The NBA Playoffs are around the corner and we asked our basketball traders to assess the strength of the teams, starting with the Eastern Conference. Who is best prepared? Which players will make all the difference? Which team can surprise the Cavaliers? Read on to find out.
Lebron James` team is in a dogfight for 1st in the Eastern Conference. They have gone 17-8 of late when Lebron has played. The Cavs are finally at full strength even though a couple of players are not yet in true form. Defensive consistency has been lacking through most of the season, so they will be challenged to fix that during the playoffs.
Lebron James and Kyrie Irving are both playing at a very high level how they perform will be key to the Cavs success.
The Celtics' recent form reads 21-8, including a current record of 13-1 at home. They are a small favourite to finish 1st in the East - something that would be an impressive accomplishment to say the least.
Why are they performed aboved expectation? The three keys to the Celtic's success have been the form of Thomas, the highly respected coaching of Brad Stevens and a good blend of hard-nosed players. However, one shortcoming is their rebounding, which could prove costly during a deep run in the playoffs.
Isaiah Thomas: League leading late game scoring has garnered him the nickname Mr. 4th quarter. In scoring 29 points a game it’s clear that the 5`9″ dynamo is a dangerous player for the whole game.
Jae Crowder: A Defensive anchor who always plays with a chip on his shoulder.
The Wizards have gone 30-10 recently and are on a run of 24-4 at home. Their bench has come around significantly since the All-Star Break. Similarly to the Celtics, they represent a surprising threat to the Cavs.
John Wall: His blazing speed and exceptional play makes life easy for his teammates. He is healthy now and has never played better.
Bradley Beal: Wall's backcourt partner in crime is having a peak season as well, he has impressed most with his precise outside shooting.
Despite losing Kyle Lowry to an injury three weeks ago they are 11-5 of late. Expectations are that Lowry will be back for the playoffs - keep in mind that it could take a week for him to get back into game condition. Lowry's availability is essential for the Raptors to have any real playoff success since leading scorer Derozan will be forced to face high level defense without him.
Crafty Toronto GM Ujiri made the best February trades of any contender, acquiring much needed toughness and defense in the forms of Serge Ibaka and P.J Tucker.Key players:
DeMar Derozan: Ignoring the analytics trend, DeMar is an explosive player who does most of his scoring from midrange.
Serge Ibaka: A smart, shot blocking defender who is a capable stretch four on the other side of the court.
The Hawks are really struggling down the stretch of the season with a recent record of 8-15 which includes a run if 0-5 without Millsap. Just two years ago, the Hawks had reasonable fantasies of reaching the NBA Finals - this is something that must seem like a distant deam to Atlanta fans at this point.
Paul Millsap: A Swiss army knife for the Hawks, Millsap does everything he can in order to keep the team competitive.
Dwight Howard: Remarkably enough, Howard has stayed quite healthy this year. Despite retaining a fair portion of his offensive skills, his lack of defensive attributes now leave him close to average for a starting center.
The Pacers 8-15 at the moment and while they are fine at home, most of the time they are prone to some very poor efforts on the road. After many changes to the roster, this is an Indiana team in search of a new identity.
Paul George: George is by far the best Pacer on both sides of the court.
The midseason injury loss of Jabari Parker was expected to be the dead knell for the Bucks playoff hopes. Somewhat surprisingly, the Bucks are 12-3 of late and this late season resurgence has been significantly boosted by Khris Middleton regaining full game conditioning.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Pronouncing his name is hard but guarding him is the real challenge. Deemed an all around player, Antetokounmpo intimidates defenses with his tremendous speed and his 7' 3" wingspan. His outside shooting is a work in progress but that seems to be improving too.
Khris Middleton: Middleton possesses a diverse range of skills. His 3 point shooting and ball handling are vital to the sometimes stagnant Bucks offense, and on defense he is the vocal leader on the team.
Heat started the season 11-30, but are currently on a run of 25-8 with a record of 16-3 at home. Unfortuntealy for Heat fans, this Cinderella story may not end with a playoff berth. Injuries could derail the Heat express with Whiteside, Dragic and Waiters all dealing with injuries.
Hassan Whiteside: He is one of the top five centers in the league. He is a force in the paint on both ends.
Goran Dragic: Dragic is a very cerebral and tough player who is both a scorer and a playmaker.
Despite the season ending injury of Dwayne Wade, the Bulls (on a recent run of 4-9) seemed to have steadied themselves. Just a week ago their chances of making the playoffs seemed thin at best but for the time being at least, they have a legitimate shot.Key players:
Jimmy Butler: Butler is an equally talented scorer as he is defender, but it is his toughness and relentlessness that inspire his teammates that make him key to the Bulls success.
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