The NBA playoffs are becoming more and more interesting after multiple game threes already played and possible sweeps on the way in half of the Eastern Conference matchups
The Eastern Conference has been slandered pretty often over the past few years, even more so after LeBron James moved to the hills of Los Angele. But, one thing is for sure after watching the first few games of the division’s playoff matchups: there are some serious contenders and some serious pretenders.
As of right now, the contenders are obvious (Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee), and then there’s the rest of the conference struggling to keep up with them in every facet of the game whether it be defense, three-point shooting, or scoring in general.
But every team still has a chance, technically, even if they are about to get swept like the reigning Eastern Conference champions the Miami Heat, so with that in mind here is what every Eastern Conference team should focus on if they want to escape the first round with a victory.
(1) 76ers vs. (8) Wizards
Philly currently leads this series (2-0) with Game Three happening tonight at 6 PM CT.
The Washington Wizards rallied at the end of the season to enter the play-in game and then rallied again to win their spot in the playoffs, now it seems that all that late-season rallying has worn them down. But, they do have a shining light when it comes down to it: Bradley Beal, who has played out of his mind this season averaging over 31 pts/game on 48.5% shooting, and now it would appear he is going to have to do much of the same with Russel Westbrook likely missing a game or two with an ankle injury.
Westbrook’s leadership abilities are one of the many attributes that made him attractive to Washington, and it would seem, for the time being, that Beal will have to fill that role. His first job as the designated leader: find better three-point opportunities. The Wizards’ 11% 3-point percentage in Game Two was abysmal, and Beal knows that to beat the much larger, and much more defensively apt, 76ers, he’s going to have to knock down his share but more importantly, he will have to create open looks better than he did when Westbrook was on the court.
Who knows? Without Westbrook, maybe the Wizards will find a better flow and possibly lead a miraculous comeback from their 0-2 deficit they find themselves in before game 3 today.
Meanwhile, The Philadelphia 76ers are doing exactly what everybody believed they would do in the playoffs: controlling the tempo of the game with their size and their defense. Joel Embiid, a finalist for the 2021 MVP award, seems to be able to defend anyone and everyone that comes at him underneath the rim, and because of that, the Wizards are going to have to do what I mentioned above (start shooting threes more effectively).
Even then, Ben Simmons and the perimeter defense that he leads for the 76ers might be the best in the league currently, so what should they do if they want to finish the sweep and move on to the winner of the Knicks/Hawks matchup? Keep that same defensive mentality. Not only that, but also suffocate the Wizards more now that one of their premier scorers is injured.
Easy, right? We’ll have to sit and find out, but one thing is for sure, the 76ers make the defense look easy, and that should terrify any teams that get in their way.
(2) Nets vs. (7) Celtics
The Nets currently lead this series (2-1) after their first loss last night by a score of 125-119, Game Four is scheduled for tomorrow at 6 PM CT.
As of last night, The Boston Celtics handed the Nets their first playoff loss so far, a feat that was not predicted to come for the superteam until at least the second round, but that victory came after the Nets started off the game on a 19-6 run and looked like they were going to take Game Three much like how they did in Games One and Two. If the Celtics want to knock off the heavily-favored Nets, they’re going to have to do so through advantageous foul calls.
The Nets “big three” are very good at avoiding fouls, especially early in the game, and if Jayson Tatum wants another 50-point game as he had in Game 3 he’s going to have to get to the line like he did 15 times Friday night. If he can achieve that by drawing fouls from Harden, Irving, or Durant, then he’s killing two birds with one stone (or would it be three?).
Without Jaylen Brown, the Celtics have been understaffed for the huge task at hand but Tatum has proved that he is one of the most reliable players in the East, but he alone won’t be enough to outscore Harden (averaging 27 ppg over the past 3 games), Durant (averaging 32.3 ppg), and Irving (averaging 20 ppg) every night.
The team with the best odds to win the NBA Championship (+220 according to VegasInsider), The Brooklyn Nets, don’t have many faults in their game, but if there were one thing that Coach Steve Nash and the superteam could work on is their defense. The Nets ranked 13th in overall defensive rating in the East; that’s third-worst in the conference, and their playoff defense looks slightly improved due to the big three playing together consistently for the first time all season.
With Game Four being only the 12th game where the big three are on the court at the same time, it’s more about the newfound ebb and flow of the Nets game. Can they stay this consistent on offense or will it all eventually build to some sort of egotistical explosion and collapse? Either way, if they can keep up the slightly better defense they have shown in the playoffs, it doesn’t matter who scores 40 or more.
(3) Bucks vs. (6) Heat
The Bucks are currently one win away from sweeping the Heat with Game Four slated to be played today at 12:30 PM CT.
The Miami Heat have severely dropped from the high point they closed at in the bubble last season, which ended Jimmy Butler’s best opportunity at a title in his career so far. They have seemingly had no answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo, both on offense and defense, and their prolific scoring from the tail of last season has deteriorated into a shell of itself that can barely shoot 40% from the field on a good night.
The first thing that Miami could try and do to make a miraculous comeback in the series would be to stop giving the ball to Tyler Herro. He is not the same player as he was in the bubble where he averaged 16.3 points, and he has become a liability to the team, and it shows every time Butler and Goran Dragić pass him the ball instead of pulling up for a shot themselves.
After Herro’s minutes and attempts go down, the next thing they could do would be to play to their strong suit, small-ball basketball, and really try to keep the giants of the Bucks on the bench while their shooters try to come back from behind. All-in-all, this series is likely over and that doesn’t mean that the Heat are going to be ridiculed during the offseason or anything like that, instead, it will almost definitely light a fire under Butler and Coach Erik Spoelstra for next season.
The Milwaukee Bucks, on the other hand, are playing some of their best basketball of the season and look unstoppable as six of their players–Bobby Portis, Brook Lopez, Bryn Forbes, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Giannis–are averaging double-digit points so far in the playoffs. With the Heat’s back against the wall, it will be interesting to see how the Bucks approach Game Four, whether they’ll be more aggressive or let their natural defensive talent lead the team more.
One thing they can do to ensure their entrance into the second round is to let Middleton cook while Giannis gets some much-needed rest as he’s carried the team for almost all of his career in Milwaukee. Other than that the Bucks are in a prime position to be the first team in the second round thanks to their strong defense and efficient shooting (they currently average almost 50% from the field as a team). Without a doubt, the Milwaukee Bucks are the biggest competitor in the East and it shows every time they step on the court.
(4) Knicks vs. (5) Hawks
Currently the Hawks lead the series (2-1) after a 105-94 win last night.
The New York Knicks were the feel-good story of the season and at the beginning of the playoffs, it was clear they had a legit team that is physical enough to put down any team but lacks the shooting efficiency all around to keep up with Trae Young and the Hawks, let alone any other team with great perimeter shooters. The piece of the Knicks that works consistently is Derrick Rose, and because of that, they need to let the game flow through him more than Julius Randle or RJ Barrett.
No disrespect to either of those players, but when the Knicks run their offense with Rose at the head, it looks cleaner, more efficient, and much more open shots are made thanks to the veteran leadership that Rose and his 14 seasons in the NBA bring to the somber franchise that’s just happy to be back in the playoffs.
Over on the other end of the matchup, The Atlanta Hawks have the game in their hands throughout most of the games so far, using Trae Young’s dangerous shooting range as a buffer to create the tempo in their favor from tip-off to triple zeroes. If they continue this type of play, it’s hard to see them losing this series, even if they did lose Game Two, because Young is simply too much for the Knicks to handle.
The only Knick that has seemed prepared for the role of defending Young is the second-year starter RJ Barrett, who is talented in every area of the game, but cannot seem to connect on offense as well as he did in college or earlier in this season. If the Hawks continue to let Young control the game, then they will glide into Round Two of the playoffs and will play the winner of the Philadelphia/Washington series, both of whom they match up with well but especially Washington (ATL is 3-0 against them this season and 1-2 against Philly).
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