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Eastern Conference Semifinals: The East is Back

Two potentially terrific series’ open this weekend in the East

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Sixers at Raptors
6:30 CDT

The Eastern Conference semis open tonight with the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers visiting the Toronto Raptors. It’s the first of two exciting match ups in the East, and pits perhaps the most talented starting five in the conference against a deep and consistent Raptors squad. I like the Raps in this one, despite their iffy playoff performances in recent seasons—this is a different team, and lacks the combustability of the highly talented Sixers.

Both teams lost a game early in their first round series and looked vulnerable, but proceeded to take care of business in five games each. For the Sixers, a big factor will be Joel Embiid’s health—he’s had a balky knee, and they will need him to dominate against the Raps to advance. He’s got a tough match up against a former defensive player of the year in Marc Gasol, but when Embiid is right, he’s as good a big man as there is in the NBA.

For the Raptors, Kawhi Leonard was absolutely dominant in their first round win over the Magic, going for 28 a night while shooting 56 percent. He and Pascal Siakam might be the best pair of forwards in the playoffs (!), and they off-set another meh playoff series from Kyle Lowry. But the Raps will need Lowry closer to his best to beat the Sixers.

The Raps were a much stingier defensive unit than the Sixers both during the regular season and in the first round, and my guess is that makes the difference.

Raps in Six.

Celtics at Bucks
Noon, Sunday

Celtics fans seem buoyed by their first round sweep of the Pacers, and indeed it was a better performance than we’ve seen from the Celtics for much of the season. Still, there is a reason they finished fourth in the conference: They were inconsistent throughout, especially on offense, where their inability to get to the line and lack of second chances hurt them. Still, they are a good three point shooting team, and defending the three can be a weakness for the Bucks, so one could imagine the C’s having a hot shooting series and stealing this one against a relatively inexperienced opponent.

But the Bucks were the best team in the conference, and have the best player. They smother teams defensively and dominate the defensive boards, they space the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo, and even with a few injuries (notably to Malcolm Brogdon) they still have some useful and interesting depth.

After last season, the C’s seemed poised to dominate the conference this year, but it didn’t happen. They still have a lot of talent, however, and still have hopes that it’s coming together at the right time. They certainly have the talent to challenge the Bucks, who haven’t gone past the first round in quite some time, but I’ll bet on the team that was best and most consistent throughout the year.

Bucks in Six.

And oh by the way, after Sixers-Raptors tonight, we just have a game seven in the West first round, as the Spurs visit the Nuggets to decide that competitive series. I am expecting the Nuggets to shoot it well enough at home to hold off the Spurs and advance to a meeting with the Blazers.

Enjoy the games.