The Western Conference was the focus of the last article but this time, it’s the Eastern Conference that gets a turn. It’s playoff time! A long, grueling NBA season has finally given way to the postseason and there will be no shortage of excitement. Before breaking down the first-round matchups (an article for another day), let’s continue identifying the playoff teams that surprised by making it. Conversely, we will also discuss a pair of squads that enter with more doubt than confidence.
Playoff Winners and Losers in the Eastern Conference
Brooklyn Going Hard
Somewhere Jay-Z has to be throwing up the dynasty sign. A decade after the release of the hit single that served as the theme when they relocated from New Jersey, the Brooklyn Nets are living up to the hook. They had back-to-back 44+ win seasons in 2013 and 2014; following the acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. But that was always an ill-fated attempt to capture (someone else’s) lightning in a bottle. This is, by and large, a homegrown product that has turned around the fortunes of the once-wayward franchise.
D’Angelo Russell’s maturation has been the catalyst to what GM Sean Marks and Head Coach Kenny Atkinson have built. Heavily reliant on the three-ball (34.1% of their offense, 5th in NBA) the Nets are also among the best at defending it (31% of opp. Scoring, 5th in NBA). Russell (.369) and this year’s winner of the three-point contest, Joe Harris (.474), can and will shoot it out with the best of them. And Spencer Dinwiddie, their second-leading scorer, is slashing .442/.335/.806 while leading the team in free throw attempts with 5.2 per game.
Now for the not so positive part. Brooklyn allows the highest shooting percentage and the third-most attempts in the paint in the Association. That is a problem for second-year big man Jarrett Allen with one Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers on tap for the first round. Allen averages two blocks a game but Embiid (30% from 25+ ft) is fully capable of pulling him away from the basket. Allen allows 38% on such shots. The other major knock on the Nets: turnovers. Brooklyn turned the ball over at the fourth-highest rate in the NBA. That is a problem as Philly is scoring 21.4 points per game in transition, eighth-most in the league.
Do You Believe in (the) Magic?
Mouse in the house! The Disney sponsored Orlando Magic have reached the postseason for the first time since Dwight Howard last donned the blue and white (2011-12). Their 42-40 mark is their best since the 2010-11 season when they won 52. The Magic are 11th in three-point percentage (35.6%, 10th out of playoff teams. More impressive, they are fifth in turnovers (13.2) and second in personal fouls (18.6); playing a very clean game on both ends. Orlando also managed to block 5.4 blocks per game, good for sixth across the NBA.
Maybe it was divine intervention that kept Nikola Vucevic with the Magic. More likely it was lack of a quality offer. Whatever the case, Vuc set career-highs in points, rebounds, and assists; going for 20/12/3. He did that while slashing .518/.364/.789 and committing a career-low 2 fouls per game. Perhaps his contract situation contributed to his (and Terrance Ross’) mid-career breakout, but Head Coach Steve Clifford, and Magic fans will take it. Aaron Gordon showed more of his playmaking ability, notching a 16.6 assist percentage, and tallied a career-high 5.1 win shares.
Where they may need some actual magic, getting easy buckets. Orlando is dead last in free throw attempts per game. They draw fouls at the second-lowest rate too, so it isn’t as if the calls they get are simply on the floor. The Magic are a screen-heavy offense but that is where the positives about their hustle stop. They are 27th in deflections, 27th in loose balls recovered, and a paltry 29th in contested shots. Their first-round opponent, the Toronto Raptors, are no worse than third in any of those categories.
The Boston Celtics finished 49-33, fourth in the East. That is a drop from the 55 wins and second-place finish of last year. But a closer look shows they had improved production in several areas this season. They increased their scoring output, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and assists. They also managed to cut down on blocks, increase steals, and blocked more shots. Their advanced metrics improvement is also largely across the board.
So why are they a disappointment? Well, for starters (no pun intended) Marcus Smart will miss the entire opening round and, quite possibly, all of the second with a torn oblique. Smart has a slash line of .422/.364/.806 with career-high effective field goal and true shooting numbers. But his greatest impact is on the defensive side of the ball. He tied for eighth in steals per game during the regular season and is in the top-40 in defensive win shares. Boston will attempt to replace what Smart brings with Terry Rozier, who also resides in the top-90 for defensive win shares, but lacks Smart’s size to defend wings.
Of course, this is a team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals last year without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. But Irving (23-6-5) has been the talk of NBA Twitter this season in regards to where he will even be playing next year. Meanwhile, Hayward (11-4-3) is having a down year in his comeback campaign after playing all of five minutes last season. Then there is young Jayson Tatum, who is also dealing with an injury. Undoubtedly adjusting to life as something other than the top option, he has seen his scoring efficiency fall in his sophomore season, though he has upped his point totals, rebounding, assists, and steals.
Keeping the Pace
Indianapolis Pacers Head Coach Nate McMillan has to be a darkhorse favorite for Coach of the Year. Sure the Pacers record is the exact same as last year. But Indy has managed to raise their production across the board, save for dips in free throw percentage, offensive rebounds, steals, and a minor drop in two-point attempts. Oh yeah, they also only got 36 games out of their best player, Victor Oladipo, after he went down with a quad tear back in January. That was supposed to be the death knell for the Pacers in 2019 and instead, they head to the NBA postseason.
For all the praise they deserve for even getting here, the loss of Oladipo might be about to catch up to them in a major way. We already know that the team with the best player usually wins in the playoffs. One could argue that even if Oladipo was healthy, he would still not be the best player on the floor in their first round matchup against the Celtics. But, it is hard to envision a scenario in which a player who averaged 22 points, eight rebounds, and six assists in the playoffs last season would not help.
All of this feels like a slight to the amazing season Bojan Bogdanovic is having. He is averaging 18-4-2 this season; well above his career numbers of 13-3-1. He also parlayed career-high usage into his best efficiency rating, effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage. He has been the de facto lead dog for a team with seven players averaging double figures for the season. Where they lack sans Vic is in isolation. They are the 24th in Isolation play frequency so that could obviously be the reason. But there will be times in the postseason when the play breaks down and they will need a player to go get a bucket.
Eastern Conference Has Warts
Just like it was for the teams in the Western Conference surprises and disappointments piece, these are indeed still playoff teams. There is a case to be made that this is all nitpicking, and maybe so. But the issues raised here only accentuate what is already assumed. Save for Boston, none of these teams are thought of as true contenders for a title. Even the Cs have less luster than last year with what, in total, is a better team simply by having Irving and Hayward healthy.