Your guide to first round of Eastern Conference playoffs

April 16, 2015

A series-by-series look at the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs:

No. 1 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 8 Brooklyn Nets

Paul Millsap may be the most underrated of any All-Star in either conference, and overall, people just don't respect the Hawks. But popular opinion doesn't win championships, and the Hawks may be the best team ever entering the playoffs with a chip on their shoulder. They're balanced, deep and utterly unselfish through and through.

The Nets, on the other hand, sort of backed into the postseason on the final day, relying on a loss by the Indiana Pacers to even make it. Still, key Nets such as Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams are battle-tested veterans. The real question is, do they have enough around them to make this a series? Probably not. Prediction: Hawks in six.

No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 7 Boston Celtics

OK, so LeBron James and the Cavs didn't overpower everyone, win 72 games and coast to the top seed in the entire league. But they did go 34-9 after starting the year with an opening-day loss to the lowly New York Knicks and a 19-20 start. Two major reasons for the uptick: The improved health of James and the mid-season trades for J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert.

As for the Celtics, well, they seem just happy to be here. They won't admit it, but the eighth seed and a first-round matchup with a team other than the Cavs may have been preferable. Isaiah Thomas and the rejuvenated Evan Turner could make a game or two interesting, as should the fantastic coaching of Brad Stevens. Beyond that, it's hard to think happy thoughts. Prediction: Cavs in four.

No. 3 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks

Here's the thing about the Bulls: They play playoff-style basketball all season. In other words, coach Tom Thibodeau's team slows almost every game down to a grind, with the Bulls defending, scratching, clawing and fighting to the bitter end. If Derrick Rose is anything close to the Rose most fans know and love, and Jimmy Butler continues his All-Star ways, the Bulls could totally go places.

Then there's the Bucks. They are young, athletic and clearly, well-coached by Jason Kidd. It's rare that a man has his team's undivided attention for an entire season -- but make no mistake, Kidd has gotten through to these guys. Oddly enough, the Bucks haven't played quite as well since replacing point guard Brandon Knight with Michael Carter-Williams via a deadline-day trade. This will be a good lesson for them for next season, when injured rookie standout Jabari Parker is due to return. Prediction: Bulls in five.

No. 4 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards

Nobody expected the Raptors to make the playoffs last season, so their run was a bit of a surprise. This year, most everyone expected them to be better. Still, it's hard to call them a disappointment. Fact is, they'll be judged largely on what they do in the playoffs. And some consistency from the likes of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas could carry them to a new level.

Much like the Raptors, the Wizards were perhaps a bit of a letdown. Not a major letdown, mind you, but a team that failed to play with much steadiness in a season that saw the door open wide after the declines of the Pacers and Miami Heat. Either way, the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, and experience of playoff-savvy forward Paul Pierce, just might give them the edge. Prediction: Wizards in seven.