The Play-In games are over and the final 16 teams for the playoffs are set. Today we’ll be looking at the first round in the Eastern Conference. Last year Miami emerged as emperors of the East and as such there are 7 other teams looking to take their place. Let’s jump into it and see who survives the first round.
#1 seed Philadelphia 76ers vs #8 seed Washington Wizards
They took the long way to get into the playoffs, but the Wizards made it. A disappointing defeat to the Celtics in the first play-in game brought Washington to the brink. But a dominating performance over Indiana secured their place in the top 8 of the east. Their reward is to go up against a Philly team hungry to quiet all the doubters.
Several years after “The Process” began the Sixers are still looking for that elusive title. In fact this team hasn’t even made it to the finals yet. It seems like this is a make or break season for this franchise. If they can’t find a way to get to the finals I suspect that there will be quite a few changes to the roster.
Speaking of the roster this team is led by Joel Embiid. Embiid is a superstar center straight out of a video game. He can dominate down low and grab every rebound possible. He can also dribble pretty well and hit 3s. His running mate Ben Simmons is arguably the best defender in the league. Together those two form a strong duo. Add to the equation Tobias Harris as well as a whole host of shooters and you get a team with championship aspirations.
The Wizards will have to learn how to beat Philly on the fly. After failing to beat them in three attempts during the regular season Washington will be hoping to flip the script. Wizard fans hopes for an upset will have to come from the combo of Westbrook and Beal. If the role players can step up even better, but they go only as far as the main two can take them. If the regular season is anything to go by, this should be a short series. But then again anything can happen in the playoffs.
#2 seed Brooklyn Nets vs #7 seed Boston Celtics
Thanks to the Celtics win over the Wizards we get a first round series involving Kyrie Irving against his former team. Boston fans will love what they saw from Jayson Tatum after his 50-point performance over the Wizards. Missing Jaylen Brown will be a massive blow to this team as he’s their second-best player. It will be up to the rest of the guys on that roster to step up. Kemba Walker is the first name that comes to mind. He was acquired to replace Kyrie Irving and so far, hasn’t lived up to expectations. However, the playoffs always provide players a path of redemption.
Speaking of redemption, Evan Fournier will hope for better fortunes than his previous playoff performances. Without having to shoulder as much of the scoring load as his did in Orlando maybe he will blossom. If not him, the Celtics will have to hope someone else does. Perhaps Marcus Smart has a breakout series. That being said it will be a massive task to take down the title favorite Nets.
Rightfully so the Nets are the favorites to get out of the East due to their big three. The combo of Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant gives the Nets an offensive threat the league has never seen on one team. Never mind the fact that the three have played only 7 games together. If they all click there isn’t a team in this league that can match them point for point. Add to the fact that Joe Harris can and will knock down open 3s and you have a recipe for scoring supremacy.
The two things that could potentially derail this juggernaut from claiming the ultimate prize will be defense and injuries. As I mentioned before their big three have only played 7 games together this season. If they continue to suffer under the injury bug it could be what their rivals need to defeat them. Their flaws on defense could also be their undoing only if they have an off night offensively. Luckily for Brooklyn the Celtics don’t have the firepower to worry them.
#3 seed Milwaukee Bucks vs #6 Miami Heat
The reigning Eastern Conference champions battle against a Milwaukee team looking for revenge. These two teams met in the second round last year when the Heat dumped the Bucks out of the playoffs. With a few months to reflex, the Bucks are back looking to turn the tables.
Milwaukee finished the season with the third best record in the conference and thus will have home court advantage in this series. It can be argued part of the reason why the Bucks lost last year was the pandemic robbed them of true home games. Since every game was played in the bubble there wasn’t any true advantages to being a higher seed. But now things are different and superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo will be determined to overcome this foe.
Giannis and new running mate Jrue Holiday will lead a Milwaukee team hoping to finally survive the east. Holiday brings a two way factor that the Bucks haven’t had in the past. He can be the second scorer on this team, but also is a very good defender. Now he won’t have to be the second scorer if all things go well. That’s because Khris Middleton should be able to shoulder that load and if he plays like he did in the last playoffs look out.
I’ll be the first to admit that last year’s run to the finals was surprising. Miami exceeded all expectations last year and were two games away from a title. That being said they are who we believed them to be. The Heat overachieved last season and rightfully fell back to right around where they belong. Injuries and Covid cost this organization the 4th seed and as such they have to play Milwaukee. Even so they should be confident heading into this series against the team they beat last postseason.
Jimmy Butler will once again lead this team with his no-nonsense mentality. Bam Adebayo will anchor their defense as he will deter anyone coming into the paint. Miami will hope shooters Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson can recapture their magical form from last season. Goran Dragic will run the offense and keep everything organized as they try to play their game. But perhaps Miami’s biggest strength is the number of veterans on this team. Guys who have won championships and know what it takes. It sets up a series that could and should go the distance.
#4 seed New York Knicks vs #5 seed Atlanta Hawks
Perhaps two of the more surprising teams in the east face each other in the first round. The Hawks started off slowly which ended up getting their head coach Lloyd Pierce fired. Nate McMillan took over and quickly turned their season around. The Knicks also got a new coach, but in this case, Tom Thibodeau was able to have a full offseason before getting started. This worked wonders for the Knicks as they became one of the stories of the season. Now these two teams clash and only one will survive.
The Hawks are led by scoring sensation Tre Young. He is supported by Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic and a host of role players. If there’s one thing this team can do is score and in a hurry. Young will likely shoulder the majority of the scoring load, but the team has done a good job of surrounding him with shooters. The worry with this team would be on the other end of the court. Defense isn’t their strong suit and as great as Young is on offense, he’s the opposite on defense. That being said Atlanta hasn’t been this excited about a team since the Joe Johnson era.
If you’re wondering what that faint noise that you’ve been hearing the last month or two is that would be Knick fans. The Knicks are back or at least they back in the playoffs. The turnaround has been remarkable and coach Thibodeau deserves a lot of the credit. Julius Randle had a breakout year earning an all-star selection. The Knicks aren’t led by a superstar but collectively they form a tough team to beat. The reason for this is they hang their hat on defense. In fact, no team in the NBA gave up less points than the Knicks.
This series will be interesting due to the contrasting styles. Atlanta loves to put up a bunch of points while the Knicks love a low scoring game. Whoever is able to assert their playing style should come out on top. This should be a wonderful series that doesn’t quite go the distance but still gives us a few great games.