As the playoffs begin, the Eastern Conference race is wide open. Read Part 1 of our Eastern Conference preview here for a look at the Toronto Raptors-Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics-Milwaukee Bucks series. The other two matchups, featured below, promise to be even more intriguing.
Miami Heat @ Philadelphia 76ers
Regular season head-to-head: 2-2
Joel Embiid’s status is unclear but Ben Simmons has ensured that the 76ers enter the postseason with the most momentum in the league. Embiid should be back for part of the series and that gives Philadelphia the two best players on the court.
The Heat cannot compete on star talent, but they have a versatile roster, capable of playing big or small. With Erik Spoelstra’s wizardry and Goran Dragic’s playoff pedigree, they are positioned to keep games close and make decisive in-game adjustments. They have athletic wings to rotate against Simmons and will likely sag off him from the start to encourage him to look for his shot.
With Dwyane Wade, Dragic and James Johnson, they also have the experience factor, which they need to cash in early in the series. The Embiid-Hassan Whiteside battle should continue to be chippy, and both teams have x-factors off the bench (Markelle Fultz, Marco Bellinelli, Wade, Wayne Ellington, Bam Adebayo).
Playoff jitters is about the only thing likely to slow the 76ers down at this point, but Simmons and Embiid seem immune to the pressure. Still, the Heat will make them earn everything.
Indiana Pacers @ Cleveland Cavaliers
Regular season head-to-head: 3-1 Indiana
LeBron James’ unstoppable performances in March and April almost diverted attention away from the rest of Cleveland’s bizarre season. But despite all the drama, the Cavaliers remain the team to beat in the East.
The Pacers, one of this year’s feel good stories, have some weapons to exploit the Cavaliers’ leaky defense. Victor Oladipo has been a force of nature (on both ends of the floor) and will need to have a string of 30-point nights to force an upset.
Cleveland are sure to pressure Oladipo with traps and extra help, making Myles Turner perhaps the most important player in this series. He has to elevate his play after a so-so season and dominate against a small Cavaliers frontline. Pace will be key too, with Indiana set up for a quicker tempo and Cleveland often sluggish in transition.
But James’ playmaking on offense should paper over many of the cracks. He has been a one-man wrecking crew in recent weeks, and Kevin Love is looking like his old self. Defensively, the Pacers will have to rely on Lance Stephenson, James’ old nemesis, and Thad Young while hoping that a few of the Cavaliers go cold from three-point range.
As with most series, the first two games will be critical. If Indiana can somehow grab a split in Cleveland, this series could tilt in their favour. The Cavaliers are clear favourites but, by now, nothing involving this team is a safe bet.