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NBA play-offs Eastern Conference preview: Unpredictable, exciting competition on cards with no clear favourites to win

The Eastern Conference has a leadership problem.

For one reason or another, there seems to be an asterisk against every team that has qualified for the NBA Playoffs in the East this season. The Raptors, number one in the conference with the second-best record (59-23) in the league, have been shaky under the DeRozan-Lowry era every post-season, and despite how well they’ve played this season, have continued to be easy pickings for LeBron. The Celtics, second-best in the conference, are missing their two best offensive players and are a squad over-reliant on young but inexperienced talent. The 76ers’ best players have never been in the playoffs before (they’ve barely been in the NBA) and history has taught us that inexperience rarely succeeds in the post-season. And the Cavaliers have LeBron but have seemingly forgotten that basketball is played on the defensive end, too.

 NBA play-offs Eastern Conference preview: Unpredictable, exciting competition on cards with no clear favourites to win

File image of LeBron James. AP

There aren’t any sure shots among the remaining qualifiers, either. The Pacers and the Heat don’t have the star-power that is usually required for a long playoff run. No one except for Giannis Antetokounmpo seems to be consistent in Milwaukee. The Wizards have talented players who most likely hate each other.

But, all that said, someone is inevitably going to win the conference by the end of May, and the amount of uncertainty on every squad will only amp up the level of competition in each series. When every team has a weakness, then any team can exploit that weakness. What we’ll be left with is, hopefully, an entertaining and unpredictable conference, featuring superstar players, breakout youngsters, and a couple of old men still with tricks up their sleeves.

So, here's a look ‘Upset Watch’ of Eastern Conference’s First Round, an unscientific prediction of which lower-seeded squads are most likely to pull an upset in their series. The following previews are given in ascending order, from the team least likely to cause an upset to the one most likely.

Cavaliers (4) vs. Pacers (5): The Pacers have undoubtedly been the surprise story of the season. Last year, they got 42 wins, finished 7th in the East, and were swept in the playoffs by Cleveland. They traded their best player Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in a move that signalled a rebuild, but instead, Indiana improved to win 48 games and finish 5th! Their reward? Another meeting with Cleveland and LeBron. This year’s Cavs are a much shakier unit that over the last few years, but ‘King James’ has been playing close to the MVP level over the past few months and has a lot of great shooters around him. Indiana’s defensive strength (and Cleveland’s defensive weakness) should probably get the Pacers a couple of wins, but the Cavs are definitely favourites here.

Players to Watch: LeBron James, Kevin Love, Rodney Hood (Cleveland); Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young (Pacers).

- Upset Probability: 28%

My Prediction: Cavaliers in 6.

76ers (3) vs. Heat (6): The 76ers are a fun squad, featuring two of the most exciting young players in the NBA in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and finishing the season with an impressive 16-game winning streak. Unfortunately, one-half of the awesome-twosome Embiid might miss a couple of opening games, leaving the 76ers vulnerable in the post. They are facing a hard-nosed, fearless Miami squad, who are well coached, disciplined defensively, and feature a variety of players who could hurt the inexperienced 76ers.

Players to Watch: Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric (76ers); Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Hassan Whiteside (Heat).

Upset Probability: 34%.

- My Prediction: 76ers in 6.

Raptors (1) vs. Wizards (8): This is an unusual 1 vs. 8 matchup, featuring a top seed (Toronto) that is underwhelmed in the past and continues to be doubted and an eighth seed (Washington) who, on paper, should be a lot better than their placement indicates. The Raptors have a deep, talented bench, but when push comes to shove, they will have to rely on their two stars — Derozan and Lowry — to hit difficult shots. Meanwhile, the Wizards also have a balanced starting five, also with a great All Star backcourt of Wall and Beal. But Washington’s Wizards is their bench, and it could eventually prove to be their Achilles’ Heal in this close series.

- Players to Watch: DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka (Raptors); John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter (Wizards).

Upset Probability: 37%.

- My Prediction: Raptors in 7.

Celtics (2) vs. Bucks (7): Considering they have played their whole season without Gordon Hayward and the last few months without Kyrie Irving, it’s a near-miracle that Boston still managed to win 55 games and end second in the conference. They are an elite defensive team featuring Al Horford and a group of young stars who have developed before their time. Alas, their matchup against Milwaukee seems ripe for an upset. Despite their inconsistency, the Bucks feature — by far — the best player in the series in Antetokounmpo, who can single-handedly devastate a hobbled team like Boston. It’s going to likely be the closest series in the East, decided between the best player and the best system.

- Players to Watch: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum (Celtics); Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Kris Middleton (Bucks).

Upset Probability: 56%

- My Prediction: Bucks in 7.

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Updated Date: Apr 16, 2018 18:28:26 IST