NBA Playoffs: First-Round Preview and Predictions in the East

LeBron James dunks against the Miami Heat. | Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

LeBron James dunks against the Miami Heat. | Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The 2015-16 NBA regular season was one for the ages. We saw a handful of coaches get the axe, we saw individuals — specifically, one reigning MVP — elevate their game to new heights, and we saw the Golden State Warriors take down a single-season wins record that we thought would last for eternity. It’s been a fun ride, for sure.

But the fact is, none of that matters anymore. The regular season is officially a thing of the past. Now the true test begins. The 2016 NBA Playoffs is about to get underway. It’s time to see who the real championship contenders are. And we can’t wait.

With the first-round games set to get underway, we think it’s only right that we examine the matchups, see how the teams stack up against one another, and predict which clubs will come out victorious. And since the suns happens to rise in the East, we figured we would too — with an Eastern Conference analysis.

Cleveland Cavaliers (1) vs. Detroit Pistons (8)

LeBron James drives to the basket. | Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

LeBron James drives to the basket. | Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Despite entering the postseason with a 6-4 record in their last 10 games, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference. This group is eighth in the league in scoring (104.3 PPG) and has the third-best offensive rating (110.9) in the NBA. On top of that, the Cavs also get things done on the defensive end of the floor, limiting the opposition to just 98.3 points per game (fourth in the league) to go along with a defensive rating of 104.5 (10th of 30).

If the Big Three of LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving (the latter averaged 29.0 points per game in two games against the Pistons this season) are able to play up to their potential, the 57-25 Cavs should feel pretty good about their chances. On the flip side, after winning just 32 games in 2013-14, the Pistons put together a 44-win campaign this season and, for the first time since 2008-09, find themselves in the postseason.

While the bulk of this team’s success is usually attributed to the dynamic duo of point guard Reggie Jackson (18.8 PPG and 6.2 APG) and All-Star center Andre Drummond (16.2 PPG and a league-leading 14.8 RPG), Detroit’s balance on the offensive end of the floor — where it has six players averaging in double figures in scoring — cannot be overlooked. Unfortunately, while the Pistons did win the season series against the Cavs 3-1, this is the playoffs. And that means one simple thing: advantage Cleveland.

Prediction: Cleveland Cavaliers in five

Toronto Raptors (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (7)

Kyle Lowry drives to the basket against the Pacers. | Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Kyle Lowry drives to the basket against the Pacers. | Andy Lyons/Getty Images

While most believe the Eastern Conference is the Cavs’ to lose, the Toronto Raptors are more than capable of making a serious run. The No. 2 seed in the East enters the postseason having won seven of its last 10 games — four in a row — and holding a combined 56-26 mark.

The success of this club is a directly related to its strong defense — limiting the opposite to just 98.2 (third of 30) — and the stellar guard play of All-Stars Kyle Lowry (21.2 PPG and 6.4 APG) and DeMar DeRozan (23.5 PPG and 4.5 RPG). If the Raptors enjoy both of these things in the first round, they’ll be tough to beat.

Toronto may have the better overall team, but in superstar Paul George (23.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 1.9 steals per game), the seventh-seeded Indiana Pacers will have the best player on the floor. If the Pacers hope to pull off the upset, the rest of the team will have to step up and help out on the offensive end. Something that’s been a problem in 2015-16, as Indiana has only put up 102.2 points per game (17th of 30). The Raptors won the season series 3-1. Expect that trend to continue in the postseason.

Prediction: Toronto Raptors in five

Miami Heat (3) vs. Charlotte Hornets (6)

Goran Dragic makes a move to the basket. | Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Goran Dragic makes a move to the basket. | Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

After a one-year hiatus, the Miami Heat (48-34) are back in the playoffs as the East’s No. 3 seed. And while future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade has shown flashes of brilliance (you like what we did there?) this season, the Heat made a name for themselves on the defensive end of the floor, securing the ninth-best defensive rating (104.4) in the league and only giving up 98.4 points per contest (fifth of 30).

For a Heat team that’s only putting up 100 points per night (23rd of 30), the ability to make defensive stops will be the key to victory. Preventing the Charlotte Hornets from getting buckets will be easier said than done. Not only does this club score 103.4 points per night (11th of 30), it also has the ninth-best offensive rating (107.1) in the NBA.

On top of that, Charlotte has a scoring machine in Kemba Walker who, as we’ve seen since his college days, has the goods to singlehandedly take over a game. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the Hornets only allow 100.7 points per game (ninth of 30) to go along with the eighth-best defensive rating (104.3) in the league. In the end, however, while these two teams did split the season series 2-2, we think Miami’s experience will help them get over the hump in this first-round matchup.

Prediction: Miami Heat in six

Atlanta Hawks (4) vs. Boston Celtics (5)

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Jae Crowder looks on against the Hawks. | Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

These Atlanta Hawks are hardly as offensively efficient as last season’s 60-win team. And yet, they’ve managed to remain one of the top defensive groups in the league, giving up 99.2 points per contest (sixth of 30) while holding a defensive rating of 101.4 (second in the NBA). The Hawks will need to sustain this sort of defensive effort in the postseason if they hope to have any shot of winning their first-round matchup. And Boston will certainly not make it easy.

The Celtics come into the playoffs averaging 105.7 points per night (fifth of 30) while holding the 1oth-best offensive rating (106.8) in the NBA. Led by All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas (22.2 PPG and 6.2 APG), the Celtics are an unselfish group that’s achieved success by consistently exceeding expectations.

And although Boston did lose the season series with Atlanta three games to one, something tells us coach Brad Stevens will have his team ready rectify that in the postseason. In a slugfest that should go the distance, we’re placing our faith in the leprechaun.

Prediction: Boston Celtics in seven

Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com, and ESPN.com.

More from Sports Cheat Sheet: