Amico Hoops Playoff Preview: Can anyone in the East take down LeBron & Co.?

LeBron James and the Cavaliers are not the slam-dunk favorites to win the East that they have been the previous three seasons, going in as the fourth seed.

(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Washington Wizards

Season series — 2-2

Series schedule

Game 1: Saturday, at Toronto, 5:30 p.m., ESPN

Game 2: Tuesday, at Toronto, 7 p.m., NBA TV

Game 3: April 20, at Washington, 8 p.m., ESPN2

Game 4: April 22, at Washington, 6 p.m., TNT

Game 5 (if necessary): April 25, at Toronto, TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): April 27, at Washington, TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): April 29, at Toronto, TBD

The skinny

Sam Amico — The Raptors have a recent history of falling apart and failing at this time of year; the Wizards have a recent history of failing in this regular season. So perhaps it’s a matchup of which team can fail more. Actually, that’s not fair to the Raptors, who enter the playoffs better than at any time under coach Dwane Casey, and with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan as the main players. They likely don’t have much to worry about here. Unless, somehow, John Wall, Bradley Beal and the Wizards suddenly get it together at the right time. If that happens, this is a a series. But that’s probably too big of a question mark to do anything but make the obvious pick. Raptors in six.

Ashish Mathur — It’s well-documented the struggles both Lowry and DeRozan have endured in the postseason in recent years. The bright lights always appear to be too much for the All-Star guards, but the hope is that this season will be different. The Wizards can compete with anyone and don’t fear the No. 1-seeded Raptors, but Toronto’s defense could stymie Wall and Beal, forcing others to step up. Raptors in six.

Colton Jones — Kudos to the Raptors, who after being swept out of the playoffs by the Cavaliers last season, the second straight year they were KO’d by Cleveland, didn’t go the rebuild mode, instead opting to retool as coach Casey changed Toronto from an iso-heavy squad to a team that moves the basketball and shoots the 3-ball. The Wizards, who briefly caught fire after All-Star  Wall went down with a knee injury then stumbled once reality set in, are the wildcard of the East — behind Wall and backcourt mate Beal, they are good enough to compete with anyone, but erratic enough to quietly go into the night. Raptors in six.

 

(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks

Season series — 2-2

Series schedule

Game 1: Sunday, at Boston, 1 p.m., TNT

Game 2: Tuesday, at Boston, 8 p.m., TNT

Game 3: April 20, at Milwaukee, 9:30 p.m., ESPN

Game 4: April 22, at Milwaukee, 1 p.m., ABC

Game 5 (if necessary): April 24, at Boston, TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): April 26, at Boston, TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): April 28, at Boston, TBD

The skinny

Amico — It doesn’t seem fair that the Celtics have to try to do this without their two biggest offseason acquisitions, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. With exception of coach Brad Stevens, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, they hardly resemble a top-four seed. But as badly as the Celtics are hurting, they still seem more organized than the recently sinking Bucks. Giannis Antetekounmpo is going to be loads of fun to watch, but for the Bucks, it likely won’t go beyond that. Sadly for them, we said the same things last season. Celtics in six.

Mathur — What could have been for the Celtics. They lost Hayward during the first five minutes of the season in Cleveland, but still managed to secure the No. 2 seed, thanks to the stellar play of Irving. Irving, however, is out for the playoffs, leaving the Celtics vulnerable to the young and upcoming Bucks. Antetokounmpo is ready to lead Milwaukee to an upset and he just might do it, since the Celtics will struggle to score in the halfcourt without Irving in the postseason, where the pace of the game slows down. Bucks in six.

Jones — This could’ve been so much fun to watch, had Hayward and Irving, and to much lesser extent, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis, not been injured. As is stands now, though, the Celtics aren’t much fun to watch, unless you’re a Boston fan, because of their struggles on offense. Terry Rozier has filled in admirably in Irving’s stead, but aside from him Tatum and Brown, it’s a lot of meh. The Bucks, on the other hand, with Giannis, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker, have more firepower and higher ceiling. That having been said… Stevens. Celtics in six.

 

(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Miami Heat

Season series — 2-2

Series schedule

Game 1: Saturday, at Philadelphia, 8 p.m., ESPN

Game 2: Monday, at Philadelphia, 8 p.m., TNT

Game 3: April 19, at Miami, 7 p.m., TNT

Game 4: April 21, at Miami, TNT

Game 5 (if necessary): April 24, at Philadelphia, TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): April 26, at Miami, TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): April 28, at Philadelphia, TBD

The skinny

Amico — When you win 16 games in a row, some of which coming without your star center, well, you’re playing your best when it means the most. Such is the case of the suddenly surging Sixers, who went from awful to the third seed in a year. Credit a mostly healthy Joel Embiid, an amazing do-it-all rookie in Ben Simmons, and a whole lot of parts that fit around both. Now, it appears yo can even throw in rookie guard Markelle Fultz. But all of those guys are new to this postseason game. The Heat, led by coach Erik Spoelstra, are the older, more-experienced unit. They don’t have the star power, and they maybe don’t have the depth. They do, however, have the motivation, the defense and the desire to spoil a lot of fun for a lot of fans who have been drawn to the Sixers’ success. Heat in seven.

Mathur — The Sixers, led by Ben Simmons, are back in the postseason and riding a 16-game winning streak. The health of Embiid is uncertain and it’s unknown if the big man will suit up in the first-round. The Heat are a gritty team and aren’t going to lay down easily, but Philly should advance in this one. Sixers in five.

Jones — Everything is trending Philly’s way. Riding the 16-game winning streak, the process being pretty much on fast-forward since the All-Star break and even though Embiid’s status remains questionable, everyone is talking about Philadelphia. Compare that to Miami, a squad made up of a bunch of solid, though not star players, but boasting depth and a championship coach in Spoelstra. The Sixers are talented, but young and inexperienced. If Miami can coax a big series out of center Hassan Whiteside — whose rivalry with Embiid will be something to watch, should the latter be able to play, wearing a protective mask to cover his broken orbital bone — the Heat can pull the upset. Heat in six.

 

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Indiana Pacers

Season series — Pacers, 3-1

Series schedule

Game 1: Sunday, at Cleveland, 3:30 p.m., ABC

Game 2: Wednesday, at Cleveland, 7 p.m., TNT

Game 3: April 20, at Indiana, 7 p.m., ESPN

Game 4: April 22, at Indiana, 8:30 p.m., TNT

Game 5 (if necessary): April 25, at Cleveland, TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): April 27, at Indiana, TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): April 29, at Cleveland, TBD

The skinny

Amico — LeBron James vs. Victor Oladipo. This series will come down to more than just those two, but history tells us that the team with the bigger superstar almost always wins four games first. The Cavs are completely different team in this era of LeBron, Act II. Unlike the days with Irving (then, to a much lesser degree, Isaiah Thomas), this is LeBron’s team and LeBron’s team only. It also is a team with a very clear second option in Kevin Love, and a bunch of others who are content with their roles. Meanwhile, the Pacers are extremely well-coached thanks to Nate McMillan, play hard and can’t wait to prove their doubters wrong. Great, inspiring run. But it ends here. Cavs in five.

Mathur –– James has never lost in the first-round of the playoffs, and with all due respect to Oladipo and the Pacers, who definitely turned heads with their play this season, James isn’t about to break that streak against the Pacers. Cavs in five.

Jones — The Pacers gave the Cavs fits in their four regular-season matchups, winning three of them as Oladipo and Darren Collison carved of Cleveland’s backcourt. However, all four of those game were played before Koby Altman hit the rest button on the Cavaliers’ roster on deadline day. Indiana is plenty good enough to push Cleveland in this one, and will win games (yes, that’s plural, as in more than one). Lance Stephenson will, as always, be a burr in LeBron’s saddle. However, the combination of James, Love and former Pacer George Hill will be a problem for Indiana, along with every other postseason opponent of Cleveland — those three together have a ridiculous offensive rating of 130.1. Cavaliers in six.

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