(1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Detroit Pistons (8) – Antonia Bird
The 2016 NBA playoffs are finally here, and in the Eastern conference the top seeded Cleveland Cavaliers, led by the incredible LeBron James, will be taking on the eighth seeded Detroit Pistons. The Cavs have home court advantage throughout the Eastern conference playoffs, and their first game against the Pistons will be on Sunday April 17 at noon in Cleveland.
The Cavs are the defending Eastern conference champions and come into the 2016 playoffs with a record of 57-25. They appear to be healthy which is a change from last year’s playoffs when they were missing key players Kevin Love and Kyrie Erving. Cleveland lost in the Finals last year to the Golden State Warriors who on Wednesday just set the NBA record for the most regular season wins at 73.
Cleveland star LeBron James is the clear leader of this Cavaliers team, and he comes into the series playing at a high level. He is averaging 28.4 points, eight rebounds and 8.5 assists over his last 10 games, and he’s shooting 63% from the field and 52% from three-point range.
Forward Kevin Love and point guard Kyrie Erving provide plenty of additional scoring power, while Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov and Channing Frye will crash the boards and play solid defense down low.
The Detroit Pistons come into the series with a record of 44-38 this year, and will be in the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Though they are considered heavy underdogs to the Cavaliers, they won three of their four games played against the Cavs during the regular season, including the Pistons 112-110 overtime victory in the last game of the regular season on Wednesday.
The Pistons’ greatest strength this year has been their offensive rebounding as they have the second best percentage in the League. Pistons’ center Andre Drummond dominates the offensive glass and his presence down low will be a key matchup with the Cavs’ rebounding trio of LeBron, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. Also Pistons’ guard Reggie Jackson is the team’s leading scorer, and has proven to be a dangerous threat when he and Drummond team up on pick and rolls.
With both Drummond and Jackson on the floor together, the Pistons will find points under the basket which allows the defense to collapse, giving more opportunities for 6’9” forward Tobias Harris and other Detroit shooters to hit from the outside. Harris was acquired by the Pistons at the trading deadline, and had been an outstanding fit. He has averaged 16.6 points and 38% shooting from behind the three point line in 27 games with the Pistons.
However, the Pistons’ will have a hard time slowing down the Cavaliers’ explosive offense. LeBron James is a future Hall of Famer who will no doubt raise his game and those of his teammates in this Detroit series. The Cavaliers are hungry to make it back to the NBA Finals, and now that they are healthy, I expect them to take this series in five games.
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. Indiana Pacers (7) – Ryan Burns
As second-seed Toronto (56-26) prepares for its first round matchup with the seventh-seeded Indiana Pacers (45-37), the spotlight will be on the pairing of point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard Demar DeRozan, who have blossomed into one of the league’s premier backcourt combos in the last couple seasons.
Lowry and DeRozan averaged an impressive 21.2 and 23.5 ppg, respectively, in the regular season, one of only three backcourts to average over 20 apiece, along with the Golden State’s Steph Curry/Klay Thompson and Portland’s Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum.
The pair has carried much of the scoring load for the Raptors all year, and Lowry and DeRozan’s explosive playstyle earned both of the guards All-Star appearances en route to the second seed in the East, emerging as the top contender to replace the Cavs as the conference’s representation in the Finals.
An unsung hero of Toronto’s successful season has been rookie Norman Powell, who could be a key factor in the first round after tallying 27 and 30 points in two of the Raptor’s last four games, making a claim for increased playing time in April.
If the Pacers are to stop Toronto from advancing past the first round for the first time since 2001, the charge will likely be led by All-Star small forward Paul George. He has been Indiana’s best player all year, averaging 23.1 points/game and 7.0 rebounds/game.
George is also experienced in the playoffs, and even though his team missed the postseason last year, he led the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals the two previous seasons.
If the regular season is any indicator, the Raptors will have the edge against their opponents, as they recorded a solid 3-1 record over the Pacers this year, including a convincing 111-98 victory in the last week of the season.
(3) Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics (6) – Xavier Cardenas
The month of April, for many it marks the beginning of spring, new flowers, plenty of greens, and warm clothing. For me, it marks the beginning of the NBA playoffs with new champions to be crowned, new stories to be told, and a new sense of hope for cities all across the country. As is the case for the No. 3 Miami Heat and No. 6 Charlotte Hornets.
The Miami Heat, led by veteran Dwayne Wade, have finished the season 48-34 despite losing a key contributor in forward Chris Bosh the Heat have finished as a team to beat in the east. Chris Bosh has not played since February and is not expected to be back due to blood clots.
However, the rest of the Miami roster have been able to pick up the slack landing fifth in the league for opponents points per game and thirteenth for rebounds per game. Also in the month of March the Heat have averaged 110 ppg that is a 16.3% improvement from the month of January and a 8.7% improvement from February.
Aside from the household names, rookie standouts have upped production as of late. Second round draft pick Josh Richardson has officially been recognized as the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for his contributions in March with the Heat.
The rookie guard had spent a lot of time on the bench as well as time in the NBA D-League earlier in the 2015-2016 season.
Throughout the 2016 campaign both teams have had a similar season, Miami and Charlotte ended their season with the same record and similar statistics in the wins and losses column.
The regular season encounters could not separate them either as it ended 2-2 with an away and home win each. This will be one of the tighter series of the first round of the playoffs. By no means is this going to be an easy series for either team.
The Hornets are 11th in the league for points per game, 14th in rebounds, and ninth in opponents points per game.
Both teams have displayed a defensive tenacity appropriate for the top ten defenses and great perimeter defense demonstrated this season. However, the Hornets have been hard to keep from scoring as of late. Charlotte has the 11th best offense in the league averaging 103 ppg and is seventh in three-point percentage shooting at 36.2 percent.
Kemba Walker has led the Hornets with his production and it will have to continue if he hopes to get to the second round. The former ninth overall pick of the 2011 NBA draft has led Charlotte in several categories.
The young guard leads with 20.9 ppg and 1.6 steals per game. Against the Heat, Walker is averaging 19.5 ppg, 2.3 steals per game, 5.3 rebounds per game, and 5.3 assists per game.
This series promises to be a good one as not much separates the two. I am a believer that history repeats itself and the last time the Hornets made the playoffs they were swept by the Heat in 2014.
Now I do believe the Heat will move on to the second round but not in the same fashion. Miami wins in seven against a tough, young, and improving Hornets franchise.
(4) Atlanta Hawks vs. Boston Celtics (5) – Daniel Moebus-Bowles
The matchup between the Celtics and Hawks could be the closest series on the Eastern end of the playoff bracket as both teams head into the postseason with an identical record of 48-34. Winning three of the four head-to-head matchups Atlanta takes home court advantage and has topped Boston in the last three meetings, including a 118-107 win just last week.
It is interesting to look at these two teams as they have very many similarities such as great defense and phenomenal coaching. Each team has a great system that’s run by a roster full of talent and role players that will ultimately decide the outcome of the series. Although the Celtics are a very hot team this year with a fast pace style that is fun to watch, it will be the Hawks that will have the edge in this first round as their group of guys have much more playoff experience after last year’s deep run.
Isaiah Thomas did a fantastic job this year of lighting a fire in The Garden again and recreating this team that only made the 2015 playoffs with a sub .500 record thanks to the then lackluster Eastern Conference. He is the All-Star that will lead his team, but it will be up to roles that Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley take to continue knowing their job on the court every night.
Bradley tops Thomas in minutes per game with 33.4 and Crowder is less than a minute below Thomas at 31.6. The two also are 2nd and 3rd on the team in scoring. For Boston to defeat Atlanta, they will need Bradley and Crowder to continue spreading the floor to allow Thomas to play his game and be ready to ready to execute when the little guy looks to dish the ball as he does so well.
Atlanta will not only have the advantage with the playoff experience and the momentum of winning 14 of their last 20 games, but they also have the series’ two best players in veterans Paul Millsap and Al Horford. Besides a slight hit to their efficiency in offense and the loss of DeMarre Carroll, this is still the same team that we saw win 60 games last season. After being swept 4-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals, this team is hungry for another deep run and have a deep roster to help them get there.
Prediction: Atlanta in four