With the first round out of the way and a tantalizing Eastern Conference semifinal bracket set, theScore NBA writers Joseph Casciaro and Joe Wolfond preview and predict the two second-round series.
Casciaro: Bucks in 6
The Boston Celtics completed a first-round sweep of the anemic Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers, but they managed to look like the least impressive team of the East's top four in doing so. That follows a similar pattern from the regular season.
Kyrie Irving is about as good a postseason performer and crunch-time closer as there is, but we've got an 86-game sample of evidence to suggest that Boston's secondary talent just isn't as good as most people assumed it was in October. Kyrie can beat the Pacers singlehandedly, but beating the 60-win Milwaukee Bucks will be another matter.
I know the defensive numbers when Al Horford switches onto Giannis Antetokounmpo are impressive, but there's not a lot of reason to believe that will hold up over a sustained period considering the physical differences between the two players. The Greek Freak should continue to feast inside and Milwaukee's combination of shooting, defense, and home-court advantage should be more than enough support for the MVP front-runner.
Irving's brilliance and Boston's defense are good enough to take a game or two, but barring a complete shooting collapse from the Bucks' supporting cast, I don't see the Celtics pushing this series further.
Wolfond: Bucks in 6
Horford is definitely the Celtics' best option on Giannis, and I think I have a bit more faith than you do in his ability to at least hold his own in that matchup. Despite the obvious deficit in athleticism, Horford is super strong, moves his feet well, and possesses great timing. But if he's struggling or needs a breather, the Celtics don't have many great alternatives. Will Jaylen Brown get a look? Jayson Tatum? Will they dust off Semi Ojeleye? They'll try to play Giannis straight up in an effort to hold the Bucks' shooters in check, but that's going to be a big request given the Celtics' paucity of defenders who are even remotely capable of bothering him one-on-one.
I'm more interested to see what happens at the other end of the floor. The Celtics can be a deadly pick-and-pop team, and Irving and Horford (and to a lesser extent Marcus Morris) have used it to bust Milwaukee's deep-drop pick-and-roll coverage at various points this season. The Bucks have been slow to adjust, and when they have, the answer has typically been to bring their big higher up. They've largely resisted switching, but I think they should be willing to do that more often. It would probably mean leaving Brook Lopez on the bench and running with Giannis or maybe Nikola Mirotic at the five-spot, but I don't think they'd be losing all that much. They have enough guys who can replace Lopez's shooting, while the rim protection they'd be sacrificing shouldn't matter as much given Boston's allergy to paint shots.
Casciaro: Milwaukee's shooting
We've already discussed the Celtics' plan to have Horford disrupt Giannis while the rest of their defense focuses on the Bucks' shooters, so I'm going to pin this series on how well those shooters fare.
As much as the Bucks' ascension this season came down to Antetkounmpo's emergence as a legitimate MVP candidate, it was the decision to surround him with a bevy of shooters that helped unlock that version of the Greek Freak. Although the Bucks finished second in 3-point attempts, they were only a middle-of-the-pack shooting team, converting 35.3 percent from deep during the regular season (15th overall). The last eight NBA champions all finished in the top 11 in 3-point percentage.
Seven of the Bucks' nine most used players outperformed their regular-season 3-point percentages during the short first round, but if those numbers regress to the mean, that could spell trouble. One hope against such a correction would be the return of the injured Malcolm Brogdon, but the 50-40-90 shooter has already been ruled out for at least the first two games of this series.
Wolfond: Small-ball lineups
I'm curious to see what the Celtics do with their starting lineup in this series. They've been starting Horford and Aron Baynes, but, much as they might like to have Baynes on the floor to back up Horford and challenge Giannis with a second layer of interior defense, it probably makes more sense to go smaller and try stretching the Bucks out at the other end. The Celtics' offense was awful against the Pacers any time they played two bigs together, but when Horford was the lone big, they played to a 118.8 offensive rating and a 28.4 net rating.
Matching Lopez with a traditional big basically plays into Milwaukee's hands. Having Baynes on the floor makes it that much more palatable for the Bucks to pack the paint on defence, and Lopez would just pull him away from the rim at the offensive end anyway. By subbing Baynes out for Marcus Morris or Gordon Hayward, the Celtics can go five-out, which might make the Bucks think twice about their scheme and personnel. And the Celtics don't really have to worry about sticking a wing on Lopez, since he spends the bulk of his time on offense spotting up behind the 3-point line. All season, Milwaukee has thrived defensively despite conceding a ton of threes, and they've done it by completely taking away the rim. But the Celtics might be able to put enough shooting on the floor to tilt the math their way.
The Bucks, of course, can counter with downsized units of their own. The difference is their "small-ball" lineups aren't actually that small, since Giannis is a center-sized point forward and everyone other than him shoots threes. Unlike the Celtics, though, the Bucks have been better when Giannis and Lopez play together, both in the regular season and the playoffs. But if the Celtics force their hand, the Bucks certainly have the flexibility to match them.
Wolfond: Raptors in 5
Both teams are laden with star power and size, both have monstrous starting fives, both can score inside and outside, and both absolutely steamrolled their first-round opponents after experiencing Game 1 hiccups. I don't think they're far apart in terms of aggregate talent.
I just think Toronto matches up better defensively with Philly than Philly does with Toronto. The Raptors have counters for every advantage the Sixers typically enjoy. They have one of the league's best Joel Embiid defenders in Marc Gasol - a guy who's strong and sturdy enough to push Embiid out of the deep post, and savvy enough to avoid getting baited into fouls on pump fakes and rip-throughs.
They have Kawhi Leonard to torment Ben Simmons (and wreak havoc as a helper when Simmons doesn't have the ball), Kyle Lowry to chase J.J. Redick around screens, and Pascal Siakam to invade Tobias Harris' shooting space. If Danny Green is getting outmuscled by Jimmy Butler, he and Lowry (or Leonard) can swap assignments without much issue.
The Sixers don't have that kind of lineup flexibility, and in Redick and Harris, they've got defensive weak spots who can be prodded and picked at. Even the Nets managed to burn them at the point of attack. Philly is also notoriously turnover-prone, and the Raptors are one of the league's most efficient transition teams.
The Sixers can still make this series a dogfight if they get hot from 3-point range, if their shaky bench outplays Toronto's shaky bench, if Gasol routinely gets saddled with foul trouble, or if Embiid goes nuclear - none of which is off the table. But I don't feel confident in that confluence of factors, especially given the state of Embiid's knee. I'm expecting some close games, but a short series.
Casciaro: Raptors in 6
This series provides a fascinating matchup, because I think you can make the argument that Philly has the slight edge in overall top-end talent - the type of talent that typically wins out this time of year - but that the Raptors' best players are the perfect antidote for that Sixers talent.
You've already outlined the specific matchups, but it really is crazy that a team as stacked as this Sixers roster doesn't have any clear matchup advantages in a second-round series.
As good as Gasol has been against Embiid in the past, though, I still expect the latter to have at least one monster game, and just can't bring myself to accept Philly going down in five games or less. Toronto's matchup advantages should win out over a long series, but it won't be easy.
Wolfond: The benches
Of all the five-man lineups that have played at least 30 minutes together in the playoffs, the two starting lineups in this series rank first and second in net rating. The numbers are absurd. The Sixers' starters played just 49 minutes together (mainly because Embiid missed one game and was limited in others) but they outscored the Nets by 62.2 points per 100 possessions. The Raptors' starters shared the floor for 96 minutes (making it the second-most used five-man lineup of the first round) and waxed the Magic by 46.3 points per 100. So, something's gotta give.
It's reasonable to expect those starting units to play each other to something closer to a draw this time around, which will shift some focus to the teams' transitional lineups, which have produced spotty results for both sides. Each team effectively has a three-man bench now. For the Raptors: Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell. For the Sixers: Mike Scott, Boban Marjanovic, and T.J. McConnell.
Scott has been a nice addition, and has been effective as a floor-spacer for Simmons, but he's dealing with a bruised heel. Marjanovic had a nice series against Brooklyn, but he'll be more vulnerable against the Raptors. Things could get interesting if and when he matches up with Ibaka. Marjanovic might get torched in the pick-and-pop, but he should also be able to manhandle Ibaka on the glass. (If it's more of the former than the latter, he might ultimately be supplanted by Jonah Bolden.) Ibaka will also have a huge part to play if Gasol ever gets into foul trouble, and he's had some success against Embiid in the past.
VanVleet can get too dribble-happy and try to force his own offense, but he's basically just a way better version of McConnell, and he can be super effective playing off the ball alongside multiple starters. Powell had a nice first round, but given that he's Toronto's only reserve wing, his lack of size is a bit of a concern in this matchup. James Ennis, meanwhile, is a passable 3-and-D swingman who can close games if Redick is getting exposed defensively.
On balance, the bench edge here probably goes to the Raptors, narrowly. If the Sixers can flip that advantage the other way, it could change the outlook of the series.
Casciaro: Siakam-Harris matchup
I was actually tempted to go with the benches - and how Nick Nurse and Brett Brown manage their rotations - but in a series defined by star talent, I'll go with one of those star matchups instead.
Neither Siakam nor Harris made an All-Star team this season, but both are obvious keys to their respective teams' success. Siakam has emerged as a dependable secondary scoring option behind Leonard, and a defensive Swiss Army knife on the other end, while Harris' shooting ability provides crucial spacing for a Sixers starting lineup that would otherwise be cramped.
This matchup was the final factor in me settling on the Raptors to emerge victorious - while Toronto may have an advantage in matchups at other positions, it's Siakam's ability to outperform Harris I feel most confident in.
The Raptors' lanky big man has the defensive tools to nullify Harris on one end of the court, whereas the Sixers forward is ill-equipped to defend Siakam. Siakam's body exists in a world of perpetual defensive readiness, while Harris is often too upright and a step slow to keep up. It's difficult for Brown to hide Harris anywhere.
Given how narrow the margin is between these teams' top lineups, Siakam probably needs to win this matchup for the Raptors to reach the Eastern Conference Final.