By Rahul Lal
We had to wait until the last day of the NBA season to be able to determine which teams would fill out the Eastern Conference Playoffs but we seem to have a pretty competitive field in front of us. The Cleveland Cavaliers represented the conference in the finals last year and were crowned the champs but, this season, they'll have to start off from the second seed in the playoffs. The Boston Celtics have surged all the way to the top and will have to prove they're not an underdog not only against the Cavs but against other teams who have deep rosters and talented young players. Below is a preview of each team heading into the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
(1) Boston Celtics
Boston is an interesting team because people still don't understand just how dangerous this team can be. While Isaiah Thomas proved himself to be a star this season, people love to downplay the depth this team has. What Boston has that very few other teams have is tough-nosed defense and excellent rebounding.
They have perimeter defenders in Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown while being supplemented by the steady low-post play of Al Horford. In fact, speaking on their depth, Boston currently has 12 players averaging double-digit minutes per game and, though all don't play each game, the team can easily deploy a solid 10-man rotation each game to stay fresh and deadly. Brad Stevens is a Coach of the Year candidate and it's easy to see why. This team is the biggest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland put up another incredible season though it came with a lot of tax. At 32, LeBron James leads the NBA in minutes per game and is firmly in the top-ten of total minutes played despite being rested more games this season than in any previous year. The rest of the team has struggled all season with injuries but, when push comes to shove, it's hard to see anybody in the East being able to unseat the Cavs from their throne atop their conference. LeBron still churned out one of his best seasons and was complimented by the superstar level play of Kyrie Irving. Kevin Love looks even more natural and the Cavs are a team who just seem to get it done, they're still your Eastern Conference favorites.
(3) Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors have taken a step up from where they were the last couple years. While Kyle Lowry is still great, DeMar DeRozan has become the leader of this team with his mid-range game looking like a cheat code on NBA 2K video games. Adding in Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline has gone a long way for their toughness and experience and they are still supported by an incredibly underrated supporting cast.
If the team wants some instant offense, they can rely on Cory Joseph, Norman Powell and big man Jonas Valanciunas. If they want a defensive presence, they can look to DeMarre Carroll, P.J. Tucker and the shot-blocking Lucas Nogueira. This team has the attitude and the versatility to go far but, given their previous playoff performances, we first have to see if they can be consistent in the playoffs and live up to the big stage.
(4) Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards are the reason why fans shouldn't freak out when their team starts the season slowly. The Wizards didn't get over .500 until January 10 and haven't looked back since. John Wall has stepped up and has actually put up MVP-worthy stats (if it weren't for those pesky triple-doubles by Russell Westbrook) averaging a double-double and being a menace on defense. Bradley Beal has always had injury concerns, but his staying healthy is the biggest reason why this team was so resilient. He's shooting over 48% from the field and 40% from three this year.
The Polish Hammer (yes, that's Marcin Gortat's nickname), Markieff Morris and soon-to-be free agent Otto Porter Jr. have created a pretty intimidating and versatile front court for the Wizards to rely on. Their bench used to be an uphill battle and is now fairly legitimate having added instant offense in the form of Brandon Jennings, Bojan Bogdanovic while Kelly Oubre Jr. has developed very nicely into a consistent option off the bench.
(5) Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks keep people guessing as to their identity in this league. The team looks just about as different as can be having lost key players like DeMarre Carroll, Jeff Teague, Al Horford and, most recently, Kyle Korver, but they haven't taken many steps back. Paul Millsap is still the do-it-all forward and he's now getting help in the form of breakout seasons by Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Dwight Howard has bounced back like Big Sean to average an easy double-double in under 30 minutes keeping him healthy and good-to-go for the postseason. Forwards Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince are both helping the new youth movement in Atlanta. A future that looked very bleak just a year ago looks like it can be very dangerous in a season or two, though it's still a tough road ahead for them this postseason.
(6) Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo (I spelled that correctly without looking it up, I'm very proud) has fully emerged. He has led his team in all five major statistics (points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals) and has tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's franchise career triple-double number - oh yeah, he just turned 22 also. Jabari Parker was having his own breakout season but was lost to injury halfway through and Khris Middleton only became healthy enough to play in the last 30 games of the season. Greg Monroe is still an awkward fit, but the team has been incredibly encouraged by the play of rookie Malcolm Brogdon as well as the recent development of Thon Maker. This team will have a tough time this postseason but should look to cause some havoc next season when they're healthy and more fully developed.
(7) Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers have ended the season on a very bright note winning their last five including wins against fellow playoff teams like the Raptors, Bucks and Hawks. Though it's been a long season filled with trade rumors and new faces, the Pacers have as much talent as any team without home court advantage in the East. As much as Paul George can do with the help of their second best player, Myles Turner (yes, you read that right), it's a shame to see a team as hot as them have to play the Cleveland Cavaliers who should be fully rested and determined. Any odds on whether Lance Stephenson tries to blow in LeBron's ear again?
(8) Chicago Bulls
I'll be the first to say congratulations to the Chicago Bulls. They've gotten rid of just about everyone from the Bulls' playoff teams of the past outside of Jimmy Butler, who is making his case as one of the best building blocks in the league, and still made the playoffs. It's not secret that adding veterans like Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade didn't make for the smoothest transitions but, as the Bulls seem to always do, they gutted it out and achieved their goal. While I don't see them having any sort of chance at beating the Celtics, there's no doubt they've accomplished more than most expected by the middle of this season.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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