Predictions for Every NBA Eastern Conference First-Round Playoff Series
NBA playoff series prices come courtesy of TopBet and are accurate as of Friday, April 13. Although these lines won’t move much, if at all, in advance of all Game 1s, you’ll want to get in the habit of rechecking them after each and every series tilt. That’s when they tend to shift the most as sportsbooks try accounting for what’s transpired on the court thus far.
5. Indiana Pacers (+450) vs. 4. Cleveland Cavaliers (-700)
The Indiana Pacers shocked the world during the regular season. They turned in almost 50 victories while fielding a top-10 offense and top-12 defense in their first year without Paul George, now of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Victor Oladipo made the leap to superstardom, and they proved particularly adept at stealing close games.
The Cleveland Cavaliers also shocked the world during the regular season–but for all the wrong seasons.
Trading Kyrie Irving over the summer caught pretty much everyone off-guard. Turning over the roster yet again at the trade deadline threw everyone for another whirl. Even the defense, which finished 29th in points allowed per 100 possessions on the year, surprised the masses by how bad it actually was.
All of this could point to a tightly contested series. But we know better. LeBron James has been unreal at the offensive end all year. Between the points he’s scored and the buckets he’s generated off assists, he accounts for more than 45 percent of the Cavaliers’ total offense—the absolute highest individual share in the league.
Now that the playoffs are here, we can expect him to turn up the juice on defense as well. And that’s terrible news for the Pacers, who, despite being a legitimately good team, lack playoff experience as a group.
Indeed, Indiana may make this series tough on Cleveland. The Pacers are third in the NBA in crunch-time net rating—not to mention first in clutch-time defense. They’ll push the Cavaliers to the brink at least once.
But those same Cavaliers, warts and all, are second in crunch-time point differential per 100 possessions. They’ll take this series in four games—five games max.
The Pick: Cleveland Cavaliers (-700)
6. Miami Heat (+350) vs. 3. Philadelphia 76ers (-500)
Oddsmakers are being a little generous with the Philadelphia 76ers’ favorite status here. Joel Embiid won’t be available to start the series, and the Miami Heat are coached by Erik Spoelstra, a tried and true tactician who will make effective adjustments throughout this best-of-seven set.
The Sixers’ relative inexperience at this level is also a concern. Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Embiid have never been to the playoffs before. They could wilt under the spotlight. That happens with young teams. They need to lose on the game’s biggest stage so that they can win in the same pressure-cooker down the line.
Losing Embiid through at least Game 1 kind of suggests there should be some level of panic in Philly. At the same time, the Sixers have learned to play without him. Simmons specifically is more comfortable headlining units on his own.
Since Feb. 1, in fact, the Sixers are outscoring opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions in the 600-plus minutes Simmons has logged without Embiid. That’s ridiculous.
Facing the Heat will represent a different brand of challenge. Their shot profile is hell on defenses, even if their offense isn’t really too efficient. And they have the versatility to lock down defensively. Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow combine for one of the scariest perimeter duos in the league, while the frontcourt stylings of Bam Adebayo and James Johnson are switchier than most people realize.
Still, the Sixers have been too good, and the Heat too inconsistent, for us to go against the grain. Assuming Embiid plays at all in this series, Philly should be able to scrap and claw its way to Round 2.
The Pick: Philadelphia 76ers (-500)
7. Milwaukee Bucks (+125) vs. 2. Boston Celtics (-155)
This will be one of two first-round Eastern Conference series in which pundits and fans watch closely for the prospect of an upset.
The Boston Celtics have been amazing this season despite losing Gordon Hayward for the year on opening night. They have the NBA’s best defense per 100 possessions played and are getting standout contributions from youngsters like Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
But Kyrie Irving is officially done for the year after undergoing another surgery on his left knee. Not only that, but Marcus Smart, arguably their most terrifying defender, is on the shelf recovering from a torn tendon in his thumb.
Everyone is now officially waiting for the Celtics to fall. Their offense in particular is on shaky ground. They score like a top-10 machine when Al Horford plays without Irving, but their numbers crater when both of their stars aren’t on the court. And if they do find a way to keep things close, they have to worry about a crunch-time pecking order.
Irving has the second highest usage rate in the league among players to make at least 10 clutch-time appearances. Neither Tatum nor Brown is ready to shoulder his half-court load with the game line. And Horford, as a big, simply can’t.
That’s expected to be their downfall, which is perfectly reasonable. But this presumes the Milwaukee Bucks are at the top of their game…when they haven’t been playing their best basketball.
Giannis Antetokounmpo can and will be the best player in the series. He alone, however, isn’t enough to fix the defense. The Bucks are dead last in opponent shot frequency at the rim, and they’re still touch-and-go when it comes to warding off three-pointers.
Their top-heavy rotation won’t matter as much leading into this series. Teams pare down their rotations when the playoffs roll around. Being forced to shorten the player pool could actually help them. But the Bucks’ own crunch-time offense has devolved into over-predictability during the second half of the season. The Celtics will have no trouble going stop-for-stop with them if need be.
Technically, we’re rolling with the favorite here. You might as well consider it an upset, though. The Bucks should win this matchup, but they just don’t have the reliability factor down pat yet.
The Pick: Boston Celtics (-155)
8. Washington Wizards (+450) vs. 1. Toronto Raptors (-700)
Somewhat ironically, this will be the second series in which fans and pundits alike are on upset watch.
That sounds weird, because it should sound weird.
The Toronto Raptors are the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. They have the NBA’s second-best record overall. Their bench tops all other second units in point differential per 100 possessions. The Washington Wizards are limping into the playoffs with an unspectacular defense and crummy shot profile at the other end.
Should we really be considering the possibility of an upset?
It’s tough to say. The Raptors are a dominant faction, but there’s authenticity to the doubt surrounding them. They’ve lost pretty much every Game 1 they’ve ever played in the postseason, while both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, their two best players, have generally slumped through every playoff series.
This time around should be different, because the Raptors are different. They’re playing smarter basketball at the offensive end, and head coach Dwane Casey has shown he can make some nice adjustments on the fly.
It helps too that the Raptors needn’t even be at their best to beat the Wizards, who’ve become wildly overrated. Bradley Beal and John Wall have verged on indomitable during their postseason go-rounds, but they’re both struggling mightily down the stretch of close games this season.
Among every qualified player with a usage rate of at least 25 percent in the clutch this season, Beal owns the third-worst true shooting percentage—combined measurement of two-point, three-point and free-throw efficiency. And as for Wall? Well, he owns the fifth-worst true shooting percentage.
There will be plenty of people expecting this series to go down to the wire. Don’t be one of them. The Raptors should not only win, but they should take care of business in five games.
The Pick: Toronto Raptors (-700)
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