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Concern-trolling the Eastern Conference contenders: Biggest hurdles for Bucks, 76ers, Celtics, Raptors and Pacers

I don’t know who’s going to come out of the East, and I don’t want to argue with you about it. You might think the Milwaukee Bucks are a true juggernaut, you might think the Toronto Raptors have the highest ceiling, you might think the Boston Celtics have untapped upside, you might think the Philadelphia 76ers have the strongest collection of stars and you might think the Indiana Pacers … I mean, you probably don’t think the Pacers are going to the Finals. The point is that each of these teams has its virtues, and everyone who cares about the NBA is psyched about seeing them meet in the playoffs. 

As fun as the postseason should be for us, it will also likely be painful for some of these teams. A trip to the Finals could convince a superstar to re-sign; an early exit could do the opposite. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what could go wrong and derail these teams’ dreams. It’s time to concern-troll the top five seeds in the East.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks’ ascension has looked easy, but things could get harder in the playoffs. As bright as their future looks, there is uncertainty around what might happen with Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and Brook Lopez in free agency. Coach Mike Budenholzer will probably win Coach of the Year for implementing a distinct style on both ends, but skeptics aren’t sure how that style will hold up.

  • While Lopez has been one of my favorite players this season, I am curious to see if he can stay on the floor and be this effective defensively in the playoffs. Life has not been easy for 7-footers in May and June over the past couple of years, especially if they struggle to defend on the perimeter. 
  • The Bucks are vulnerable to 3-point shooting, as they have decided that protecting the paint is more important. Over the course of the season, this has been a wildly successful strategy, but playoff series are relatively short. If someone like Myles Turner, Serge Ibaka or Jonah Bolden gets hot from long range at the wrong time, the Bucks could be in trouble.  
  • It hasn’t happened much, but Milwaukee fans know what it looks like when the offense bogs down. Unlike on previous iterations of this team, Giannis Antetokounmpo always has enough space to operate, but disciplined defensive teams can take away the Bucks’ flow by limiting help, sticking with shooters and daring him to do everything himself. 
  • It is hard to shake the memory of Eric Bledsoe‘s brutal 2017-18 postseason. I’m not saying the $70 million man is going to fall apart after his terrific regular season, but the pressure will be on.
  • Where is Antetokounmpo’s confidence level in his 3-point shot? He shot 40 percent from deep in the month of February, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be firing away when it matters most. Every time he finds himself wide open behind the 3-point line, it will be a moment of truth. 

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors have elite talent and plenty of versatility, but it’s unclear if they will find the best version of themselves in the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard‘s free agency looms, and, after a midseason makeover, they are still figuring things out. Coach Nick Nurse wants Toronto to be unpredictable offensively and shift shapes on the fly, which will require trust and harmony from a group that hasn’t spent much time together. 

  • Kyle Lowry had an amazing start and has been pretty impressive lately, too. It has been a weird season for him, though, and the Raptors need him to be his aggressive self while still giving Leonard and Pascal Siakam room to operate. His usage rate is just 16.3 percent when sharing the court with Leonard — not ideal. 
  • The roster is radically different than previous seasons, but Toronto still needs its role players to punish opponents for overplaying its stars. That means making open 3s, and the Raptors have been inconsistent in that area for much of the season. 
  • Part of the reason Marc Gasol makes sense with the Raptors is that they have struggled to maintain an attack where the ball is moving as much as they want it to be and Leonard gets the opportunities he needs to create one-on-one. Gasol has made them a better passing team, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be as cohesive as they need to be. To win at the highest level, Toronto will need almost all of its important players to play well at the same time.
  • Gasol deserves to start at center, but Ibaka has been way less efficient as a backup and when separated from Lowry. A conundrum!
  • Fred VanVleet is important to what the Raptors do on both ends of the floor, and they badly missed him in the playoffs last year. He will not have a ton of time to shake off the rust when he returns from his thumb injury this month. 

Indiana Pacers

Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending injury in late January. Indiana is nonetheless hanging onto the third spot in the East, but there is significant skepticism that it will be able to overcome its best player’s absence in the playoffs. Everybody respects the Pacers, and specifically the job that Nate McMillan has done with them. I’m not sure that anybody fears them, though. 

  • The math problem is real. Only the Clippers and Spurs shoot fewer 3s than the Pacers, and only San Antonio takes more long 2s. Indiana has made up for that by shooting efficiently from pretty much everywhere, but it can be difficult to keep up with high-powered offenses when you’re getting outscored from deep. This is particularly an issue because the Pacers tend to allow lots of 3-point attempts. 
  • Their two best healthy players are centers. With Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis sharing the court, their offense has been terrible but they’ve still registered a positive net rating because their defense has been ridiculous. It would be risky to count on that sustaining in the postseason, but keeping them apart means reducing the overall level of talent on the floor.
  • Indiana relies heavily on forcing turnovers, and it struggles in the halfcourt against switching defenses. Every postseason opponent will focus on keeping the Pacers out of transition and forcing them into isolation basketball, which is not their strength, particularly without Oladipo. 
  • Tyreke Evans has yet to find his rhythm on offense. If he was producing like he did last season, he’d be the exact type of player Indiana needs. I’d love to see him turn things around and assume a bigger offensive role, but the evidence suggests he’s not as good of a fit as the Pacers hoped he’d be. 
  • This is a tough team that plays hard, knows its identity and executes well. This can go a long way in the regular season, but those advantages typically go away in the playoffs when every team is prepared and motivated. 

Philadelphia 76ers

If you zoom out, it’s kind of mind-blowing that the Sixers have recovered from the Markelle Fultz trade and put together a team like this. As imposing as the starting five is, though, there are real questions about how all of the talent adds up. And if things go sideways, suddenly all the talk about re-signing everybody and building with this “Big 4” could go out the window. 

  • What version of Jimmy Butler will the Sixers get? In theory, a star wing who can defend point guards, get to the line and get buckets in high-pressure situations is absolutely perfect for this group, but the Tobias Harris trade marginalized Butler a bit and he hasn’t always looked like a stopper. 
  • Philadelphia is second in free throw rate, which is a wonderful but scary thing. There is a risk in relying too heavily on drawing fouls in the postseason — if the Sixers aren’t getting calls, they will have to make up for it in other ways.
  • The turnover problems have not gone away. Philly is 27th in turnover percentage, per Cleaning The Glass, and dead last among teams projected to make the playoffs. 
  • The Sixers desperately need J.J. Redick on the court offensively, but they know opposing teams will target him on the other end. Even though Harris made the team stronger, Redick’s shooting is arguably even more important than it was before the deadline because they lost Landry Shamet. Whenever they throw Jonathon Simmons out there for defensive purposes, opponents will ignore him on offense. 
  • As awesome as Ben Simmons is, there is no getting around the fact that his inability to shoot is a problem, particularly due to the way this team is constructed, especially at the end of close games. In the postseason, Philadelphia cannot count on avoiding close games. 

Boston Celtics

Boston was supposed to cruise through the season, but instead the whole thing has felt like a slog, with expectations weighing everybody down. The Celtics are clearly not happy, and it’s unclear if they’ll ever get on the same page. I can’t recall another team in recent NBA history that has such an enormous gulf between its statistical profile and its overall vibe. 

  • Can you “flip a switch” with obviously poor chemistry? Boston’s talent level has little to do with it being fifth in the East, and, with fewer than 20 games left, Brad Stevens is still getting questions about changing the starting lineup (and Jaylen Brown is calling the environment “toxic”).
  • Kyrie Irving is at once a reason to believe in the Celtics and a reason to doubt them. His defensive effort has been frustratingly inconsistent, and he has been pretty honest about the fact that leading this team has been harder than he anticipated. Sometimes, Boston looks better without Irving, and it will be less switchable defensively in the playoffs because of him.
  • Gordon Hayward is a massive question mark. Boston needs him to be more aggressive and find his comfort zone, but it’s been extremely difficult for him to assert himself when surrounded by other guys who want the ball. 
  • The Celtics rarely get to the basket and get to the free throw line, an indication that they are making things harder than they need to be on offense.  
  • Boston is 14-16 on the road, and if it doesn’t leapfrog anybody in the next five weeks, it will not have home-court advantage in the first round. This might seem like a small thing, but when series are evenly matched, it can make a difference. 

The big variable: Responding to adversity

There is one unknown that I could have applied to every team on this list: What happens if it loses the first game at home, falls behind 2-1 in a series or faces elimination? What happens if there is an unexpected injury or a key player gets in foul trouble? Part of the reason this race is interesting is because these teams are all constructed differently than they were this time last year, so they don’t have long track records here. 

  • Milwaukee has had a charmed season, so it might be a shock to the system if it finds itself needing to dig out of a hole. Antetokounmpo has never been on a team that finished higher than sixth-place or won a playoff series. 
  • Toronto’s key players have lots of postseason experience, but this group hasn’t been through much together. Everyone is aware that the Raptors’ front office has gone all-in and they could look totally different next season, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. 
  • Philadelphia and Boston are both fascinating experiments in terms of chemistry. Without a clear hierarchy, each team will need to problem-solve based on matchups. Coaching will be a big factor, and, when times get tough, star players will have to trust the game plan rather than trying to play hero.
  • Indiana might actually have the best resume when it comes to resilience, and it definitely has the least pressure among these teams. That could make the Pacers dangerous, but, if it’s going to matter, they’ll need to keep things close against more talented teams. 

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