Sometimes, the best NBA playoff series come before the Finals. We’ve seen matchups of absolutely epic proportions in the Conference Finals. Larry Bird and the Celtics against Julius Erving and the 76ers in 1981. Michael Jordan and the Bulls topping Reggie Miller and the Pacers in 1998. Stephen Curry and the Warriors overcoming a 3-1 deficit against Kevin Durant and the Thunder in 2016. The list goes on and on.
This year, there’s a chance that the Eastern Conference Finals might just go down as one of the matchups in recent NBA history. Three teams in the East are at the height of their powers: the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, and Milwaukee Bucks, seeded first, second, and third, respectively. Unfortunately, there’s only room for two of the three juggernauts. So who will we see in the fight for Eastern representation in the Finals?
Firstly, the 76ers drew a fortunate matchup against the no. 8 seed Washington Wizards in the first round. Currently 2-0, MVP candidate Joel Embiid has met very little resistance from the Washington center rotation of Alex Len, Robin Lopez, and Daniel Gafford. Sixers forward Tobias Harris had stellar showings in both games, while point guard Ben Simmons enjoyed an efficient night in Game 2 (22 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists on 11-for-15 shooting) after a 3-for-9 performance in Game 1.
Despite the efforts of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, the Wizards are simply outmatched against one of the most well-rounded teams in the NBA. Since the start of the second half of Game 1, the Sixers have been coasting through this series. A sweep is beginning to seem inevitable, barring a nuclear performance from Washington’s star guard tandem.
Once the 76ers advance, they will either face the Knicks or the Hawks in the Conference Semifinals. Both have been quite stingy defensively during their two games, but the Sixers’ offense has looked unstoppable at certain points in the regular season. Obviously, Embiid, Harris, and Simmons cannot be the only ones to carry the scoring load. Consistent contribution from shooters like Seth Curry (45.0% from deep) and Danny Green (40.5%) will make a world of difference for the Sixers’ offense.
While fans in the City of Brotherly Love can expect a trip to the Conference Finals, those in Milwaukee and Brooklyn have a trickier path to the same destination.
Brooklyn is up 2-0 against the Boston Celtics and should have no issue finishing the job. The Celtics suffered a major blow when Jaylen Brown underwent season-ending surgery for a torn ligament in his wrist. Worse yet, Jayson Tatum exited Game 2 after getting poked in the eye and did not return. Tatum should be good to go for the must-win third game, but he has also been dealing with a hamstring injury that has hampered his efficiency (9-for-32 in first two games).
For the Nets, the Big Three is finally healthy all at once. The scary part is that they’ve routed Boston in two straight games, yet they haven’t reached their maximum potential as a unit. In Game 1, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving all got theirs individually, but the ball movement as a team was meager. They quickly fixed that issue in the next game, passing the ball around and providing opportunities for others like Joe Harris, who made seven 3-pointers on his way to a 25-point performance.
Game 2 was a preview of the beautiful synergy the Nets are capable of. No player attempted more than 14 shots, and Brooklyn shot a splendid 52.3% from the field and 44.7% from deep. They should only become more dangerous as the Big Three continue to play together and the pieces around them adjust to their tendencies. A matchup against the big personality of Joel Embiid and the Sixers would make for top-notch television.
The only problem? The Greek Freak stands in Brooklyn’s path.
This year’s Milwaukee Bucks look entirely different from the team shockingly eliminated by the Miami Heat in last year’s Conference Semifinals. In a fun twist of fate, the no. 3 seed Bucks and no. 6 seed Heat were pitted against each other this year in the first round. NBA fans and pundits alike wondered how Milwaukee would rebound from such a shocking exit last year.
Quite well, it seems.
The Bucks eked out a 109-107 win in overtime in Game 1 before catching fire in Game 2, shredding the Heat’s defense in a 132-98 blowout. After a rough shooting night in Game 1 (10-for-27 from the field, 0-for-3 from deep), Antetokounmpo scored an effortless 31 points in 31 minutes. The addition of Jrue Holiday has yielded stellar results on both ends of the floor, as well as center Bobby Portis and off-ball guard Bryn Forbes, who went off in Game 2 (22 points on 6-for-9 from deep).
The priority for the Bucks last offseason was to find help for Antetokounmpo outside of two-time All-Star Khris Middleton. It took some time for all of the new pieces to mesh in Milwaukee due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols, but the wait has certainly paid off. The Bucks are 10-2 in their last 12 games played, and they aren’t showing signs of slowing down.
All three teams are red-hot, but the NBA playoffs are a different animal. Players push their bodies harder than ever, and this sometimes leads to injuries throughout the postseason. Head coaches Doc Rivers, Steve Nash, and Mike Budenholzer need to be cautious in managing their superstars’ minutes to avoid any preventable missed time. If everyone stays healthy, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will face off in the Eastern Conference Finals. Any combination of the three powerhouses will produce plenty of fireworks.