The NBA playoffs have started and while the Western Conference will feature the most intrigue, the Eastern Conference will be just as fascinating.
Well, because media pundits are expecting the Cavaliers to make it back to the NBA Finals for the fourth year in a row. Why wouldn’t they? The best player of this generation in LeBron James is on the team and all other contenders are either injured, inexperienced or unreliable. The 60 win Toronto Raptors are getting no love outside of Canada. This is a team with the 3rd best record in the league, two All-Stars, a Coach of the Year candidate, and possibly the best 2nd unit in the playoffs. Boston is missing two All-Stars and is going to rely heavily on 1st and 2nd year players. Indiana, Milwaukee, Miami, and Washington are unproven and in Washington’s case, unreliable. Philadelphia is young and exciting but unproven. They blew out the Miami Heat, but one game doesn’t seal a series. The Sixers have a great shot in making the Eastern Conference Finals, but if they get there, everyone outside of Philly believes that the Cavaliers will beat the young upstarts.
Which is crazy because Indiana just blew out the Cavaliers in Cleveland. An 18 point loss will raise eyebrows and certainly there will be questions, but there will be pundits who will disregard the flaws of the Cavs and tell you that the loss was a fluke. Like I said, one game doesn’t seal a series, but the lack of defense and intensity are real concerns for the reigning Eastern Conference Champions. Victor Oladipo and the Pacers had their way with the Cavaliers defense. They converted open looks and were effective in the paint. Lance Stephenson was in prime form as he posterized a player and then headbutted the basketball stanchion. If you’re a Pacers fan, this was the perfect start to the series and conversely Cavs fans should be a bit concerned.
The Pacers played with house money and this is exactly how every other Eastern Conference team should approach these playoffs. There are zero expectations and this should allow teams to play freely because they aren’t expected to advance. It will allow injury-riddled teams like the Celtics to play with reckless abandon as without their All-Stars, it’s not out of the realm of possibility of getting bounced in the first round. But they just gutted out a win against a relatively healthy Bucks team that features a top 10 player in Giannis. Rookie Jayson Tatum had a double-double, Al Horford had 24 points off 8 shots, Terry Rozier looked like an All-Star, and Jaylen Brown was bodying Bucks players to get to the rim. Along with the Pacers, the Celtics know that expectations are low, but their play resembled a team that finished 2nd in the Conference and was initially expected to compete for a spot in the Finals.
Every other team should emulate Toronto, Philly, Boston, and Indiana. Ball out, you have all these polls that ask would you rather take LeBron or the field, which is just flat-out disrespectful to every team that’s currently competing. It’s bulletin-board material and honestly, it makes the Eastern Conference that much more interesting. There is a real possibility that the Cavaliers could get bounced in the first round. It seems doubtful, but the Pacers match-up well and Oladipo is a nightmare to defend. Their youth and overall team speed overwhelmed the Cavs and if they do get bounced, it makes the road to the Finals that much more interesting. It opens up the door for all teams and that’s a great thing for the NBA. As much as I love watching LeBron in the playoffs, the narrative would be far more interesting if another team made a run. The Cavs got destroyed in the Finals last year and their lack of defense would lead to a similar result against the Warriors or the Rockets.
Embrace the lack of expectations, it should act as fuel for every team without them.
I love the NBA Playoffs.