Less than two weeks remain in the regular season, and the Eastern Conference Playoffs appear to have eight teams that are clear favorites to make the postseason. What order these teams will arrange themselves in largely remains unknown. The two top teams all season long, the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics, have maintained enough distance between them and everyone else that almost all precincts are reporting at this point: these will be the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference.
Beyond that, everything is up for grabs. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers are neck-and-neck for the three seed, with the Indiana Pacers hovering right behind. The Washington Wizards, Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks make up the final three teams, while the Detroit Pistons still have a mathematical chance of sneaking in.
From the vantage points in Boston and Toronto, there are some teams they’d like to see in the first round, and others they’d like to avoid. Barring unforeseen collapses from Cleveland and Philadelphia, these would be the best and worst matchups for the top seeds in the Eastern Conference:
Best Matchup: Milwaukee Bucks
Two of the three contests between the Raptors and Bucks this season went to overtime, but that shouldn’t be enough to scare the ‘We The North’ faithful through a seven-game series. The Bucks are currently in between identities, with the vast majority of their makeup attributed to former coach Jason Kidd, while interim coach Joe Prunty has toned down their defensive aggressiveness. Milwaukee’s most dangerous attribute is superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, a legitimate MVP candidate that can take over games on both ends of the floor.
The issue for Milwaukee is what surrounds Giannis: a bevy of non-elite shooters. Malcolm Brogdon, who has been hurt since early February, could be available for the series, but his absence would really hurt Milwaukee’s depth in the backcourt. The are also working to inculcate Jabari Parker back into the lineup next to Giannis, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. Parker’s lack of defensive acumen makes him a bright target for the Raptors to attack, and it’s hard for the Bucks to get the requisite offense from Jabari to make up for that weakness when he shares the ball with other primary threats, many of whom aren’t players that provide adequate spacing.
Spacing is the million-dollar word for the Bucks, who have struggled all season long to open up the lane on offense or discourage opponents from taking the shots they want on the other end. There’s a ton of talent in Milwaukee, but the Bucks are 7-9 since the All-Star Break and have more questions about fit and style than a team should heading into the postseason.
Worst Matchup: Washington Wizards
Only one Eastern Conference playoff team has multiple victories over the Toronto Raptors this season, and they hail in our nation’s capital. The Wizards are going to be aided by the return of superstar-caliber point guard John Wall, and that would make them a dangerous group to face in the postseason. A fresh Wall would be explosive for the Wizards and could wear down the Raptors quickly.
Wall and Beal shoulder the heavy-lifting for Washington’s offense, which means a greater burden defensively on Toronto’s top stars, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. That in itself is a recipe for taking down the Raptors. If we’ve learned anything about watching their postseason effectiveness the last few seasons it’s that if those two are cold from the field, Toronto is in trouble. This Raptors team is much more potent on offense and has more balance than in prior seasons, so it’s not to say the Raptors are ripe for an upset. With two rounds to go before qualifying for the NBA Finals, including potential matchups with Cleveland, Philadelphia or Boston, the Raps would like to avoid tiring out their superstars in the first round.
Washington’s strength on defense all season has been how opponents fare against them from deep. The Wizards have the third-best defensive three-point percentage in the league – a metric that is, in large part, influenced by luck as much as scheme. If those numbers hold up in the postseason and Toronto struggles to knock down open treys, the Wizards could have a case for pushing this series deep to seven games.
Best Matchup: Milwaukee Bucks
For many of the same reasons as Toronto, the Boston Celtics should be crossing their fingers hoping for a duel with the Bucks later this month. The Celts have played well against the Bucks all season long, in particular finding a great way to stymie Milwaukee’s aggressive, trapping and strong-side helping defense.
The Celtics have solved Milwaukee’s scheme by playing a ball movement-heavy, weak side cutting offense in their matchups with the Bucks. Because Boston plays a positionless style of basketball, their personnel is able to attack Milwaukee by putting shooters in the right spots and manipulating the patterns with which the Bucks rotate.
On the defensive end, the Celtics have multiple long wings and pugnacious defenders that can give the litany of wings for the Bucks fits. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart are some of the best defenders in the conference, while Jayson Tatum can use his length to collapse driving lanes from the weak-side. The Celtics weakness has long thought to be on the glass: Milwaukee is the worst rebounding team in the NBA. The only way an upset happens over the course of a long series is if the underdog can consistently exploit a weakness shown by the favorite. Since the Bucks fail to capitalize on one of Boston’s vulnerabilities, it’s hard to envision Milwaukee pulling off the upset.
Worst Matchup: Miami Heat
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Bucks are the Miami Heat, a balanced offensive group with immaculate spacing, several good shooters and a strong defensive identity. Defensively the Heat can protect the rim with Hassan Whiteside while maintaining flexibility to switch other defensive assignments and actions. The Heat took two of the three regular season matchups between them, while none of the games have come since the team re-acquired their franchise’s leader and postseason hero Dwyane Wade.
A staggering nine players on Miami’s active roster are averaging double-digit points this season, signifying the tremendous offensive balance that lies at Erik Spoelstra’s arsenal. Brad Stevens has earned a reputation as a great defensive tactician that can take away opponent’s top strengths. But when a team like Miami has so many points of attack and such balance, it would be intriguing to watch how the Celtics plan on stifling their offense.
The Celtics haven’t topped the 100-point mark in any of their three meetings against Miami this year, due in part to Miami’s excellent team defense. Miami features the eighth-best defensive rating in the league, a rare and high number for a group on the tail end of the playoff chase. Mainly the Heat are aggressive at running players off the three-point line, forcing them to either finish in the mid-range or over the length of prowling shot blocker Hassan Whiteside. It’s an interesting clash with the Celtics, who are one of the best three-point shooting teams, both in terms of volume (sixth-most attempts) and accuracy (third-highest percentage).
A first-round matchup between the two sides would be a treat for all involved. Boston’s postseason success largely hinges on the health of Kyrie Irving and if he can recover from the knee troubles he’s faced of late. Even with Kyrie in the lineup, a best-of-seven series with Miami would be no walk in the park.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).