind of guys who end up rooting for the ball movement of the Spurs over the Iso heavy style of Russell Westbrook and KD because it’s “better for the game”. And don’t get me wrong, I will most likely end up swallowing my pride and tuning in to a couple of these games as they get close down the stretch. As they are broadcast live on NBATV. Nuff said.

Celtics in 7.

2.) Detroit Pistons at Cleveland Cavaliers (1 v 8)

From an earlier article you should be able to tell the Detroit Pistons were one of my favorite teams to watch this year. And while a sacrificial offering on the altar of Lebron might put kind of a damper on a fun, promising season, it has to be enough that this team has made the postseason for the first time in 7 years (!!!) and has a lot to look forward to in the future.

Look, Detroit is not going to be able to score enough to put a dent in the Cavalier three ball machine. They don’t have a single player who could feasibly match up with Lebron defensively (as evidenced by Joe Johnson absolutely TORCHING them in must-win game with Miami) and lack the kind of outside shooting or spark-off-the-bench player that could swing a close game in their favor. Hell, sacrificial offering might even be too kind for these guys.

All that being said, their two best players should make these games at least somewhaaat interesting. Reggie Jackson has the length and athleticism to give the defensively-challenged Kyrie Irving a real headache on that side of the floor while Mozgov’s guaranteed demotion to the bench means Cleveland will be giving up some serious size to the gargantuan Andre Drummond. Detroit should be able to make a little hay the same way they’ve done all season with those two guys running high pick and roll and the entire team hitting the offensive glass.

Doing enough of that might just keep these games close, if not particularly thrilling or aesthetic to watch. And even if Detroit isn’t able to steal one, this series should be worth watching just to see Lebron and co. start to lock in to full playoff mode.

Cavaliers in 4.

1.) Charlotte Hornets at Miami Heat (3 v 6)

 

I have to throw it out there; the Miami Heat have been sneaky fun to watch recently.

It’s weird to say about a team whose key acquisitions have been the elderly, plodding Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson, but something about adding those guys have allowed the Heat to play much faster by shifting Luol Deng to power forward and running a true 4 out, small-ball line-up. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the rookie Josh Richardson has come out fire-flame spitting with 46% from 3, while Dwayne Wade continues to sneer in the face of the analytic community by knocking down every mid range shot in sight.

There’s also something I can’t quite put my finger on about the post-Lebron Heat and how they went from an absolutely dismal season in 2015 to overcoming the loss of their best player in Chris Bosh and becoming a stingy, defensive 3 seed in the most competitive Eastern Conference in years. There’s a veteran guile to this team; a craftiness that distinguishes them from the young, athletic Thunders and Raptors of the world and gives them a charm all their own. Like a less boring Memphis??

On the other side of the bracket is Charlotte who has been a great surprise this season. The Hornets were able to transform themselves in a major way this season, shooting a buttload of threes while maintaining the top 10 defensive mark of the past few seasons. Kemba Walker has made a serious claim for most improved player of the year while the team built up a stockpile of talented wings that would make even Golden State and San Antonio jealous. The Hornets may regret being unable to secure homecourt, as they were dominant in Buzz City all year long, but their particular brand of speed and spacing may be just the ticket to stretch out Miami’s defense and the lanky Hassan Whiteside.

If you could possibly be in need of further convincing, the winner of this match-up will take on the Indiana-Toronto victor and might be right there, battling Lebron in the Conference Finals. Let’s just hope for some drama.

Miami in 7.

 

Tune in next time for the Western Conference.

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