NBA playoffs 2019: Eastern Conference first-round previews, predictions

The East is wide open.

A LeBron James-led team had won the conference and advanced to eight straight finals. But James left the Cavaliers and signed a four-year, $153.3 million with the Lakers in July. Los Angeles went on to miss the playoffs this season.

The Eastern Conference is loaded with talent and four teams have a legitimate chance to play for the title. There should be multiple close series and plenty of entertaining basketball.

Here’s the first-round Eastern Conference preview:

No. 1 Bucks vs. No. 8 Pistons

Players to watch: Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has had a career season and is the front-runner to earn the MVP while teammate Khris Middleton developed into an All-Star in 2018-19. Pistons center Andre Drummond was a force on the glass and at the rim. He’ll be a challenge for Milwaukee’s big men.

Stat to know: The Bucks averaged 118.1 points per game during the regular season, which was tops in the league. The Pistons were 25th in the NBA in that category at 107 per game. Drummond also led the NBA in rebounding (15.6 per game).

Hidden storyline: Blake Griffin’s health is a major concern for the Pistons. The 30-year-old forward has been dealing with soreness in his left knee and did not play in Detroit’s postseason-clinching win over the Knicks on Wednesday. His status for the playoff opener has yet to be determined, coach Dwane Casey told reporters after the victory. Griffin was the Pistons’ best player this season, averaging 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 35 minutes per game.

Odds: Bucks (-10000), Pistons (+1600)

Prediction: Bucks in five

No. 2 Raptors vs. No. 7 Magic

Players to watch: Pascal Siakam had a breakout season (16.9 ppg) for the Raptors, and Kawhi Leonard will be making his postseason debut for the team. All-Star center Nikola Vucevic and forward Aaron Gordon helped power the Magic to the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12.  

Stat to know: Both teams enter the playoffs on a roll. The Raptors finished the regular season with victories in seven of their last eight, while the Magic head into Game 1 on a four-game winning streak.

Hidden storyline: Leonard’s future is very much up in the air as he can opt out of his contract this summer. He’ll certainly have multiple options in free agency and an early playoff exit by the Raptors would not help their chances of retaining him.

Odds: Raptors (-1250), Magic (+700)

Prediction: Raptors in five

No. 3 76ers vs. No. 6 Nets

Players to watch: The 76ers boosted their chances of making a deep playoff run by acquiring Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris in trades this season. Those two combine with stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as well as knock-down shooter JJ Redick to form one of the best starting lineups in the NBA.

Stat to know: The Nets improved by 14 wins and exceeded all expectations this season to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2014-15. The 76ers hold an 8-2 record in the 10 games that Embiid, Butler, Harris, Simmons and Redick have been in the starting lineup.

Hidden storyline: Embiid continues to be hampered by knee trouble and was sidelined for five of Philadelphia’s final seven games. The team is “optimistic” he’ll be ready for Game 1 against Brooklyn but “it’s possible” he won’t be able to play, general manager Elton Brand told reporters Wednesday.

Odds: 76ers (-501), Nets (+360)

Prediction: 76ers in six

No. 4 Celtics vs. No. 5 Pacers

Players to watch: Kyrie Irving is the Celtics’ star. Gordon Hayward, however, could be the team’s biggest difference-maker. He has been inconsistent during his return from a horrific leg injury that cost him almost all of 2017-18. But when he has played well, Boston has been a different, more effective team. Meanwhile, Bojan Bogdanovic averaged 18 points per game and knocked down 42.5 percent of his 3-pointers in 2018-19.

Stat to know: The Pacers defense is one of the stingiest in the NBA as they limited opponents to a league-best 104.7 points per game. Boston was eighth in that category at 108 per game.

Hidden storyline: The Pacers lost star guard Victor Oladipo to a leg injury in late January and have since had to rely on Bogdanovic as well as Domantas Sabonis on the offensive end. Both had career seasons, but can they keep it up in the playoffs? We’re about to find out.

Odds: Celtics (-358), Pacers (+290)

Prediction: Celtics in seven

Odds provided by The Action Network