The first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs was a swift affair, with sweeps by the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics. An unexpected Game 1 victory for the Orlando Magic surprised fans, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks dispatched the Magic in five games. With dominant performances from all four winning teams, a lacklustre first round paves the way for an intense and unpredictable semifinal.
(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (5) Miami Heat
After a shocking Game 1 loss versus the Magic, the Bucks rallied together for four straight wins. The matchup against Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat will be far more strenuous, as the team is fresh after sweeping the Indiana Pacers. Miami prevailed against the Bucks 2-1 during the season series, including an outing where they limited the reigning MVP to just 13 points.
Giannis was fantastic in round 1, scoring at least 28 points per game and controlling the glass with double-digit rebounds every game. Injuries to Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Aaron Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu made the task easier, but the Greek Freak’s dominance cannot be understated. Additionally, his impact on the defensive end was tremendous all season, earning him the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Countering Giannis’s physicality is a tall task, but one that Heat forward Bam Adebayo will take on willingly. The first-time All-Star is versatile on defense, able to contain both quick perimeter guards and stick with strong big men who wish to overpower the defense in the paint. The Heat posted an overall defensive rating of 109.3, ranking twelfth in the league. With Bam on the floor, the figure improved to 107.7, which would rank seventh overall, showcasing his immense value on defense.
The series features another premier matchup between the All-Star wings Jimmy Butler and Khris Middleton. Both players function as their respective team’s crunch-time scorers, able to make crucial shots when defenses tighten up late in the game.
Butler led the Heat with 19.9 points per game during the season, and has drastically increased his three-point percentage, skyrocketing from 24.4 per cent during the season to 66.7 per cent post-season. His improved shooting bodes well for the Heat, who will need every possible basket against the best regular-season defense in the league.
Middleton averaged 20.9 points during the season but was inconsistent against Orlando, scoring just two points in game two before recovering for two 21-point games to close the series. Miami’s disciplined defense will limit the Bucks transition offense, which was third during the season. The Bucks need Middleton to regain his scoring touch, which will be vital for their half-court offense.
The Bucks were the top-ranked defense during the regular season, but their scheme allows the most three-point field goal attempts. The Heat shot 39.1 per cent as a team in the first round, with Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro all capable of knocking down multiple threes per game. With the Bucks willing to concede three-point shots, the Heat shooters may find their rhythm easily.
If the Heat’s role players can consistently make three-point shots, the Bucks could be in for a long series. However, the Bucks field the best player in the series, along with a stellar second star in Middleton. The series will be hard-fought and may come down to the wire, but the Bucks stars should push them over the edge in seven games.
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (3) Boston Celtics
The Raptors quickly disposed of an injury-riddled Brooklyn Nets team in round one, with a crushing 150-122 game four victory. The Celtics swept their series as well, but Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers gave a commendable fight, with games one, three and four being decided by a margin of eight or less points. The Celtics won the season series against the Raptors 3-1, including a 22-point blowout during the seeding games in the bubble.
Despite both teams playing deep into the post-season in the last few years, this series will be the first time they face each other outside of the regular season.
Toronto epitomized team basketball this season, with the team being injury-riddled early in the season. With Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet all missing time, the Raptors adopted the “next man up” mentality. NBA G League MVP Chris Boucher and Terence Davis both made significant contributions during the injuries and have now earned their spot in the rotation. With six players averaging double-digit points during the season, the Raptors have numerous players ready to shine on any given night.
Coach Nick Nurse’s unusual defensive strategies were surprisingly effective during the regular season, with the Raptors ranking second in defensive rating. Nurse’s game plans revolve around shutting down the opponent’s best scorer. Celtics leading scorer Jayson Tatum averaged 23.4 points during the season, but only managed the 20 point mark once against the Raptors. Toronto’s ability to limit Tatum’s offense will have a great influence on the series.
The Raptors may have the depth advantage, but The Celtics slightly outclass them in star power. The aforementioned All-Star wing Jayson Tatum is joined by fellow All-Star guard Kemba Walker, the Celtics premier playmaker. He both scores and assists in bunches, evidenced by his 32-point performance in game four to send the 76ers home. The two All-Stars are supplemented by rising star Jaylen Brown, who averaged 20.3 points in addition to being a defensive stalwart.
The Celtics will miss Gordon Hayward’s scoring, as he suffered an ankle sprain during game one against the 76ers. His absence was not an issue against the short-handed 76ers, but having another scoring option against the staunch Raptor defense would have been ideal.
The Raptors offense thrives on transition opportunities, with the team leading the league in transition points per game. This series will test their transition offense’s true merit, as the Celtics are top five in the league in transition defense. The series may swing to either side’s favour depending on the abundance of transition baskets.
The reigning NBA Champions look to defend their title, led by Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, nicknamed “Spicy P”. Fred VanVleet was electric last playoffs after the birth of his son, Fred VanVleet Jr. Families are now present in the bubble, and Raptor fans hope that Jr. will bring similar fortunes this postseason.
However, a revamped Celtics team is keen to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals. The series promises to be wildly entertaining, but the Celtics dynamic scoring options should help them prevail in seven games.
Graphic: Anh Phan | Design Editor