The Cavs really struggled down the stretch, going 12-15 after the All-Star break. Mostly it was defense, as they finished the season 3rd in the league in offensive rating but only 21st in defensive rating. They are still probably the favorites to win the East, however, and there is the sense they can turn it up defensively several notches when it matters. And of course they have that LeBron James fellow. Still, 51-31 is significantly below what was expected of them.
Certainly the Pacers should present only a limited challenge. They loaded up on veterans in the summer (Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson, Thad Young) but it hasn’t been enough; they were thoroughly average this season on both sides of the ball. Paul George is a tremendous player, but not capable of elevating an otherwise dubious roster beyond their 42-40 record this season.
Cavs in five.
The Raptors are a veteran team with lots of experience, but this year might have proven once and for all that they have gone about as far as they can go with their current core. Adding Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline probably doesn’t move the needle for them as much as they needed it to. Still, they are a tough, talented team that does just about everything well, if nothing truly great. They also have terrific depth, and of course a high scoring back court. In all, it should be enough to get by the Bucks, though we’ve seen the Raptors struggle in the early rounds of the playoffs before.
Despite losing Jabari Parker to yet another ACL tear, the Bucks went on a run late in the season to make the playoffs in the sixth seed. Getting Khris Middleton back helped them, and of course they have one of the most versatile, unusual players in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo. They shoot it pretty well but can struggle to get stops and on the boards. At this point, they probably lack the gravitas to win a playoff series.
Raptors in six.
Ho-hum. Another season, another 61 wins for the Spurs. I don’t know if this veteran squad has enough to get through four playoff rounds—we’ve seen them run out of gas in previous playoff seasons—but it’s impressive how they keep winning. They finished first in the league in defensive rating, forcing opponents into tough shots, defending the rim, and unleashing Kawhi Leonard on opponents’ scorers. They aren’t too shabby offensively either—9th in the league. While they don’t take a ton of threes, they shot the best percentage in the NBA from beyond the arc, and had five players shoot 37.9 percent or better on one or more 3PA a game. They move the ball and find open shots as well as any team in the league.
The Grizzlies appear to be on the decline, but still managed the third best defense in the league this season. Unfortunately their best defender, Tony “First Team All-Defense” Allen will miss the series with a calf injury. Their big off-season acquisition, Chandler Parsons, who was expected to provide some offensive punch from the wing, was a disaster. He played only 34 games, didn’t shoot it well, and is out with a torn meniscus. The Grizzlies will always battle, but just don’t have enough.
Spurs in five.
This has the makings of a compelling match up. The Clippers are sort of like the Raptors of the Western Conferece: Years of being very good but not good enough, and having their struggles in the playoffs. Also, this might finally be the year we have to accept that they’ve gone as far as they can go with this group. Of course, it’s not bad. The Clips can score with just about anyone and have a fearsome starting lineup, but their bench has always been a problem and things have gone awry at bad times for them. They are a terrific shooting team, get to the line well, and rarely turn it over. They are very tough to stop when Chris Paul has the ball in his hands, with weapons like Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan (71.4 percent from the field!) and J.J. Redick. It will be a handful for the Jazz.
Utah, however, might have the necessary defensive chops to beat the Clippers. With Rudy Gobert protecting the rim, the Jazz are able to be aggressive on the perimeter, and held opponents to the 3rd lowest eFG% in the league this season. With Gordon Hayward, George Hill, and Rodney Hood, they also have plenty of perimeter fire power. This was the breakout season for the Jazz, and their first trip to the playoffs since 2012, so they will need to find their footing quickly, but I’ve been impressed with them all season.
Jazz in seven.