As the NBA playoffs begin, the Eastern Conference feels as wide open as it has been in years, with fairly balanced matchups from top to bottom. LeBron James and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers enter as favorites, largely due to their history of finding another gear when the games matter most, but their struggles over the last few weeks of the regular season should give other contenders hope that Cleveland might not be able to patch the cracks in its defense. Meanwhile, the lower-seeded teams in every first-round series all feature superstars and individual scorers who can single-handedly tilt games in their favor.
Let's take a closer look at the key battlegrounds in each Eastern series.
No. 1 Boston Celtics vs. No. 8 Chicago Bulls
This might be the most compelling No. 1 seed–No. 8 seed matchup in years. The Celtics snuck into the East's top spot despite sporting a plus-2.7 point differential and a 5-10 record against the other top-five teams in the conference. Basically, Boston was great against bad teams, and vulnerable against good teams. Part of this is due to the Celtics relying so heavily on Isaiah Thomas to score in the clutch; teams like the Cavs have shown there are ways to take the ball out of his hands, like trapping pick-and-rolls early and smothering Thomas with taller, mobile defenders.
The Bulls have the personnel to do both. On the other hand, they weren't a very good team during the regular season despite having one of the league's best two-way players in Jimmy Butler. Butler will be the best player in this series, and is capable of both shutting down Thomas and leading Chicago in scoring. Unlike the Celtics, the Bulls are remarkable against great teams and seem to get better when the stakes are raised. They won all four matchups against Cleveland this season, went 2-1 against Toronto, and split their four games against Boston.
One key to the Bulls' half-court success this season was controlling the offensive glass. In four games against the Celtics, this advantage was pronounced, as Chicago won the offensive rebounding battle by a combined total of 60-29. That's a lot! Fortunately for Boston, Chicago has been much less effective on the boards since trading Taj Gibson to Oklahoma City. Prior to the trade, the Bulls ranked No. 2 in the NBA in second chance points; afterward, they fell all the way to No. 10. Still, the Celtics are vulnerable on the defensive glass, ranking No. 26 in defensive rebounding percentage. The Bulls can exploit this weakness with physical inside play and a commitment to hitting the glass.
The Celtics are a more well-rounded team than the Bulls, but Dwyane Wade could be an X-factor for Chicago. He wasn't very good this year, shooting the lowest field-goal percentage of his career and averaging the fewest points per game since his rookie season. That said, would it be that surprising if he raised his level of play in the postseason, just as he has in in the past?
During last year's playoffs, Wade upped his three-point rate by 36 percentage points. His isolation scoring game—full of craftiness and sheer will—is tailor-made for the playoffs. He and Butler are capable of stealing a game or two through superstar-level performances. Add a few of those games together, and this series could tilt toward Chicago.
No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 7 Indiana Pacers
Like the Bulls, the Pacers aren't very good overall, but feature a transcendent talent who is capable of making things interesting. Since March 1, Paul George ranks fourth in the NBA in scoring, at 28.5 points per game, and third in the league in made three-point field goals. Even more impressively, he did it while dramatically increasing his three-point attempts. When George is connecting from deep, it opens up every other aspect of his game—defenders who sag off him risk giving up easy pull-up jumpers, while defenders who crowd him behind the arc likely will get blown by for dunks.
For the Cavs, James will draw the defensive assignment on George, especially late in close games. Now 32 years old, James hasn't shown signs of slowing down, but asking him to quarterback Cleveland's offense, play huge minutes, and defend an in-his-prime George will be his biggest test of the season. Three years ago, the two went toe-to-toe in one of the best one-on-one playoff matchups in recent NBA history. George held his own back then, and there's no reason to think he won't push James even harder this time around, now that he has even more experience under his belt.
Hovering over everything in this series, and the East bracket as a whole, is Cleveland's shaky defense. The Cavs have the worst defensive rating of all the Eastern playoff teams; it has been a problem for months, and despite many high-profile opportunities to flip the switch and lock down a quality opponent, they haven't been able to do it. Does Cleveland even trust its ability to get stops? The franchise has scoured the Earth for a defensive center, landing on Edy Tavares and Larry Sanders. Both are extreme long shots to make a postseason impact, but they might the Cavs' only hope if opponents continue to punish them in the paint.
Still, Cleveland's best weapon is its offense, and Indiana doesn't have the personnel to stop James and company. The Cavs need a series to reestablish defensive focus and execution, and this might be a perfect opportunity, since they shouldn't have too much trouble scoring on the other end. In four games against the Pacers this season, Cleveland averaged 118.3 points and shot 42.6 percent from behind the arc. High scores, brilliant individual performances, not much defense—that's what to expect from this series, and that recipe usually means Cavs victories.
No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 3 Toronto Raptors
In terms of playoff experience, this series couldn't be more lopsided. The Raptors just completed their second-straight 50-win season and are entering their fourth-straight postseason series with a Kyle Lowry–Demar DeRozan core. They reached the Eastern finals last season, and probably would have competed for this year's No. 1 seed had Lowry not missed the entire month of March with an injury.
The Bucks are the NBA's young upstarts, featuring one of the league's brightest up-and-coming stars in Giannis Antetokounmpo. He has just six playoff games under his belt, all from the 2014-15 season; he's a significantly better player now, and the leading candidate for the NBA's Most Improved Player award. Antetokounmpo isn't far away from being a legitimate MVP candidate, but first he needs to show that he can produce when an opponent has an entire series to game plan for his strengths and weaknesses.
Perhaps the most important Milwaukee statistic is points off of turnovers, as the Bucks rank No. 3 in the NBA with 17.8 points per 100 possessions. That number balloons to 19.7 in wins, but falls to 16 in losses. Milwaukee plays a very aggressive of defense that uses the team's length at every position to overload and overwhelm offenses.
Conversely, the Raptors are among the NBA's best at protecting the ball; they have the fifth-lowest turnover percentage and allow the fifth-lowest opponent points off of turnovers per 100 possessions. This will be the game within the game: if the Bucks can force turnovers, they'll gain the edge in this series, but if the Raptors can prevent that, it's hard to imagine Milwaukee being able to score enough in the half-court to keep things competitive.
No. 5 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 4 Washington Wizards
Another clash of contrasting styles and strengths. The Wizards feature one of the league's best and most dynamic perimeter trios in John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter. Meanwhile, the Hawks rely heavily on the inside scoring and rebounding of Dwight Howard and Paul Milsap.
The Wizards have one of the top starting lineups in the NBA, and have leaned on it more than any other team. Beal, Wall, Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat have played 1,347 minutes together, nearly 500 more minutes than any other five-man lineup. They've also been very effective, outscoring opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions.
As impressive as that is, part of the reason Washington has played its starters so many minutes together is that the team lacks reliable options off the bench. Midseason acquisition Bojan Bogdanovic is the only non-starter to average more than seven points per game, and defensive center Ian Mahinmi will likely miss at least the entire first round of the playoffs with an injured calf. The Wizards will be a bit thin up front, something that could be a major problem if Gortat gets into foul trouble.
Much of Atlanta's success will come down to Dennis Schroder. The speedy point guard is both the team's second-leading scorer and a flawed floor general, prone to horribly inefficient shooting slumps and forced shots at the very moments his team needs poise. In his last game against the Wizards in March, Schroder committed a season-high ten turnovers and shot just five-of-16 from the field. Wall may prove to be a nightmare matchup for Schroder, since he is able to match and even surpass the Atlanta guard's quickness and has the length to sag off of him enough to contain dribble-drives. Schroder could be better off embracing a facilitator role, allowing Millsap and Howard to work inside, but that isn't his comfort zone. He has more games with 20 or more field-goal attempts than games with ten or more assists.
The East's first round will tell us a lot about how the rest of the playoffs will unfold. Can Cleveland play defense after all? Can Boston win a postseason series? Does Antetokounmpo have another leap in him, one that can give Milwaukee a respectable half-court offense? Are the Wizards for real? Is Toronto finally ready to break through? The next two weeks will provide answers. James and the Cavs have never looked more vulnerable entering the postseason, but for now, it's unclear which opponent is best equipped to challenge them.
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