The Eastern Conference playoffs feature three heavy favorites and five other teams looking to make a Cinderella run to the NBA Finals. The Philadelphia 76ers have the homecourt advantage throughout the conference playoffs by finishing with the No. 1 seed, but the Brooklyn Nets are looming as the betting favorite to win it all. The Milwaukee Bucks are also lurking as they enter the postseason with an improved roster following last year’s early exit in the bubble.
The Eastern Conference playoffs get underway on May 22 and will lead up to the start of the NBA Finals on July 8. As the first round kicks off, the conference features four exciting series with storylines galore from every perspective.
Now that the playoffs are finally here, we asked the SB Nation NBA communities to preview their team’s matchup by asking one big question about each series. The communities also gave their predictions on who will win the series, as did staffers Sabreena Merchant, Sydney Umeri, and Ricky O’Donnell.
No. 1 76ers vs. No. 8 Wizards: Predictions and preview
- 76ers 49-23 vs. Wizards 34-38
- Offensive efficiency: 76ers 112.5 (13th) | Wizards 110.7 (17th)
- Defensive efficiency: 76ers 107 (2nd) | Wizards 112.3 (20th)
- Net rating: 76ers +5.5 (5th) | Wizards -1.6 (22nd)
- Season series: 76ers 3-0. Philadelphia swept the season series.
The Sixers swept the season series 3-0, but all of those games took place before the Wizards saved their season starting in April. Given Washington’s current hot streak and mid-season additions (led by Daniel Gafford), do you think the Wizards can make this series competitive?
Steve Lipman of Liberty Ballers: The Philadelphia in me deeply wants to hedge my bets here just in case, but short of significant injury, I really don’t see a path for Washington to make this series competitive. Throughout the season, the Sixers have done a really good job of punishing teams that cannot match them, physically, and Washington is a much smaller team than Philly. Embiid, Simmons and Harris should be able to hunt mismatches on the court all throughout the series, and by doing so create enough advantages either at the rim or beyond the arc to rack up points on the shoddy Wizards defense.
I guess there’s a universe where Simmons, Thybulle and company simply cannot keep up with Beal and Westbrook’s offensive output, thus stealing a couple of games for the Wiz, but I think it’s unlikely. Davis Bertans is basically guaranteed to shoot 75% from 3 against the Sixers in round one after struggling mightily in the play-in games, you can write that in stone. But Davis can’t do it on his own. Ultimately, I just think the Sixers’ defense is too good to get victimized by this Washington team in a really meaningful way, and the Sixers’ personnel is tailor-made to take advantage of the Wizards’ poor defense. — @SteveJLipman
Albert Lee of Bullets Forever:
The Wizards are not favorites in this series, and that’s fine, given how wild this season has been. So at the end of the day, the players should be very happy to make it to this far. While I expect Washington to lose this best-of-seven series, I also would like to see them win one game, And anything more would be a bonus.
- Liberty Ballers: 76ers in 5.
- Sydney Umeri: 76ers in 6.
- Ricky O’Donnell: 76ers in 5.
No. 2 Nets vs. No. 7 Celtics: Predictions and preview
- Nets 48-24 vs. Celtics 36-36
- Offensive efficiency: Nets 117.3 (1st) | Celtics 113.1 (10th)
- Defensive efficiency: Nets 113.1 (22nd) | Celtics 111.8 (13th)
- Net rating: Nets +4.2 (7th) | Celtics +1.2 (13th)
- Season series: Nets 3-0. Brooklyn swept the season series.
Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving played just eight games together. Can the Celtics put a scare into the Nets if it takes them time to gel?
Jeff Clark from Celtics Blog: Predicting what the Boston Celtics will do from game to game or even quarter by quarter is a fool’s errand. However, given that I am a foolish fan, I’ll give it a shot anyway. If this series is to play out in a similar way to how the season has gone, we’ll see the Celtics come out flat and lose the first three games and the entire fanbase will start wearing black and sharpening pitchforks. They will then go on an absolute tear, winning three straight games and getting up the hopes of every optimist fan. That will of course be followed up by a game 7 loss in which the team tries really hard but can’t hit a shot to save their lives and Brooklyn’s 9th man goes off for 27 points.
Seriously though, the variability of this team really is maddening. Blame injuries, COVID, the schedule, or inexperience if you like. The bottom line is that they haven’t been consistent all season long and missing Jaylen Brown isn’t going to help that at all. Perhaps Jayson Tatum can carry the team to a win or two but ultimately there’s too much talent on Brooklyn’s side. I’ll be optimistic and say Nets in 6. — @CelticsBlog
Chris Milholen of Nets Daily: The Nets ‘Big Three’ of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden played only eight games together and as we all know, what separates great teams from championship teams is common history and elite chemistry in the postseason.
All three players have stressed to us over the course of the final weeks of the season that the lack of common history isn’t a problem nor a concern since their talent will make up for it. Although the ‘Big Three’ played even less games with key role players on the team, I believe their talent will make up for that lack of common history in the first round.
I believe Brooklyn will prevail over Boston in five games (4-1). The Nets are approaching the postseason as “a new season” and due to finishing second in the East, Brooklyn has had an extended period of rest mixed in with practices that have been focused on solidifying chemistry in different groups and lineups of players. Like Brad Steven’s said on Tuesday, it’s hard to see this team losing, so I’ll be going with Nets in five games. — @CMilholenSB
- Nets Daily: Nets in 5.
- Celtics Blog: Nets in 6.
- Sabreena Merchant: Nets in 4.
- Ricky O’Donnell: Nets in 5.
- Sydney Umeri: Nets in 6.
No. 3 Bucks vs. No. 6 Heat: Predictions and preview
- Bucks 46-26 vs. Heat 40-32
- Offensive efficiency: Bucks 116.5 (5th) | Heat 110.6 (18th)
- Defensive efficiency: Bucks 110.7 (9th) | Heat 110.7 (9th)
- Net rating: Bucks +5.8 (4th) | Heat -0.1 (17th)
- Season series: Bucks 2-1. The teams split a back-to-back on Dec. 29-30, and the Bucks won on May 15 in a game at the very end of the regular season.
The Heat shocked the NBA by upsetting the Bucks in the bubble in last year’s playoffs. Is Milwaukee better prepared for a matchup with Miami this year?
Kyle Carr of BrewHoop: Milwaukee’s offseason moves were a response to their dismal bubble performance and the need to convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign the supermax and stay in Milwaukee. Trading Eric Bledsoe, who had another disappointing playoffs, was the biggest priority and Milwaukee found an upgrade in Jrue Holiday, who has brought the Bucks a two-way performance that’s been needed. The Bucks also added Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes to provide some offensive firepower and PJ Tucker midseason to help with their defense.
The Bucks have spent most of this season tweaking their tactics, namely adding a player to the “dunker spot” on offense and switching on defense. All of these changes, plus an improved performance from Giannis, should put Milwaukee in a better position to be prepared for Miami this year. There will be some nervy moments, but with the previously mentioned adjustments, complete focus on basketball (which they did not have last year in the bubble with COVID-19 and the shooting of Jacob Blake) and playing in front of fans in an increased capacity Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee will look to show that last year was just a mixture of poor performances and bad luck. — @KyleCoche
The Miami Heat’s upset over the Milwaukee Bucks last year stands as perhaps the team’s biggest upset playoff victory — knocking off the No. 1 overall seed in just five games. And yes, Jimmy Butler was amazing. But aside from Butler’s greatness, Miami also pulled off the upset thanks to varied contributions from other players.
Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk are both no longer with Miami. Dragic has regressed, and it seems ambitious to expect he’ll deliver another superb playoff performance this year. How can the Heat recapture that same balanced attack? The Heat will need Butler and Bam Adebayo to play like All-NBA and All-Defensive Team players in this first-round playoff series. But to pull off another upset and embarrass the Bucks yet again, the other players need to contribute.
- Brew Hoop: Bucks in 6.
- Ricky O’Donnell: Bucks in 7.
- Sabreena Merchant: Bucks in 6.
- Sydney Umeri: Bucks in 5.
No. 4 Knicks vs. No. 5 Hawks: Predictions and preview
- Knicks 41-31 vs. Hawks 41-31
- Offensive efficiency: Knicks 110.2 (22nd) | Hawks 112.1 (18th)
- Defensive efficiency: Knicks 107.8 (4th) | Hawks 101.5 (11th)
- Net rating: Knicks +2.4 (9th) | Hawks +2.2 (11th)
- Season series: Knicks 3-0. New York swept the season series, including winning a classic overtime battle in late April.
Both of these teams blew past preseason expectations this year. Whose success feels more sustainable for playoff basketball?
Zach Hood of Peachtree Hoops: I think both teams are legitimately good as currently constructed. However, New York enjoyed extremely hot three-point shooting late in the season, and had a few guys post career or near career marks from deep. The Hawks battled injuries all season and finished with the same 41-31 record as the Knicks. It feels like Atlanta at its peak would be the better team if they could get everyone on the floor at the same time, something they really haven’t done for an extended period this season. De’Andre Hunter appears to be ready to go for the series, so they may be as close to full strength as they have been all season when the series tips off Sunday evening. If Atlanta can stay healthy, I think they are the team with the higher ceiling.
I’m going Hawks in 7. New York is certainly going to battle and nothing will be easy. It’s also tough to pick against them in their building in a Game 7, but that’s what I’m doing here. Ultimately, a great deal of respect is due to New York for the season they have put together, but if the Hawks can keep the three-point line under control defensively, I think they will take this series. — @ZHood_
Joe Flynn from Posting and Toasting: I would disagree with the idea that the Hawks blew past preseason expectations. I think most experts had them contending for a playoff spot in the East after all their offseason improvements, albeit at a lower seed. The Knicks, on the other hand, finished damn near 20 wins higher than their preseason Vegas line in a 72-game season. That’s almost unprecedented.
The Hawks are the more talented team across the board, and that usually wins out in the postseason. The Knicks are carrying around the millstone that is Elfrid Payton - the league’s worst starting PG - despite the fact that Tom Thibodeau has 3-4 superior guards on the bench. That didn’t hurt them too often in the regular season, but it’ll catch up with them now. — @ChinaJoeFlynn
- Posting and Toasting: Hawks in 6.
- Peachtree Hoops: Hawks in 7.
- Sabreena Merchant: Knicks in 7.
- Ricky O’Donnell: Knicks in 7.
- Sydney Umeri: Hawks in 7.