In the 2020 NBA playoffs, is the Eastern Conference going to be the land of surprises?
So far, the lower seeds are having their way in the East semifinals, with the third-seeded Boston Celtics taking Game 1 from the No. 2-seed Toronto Raptors with relative ease, and the No. 5-seed Miami Heat coming back to defeat the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 on Monday.
As the Celtics and Raptors prepare for Tuesday’s Game 2 (5:30 ET, ESPN and the ESPN app), we asked five of our experts for their takes on what they’ve seen so far, the top players in the Eastern Conference and who will emerge from the East final four.
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1. What did you find most fascinating in Celtics-Raptors Game 1?
Tim Bontemps: Kemba Walker looking like the Charlotte Hornets version again. This has been the biggest development of the Eastern Conference playoffs thus far. Walker has been superb in the postseason, as he sliced up the Philadelphia 76ers and was the best player on the court in Boston’s emphatic win in Game 1 over Toronto.
André Snellings: The way that the Celtics’ offense utilized ball- and player-movement to overpower Toronto’s help defense, usually its major strength, and produced a barrage of wide-open 3-pointers and easy looks at the rim. The Celtics have demolished the Raptors twice in the past few weeks, so reigning NBA Coach of the Year Nick Nurse has to make some sharp defensive adjustments.
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Nick Friedell: The Celtics’ defense was on point. Toronto looked frustrated and could never find much rhythm. Can Boston play with that kind of intensity throughout this series? Also, Pascal Siakam has to start playing better if the Raptors want to get on track.
Kevin Arnovitz: The extent to which the Raptors had trouble getting anything in transition. A Toronto team that lead the NBA in transition points by a wide margin during the regular season was stopped dead in its tracks by the Celtics, who clearly had transition defense as one of the top items on their to-do list. Even the 10 measly opportunities the Raptors were able to generate were often well-contested.
Kevin Pelton: Boston’s ability to hang in with Brad Wanamaker on the floor. If Toronto is going to win this series, a depth advantage over the Celtics has to translate on the court. It didn’t on Sunday, when Boston was plus-5 in Wanamaker’s 28 minutes of action — a new playoff career high.
2. What did you find most fascinating in Heat-Bucks Game 1?
Arnovitz: Goran Dragic had an easier time getting into the paint than Giannis Antetokounmpo. Game 1 produced flashbacks of last year’s Eastern Conference finals, during which Toronto effectively walled off the paint and forced Milwaukee into a combination of contested jumpers and less desirable second options. On the other end, the Bucks have a league-best defense, but the strength of that defense is predicated on keeping opponents from scoring at the basket, even if it means surrendering 3-point attempts. Give up both and it’s not a league-best defense.
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Snellings: The way the Heat were able to dominate the paint, turning the Bucks’ strength on its head. The Bucks scored only 24 points in the paint, their fewest in a game this season, according to ESPN Stats and Information data. Antetokounmpo managed only six points in the paint after coming in averaging 17.6 points per game inside. If Bam Adebayo and the Heat consistently own the middle, that gives them a legitimate chance to win the series.
Friedell: The Heat’s ability to control the paint against a big Bucks team, while the Bucks struggled to take care of the ball. Besides the awful paint numbers for Milwaukee cited above, the Bucks were outscored by 18 points off of turnovers, tied for their second-worst point differential off turnovers in a game all season.
Pelton: Antetokounmpo’s foul shooting. As recently as last season, he was a decent, 73% shooter at the line, and he had been 74% for his career through 2018-19. His issues in the four consecutive losses to Toronto in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, in which he shot 47% on free throws, seem to have carried over. On Monday, Antetokounmpo’s 4-of-12 shooting at the line loomed large.
Bontemps: That Miami’s blueprint worked to perfection. Coming into this series, the Heat had a clear game plan to beat the Bucks: Build a wall against Antetokounmpo and make his teammates beat them; get timely 3-point shooting from their supporting cast; and have Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic make big plays for them down the stretch. Things fell perfectly into place on all of those fronts in Game 1.
3. Who is the second-best player in the Eastern Conference?
Pelton: I’m inclined to go with Jayson Tatum, who has maintained the breakthrough play we saw in the last couple of months before play stopped in March. But a compelling case can certainly be made for Jimmy Butler too. Rediscovering his outside shot (Butler has made six 3s in the playoffs, more than his total in 29 regular-season games since New Year’s Day) has made him as difficult to defend as ever.
Arnovitz: From the four teams still in the field, it’s a tight race between Butler and Khris Middleton, with Tatum right there. All three are two-way wings who can score in a multitude of ways. Middleton had an incredible season, and despite perceptions to the contrary, he has crushed the past two postseasons. Middleton is the better shooter by a fair margin, but Butler carries a greater responsibility as the Heat’s primary creator and can take over a game (Exhibit A: Game 1). Butler has an enormous appetite and finds ways to manufacture points out of dust. Butler by a hair.
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Snellings: Overall, I’d say Joel Embiid. But from the East final four, it comes down to Tatum vs. Siakam. Both are well-rounded: Tatum’s strengths are shot creation and shot-making, while Siakam’s are more about versatility and defense. But in their series pitting defensive juggernaut teams, shot creation might be the more important skill. So give Tatum the edge, and if Siakam can’t bridge the gap, it could be enough to swing the series in Boston’s favor.
Friedell: If I had to build a team and I couldn’t take Antetokounmpo, I’d take Tatum. Siakam would be second — and I still don’t think most people know how good Adebayo is going to be. But if I had to win one game right now and I couldn’t take Antetokounmpo, I’d take Butler.
Bontemps: Among healthy players, Embiid is the second-best player in the East. Among all players, Kevin Durant will make a strong case for that spot next season upon return from his torn Achilles tendon. Among the teams left in the East playoffs, however, it depends on the day. Sometimes, it is Tatum. Others, Walker. Others still, it could be Butler or Adebayo or Siakam. That depth in star talent across these final four rosters is what should make these last two rounds of the East playoffs so compelling to watch.
4. Which non-All-Star are you watching most closely in the East?
Bontemps: Goran Dragic. The Dragon was breathing fire in Game 1, scoring 27 points and carving up Milwaukee’s vaunted interior defense. The likely return of Eric Bledsoe for Game 2 of this series will make Dragic’s life more difficult, but the Heat are really difficult to beat when Dragic is playing like he did in Game 1.
Snellings: I’ve got my eyes on Bledsoe and his health. As we saw in Game 1, without Bledsoe the Bucks’ offense is way too one-dimensional. He needs to be healthy enough to step up as both a floor general and a shooter to optimize the Bucks’ offense. Milwaukee needs Bledsoe to attack the D, get the ball to the correct shooters and/or knock down open looks himself to dissuade opponents from being overly aggressive in attacking Antetokounmpo and Middleton.
Pelton: Though he sat out Monday, Eric Bledsoe. As the Bucks move forward, they’re going to need Bledsoe to keep defenders honest with his shooting or to find a way to win without him. I certainly wouldn’t attribute the Game 1 loss to Bledsoe’s absence, but Milwaukee benefits from his ballhandling and defense when he isn’t a shooting liability.
Arnovitz: Boston asks a lot of Jaylen Brown — defend multiple positions, work off the ball incessantly and find opportunities for himself outside the set offense, often late in possessions. If he shoots the ball well and makes smart decisions within the flow of the offense, Boston will be tough to beat.
Friedell: Tyler Herro. The Heat have raved all season, and especially in the bubble, about Herro’s ability to rise to the occasion. They believe the rookie guard is ready to keep knocking down big shots. In order to create space on the floor in this series, it is crucial for Herro to hit the open looks he is going to get. He was just 3-for-11 in Game 1 — which is a great sign for the Heat in that they won despite him being off.
5. Bucks vs. the field: Who are you picking to make the Finals?
Snellings: The Bucks, if they can get/stay healthy. The Raptors, Celtics and Heat all join the Bucks with strong defenses, and there is plenty of individual talent on each team. But the Bucks combine size in the paint, powerful perimeter defenders and shooting depth around a transcendent creator — a similar formula to the one the Raptors used to defeat the Bucks four times in the 2019 East finals.
Arnovitz: The gap is narrow enough that the field is the best bet, as demonstrated by the Heat’s performance in Game 1. The Bucks have lost five straight in the postseason against opponents with a better-than-.500 record, and they still need to lubricate their late-game offense.
Pelton: Milwaukee. Being down 1-0 in the conference semifinals isn’t new for the Bucks. And while the Heat seem 180 degrees different from last year’s Celtics in terms of ability to battle through adversity, I still think Milwaukee is favored to come out of this series and that it would match up well with either possible opponent in the conference finals.
Friedell: The field. I thought before the series began that the Heat had the depth and the length to give the Bucks fits. Even if the Bucks bounce back and beat the Heat, I’d still take the winner of Toronto/Boston to beat Milwaukee. I’ve watched the Bucks for a long time, and I have never believed that they could get all the way out of the East and win a title with their roster construction. Middleton is a really nice player — but who else is going to consistently step up and help Antetokounmpo when teams load up on him? It’s the question I’ve never thought they had a playoff answer for.
Bontemps: The field. I’m not sure the Bucks will beat the Heat. Just by playing the odds, that makes the chances of them beating two teams to make the NBA Finals all the more difficult. Plus, given how good the other teams in the East are, I’d rather take my chances with the three of them than any single team — including the Bucks.
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