Let me “axe” you a question to begin this story.
After 16 games, which Eastern Conference playoff team has been the most impressive?
Is it the #1 seed Toronto Raptors, who held serve on home court before losing twice in Washington?
Is it the #2 seed Boston Celtics, playing without Kyrie Irving?
Is it the #4 seed Cleveland Cavaliers, who ripped off a road win to even their series at 2-2?
Is it one of the Pacers, Bucks, or Wizards? Is the lower seed the better team in any of these matchups?
This playoff bracket seems like the opposite of death and taxes. There are no certainties. I really don’t know what to expect from a field that is generally intriguing, but lacks firepower at the top. Every squad is saddled with an easily identifiable flaw or misfortune, resulting in a pseudo-parity that at least makes this somewhat interesting.
That’s why your team, your town, your 76ers look to be in a great spot right now, the only team with a 3-1 series advantage through four games.
For starters, they’re the only squad on this side of the bracket to win both road games. The Cavs, Pacers, and Heat won away from home while there’s been no yield in the other two series. And the biggest question mark surrounding the Sixers, the health of Joel Embiid, appears to no longer be a question mark at all. He was tremendous in game three and struggled offensively in game four, but still found a way to impact the fourth quarter defensively as the Sixers triumphed despite turning the ball over 26 times, tying a regular season high.
The numbers usually tell the story.
Statistically, here’s how Brett Brown’s team is performing in the postseason, compared to the other 15 teams:
- 116.8 points per game (1st)
- 111.7 offensive rating (4th)
For context, New Orleans is second at 114.5 PPG, and they might be the most surprising team through round one, sweeping the Blazers with ease.
- 45.5 field goal percentage (9th)
- 38.8 three point percentage (8th)
- 75.6 free throw percentage (10th)
- 16.3 turnovers per game (13th)
Think about the fact that they aren’t exactly shooting the lights out and still getting the job done. Their FG% is down from a regular season mark of 47.2 but they’ve compensated from deep, upping their 3P% from 36.9 to 38.8.
- 78.7 defensive rebound percentage (2nd)
- 14.3 offensive rebounds per game (1st)
- 17.3 second chance points per game (2nd)
- 7.3 second chance points allowed (2nd)
- 20.3 points off turnovers (2nd)
- 37 opponent points in the paint (4th)
- 9.5 steals per game (tied 3rd)
- 4.8 blocks per game (9th)
- 104.4 defensive rating (6th)
- 65.4 assist percentage (2nd)
- 26.5 assists per game (tied 3rd)
- 103.3 PACE (1st)
Offensive boards, second chance points, steals, blocks, and tight defense – same story as always.
They continue to swing the ball around the floor and share it with their teammates, hence the high assist numbers. That, combined with the fact that this Sixers/Heat series is the fastest of the eight total, shows that Ben Simmons and company have been able to generally continue with their style of play despite Miami’s physical and disruptive efforts.
Across the board, it’s a lot of the same things we’ve seen all season long. Even when the shots aren’t necessarily falling, or when the team is turning the ball over and making mistakes, they usually compensate with high level defense, auxiliary statistical wins, and fourth quarter execution.
To that point, the Sixers have four players with double digit offensive rebounds through four games:
Look at Amir Johnson sneaking into that list.
As far as scoring, the Sixers don’t have a single player in the top 20.
What they do have is a balanced output, with five players separated by just 1.3 PPG and falling between 20th and 30th on the playoff charts:
That’s a huge positive there. The only negative you could draw from it is trying to figure out who gets the ball in the final moments of a close game. Simmons and JJ Redick shared the burden in game four.
The biggest question mark is obviously experience, assuming Embiid’s health situation continues to improve. Maybe the mask comes off in round two, or at least the goggles come off the mask itself. Aside from Simmons having to play 40 minutes a night to make up for the drop-off in the secondary ball handling role (Fultz and McConnell), it really does feel like the pieces are in place for a run to the Eastern Conference finals.
Here’s a brief look at what’s holding everyone else back:
It’s that stigma of being unable to perform in the playoffs. The Washington Capitals of the NBA.
Toronto is 19-26 in the playoffs over the past five seasons with just three series wins. They’ve been eliminated by the Cavs two times in a row and will meet them in the next round if both teams advance.
#Raptors fall to 8-31 all-time on the road in the playoffs (lost 10 of last 12)
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) April 23, 2018
If they move on, it’s going to be on the strength of home court, which they hold as the #1 seed. There’s a lot of pressure on that team to perform relative to their high expectations, and the absence of Fred VanVleet is really killing them right now.
They’re a lame duck squad missing their best player and relying on young guys to get them over the hump. Boston led a hell of a comeback attempt in game four before ultimately falling by two points, 104 to 102.
They’ve suffered some terrible slumps in these games, putting up a 15 point quarter in game one and a 12 point quarter in game three. Sunday, they put up just 35 points in the first half.
The Celtics needed overtime to get through game one back in Boston, which suggests that Milwaukee can snag a road win in this series. Jaylen Brown has been leading the way with a pair of 30 point games in this series, though the defensive side of the floor has been a huge issue. The Bucks are shooting 54.2% to lead all NBA playoff teams and Boston’s typical defensive bite is lacking.
Do they have enough defense? Is there enough rim protection and urgency in transition? Is LeBron actually coaching this team?
You know what it is with Cleveland. This Cavs team is not as good as the last three. The question really is how much of the load LeBron needs to carry.
For instance, Jeff Green is shooting just 29.2% and averaging 3.6 points per game in this series. Kevin Love has had two single digit scoring games but is rebounding the ball well. Kyle Korver put up 0, 12, 0 and 18 through four games. You’re never really sure what the supporting cast is going to provide.
The worst case scenario for Sixer fans is that Cleveland “clicks” and continues defend. Their 102.2 defensive rating is top three this postseason while their 101.1 offensive rating is dead last.
After their 104-100 victory over the Indiana Pacers, the Cleveland Cavaliers are now tied 2-2 in their first-round series. Here's how all #WhateverItTakes players have fared in TPA throughout the 2018 playoffs: pic.twitter.com/3Xh8Fd26Vk
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) April 23, 2018
I’ve said before that they’re a carbon copy of the 2011-2012 Sixers. They don’t turn it over a lot, they play nice defense, and they just hit a bunch of mid-range junk with high efficiency.
Victor Oladipo is the only true star on this team, and he’s coming back down to Earth after scoring 32 points in game one and 22 in game two. He put up just 18 and 17 on his home court in games three and four. If his output stays in that range, do the Pacers get enough scoring from Bogdanovic, Turner, Collison, and Young?
It’s been an interesting series to watch, really tight games with a road win for each squad so far.
They’ve been shooting lights out in this series and might even be up 3-1 if it wasn’t for Boston pulling it together in overtime of game one.
To that end, is 54.2% from the floor and 43.6% from three sustainable? This was a 44 win team that shot 47.8% and 35.5% in the regular season, respectively.
There’s also this:
Khris Middleton in this series:
Game 1: 12-20 fg, 5-7 3pt
Game 2: 10-14 fg, 4-6 3pt
Game 3: 10-17 fg, 3-6 3pt
Game 4: 8-14 fg, 3-5 3pt
Totals: 61.5 fg, 62.5% 3pt
— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) April 22, 2018
If Khris Middleton continues to play at a ridiculously high level and Jabari Parker shows the same consistency we’ve seen over the past two games, then this team can beat Boston and probably present a problem to the Sixers in round two.
Classic case of a talented, yet underperforming team getting a star back in time for the playoffs. This feels more like a 3/6 or 4/5 matchup. This doesn’t feel anything like Rockets/Wolves or Warriors/Spurs.
Game four lines:
- John Wall: 27 points, 14 assists, 6 rebounds
- Bradley Beal: 31 points, 5 three pointers
There have been some physical dust ups in this series which seem to benefit Washington. Their fans even started chanting, “USA! USA!” which seems dumb to me considering the fact that Toronto has 9 players from the States and 0 from Canada, but I digress.
Washington is a solid team with nothing to lose, but I just feel like the Raptors ride home court to a seven game series win.
Anyway, go back to the question at the beginning of the article; has any other Eastern Conference team really impressed you?
Didn’t think so.