The 2021-22 NBA regular season ended with anticipation for a deep eastern conference playoff race. Philadelphia star Joel Embiid became the first player born outside North America to win the scoring title in a season. Despite discontent, the Miami Heat are the number one seed in the east. While the Chicago Bulls faltered after the All-Star break, Toronto and Boston are two of the hottest teams in the league. Four talented and elite teams will advance to the second round. Time to break down which four have the best chance.
#6 Chicago Bulls v. #3 Milwaukee Bucks
The easiest matchup to predict. The Bucks won all three regular season matchups against Chicago, two by over 20 points. It’s possible the Bulls get lucky and win one game because the offense makes all the shots. Keep in mind Milwaukee’s the reigning NBA champions. This series won’t get past a game five with the defensive efforts of Jrue Holliday and Khris Middleton combined with a better offense that’s more physical near the rim.
Prediction: Bucks win series 4-0
#8 Atlanta Hawks v. #1 Miami Heat
Atlanta’s clinch of the eighth seed officially gives the eastern conference all divisional first round playoff matchups. The top two teams in three point percentage have to adjust on defense and play better in the paint if they expect to advance to the second round.
The injury to Hawks center Clint Capela opens a new set off issues outside of his free throw shooting in close games. Heat center Bam Adebayo should dominate both on defense and offense, something most fans and analysts weren’t thinking much on before Friday’s play-in game. Forwards P.J. Tucker and Jimmy Butler already outmatch John Collins and De’Andre Hunter.
Miami’s overwhelming advantage at forward and center puts more pressure on Atlanta star Trae Young to create more on offense and to take more shots. That’s not a good strategy against a better coached Heat team.
Prediction: Heat win series 4-1
#5 Toronto Raptors v. #4 Philadelphia 76ers
The first quality series in the east to start play this weekend features the NBA’s only Canadian team against an up-and-down Sixers squad with the league’s scoring leader and MVP candidate, who’s paired with a former MVP. Philadelphia’s predicted to make round two because of their talented roster and veteran coaching staff. Many expect a quick advance for the 76ers, but those analysts and fans overlook Toronto’s advantages.
Nick Nurse again should be a candidate for coach of the year. Many who follow the league didn’t expect Toronto to even get a playoff spot this high, let alone make it past the regular season. Coach Nurse deploys odd lineups at times putting four forwards or three guards on the court against specific opponents. Nurse knows while his roster may not have the star-power Boston or Miami does, they can out-play a lot of teams.
Philadelphia is one of them. The Raptors beat the 76ers in three of their four meetings, the recent one a comeback down by double digits. People also forget that both Toronto and the province of Ontario is still pro-vaccination and social distancing. Defensive stud Matisse Thybulle will not play in Canada because he’s not fully vaccinated. Newcomer James Harden can’t play defense at an elite level and Joel Embiid will be double-teamed in most situations. The Raptors will shock the world again by making the second round.
Upset Prediction of the first round: Raptors win series 4-2
#7 Brooklyn Nets v. #2 Boston Celtics
The best matchup in the eastern conference’s first round. Both teams played their best basketball before the regular season ended. Despite Boston beating Brooklyn in all but one game, the Nets didn’t have consistency until New York lifted the vaccine mandate. After it was lifted, Kyrie’s helped establish a rhythm for the team and Kevin Durant’s playing on an elite level.
Coach Ime Udoka has done a great job improving the playing styles of Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. A year ago, everyone said Boston should move on from the three stars. It’s apparent the franchise needed a new voice and for someone to take the team to the next level in order to get back to the finals.
It’s possible for Brooklyn to win a few games versus Boston, but the Celtics are a complete team. Since point-guard Ben Simmons’ playing status could further complicate matters, team defense could sputter against a hungrier unit who’s proven to beat the Nets in a lot of ways.
Prediction: Celtics win 4-1
Original Season Playoff and Play-in Picks Record: 8-2