The Eastern Conference Semifinals are as interesting as they’ve been in years. We’ve got four relatively even teams — all with their own fascinating storylines — fighting for supremacy in a conference with some considerable momentum.
Though Milwaukee have been the best team within the East for the entire season, the Bucks certainly enter this round as the least experienced of the bunch. Many questions persist: Can Philadelphia find the right bit of cohesiveness needed to make a run? Will Boston shake the ‘underachieving’ label? Will Toronto exorcise the postseason demons and make the Finals? Lastly, will Giannis showcase his MVP form when his team needs it most?
We’ll answer all of these questions — and much more — with our analysis:
Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Image Source: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Fray: Boston appears to be peaking at exactly the right time. For the first time all season, we’re seeing the five-man group (Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum) everyone was bullish about.
The sweep of Indiana was impressive in its own right — though not completely unexpected considering Indiana’s limitations from a talent standpoint. Still, Boston looks like a different team in large part to Hayward’s recent play. He’s resembling the Hayward in Utah more and more — particularly when it involves him attacking the paint and playmaking for teammates at a much higher clip.
Much of this series will come down to the team controlling the tempo best. Milwaukee plays the game with a free-flowing effortlessness. With that said, Boston has the depth and defensive chops to somewhat muck it up.
It will be key for Milwaukee to have both Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic playing. Each helps in spacing the floor, and Brogdon in particular enables Milwaukee to have another dependable, high-efficiency player on the court. Similarly, Boston would love to get Marcus Smart back as a means to disrupt Eric Bledsoe’s proclivity for living in the lane. Mirotic enables Milwaukee to play small, and thus have Giannis in its form of a ‘death lineup.’
Ultimately, it’ll all come down to Giannis. The Bucks are a relatively inexperienced playoff team when compared to Boston. We have to see whether it can withstand the potential punch to the face (which surely will come at some point this series). Giannis needs to show everyone why he’s considered the front-runner for the MVP award. If he’s firing on all cylinders, Milwaukee should win the series. Regardless, it’ll be a dog fight.
Milwaukee in 7
Harris Ahmadzai: It’d be fair to say Milwaukee versus Boston pits the regular season’s best team versus the regular season’s most disappointing team. The Bucks were historically dominant en route to the franchises’s first 60-win season in nearly 40 years. Outside of (maybe) the LA Lakers, it’s difficult to come up with a team that got less out of their talent than the Celtics this year. The great thing about the playoffs is all of the regular season narratives can be flipped on its head in a seven-game series.
Boston certainly has the edge in one regard — experience. Assuming Pau Gasol doesn’t make his playoff debut for the Bucks this series, the Celts will have the only former NBA champion used in either rotation with Kyrie Irving. Other than George Hill, Milwaukee doesn’t have anybody who has played in a Conference Finals (although Mike Budenholzer holds some experience in that regard). And the Celtics roster is filled with guys who have been deep in the playoffs and made big shots in crucial moments. Experience is a tricky thing, but crazy things always happen in playoff games. We’ve seen how the Celtics react in big situations, and I’m not as sure what to expect out of Milwaukee’s players in those moments.
The key in any series that includes Giannis Antetokounmpo is how the opposing team chooses to defend him. He’s become so unstoppable that often times it doesn’t matter who he’s being defend by, but Al Horford certainly fits the profile of a guy who can slow him down (as he has in the past). Aiding the Celtics’ attempts of slowing down the Greek Freak is they are exceptionally equipped to not get destroyed on a switch. Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and even Aron Baynes are more than capable defenders who should at least prove to be somewhat of a road-block from Giannis waltzing towards the rim. You’re not going to stop the eventual MVP, but having three or four guys to throw at him helps.
Irving needs to be locked-in playoff-mode Kyrie if the Celtics want any chance. It’s hard to imagine where the scoring is going to come from otherwise. Gordon Hayward has been better the last couple of months, but Morris has more than made up for that by falling off a cliff over the same time-frame. Not having Marcus Smart didn’t hurt against a not-so-good Pacers team, but his health will become a factor in this series. Irving needs some form of rest going against a bulldog in Eric Bledsoe, and that means we’ll have to see Terry Rozier handle the ball more than he probably should.
Both teams can lock in defensively for stretches, but I think the Bucks have more easily accessible ways of scoring. Khris Middleton was a Celtics-killer in the Playoffs last year, and Bledsoe is playing the best basketball of his career. Add in Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic stretching out Boston’s defense, and the Bucks will prove to be too much for this up-and-down Boston team.
Milwaukee in 6
Dylan Fraychineaud: The majority of the teams in the NBA would gladly take the regular season results the Celtics achieved this season. However, that is before you account for the preseason expectations that accompanied Boston into the season. They were pegged as the clear favorite in the Eastern Conference and were widely regarded as one of the three best teams in basketball alongside Golden State and Houston.
Instead, Boston struggled to manage expectations and were bogged down by numerous distractions — constant questions concerning Kyrie Irving’s future with the team, Jayson Tatum’s second-year regression and Gordon Hayward’s battle back from injury just to name a few. Through it all, however, Boston still managed to claim the No. 4 seed in the East. They breezed past a depleted Indiana squad by playing some of their best ball of the season. It goes without saying, however, that the Celtics will now face an entirely different beast in the Milwaukee Bucks.
Milwaukee finished the regular season with the league’s best record and largely dominated teams. Led by potential MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks enter the series as the clear favorite. Milwaukee obliterated Detroit in the opening round and looked the part of the top seed.
Both teams will have to deal with injuries to key players — Boston will be without Marcus Smart for at least the first two games, and Malcolm Brogdon will miss the first two for the Bucks. The return of either player would give his respective team a big boost. However, Boston is likely worse off if Smart can’t go.
When it comes down to it, Milwaukee is the superior team. Boston will have a hard time containing Antetokounmpo, which will ultimately be the difference in the series.
Milwaukee in 6
Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Image Source: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
JF: The storylines emanating from this series are quite compelling. Both teams have tweaked their respective rosters in order to reach the NBA Finals. Philadelphia improved its collection of wing talent considerably (Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris), whilst Toronto added two players (Marc Gasol, Kawhi Leonard) with plenty of playoff pedigree.
Toronto held Orlando to four-straight games under 100 points. The defensive coverages employed by head coach Nick Nurse were accentuated further by the team’s collective basketball I.Q. Leonard, Gasol, Lowry, and Danny Green are all exceptionally smart. Rarely do you see Toronto be prone to breakdowns on the defensive end.
This aspect will be significant when going up against Philadelphia. While arguably the most talented team in the East, Philly remains a bit disjointed on the offensive end. There are far too many spells in which the likes of Harris or Simmons remain disengaged. Philly likes to swarm the opposition with size — particularly on the boards. While Joel Embiid is an utter beast, the combination of Gasol and Serge Ibaka won’t make things easy on the burgeoning star. The same can be said for Jimmy Butler, as Toronto can throw a host of defenders on him (including Leonard and OG Anunoby). Across the board, Toronto matches up quite nicely with Philadelphia. The host of wing defenders should be able to account for Butler and Harris. Duly, Pascal Siakam should be highly motivated in an expected one v. one challenge versus Ben Simmons.
Watch out for Kyle Lowry in this series. Philadelphia doesn’t really have a good matchup for him. When it comes down to it, Toronto has home court advantage, the better defensive team, and the best player on the floor in Leonard. The Raptors should be able to leap one step closer to the NBA Finals.
Toronto in 7
HA: I can’t remember a series that had me flip-flopping on my pick more than this one. Toronto looked like a juggernaut for the first 20 games, had a bit of a lull while key players nursed injuries, and have stormed back after four consecutive wins over the Magic. The 76ers are riding a four-game winning streak of their own after a hotly-contested series with the Brooklyn Nets. Philly is the most polarizing team left in the field, and it’s hard to gauge what sort of performance we’re going to see from them every night. All of this makes for a series that promises to be close with plenty of back-and-forth play.
Kawhi Leonard has dismantled Ben Simmons in virtually every matchup between the two. Simmons is averaging eight turnovers a game against Leonard, and hasn’t been able to get into any sort of groove. The Raptors as a whole are essentially built to stop a player like Simmons. Danny Green is one of the best transition defenders in the league. Kyle Lowry is an excellent help defender who routinely is atop the league in charges drawn. Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Pascal Siakam will serve as deterrents from the rim, and Siakam could even see the matchup against Simmons for stretches. Simmons has to be perfect to be effective against a defense like Toronto’s. It’s no secret the Raptors will dare Simmons to shoot, making it imperative for Philly’s lead guard to make the correct reads and not allow himself to disappear from the game.
On the other end, Jimmy Butler should at least make life difficult for Leonard. Butler is playing for a contract, and many have forgotten the type of defender he can be while locked in. That leaves Simmons to defend a shorter Lowry. Lowry has had his woes in the postseason, but his performance this year has been better than the counting numbers have shown. Still, it’s going to be tough for him to get good shots off against a 6-foot-9 defender with long arms, and Lowry hasn’t been shooting the ball well to begin with.
A dominant Joel Embiid certainly boosts Philadelphia’s chances. Gasol is coming off a shellacking of NBA All-Star Nikola Vucevic, but Embiid is a different beast. Unlike Vuc, Embiid is able to get to the foul line and could get Gasol in trouble early. Ibaka and Siakam are capable of defending Philly’s big man for stretches, but that’s not the best allocation of Toronto’s resources and Embiid is far too big for one-on-one coverage by either Raptor forward.
While the Raptors are a slight favorite, I think the series hinges on Philadelphia’s ability to hit the three-ball. J.J. Redick and Tobias could completely turn this series around if they shoot above 40 percent from deep, and if Embiid knocks a couple down, it will shift Toronto’s defense dramatically.
I’m going with Philly to clinch at home, with Embiid solidifying himself as a legit superstar in the process.
Philadelphia in 6
DF: The Eastern Conference gave us the two series we all wanted. This is no slight towards the Bucks and Celtics, but the Toronto–Philadelphia pairing is the must-watch matchup.
The Raptors appear poised to finally get over the hump and exorcise their playoff demons. Kawhi Leonard is beginning to look more and more like himself with each game. While not quite at the level he was two seasons ago defensively, Leonard has proven why he is considered one of the greatest defenders of all-time. In fact, Toronto’s team defense is flat-out scary. The addition of Marc Gasol gave the Raptors their second DPOY to pair with Leonard. Kyle Lowry’s ability to defend is right up there with the best guards. Danny Green is an above-average defender in his own right, and then there is Pascal Siakam — arguably the team’s best defender this year.
They will have their hands full with the 76ers — especially Joel Embiid. Embiid is a juggernaut, to say the least. If Toronto can somewhat contain Philadelphia’s superstar, it will win the series. That is not to say Philly is Embiid and nobody else. Jimmy Butler is capable of scoring 30 points on any given day and will provide the 76ers with a great boost on the other end of the floor. Tobias Harris — acquired from the Clippers mid-season — is a potential x-factor. If he continues to shoot at a high-clip, Philly may be able to eliminate Canada’s lone team. J.J. Redick is a dangerous weapon on the wing.
There is also Ben Simmons. Simmons is able to impact the game on both ends. Offensively, he relies on his passing and ability to attack the rim. However, one potentially series-changing factor will be Simmons’ ability to outmaneuver Leonard. Kawhi has generally shut Simmons down when the two have met. The 76ers cannot afford for Simmons to have a pedestrian series if they want to advance. Unfortunately for them, he will.
Toronto in 6