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While the first round of the NBA Playoffs was fun, the second round is usually where the real grind begins. It’s where we start to truly separate the contenders from the pretenders. Separating the contenders from the pretenders is exactly what we are going to do here, going team by team, series by series evaluating whether or not each team has a real shot to win the NBA title. This analysis is split into two articles, with this one covering the Eastern Conference and the other covering the Western Conference.
Conference Semi-final Matchups:
- Miami Heat vs. 4. Philadelphia 76ers
- Boston Celtics vs. 3. Milwaukee Bucks
This past offseason, Miami retooled the Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo led roster that made the 2020 NBA Finals by adding veteran point guard Kyle Lowry and making a series of other savvy around-the-edges signings. Their case as a contender is that they will never beat themselves. Butler is still a good lead player, and Lowry knows how to lead a team to a championship, as he did as the Toronto Raptors’ point guard in 2019. Adebayo anchors one of the league’s best defenses and they possess arguably the league’s best coach in Erik Spoelstra.
The case against Miami is that they don’t have the same level of star power as every other team in the East. Each of the other three teams in their conference have a top ten NBA player on their roster. Miami doesn’t. Although they are favored to win their second round matchup against Philadelphia, Philadelphia has the best player in the series in MVP candidate Joel Embiid (more on him later). The last time a team like that made the finals was Miami themselves in 2020, but the last time a team like that actually won the Finals was the 2004 Detroit Pistons.
Philadelphia has had a tumultuous season. All Star center Joel Embiid has been fantastic, and is a top three MVP candidate. They traded Ben Simmons and much of their depth midseason to acquire 9-time All Star and 2018 NBA MVP James Harden to complement Embiid, but Harden has been largely disappointing this season, looking out of shape and old. He doesn’t possess the same burst he used to, and his offensive game is now over-reliant on step back three pointers and drawing fouls (and, of course, many of the foul calls that Harden has historically gotten in the regular season tend to dry up in the playoffs, something that played a role in the annual playoff disappointments he experiences as the lead man of the Houston Rockets).
All of the concerns about Harden’s waning game and the team’s lack of depth looked to be poorly founded for the first three games of their first round matchup against Toronto, where Embiid dominated and Tyrese Maxey emerged as a great sparkplug scorer. However they struggled to close that series out, winning it in six. To make matters worse, Embiid suffered an orbital fracture and a concussion late in game six against Toronto. He was still in the game with Philadelphia up by 29 with four minutes left in the fourth quarter. Philadelphia is going to be without Embiid for at least the beginning of their second round series against Miami.
The best version of the Sixers should be a contender. The problem is we haven’t really seen what we think should be the best version of the Sixers all year. If Harden starts to resemble his old self and if Maxey continues to play the way he did in the first round, they’ll have a chance against anyone, as long as Embiid is healthy. But as of now, Embiid isn’t healthy. If he doesn’t come back at full strength, Philadelphia has no shot against Miami or anyone else. It doesn’t help that their head coach, Doc Rivers’, recent playoff history is eyebrow-raising at best.
Boston was one of the most impressive teams in the first round, handily sweeping Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, the ghost of Ben Simmons, and the rest of the Brooklyn Nets. They possess statistically the league’s best defense, headed by defensive player of the year Marcus Smart at point guard, and they have length, size and athleticism all throughout their starting lineup with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum on the wings and Al Horford and Robert Williams as their big men. On offense, Tatum has transformed himself into an indisputable top ten NBA player, and for the most part he’s well complemented by Brown.
They face a very tough matchup in the second round against Milwaukee, and at the time of writing this article they have already dropped game one of that series at home. The winner of the series between these two will most likely win their next series to make the NBA Finals. The one big area for concern for Boston is their lack of a true ball handler. Smart and Tatum handled those duties for much of the regular season admirably, but the playoffs are different and teams without a truly elite ball handler have oftentimes been exposed. Despite this, Boston should have more than enough to make up for this in other areas, not to mention that they have one of the league’s best young coaches in Ime Udoka.
The defending champs are still here and they’re still elite. Led by last year’s Finals MVP and two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (arguably the best player in the world right now). They have an elite defense between Giannis, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez. Coach Mike Budenholzer knows this team well. They aren’t scared of anyone, and they have something that most of the remaining teams in the Playoffs don’t: Championship experience (of the remaining teams, only Golden State has more).
Milwaukee is currently missing their second best player, forward Khris Middleton, out with a knee sprain, who is also a very good defender and arguably their best shot creator from the perimeter. Without him, it will take a Herculean effort from Antetokounmpo (clever, because he’s Greek, right?) in order to get past Boston or anyone else, but as we have seen time and time again he is more than capable of doing so until Middleton comes back.
Predictions for the Eastern Conference:
Milwaukee beats Boston in seven games.
Miami beats Philadelphia in six games.
Conference Finals Predictions:
Milwaukee beats Miami in five games.
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