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Ding dong the King is dead, the wicked King, the wicked King. That’s right. After eight long, hard years of LeBron James dominating the Eastern Conference, his reign of terror is over. The Celtics can breathe. Pacers fans can rejoice. The Raptors can stop choking. The East no longer runs through LeBron and is now wide open—for the top four teams. With that being said, let's break down the Eastern Conference first round playoff matchups.
Round One: Bucks vs. Pistons
How about them Milwaukee Bucks? Rumors had it last year that Coach and bag of soggy bread on the bench Jason Kidd was solely responsible for holding this young team back. After a year with a competent head coach, I think it’s safe to say that was true. Coach Bud and company have surged to the best record in the NBA thanks in no small part to the MVP caliber play of Greek superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak, Baby Shaq, the New Superman, call him whatever you want this kid has balled out this season. He is leading his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. That is absolutely wild. He is surrounded by a plethora of sharpshooters, including the offseason acquisition of Brook Lopez, a once traditional center who transformed himself into “Splash Mountain,” a three point shooting giant. The Bucks are young, hungry and looking for a chance to prove themselves in this years playoffs.
Their matchup pits them against the Pistons, a mediocre team who barely skidded into the playoffs. After seeming to cement their place earlier in March, the Pistons faltered down the stretch losing five straight. They needed a final game win against the Grizzlies to stop Kemba Walker and the Hornets from sneaking into the eighth seed. The Pistons are built around star power forward Blake Griffin and hairy-shouldered center Andre Drummond. This team has a lot of playoff experience between Griffin and head coach Dwayne Casey, but it would be quite a shock if they pulled off the upset.
The most interesting aspect of this series is Giannis. The Pistons are going to have a hard time covering this potential MVP. Unless he gets hurt, the Bucks should win this series quite easily. Bucks in four.
Round One: Raptors vs. Magic
The Raptors have to feel good about this postseason for one reason: LeBron James isn’t in the playoffs. James eliminated the Raptors in 2016, 2017, and 2018. They won a total of two games in those series, collectively. Ouch. But guess what? These aren’t your 2018 Raptors. GM Masai Ujiri made some big moves this offseason, firing Coach of the Year Dwayne Casey (replaced by Nick Nurse) and trading beloved star DeMar Derozan for the disgruntled Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard. Bolstered by long-time point guard Kyle Lowry and the mid-season acquired center Marc Gasol, the Raptors are primed for another deep playoff run, this time without having to fear the King. Their hallmark is depth as players like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby have come onto their own this season.
The Raptors will face the feel good story of the season in the Orlando Magic. Not projected to finish anywhere near the playoffs, the Magic have out done expectations and returned to the post season for the first time since 2012. The Magic are led by star center Nikola Vucevic and the wing duo of Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon. They feature many outcasts and leftovers who play with a purpose in a very Clippersesque way. Head coach Steve Clifford has some playoff experience, which will be greatly needed against the experienced Raptors.
The matchup to watch in this series will be the Raptors wing players versus the Magic bigs. I’m excited to watch Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard matchup against the long and athletic Gordon and Isaac along with the talented Vucevic. The Raptors are deeper, feature better players, and have more experience than the Magic, which should give them the edge in this series. Raptors in five.
Round One: 76ers vs. Nets
The Philadelphia 76ers are a perfect example of a thought experiment: Should an NBA team try to assemble a well designed team around one star, or should it throw together a bunch of stars in a stir fry-type concoction and hope that everything works out in the end? This Sixers team is incredibly confusing. They feature four star players who all struggle to shoot the basketball. Their bench depth is either good or horrible depending on how Boban Marjanović and James Ennis decide to play. They only have one true shooter in JJ Redick on a team that would thrive with four or five. This team should be a mess, and yet they are so damn talented. The sheer amount of pure basketball skill easily overwhelms teams, but as we saw last season, the playoffs are a different beast. This Philadelphia team feels like it could be boom-or-bust and it all depends on the play of their core four.
They are matching up against a resurgent Nets team. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of basketball hell, the Nets have stunned the basketball world and actually made the playoffs. If you don’t know the Nets story, just go look up Billy King on Wikipedia and enjoy. The TLDR is this: King mortgaged the Nets future in 2011 to 2012 for aging superstars and the entire experiment failed miserably. People thought the Nets would be out of the playoffs for a long time. Instead, through savvy GM moves by the godsend Sean Marks, the Nets have a solid, young team built around a core of cast offs, the biggest of which is D’Angelo Russell. Russell was a former Laker but was traded by ex-GM Magic Johnson unceremoniously. He was labeled a bust by sports pundits and fans alike. And then he flipped the bird and decided that he was going to be an all-star. Veteran DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley have provided much needed guidance to this young Nets team. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Caris LeVert, a high flying small forward who had a gruesome leg injury earlier in the year, but has returned to form in time for the playoffs. This Nets team is young and dangerous.
The matchup to watch in this game is Ben Simmons versus the Nets defense. Last postseason, the Celtics showed the league how to guard Simmons who is a reluctant three-point shooter. If the Nets clog up the lane and the other 76ers can’t hit outside shots, it is going to be a difficult series for Philadelphia. With that being said, I think the star-power of the Sixers will overwhelm the Nets. Philly in six.
Round One: Celtics vs. Pacers
The Boston Celtics are the Kardashians of the NBA in the sense that they are incredibly powerful while simultaneously being incredibly dramatic. I mean really, what is there to say about this team? They have a butt load of both old and young talent in Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jasyon Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. They have a whizz of a head coach in Brad Stevens (shout out Butler University!) and a damn good bench. Yet they struggled all season to put together wins. The Celtics didn’t secure home court advantage in the first round until the final week of the regular season! That is unbelievable for a team with this amount of talent. The Celtics problem lies in the player’s inability to fill a niche needed by the team; in other words, everyone wanted to be the star player and none of them wanted to be the role guy. Kyrie, the superstar point guard, should’ve been the leader of the team. Instead, he held brazen press conferences where he called out the young guys and the head coach while also alluding to the fact that he (meaning Kyrie) might leave during the offseason. The young players, namely Jaylen Brown, responded, inciting more drama for Boston. The good news for the team: Gordon Hayward is playing like a superstar again. The bad news: Important role player Marcus Smart is out for the first round of the playoffs.
Let’s take a trip to opposite world and look at the opposite of the Boston Celtics. Oh, it’s the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers are the overlooked team in the East. They consistently make the playoffs. They are always competitive. They are never dramatic. They always live up to expectation because they never have any expectations placed on them. When their star shooting guard Victor Oladipo went down with a season ending injury in March, everyone thought the Pacers season was over. They kept winning. On the backs of random, breakout players such as Bojan Bogdanovic (not to be confused with Sacramento’s Bogdan Bogdanović) Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner, the Pacers battled all season and finished with the fifth best record. Although he won’t receive the award, head coach Nate McMillan deserves serious consideration for Coach of the Year. This Pacers team is a testament to the idea that if you do your job to the best of your ability every single day, good things will come.
The matchup I am most excited for in this series is between Myles Turner and Al Horford. Turner, in his third year, has played like a future defensive player of the year but he will be going up against a tried and tested veteran in Al Horford. This series should be fun but I really can’t imagine a world where the Celtics don’t get their act together. If they fail to win this series, major changes should come. Celtics in six.
So there’s the first four matchups in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Although my predictions are far from certain, there is one thing we all know: The East no longer runs through LeBron James.