With the regular season over, the playoff picture is finally set. The seedings have been determined and it’s time to start looking at matchups and brackets. Looking at the Eastern Conference playoff teams, the question becomes: is there anyone who can beat Cleveland?
The Cavaliers are currently a 5-12 favorite to win the East, per VegasInsider, which means that Vegas believes Cleveland winning the Eastern Conference Finals is roughly three times more likely than any other team making the Finals from the East. Looking at the Cavs’ potential playoff schedule, it’s not hard to see why Vegas thinks this way.
Cleveland’s first opponent is the Boston Celtics, a team the Cavs practically hand selected as their opponent by resting their starters in two games toward the end of the season, helping Boston lock up the seven seed and ensuring the two teams would play in the first round. As a Celtics fan, I want to pretend that the Brad Stevens and David Blatt coaching mismatch will be the most important aspect of the series, but really the biggest mismatch is LeBron James and everyone on the Celtics. Who’s supposed to cover him? Avery Bradley has admirably done his part covering James in the past, but the two are far from peers. Then again, Kelly Olynyk is supposed to be better than Dirk Nowitzki, so maybe that blossoms into a first-round upset.
If Cleveland manages to survive the Olynyk bloom, they’ll play the winner of Bulls-Bucks. If they play the Bucks (unlikely), they’ll be up against a feisty young team with solid athleticism, but very little playoff experience. While Giannis Antetokounmpo is very impressive athletically, I think it’ll be a few years before he develops enough (and James declines enough), that he’ll be able to go toe-to-toe with LeBron. If the Cavs play the Bulls, they’ll be facing a team that’s had some nagging injuries down the stretch, and that hasn’t lived up to defensive expectations. The Bulls would probably be the toughest out for the Cavs with their size and defensive pedigree, but I’ve given up on Derrick Rose ever playing like an MVP again, although I hope he proves me wrong and can become the player we thought he could be. Some pre-ACL tear Rose would be a godsend for this Bulls team that might be the best chance at stopping the Cavs.
In the Conference Finals, Cleveland would most likely face the Hawks, Wizards or Raptors. They could also face the Nets out of the eighth seed, but let’s be serious here, they won’t. The Hawks are the only one of those teams with a winning record against the Cavs this season, but they’ve been hit by two big injuries to Paul Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha, and Mike Scott is nicked up as well. Millsap returned to the lineup on Wednesday night, but Sefolosha, whose injuries were sustained in an incident with police outside a New York nightclub, will not. The Hawks’ strength this year has been their complete roster with no holes; now that a few have sprung up, it’s hard to see them beating a Cleveland team that has been hitting its stride to end the season. As for the Wizards and Raptors, if there’s a reason for Cleveland to be afraid of those two teams, I don’t see it.
The Cavs have the best player in the world, two other All-Star caliber players and a much stronger bench than they started the year with thanks to the key in-season trades. They’re playing well at the right time and seem poised to take advantage of the much weaker of the two conferences. Cleveland would certainly still be a contender if they played in the West, but I don’t know if they’d even be the second favorite.
So bank on LeBron James being in the Finals for a fifth consecutive year; hopefully you’ve gotten used to it.