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2018 NBA playoffs: The X-factors that will shape the Eastern Conference playoffs

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As we get set for the start of the 2018 NBA playoffs this weekend, let’s take a look at a handful of notable questions that could determine how things shake out in the Eastern Conference bracket:

Can the 76ers stay afloat until Joel Embiid gets back?

It’s tough to find a positive spin to losing an All-NBA-caliber two-way linchpin to a fractured orbital bone a couple of weeks before the start of your franchise’s first playoff series in six years. Embiid proved every ounce as transformational in full-time duty in Year 2 as he did in his cameo appearance last season. With him in the lineup, the 76ers scored like a top-three offense, prevented points like the league’s best defense, and outscored opponents at a clip dwarfing even the league-best Rockets and Warriors. Per Ben Falk’s numbers at Cleaning the Glass, Philly has performed like a 68-win team in Embiid’s minutes, and like a 38-win squad without him … which is not what you’re looking for when you’re about to head into a postseason series without Embiid, even one in which you’ll have home-court advantage.

The good news? Scary full-season numbers aside, the Sixers have been awesome since Embiid went down, winning eight straight and blistering the opposition by 15.5 points-per-100 behind the all-around excellence of Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, the sharpshooting of J.J. Redick, and timely contributions from a reserve corps led by Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova … and the recently returned Markelle Fultz, 2017’s No. 1 overall pick, who has given Philly a burst of playmaking creativity, athleticism and defense off the bench despite still struggling with his shot.

The bad news? Brett Brown’s club won’t get to play the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Brooklyn Nets, Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks once the playoffs start. And it’s very much an open question how a Simmons-led, Embiid-less lineup will hold up over the course of a seven-game series against the hard-charging Miami Heat, led by a tactician of a head coach in Erik Spoelstra who you can bet will have a smart plan in place to try to take advantage of Simmons’ lack of shooting range, as well as the relative lack of decision-making experience of all the Sixers’ ball-handlers.

That the Sixers have kept their dynamite run rolling even after Embiid’s injury stands as a testament to the depth of talent Philly’s accumulated, Simmons’ brilliance and Brown’s coaching. They’ve proven they’re a team to be reckoned with, even without him. If they can hold serve in Round 1 and get him back in time for Round 2, they could soon prove to be a hell of a lot more than that, too. — Dan Devine

Will the Raptors’ s*** work in the playoffs?

With all due respect to Toronto, I keep thinking about that immortal quote from your man Billy Beane when I think about the East’s No. 1 seed. Because it just feels like, no matter how much they believe in themselves, nobody else is going to believe that what the Raptors are built on can win it all until they’re actually holding the O’Brien.

Toronto’s done just about everything it can do to cement itself as An Excellent Team That Should Be Taken Seriously. Only the Rockets have won more games this season than the Raptors, one of just four teams to rank in the league’s top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession. They were a league-best 34-7 at home, 18-11 against the West, and 11-8 against other top-half-of-the-bracket seeds from each conference. They’ve got All-Star scoring and playmaking in the backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and a young, versatile second unit that has absolutely blown opponents’ doors off all year; only four five-man units to log at least 200 minutes more thoroughly dominated opponents this season than the lineup of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl.

This is the deepest, most versatile and best Raptors team ever. But is Toronto great in the ways that matter most in the playoffs? (AP)
This is the deepest, most versatile and best Raptors team ever. But is Toronto great in the ways that matter most in the playoffs? (AP)

Coach Dwane Casey insists he’s going to keep going 10- or 11-deep in the postseason, leaning on that haymaker second unit to tilt games against opposing starters who will get fatigued as their coaches shorten their benches. But the jury’s still out on how effective that approach will be when the other guys have the best player in the series and he plays 45 minutes, including the entire second half, to vaporize those stretches where they’re just trying to get away with multiple untrustworthy dudes.

And if the Raptors can’t ride their bench edge to turn small leads into big ones, how are they going to fare in crunch time — where Toronto’s revamped, ball-sharing and movement-heavy offense has largely bogged down all season — against top-flight competition? (Especially when the competition in question is, y’know, LeBron, whom the Raptors will try to defend with some combination of Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, hopes and prayers.) These are big questions. The fate of the best Raptors team ever rests on the answers. — DD

The Celtics’ guard rotation

Once thought to be a Finals contender, even after losing Gordon Hayward five minutes into the season, Boston’s hopes of getting out of the East probably went the way of Kyrie Irving’s knee — shelved until next season. The Celtics are without more rotational players, including reserve guard Marcus Smart, whose thumb injury has his status for all or most of Round 1 in serious doubt.

The C’s can still play a disruptive role in the playoffs, and perhaps even return to the conference finals, if a few things break their way in the first two rounds. But in order to do so, they’ll need to stabilize their backcourt. Terry Rozier has been a revelation, especially in Irving’s absence, and his fearlessness on both ends should translate to the playoffs. He’s capable of a 20-5-5 line on any night, but they’ll need him every night, and consistency isn’t always his thing. Journeyman Shane Larkin — another energizer off the bench who has swung games in spurts — will serve as Rozier’s backup. He, too, will be asked to extend his freneticism over additional minutes.

Beyond them, the Celtics have relied on two-way players and 10-day contracts to scrap together a guard rotation over the final few weeks. Brad Stevens will tighten his rotation, but he’ll still need help beyond Rozier and Larkin. The coach has experimented running the offense through capable playmakers Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and even Greg Monroe. How the Celtics assign ball-handling and shot-creation duties to unorthodox positions, forcing the mismatch on their foes, will be a fascinating subplot as they try to hold on without Irving and until Smart returns. — Ben Rohrbach

There aren’t many players who can change the complexion of a playoff series all by themselves. Giannis Antetokounmpo, though, is one of them. (Getty)
There aren’t many players who can change the complexion of a playoff series all by themselves. Giannis Antetokounmpo, though, is one of them. (Getty)

Does Giannis Antetokounmpo have a bracket-busting superhero series in him?

The Bucks generally go as Giannis goes. It shouldn’t have to be that way — what with talented players like Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker and Eric Bledsoe around him — but it is that way.

For whatever reason, this Milwaukee mix just hasn’t meshed the way we all imagined, on either end of the floor. Just ask Jason Kidd. Or his replacement, interim coach Joe Prunty, whose job will still be a coveted one this summer even though nobody’s been able to figure out yet just how to maximize a roster with a 6-foot-11 freak of an athlete at the helm, manhandling every position.

So, it’s a good thing Giannis can go supernova. He will likely finish in the top five of MVP voting, for good reason, considering he’s averaging career highs of 27.1 points and 10 rebounds, with 4.7 assists, 2.9 combined blocks/steals and a handful of mindbending highlights per game. Antetokounmpo is the sort of player who can mask every one of his team’s inefficiencies for a series, as he did in nearly extending last year’s first-round matchup with Toronto to a seventh game. We know he can steal wins. The question is whether he will four times in Round 1.

In four games this season, Antetokounmpo made life a living hell for Boston, besting his season averages in points, rebounds and assists, as Milwaukee split the season series. Horford drew much of that punishment, with Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris and Semi Ojeleye also getting some. Brown and Morris had some semblance of success keeping him from feasting at the rim, but when Giannis is rolling three steps from end-to-end, nobody can stop him. Milwaukee needs him on. — BR

With John Wall back, are the Wizards an upset waiting to happen?

When Wall went down with another knee issue that would cost him another two months and the Wizards finished out February with an 11-3 stretch, the joke was that Washington was better off without its All-Star point guard.

This is, of course, ridiculous, considering Wall is a dynamic scorer and playmaker when he’s not playing hero ball, a capable defender when he’s committed on that end, and one of the East’s best point guards when he’s healthy. All those qualifiers also made the joke sting a bit for Wall, because the Wizards were enjoying the ball movement that his absence provided. They were forced to jell as a team and put forth max effort to mask what they were missing, and it became clear they weren’t reaching their ceiling with him.

That ceiling is what should concern Toronto in the first round. Last week’s loss to the Cavaliers showed the highs and lows of what the Wizards have been with Wall. They took a 17-point lead midway through the fourth quarter thanks to Wall and Bradley Beal stating their case as the conference’s most dangerous backcourt, Markieff Morris flexing muscle behind their swagger, and Otto Porter doing everything else necessary to win. Then, they were naive enough to believe that their talent alone was enough, and they blew another opportunity.

The Wizards are essentially the same team they were when they pushed the Celtics to the brink in the conference semifinals last season, if not deeper due to the development of reserves Kelly Oubre, Tomas Satoransky and Mike Scott. It’s just that they’re constantly consumed by an identity crisis. Can they fold the best parts of who they were without Wall into what they could be with him? If they can find themselves in time, they’re a threat not just in the first round, but beyond. — BR

Do the Pacers have a Plan B?

Victor Oladipo has proven this season that he’s a star — a legitimate No. 1 scorer, playmaker and havoc-wreaking help defender, a guy who can definitely be the best player on a playoff team. Due in large part to the great leap forward that’s seen Oladipo average career bests in (deep breath) scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, Effective Field Goal and True Shooting percentages (exhale), all while commandeering a superstar’s share of his team’s offensive possessions without a comparable uptick in turnover rate, the Pacers won more games in their first year without Paul George than in their last year with him. Which, obviously, we all saw coming.

Now, they look poised to make life very difficult on the East’s No. 4 seed for the next couple of weeks … or, at least, more difficult than any first-round opponent’s been able to make LeBron’s life in the last few years. To do so, though, Nate McMillan’s going to have to come up with a way to make the Cavs pay for selling out to force the ball out of Oladipo’s hands.

Victor Oladipo is the engine of the surprising Pacers' offensive attack. If the Cavs force the ball out of his hands, what does Indiana have in response? (AP)
Victor Oladipo is the engine of the surprising Pacers’ offensive attack. If the Cavs force the ball out of his hands, what does Indiana have in response? (AP)

Over the course of the season, Oladipo evolved into Indy’s top finisher and its best facilitator. The Pacers need the ball in his hands to stand the best chance of getting into their stuff, puncturing opposing defenses out of the pick-and-roll, and creating scoring chances for complementary bigs like Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young and Domantas Sabonis, or catch-and-shoot options like Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison. When McMillan dials up Indiana’s bread-and-butter high pick-and-roll in the playoffs, Cleveland will trap Oladipo aggressively. They hope either to induce Oladipo into trying to speed/brute-force his way through the double team, thus increasing the likelihood of a turnover, or sending a pass to a less threatening option, especially in late-game situations, where Oladipo’s been one of the league’s premier clutch scorers this season.

When that happens, can Turner, Young or Sabonis make enough plays on the short roll in 4-on-3 situations, or knock down enough shots in the pick-and-pop, to dissuade Cleveland’s defenders from cranking up the heat on the Pacers’ lone All-Star? Can Indy swing the ball quickly enough to give Bogdanovic, Collison, Cory Joseph or (gulp) Lance Stephenson the chance to attack a compromised and shifted Cavs defense?

McMillan and his charges have outperformed our expectations all season long. To keep that up now, they’ll have to prove they can showcase a multi-pronged attack when it matters most. — DD

Are the rest of the Cavs ready for prime time?

Fifteen years deep, LeBron James remains about as close to a sure thing as the NBA has to offer. His supporting cast, though — built one way to start the year, then dramatically reshuffled in early February, then pieced together around a spate of injuries over the season’s last two months — remains something of an open question.

Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, George Hill and the rest of the Cavaliers have to give LeBron James a baseline of support for Cleveland to make its fourth straight NBA Finals. (Getty)
Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, George Hill and the rest of the Cavaliers have to give LeBron James a baseline of support for Cleveland to make its fourth straight NBA Finals. (Getty)

Heading into the playoffs, we know LeBron will be joined by Kevin Love, who’s shooting a blistering 45.7 percent from 3-point land since coming back from a broken bone in his hand. It’d stand to reason for head coach Tyronn Lue to start another big alongside him to help bolster Cleveland’s iffy defense — probably Larry Nance Jr., who has outplayed Tristan Thompson, who, um, has some other stuff going on right now that you can learn about on other websites — but it’d be hard to blame Lue for deciding to damn the torpedoes and just keep running Love at center. The Cavs have torched opponents to the tune of an eye-popping 130.2 points per 100 possessions in Love-at-the-five minutes since his return, according to NBAwowy.com, the sort of unguardable five-out offense that more than makes up for Love’s deficiencies as a rim protector and paint deterrent.

We also know that they’ll be flanked by Jeff Green, in large part because he increases Cleveland’s defensive versatility. As noted by Mike Zavagno of Fear the Sword, Green’s guarded everyone from Russell Westbrook to Jusuf Nurkic since the Cavs remade their roster at the trade deadline, and has spent a bunch of time checking several big guns that Cleveland might soon see again. Beyond that, though? If George Hill and Rodney Hood are healthy, they’re probably the top choices, though both have been up and down since arriving in February. J.R. Smith’s shooting 40 percent from 3 since New Year’s Day, but he remains a trick-or-treat postseason proposition. Kyle Korver and Jose Calderon shoot the lights out, but can they defend well enough to stay on the floor against Indiana’s guards? Jordan Clarkson and Cedi Osman provide burst and athleticism, but will they recoil from the postseason spotlight?

LeBron doesn’t need the rest of the Cavs to generate much on their own to get within striking distance of a title, but he needs something he can rely on. Cleveland hasn’t had much opportunity to build that baseline of continuity over the past two months. It’s now or never. — DD

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