Even though the Cleveland Cavaliers are the front-runners in the Eastern Conference, they haven’t been so hot as of late and it’s led to talk about who could usurp them on their way to the NBA Finals. The Toronto Raptors and Cavaliers have, pretty much, locked down second and first place, but three through eight has been a tight race with different teams leading by a nose on an almost nightly basis.
What does this all mean? Well, it means that the Cavaliers aren’t guaranteed a spot in the Finals and that there’s no telling who will likely play them in the Eastern Conference Finals. A major factor in playoff success is often matchups. I’m not here to tell you who will, but here are a few lineups that could play a big part in how the East shakes out in the playoffs.
1. Raptors: Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Patterson, Valanciunas
The best three lineups according to net rating on NBA.com all belong to the Golden State Warriors. Just after those? The Toronto Raptors with a lineup that’s outscoring opponents by 31.5 points per 100 possessions.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been one of the best backcourts in the NBA this season and have carried the Raptors to one of the best records in the league. You complement them with floor spacers Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson, and then give them a big man like Jonas Valanciunas to clean things up, and you have a well balanced five-man lineup that can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the East. Yep, this lineup has a better net rating than any Cavaliers five-man unit.
The Raptors have moved parts around all season, and this lineup has only played 78 minutes together. The sample size isn’t huge — Golden State’s Death Lineup has played more than twice as many minutes — but they’ve seen valuable time. Teams go to tighter rotations in the playoffs, so we’ll see this more often in then.
This is one of the most balanced lineups in the league. Lowry and DeRozan do work in the paint — each of them take more than a third of their shots near the rim — and Ross and Patterson flank them as floor spacers who create more room for them to work. Patterson as a stretch 4 is shooting three-pointers at a 36.9 clip and Ross is making 37.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
This lineup doesn’t necessarily play fast (they have a pace of just 95.6), but they control the game. This lineup can specifically cause problems for Cleveland. Lowry and DeRozan can punish the lackluster defense of Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith, especially with the three-point shooters taking LeBron James and Kevin Love out of the paint. The big Valancuinas is a bad matchup for the undersized Tristan Thompson or the immobile Timofey Mozgov.
2. Charlotte: Walker, Lin, Batum, Williams, Jefferson
They said Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin couldn’t play together, but a lineup with that backcourt with some do-it-all forwards and a post-master center has been one of the most dangerous in the league this season.
Let’s start with Walker and Lin. The knock against that pairing has been that they both need the ball. While that’s not untrue, this lineup features two players who don’t need the ball to be effective in Batum and Williams, and another who thrives on offensive rebounds. This lineup is efficient, with an assist-to-turnover ratio better than even the generous Warriors Death Lineup.
Its rebounding nearly a quarter of the offensive rebound opportunities, leading to oodles of second-chance point opportunities, and is locking down opposing offenses to the tune of just 91 points per 100 possessions.
This lineup has played just 83 minutes in 25 games, but remember that Jefferson missed all but two games in December and January. This lineups’ stats are even better post-All-Star break, and Steve Clifford will make sure these guys see the court together in the playoffs.
This lineup is similar to Toronto’s in that it features two ball handlers and creators in the backcourt, efficient floor spacers at the forward positions and an offensive-minded center who can clean up the glass.
3. Miami: Dragic, Wade, Johnson, Deng, Whiteside
The Miami Heat have been one of the most intriguing teams since the All-Star break. When Chris Bosh went down with another blood clot, Erik Spoelstra had to revamp his strategy and rotations on the fly.
It helped that they were able to acquire Joe Johnson fresh off a buyout from the Brooklyn Nets. Center Hassan Whiteside went to a reserve role and Luol Deng slid over and became a stretch 4. With Amar’e Stoudemire starting, the Heat feature a mobile and ball sharing starting five that eventually leads to Whiteside juicing things up off the bench.
There are three things I want to quickly mention about this lineup: It’s gathering nearly 33 percent of offensive rebounds, scoring a ghastly 125 points per 100 possessions and playing at a brisk pace of 98 possessions per 48 minutes.
What does this lineup have in common with the other two? It features two rim-seeking guards, a pair of floor spacers at the forward positions and a difference-making center.
But here’s the thing with this squad: Miami’s center is the ultimate X-factor. Simply put, Whiteside can be the most dominant player in the league for a handful of minutes at a time. He doesn’t consistently put that effort or efficiency on the table, but when he does…wooh boy watch out. Whiteside finishes possessions on offense and ends possessions on defense with equal efficiency. He has the best field goal percentage in the league behind DeAndre Jordan, and is averaging more blocks than any other player in the league by a mile with nearly four per game. The 7-footer averages a double-double and can score 20-plus on a good night.
This lineup works, too, because four of the five can push the ball up the court. Deng is wont to grab a rebound and push it down the floor. Dragic loves it, and is constantly challenging his teammates to keep up with him. Wade has been surprisingly efficient with this group, playing follow the leader and taking control when the time is right. Johnson’s three-point shooting is a breath of fresh air.
But the most important thing about this lineup is it’s experience. Wade knows how to go through a playoff series, as does Deng. Johnson and Dragic have been around long enough, too. When it comes to the can-they-beat-the-Cavs conversation, take the fact that James hasn’t beaten the Heat in Miami since he’s left and the 21-point beat down in March and you’ll see a team that’s feeling confident heading into the postseason.
All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.