No. 8 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 1 Boston Celtics
The Celtics grabbed the top spot in the East for the first time since 2008, the last time the won a championship, thanks to Cleveland’s collapse down the stretch. The Celtics don’t have a ton of playoff experience; Chicago’s Dwyane Wade has more than the entire Boston roster. The Bulls also have former Celtic Rajon Rondo, the point guard on that 2008 Boston team, and his eight playoff series wins. Rondo has been rejuvenated of late for the Bulls after being benched for a while. Boston lost in the first round of the 2016 playoffs because Isaiah Thomas struggled in his team’s four losses. Thomas should get his points vs. Chicago, but do the C’s have a second scorer to pick up the slack? Other than Thomas, the Boston roster is full of good role players. You need at least two stars to win a title. Boston and Chicago split four meetings this season, each sweeping at home. The C’s are -475 series favorites.
No. 7 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs closed the regular season with four straight losses as they conceded the top seed in the Eastern Conference to the Celtics by resting LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in the final two games. Can the Cavs flip the switch against Indiana? Perhaps offensively with a rested LeBron and Kyrie, but Cleveland’s defense has been a problem for months. Since the All-Star break, the Cavs have allowed 111.1 points per 100 possessions. Only the sad-sack Lakers were worse. It should be a spectacular individual matchup between James and the Pacers’ Paul George, one of the few guys in the NBA who can go toe-to-toe with LeBron. Indiana closed the season with five straight wins and covers. Their last loss was a double-overtime epic against Cleveland where James and George each scored at least 40 points. The Cavs won the season series 3-1 overall and are -1100 series favorites.
No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 3 Toronto Raptors
This could be the best Raptors team ever and is deeper than last year’s club that reached the East Finals thanks to the midseason trade acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. Since those two arrived around the trade deadline, the Raptors are fourth in defensive efficiency in the NBA and second in rebounding. Toronto can always score with one of the NBA’s best backcourts in All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The Bucks aren’t a strong offensive team and were second-to-last in the NBA in rebounding. They can defend, however, and have the incomparable Giannis Antetokounmpo, who became the first player to ever finish in the Top 20 in the NBA in total points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks for a single season. Toronto won the season series 3-1 and is a -400 series favorite.
No. 5 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 4 Washington Wizards
The Wizards were playing like the East’s best team around midseason but faded down the stretch to lose out on the No. 3 seed to Toronto. One concern is the minutes played by the team’s key players: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Marcin Gortat. Each was in the Top 30 in the NBA in minutes played, with Wall at No. 5. They appeared to tire out and it hurt Washington’s defense. The Wiz were ninth in defensive efficiency before the break and 27th after. Atlanta had three impressive wins in April: 123-116 over Boston and a home-and-home sweep of Cleveland, rallying from a 26-point fourth-quarter deficit in the road to win in OT on April 9. Atlanta is a better defensive and rebounding team than the Wizards but will have trouble containing Wall. Washington won the season series 3-1 and is a -215 series favorite.