Through four days of the 2017 NBA Playoffs, we have more questions than answers in the Eastern Conference.
The biggest question: What are you doing, Celtics? The Bulls are up 2-0 after sweeping a pair in Boston. The Cs, who have some defensive rebounding issues, were destroyed by Robin Lopez on the glass in the first half as Chicago opened up a lead in Tuesday’s Game 2 win. Some halftime adjustments and hotter Bulls shooting (i.e. less rebounds to be had) ended the issue in the back half, but the damage was done.
Boston isn’t performing well on either end. A lack of shooting has tanked its offense. Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder shot a combined 5-of-19 on threes, and that’s basically the Celtics’ entire outside arsenal (minus Kelly Olynyk). On defense, the Celtics are rather small. Rajon Rondo had free reign in Game 2 to create, and he finished with 14 assists. Dwyane Wade, still knocking off rust after a late-season injury, blew up for 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting.
If you can’t score from outside and you can’t stop aging opposing guards or control the glass, you’re in trouble. Chicago was a much, much better home team during the regular season. Boston needs to win twice in three games in Chicago to salvage this series and stay alive. Is there any real confidence the Celtics can do that?
Meanwhile, Toronto managed to rescue its season with a Game 2 win over the Bucks. It wasn’t pretty. Matthew Dellavedova had two open looks to give the Raptors the sweats on Tuesday night, and Giannis Antetokounmpo shot just 9-of-24 from the floor. But Toronto eked out a victory thanks to a throwback performance from Kyle Lowry. This was only minor relief for the Raptors.
Still, Toronto is a good road team and Milwaukee isn’t a home juggernaut. While it’s hard to see Boston recovering, the Raptors have a clear path toward victory and advancement. They still don’t have the best player in their series (it’s Giannis by a kilometer), and there are serious reasons for concern. But there’s a path.
What this keeps coming back to is where we always come back to in the Eastern Conference: LeBron James’ quest to make the NBA Finals again. It’s been seven years since the 2010 Celtics took down LeBron’s Cavs, and the road to the finals has gone through LeBron’s backyard ever since.
As the Cavaliers flailed coming into the postseason, it looked like the streak could end. Boston had the No. 1 seed and some version of momentum behind it. The Raptors had a strong final two months of the season and Lowry’s return from injury. Cleveland, meanwhile, had huge defensive questions.
The bracket lined them up against Paul George, one of the best wings in the league. The Raptors played Cleveland tough in last year’s East finals. If the Cavs passed those tests, the No. 1 Celtics awaited them, holding home-court advantage with the most rabidly anti-LeBron fans at their back. This was going to be really hard for Cleveland.
Instead, the Raptors are shaky and the Celtics are facing imminent defeat. LeBron’s path back to the finals doesn’t look to be in too much doubt right now.
There are some caveats, though.
Cleveland’s defense has been abysmal. Indiana’s offense was middle of the pack in the regular season, but the Pacers are scoring at will. Cleveland is up 2-0 only because its own offense has been as good as ever. The Cavaliers can win shootouts against inferior teams. What happens when the opponent has a legitimately good offense, like Toronto or (if they can come back) Boston?
How about the Wizards? Washington has played just one game this postseason: a John Wall masterpiece victory over the Hawks. We don’t want to count Atlanta out yet, but projecting forward, it could be the Wizards lining up against the Cavaliers in the conference finals given Boston’s situation. There’s not enough data to judge the state of the Wizards right now. Perhaps they could cause problems for LeBron and friends.
Toronto has another gear. Boston might, too. Second verse first: Does anyone trust the Bulls to close out the Celtics? After that season they had? I’m not saying Boston will come back, but it’s well within the realm of possibility given how inexplicable everything about this Chicago Bulls team has been. The Raptors, meanwhile, struggled early in the playoffs last year before blasting off on their way to the East Finals. We’ve seen them be excellent this season in separate stretches. They can be amazing again.
While there’s a lot of weird stuff yet to happen, the strange Eastern Playoffs appear to set up LeBron for yet another finals run. Same as it ever was.