The playoffs are upon us, and things tip off Saturday. Which means it’s time to make wild guesses that are almost assuredly going to be wrong, but at least there’s no Maryland-Baltimore County around to render the entire thing utterly silly. In a seven-game series, that just would’ve meant Virginia in five.
We’ll start today with the Eastern Conference, do the West later this morning, then go ahead and stick the Finals pick at the end of that West article, so please do stay tuned.
This is also going to be a lot more free-flowing and gut-based than your usual Pace and Space piece, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in three seasons of trying to predict small discrete events, it’s that numbers are good for broader trends but you’re just as wrong if you put a bunch of effort into something and get caught out by something you assigned a low percentage but non-zero chance to.
Just ask Nate Silver next time he’s got an election to predict.
RAPTORS-WIZARDS: Raptors in 5
The Wiz were atrocious in April, collapsing down the stretch and doing their level best to choke out of the playoffs entirely; they just lucked into the East being hot garbage from Detroit down to Atlanta.
The Raps’ backcourt is probably the fourth-best in the league; Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can’t really hang with the Hall of Famers in Houston, the Splash Brothers in Golden State, or even the backcourt in Portland, but they’re the best in the East by far.
They’re not winning a seven-game series in the Finals.
But as long as they just take care of business and do work, they’ll drop one in DC when Bradley Beal and John Wall go bonkers in Game 3 or Game 4, but that’s it; they’ll close it out at home in Game 5.
CAVALIERS-PACERS: Pacers in 6
As good as LeBron James is, he’s just one man. One man leading the worst supporting cast he’s had since he took the 2007 Canton Charge to the Finals before getting swept out by Tim Duncan and the Spurs.
The Pacers have the two most improved players in the league (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis), the most deadeye three-point shooter (Darren Collison), the one guy who, despite Bron’s protests to the contrary, gets under LeBron’s skin (Lance Stephenson), and a crowd that’s going to be explosive at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, especially if the Pacers steal one in Cleveland in the first two games.
Oh, and the Cavs were the second-worst defensive team in the entire league; they play with no defensive communication, no cohesion, nothing that will allow them to close out on rotations against a team that shoots the 3 especially well.
Not for nothing did Indiana win three of four in the regular season against these guys. It’s a matchup nightmare.
CELTICS-BUCKS: Milwaukee in 6
Giannis Antetokounmpo is far and away the best player on the floor in this series. As good as Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown are, two of those guys are a rookie and a second-year player who were never supposed to be huge factors when this was going to be the Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward show.
The C’s are running a paper-thin team out there, and even though they’re the best defensive team in the league and have a vastly superior coach (Brad Stevens vs. Joe Prunty), they’re just not going to have the horses to close out the Bucks.
Fear the Deer, it’s going to be beer and bratwurst in the second round.
SIXERS-HEAT: Philadelphia in 5
The last time a rookie looked this much like he was going to be a major impact player in the playoffs, he was wearing a Lakers uniform, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still in his prime, and James Worthy was playing for Dean Smith.
Plus, the Heat have a big clubhouse distraction in Hassan Whiteside‘s ongoing disgruntled irritation at his own team, and it’s just hard to see them having the horses to run with the Sixers, who have won 16 in a row and look unstoppable right now.
Miami will win Game 3. Philly will win the other four, and Dwyane Wade will go home early.
RAPTORS-PACERS: Raptors in 5
This is where it ends for Indiana. Jonas Valanciunas will make Myles Turner look like he belongs in the G-League when they battle in the low post. Oladipo will contain DeRozan, but there will just be too many extra possessions, too many cases where Bojan Bogdanovic can’t find his shot, too much Bad Lance on the road in Toronto for those three games.
The Raptors handled the Pacers fairly easily during the regular season, winning three of four and blowing the Pacers out when it was time for them to secure the 1 seed and for Indiana to lose its chance to get home court against Cleveland.
And in the playoffs, the better team wins a seven-game series, and that’s the 59-23 Raptors.
SIXERS-BUCKS: Philly in 4
I mean, did you see that regular-season finale? When the Sixers want to run someone off the floor and they have the weapons to do it, they run someone off the floor and fire all their weapons.
Joel Embiid should be back, and he will severely limit what the Greek Freak can do down low, and Milwaukee doesn’t have the shooters to out-gun the Sixers.
This series will be a beatdown; it’s easy to see it ending with a 100-point total margin.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: Toronto in 7
Playoff experience counts for something. The Sixers might just be the better team here, but Toronto has home court, they’ve been to the ECF before (falling short against LeBron), and coach Dwane Casey’s embrace of modern basketball means Brett Brown won’t out-coach him over the course of this series.
The Sixers will win in the paint; the Raptors will win out on the perimeter.
But what it’s going to come down to is the Raptors having been to the playoffs before, having posted a better season, having the feeling that this is their time to shine.
And Philly will give it a great run, the kind of run that has a lot of people next year predicting them to win the title.
But they won’t do it this year.
So who will the Raptors face in the NBA Finals? Houston? Golden State? Someone else?
Stay tuned for our Western Conference playoff preview and Finals pick later this morning, and thanks for reading!