NBA Hot Take 4–24: Fearless Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions*

*(Three of the series are competitive so there’s some risk.)

Here’s a list of who will advance in the order by which they are eliminated, based on four major criteria:

  1. Who has an offensive system that creates lots of easy shots?
  2. Who has a competent modern coach?
  3. Who has an unstoppable offensive force?
  4. Who has a player that can slow down the opposition’s superstar?
  5. How did they do against the Lakers this season?

[Don’t laugh. The reason I include the Lakers is because they try to play like the Warriors and they beat up the East pretty well for a team that struggled all year with youth and injuries.]

Eastern Conference

First Round Losers

Miami, Washington, Milwaukee, Indiana

Miami had a strange regular season, winning some close games against good teams, looking terrible at other times, welcoming the return of their pudgy wayward son (who then got back into shape and seems reborn), and not knowing what to do with Whiteside.

System: #16 in assists, #13 in points in the paint, #27 in fast break points, this team depended solely on the outside shooting brilliance of their guards. They were #8 in defensive efficiency, and #20 in pace, so they slowed the game down. Basically, another mediocre Eastern team that slows down the game and grinds you down (beats you to death as long as the refs aren’t watching).

Coach: Erik Spolestra is a child of the modern age of basketball. He reinvented the Heat, turning them into the Golden State Warriors (Don Nelson version), with enough shooters to space the floor for Lebron James as their point-center to drive and either score or pass. Without his coaching, Miami would have have lost 60 games last year, after starting the season 11–30. They finished the season 31–10, with basically the same line up of cast offs and almost good players. This year, they won 44 games.

Unstoppable Force: Dywane Wade… about once a week. When he gets hot on his jump shot, it opens up the paint for him and he parties like it’s 2006.

Defensive Stopper: None (unless you want to count the injury factor, where they have three players in Wade, Olynyk and their acolyte Winslow who have managed to destroy teams’ seasons with their well disguised dirty plays. How are these events possible without one suspension, or even a lousy flagrant foul: Wade dislocated Rondo’s elbow in the 2011, Olynyk dislocated Love’s shoulder in 2015, and Winslow inured Brandon Ingram after the whistle had already blown in a game this year.)

Lakers games: Miami split their two games with the Lakers, but they got destroyed in the first game, and squeaked out the second one as the Lakers were playing without Ingram (fuck you, Winslow), Josh Hart (injured) and Corey Brewer (released so he could reunite with Billy Donovan).

Here’s what I wrote about that last game, which included a bizarre call that gave Miami an extra possession that turned into the game winning shot:

  1. There was a really bizarre play at the end that gave a new possession from which they scored the winning basket. Dragic was passing the ball to the corner and it went through the net. Randle blocked the pass, and it bounced off his arm and hit the rim. Instead of having .5 seconds left on the clock, the refs gave Miami a fresh 24 seconds. It wasn’t the reason they lost, because they still had two chances to score at the end. But it was weird.
  2. The Lakers were better in almost every stat tonight (FG%, 3P%, FT%, more rebounds, more fast break points) but got killed by 20 turnovers and offensive rebounds which allowed Miami to get 18 more shots in the game.
  3. Miami’s success is more closely related to how well they rebound and score in the paint. Over their last 31 games, when the Heat shoot at or above league average on their 3-pointers, their record is 9–7. When they shoot below league average, their record is 6–10.
  4. For the season, the Lakers are statistically better in rebounding and points in the paint, so tonight’s game was a fluke. The Lakers basically shot themselves in the foot against a weaker team.

What makes the second game interesting with respect to the playoffs is the split personality of the team based on their center. Even though Hassan Whiteside is a fantastic shot blocker and rebounder, he gets killed by mobile centers running the floor. In the first game, the Lakers’ speed just killed Miami, as they scored 22 fast break points and 131 overall. Whiteside was a -19 in 19 minutes, while his backup Adebayo had the best +/- rating of the whole team, playing 30 minutes. In the second game, Adebayo started, and Olynyk played 24 minutes as their stretch 5, so their transition defense was much better. Even though they got outrebounded, the Heat still had more points in the paint, while the Lakers had 6 more turnovers.

This is kind of the same dynamic that has occurred against Philadelphia. Even though the 76ers are younger, faster and far more talented with Simmons and Embiid), Miami has managed to slow down the games and make them competitive.

And what could be more appropriate than another dirty play by Justice Winslow? After someone hit Embiid in the face, dislodging his goggles, Winslow stomped and broke on Embiid’s goggles, hoping to knock him out of the game.

Winslow likes to bully super thin, flimsy things like plastic goggles and Brandon Ingram’s legs

I’m so happy that Philadelphia will end Miami’s season. To keep busy in the offseason, Wade and Olynyk could always start an MMA school, or maybe a private drinking establishment called the Arm Bar.

Washington is the absolute king of trash talking and then not being able to back it up. What they lack in being rudderless, iso-driven ball stoppers they make up for with a lack of talent. Think Oklahoma City without Westbrook and George.

System: #4 in assists, #24 in points in the paint, #14 in fast break points (how is this possible with the fastest man in the NBA?), this team depended solely on the outside shooting brilliance of their guards. They were #15 in defensive efficiency, and #18 in pace. Another mediocre Eastern team that struggles to find easy shots. Their only real play is to wind up John Wall to run at the defense as fast as he can, hoping he’ll get a layup or kick out to an open shooter. Heaven forbid he has to shoot from outside, as he sports a career .327 3-point percentage. He has done much better this year (.371), but hoping Wall will consistently win big games with his outside shooting requires fans to be living in that special fan-tasy land known in Boston as “Terry Rozier is a better clutch shooter than Kyrie Irving.”

Coach: speaking of their Western Conference dopplegangers, former OKC coach Scotty Brooks guides the Wizards. And that represents a huge upgrade over the Wizards’ last coach, who may have been in a coma the last four years. Need I say more?

Unstoppable Force: None

Defensive Stopper: None

Lakers games: At the beginning of the season, Washington played in Los Angeles, with Gortat and Wall posturing on twitter about what they were going to do to Lonzo Ball. They lost in overtime as Julius Randle switched onto Wall and shut him down on three possession at the end of the game.

The whole twitter nonsense reminded me of Wall jumping on the table after game 6 against the Celtics, seemingly unconscious of the fact that they still had to play a game 7.

Against Toronto, Washington had their moment in game 4. Bradley Beal, the Wizards’ best overall player, fouled in the last five minutes and then Wall took over at the end to save the day. Look for them to take a victory lap and go quietly into the night.

Milwaukee is a team that needs a true puppet master. Not because their coaches have been bad (which they have), but because most of the players seem to be made entirely of wood. Is there a more confused, disorganized team in the NBA, not named the Knicks? Giannis Antetokounmpo is a force of nature. Besides Lebron, Curry, Durant, and Anthony Davis, is there a better player in basketball?

Yes, I know I left out Harden and he’s definitely at the top, but I hate the way he forces contact by grabbing a defender’s arm, then jumping up and pretending he was prevented from taking a shot. The NBA simply has to find a way to stop players from cheating like that.

They outlawed some of Kobe’s signature moves. If you swing your arms around and up against an opponent’s outstretched arm, you rarely get to the line. If you kick out your leg, trying to draw contact with a defender closing out on you, it’s either a no-call or an offensive foul. And if you swing your arms wildly after releasing the ball to make it look like you got fouled and you hit the defender, you will probably get a flagrant 1 called against you.

Without the arm bars and the bowling ball drives to the basket and the 10–12 free throws per game, Harden is not an MVP. He’s still a top 5 offensive force in basketball, but he doesn’t put up historic numbers. End of rant. This is about the Bucks.

System: #13 in assists, #7 in points in the paint, #6 in fast break points, this team depended solely on the outside shooting brilliance of their guards. They were #20 in defensive efficiency (WTF? They’ve got five guys on the court who could block the entire court just by locking their arms together), and #21 in pace. They play Eastern basketball: slow pace, lots of iso, and grinding under the rim. Wait a minute, that could be a description of what the lap dancers are doing when the players show up after the games. Maybe Crystal, Tiffany, Amber, and Brandy should be NBA coaches. They couldn’t do a lot worse than most of the current crop. And besides, they actually have some motivational tools at their disposal that could get these players “up” for every game!

And since we’re on a wonderful side trip away from basketball (because nothing inspires me more to do yard work than Eastern Conference playoff games), here’s a crazy thing that popped up in my search for most popular stripper names:


Now, back to the Bucks.

Coach: Jason Kidd is no longer the coach. He wasn’t great, but he actually had a plan. I can’t say that I’ve seen the same thing in Joe Prunty. Looking at his bio, he started out with the Portland Jailblazer crew that came back from a 3–1 deficit against the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, only to blow a 15-point 4th quarter lead, which gave us the greatest alley-oop dunk in NBA playoff history. Just type in Kobe Shaq, and that alley oop comes up in the list of suggestions. After that massive choke Prunty spend a few years as an assistant under Pop (good!). Then he put in two good years with the Mavs (2006 Finals, and the first round brain fart against the #8 seeded Warriors). Then it all went wrong, as he joined the Lebron-less Cavs under noted luddite Byron Scott, who didn’t believe that 3-point shooting was important as late as 2015.

Unstoppable Force: Giannis, about 50% of the time. When he learns a few post moves and a short fall away jump shot, he becomes a young Lebron.

Defensive Stopper: None.

Laker games: Milwaukee won both games against the Lakers, but they both could have been losses. The only thing that give Milwaukee a chance to shine is opponent turnovers. The Lakers threw the ball away 42 times in two games that were decided by a total of 10 points. 42 possessions is roughly equal to 42 points the Lakers didn’t score, plus however many fast break points the Bucks scored. Let’s put it this way, the Bucks played against a skeletal line up in Los Angeles on March 30th, with the Lakers missing Ball, and Thomas missing (along with the ghosts of Nance, Clarkson and Brewer). They got up by 21 with 2:08 left in the 3rd quarter, and could have lost the game in regulation.

Guess which confused, disorganized team blew a 20-point lead two days ago, only to pull out the game by an antler? Yep, it was the Bucks, against a Celtics team ravaged by injuries, but led by the best young coach in the NBA. Look for Brad Stevens to figure out a way to win game 6 in Milwaukee and put another set of antlers up above his fireplace in cold, snowy Boston. (You may have all those titles with the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics, but it’s little compensation for the weather.)

Indiana. I just have to add a period and take a pause here. Not because I’m unsure if Lebron has finally run out of steam, but because this team is so difficult to figure out.

If you look at their team, they shouldn’t be very good. Aside from Oladipo playing out of his mind this year, they still have Lance Stephenson, and that show be a sign of strange things that never lead to anything good. But they keep winning close games. I seem to recall that they have won more games when they were trailing by 15 points than just about anyone. But their stats speak to another overachieving regular season Eastern Conference plodder that will get squashed against the windshield of the Lebron express for the eighth year in a row.

System: #23 in assists, #12 in points in the paint, #5 in fast break points. They were #12 in defensive efficiency, and #25 in pace. So they play slow, but they score a lot of fast break points. They’re don’t have a really strong inside presence, and they don’t get a lot of assists, they really depend on their 3-point shooting. I wrote a lot about them after they played the Lakers in January.

Coach: Nate McMillian is an old school defensive minded coach. He played guard at the same time as Byron Scott, and they rock the same hair do, but I’m not sure he’s a dinosaur. He’s been part of the US national team coaching staff, so he had to learn something from Coach K.

Unstoppable Force: None

Defensive Stopper: None

Lakers games: Indiana split their two games with the Lakers, but they just looked awful for long stretches in both games. The Lakers played without three starters (Ingram, Ball, Lopez), took the lead in the second quarter and never trailed again, winning by 13.

Here’s what I wrote about them after a game where the Lakers missed 12 out of 14 free throws. That’s 14.3% from the free throw line!!

Forgetting tonight’s ugly game, the season stats for each team seem to indicate that Indiana would be a bottom 5 team in the West, while the Lakers would be fighting for the 8th seed in the East.

For the season, Indiana is mediocre to bad in most major categories: #21 in rebounding, #21 in defensive rating, #16 in steals, #22 in blocks, #18 in assists, and #19 in pace. They are good in these categories: #3 in fast break points, #4 in fewest turnovers, #4 in 3-point percentage, #6 in transition frequency, #7 in offensive efficiency, #13 in free throw percentage and #9 in 3-point percentage defense.

The Lakers are good to elite in the following categories: #1 in pace, #1 in transition frequency, #2 in fast break points, #3 in rebounding, #4 in 3-point percentage defense, #6 in steals, #6 in assists, #9 in defensive rating, and #12 in blocks. But they are terrible in a few key offensive categories: #29 in fewest turnovers, #30 in free throw percentage, #30 in 3-point percentage, and #29 in offensive efficiency.

It should come as no surprise that the Lakers had more rebounds, assists, fast break points, points in the paint, and turnovers. The only difference in the game was Indiana shot really badly from beyond the arc, which could be explained as partly good Laker defense and partly tired legs from playing the second night of a back-to-back.

They definitely improved since they played the Lakers in January, but nothing explains why they’ve been so good against Cleveland, other than the fact that the Cavs have refused to play defense the entire season. But in three of their four games in the playoff series with the Cavs, they came back from deficits of over 16 points and almost won all three games.

Is Indiana just sneaky good? Is Lebron too tired or bored when they get ahead? I can’t figure out the Pacers, other than to believe that the law of averages will catch up to them and they don’t have another miracle comeback left in them. Cleveland will somehow get through this series, and it’s only going to get worse.

Here comes Philly!

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Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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