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The Big Questions Facing The Big Four In The East

gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): The first-round of these NBA playoffs was widely viewed as a small appetizer (an amuse-bouche?) before the real meal begins in the conference semifinals. That has largely held true, particularly in the East, where the four teams that won — the Bucks, Celtics, Sixers and Raptors — lost a combined two games. In the West, things have gotten more interesting with the Nuggets-Spurs going to seven games and the Clippers refusing to go away against Golden State.

But let’s start by looking at the two East matchups, which begin this weekend. The first game of the second round is Philly-Toronto on Saturday. Our model gives the Raptors an 81 percent chance of moving on. Obviously Joel Embiid’s health is the big question here, and if he’s not at full strength, that could make those 19 percent odds look even slimmer. Does Philly stand a chance here? How much hinges on Embiid’s health?

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): The Sixers definitely have a chance. I’d give them more than just a chance. But I have huge questions for them, too. And the Raptors deserve to be favored, for sure.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): With Embiid at 100 percent, you can make the case that the Sixers have a more talented starting five, however effective that talent might or might not be at coming together as a team. Without him, you really can’t.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): It’s obviously an understatement to say the Sixers’ chances hinges on how well Embiid plays, but I think they showed they can also play pretty well without him in the last series.

chris.herring: Yeah. He was asked whether time off has been helping his tendinitis at this point, and he essentially said: Not really. I’m fascinated in this series from a matchup standpoint. It’s going to present some real challenges both ways.

natesilver: I don’t think they had a terribly good record without him during the regular season, did they? And Toronto is much better equipped to exploit holes at both ends of the floor than the Nets were.

chris.herring: Just 8-10 without him

tchow: Yeah, as far as matchups go, it’s going to be really interesting to see how Marc Gasol does against Embiid. Gasol was solid against Nicola Vucevic last series, but Embiid — even a not-100-percent Embiid — is an entirely different scenario.

chris.herring: I will say this: I would assume Embiid is going to be available for each game of this series. I could be wrong on that, and who knows how he’ll hold up. But they don’t have much room for error here, whereas against Brooklyn they did, and he still played four of the five games.

Agreed that the Embiid-Gasol matchup is an interesting one, and one that Gasol played pretty well. Embiid has struggled some with him over the past year, even dating back to Gasol’s time in Memphis. Embiid tears Serge Ibaka apart when that’s the guy guarding him.

natesilver: Kawhi Leonard also seems like he’s pretty well-equipped to neutralize Ben Simmons as an offensive force.

tchow: How much should we read into the regular-season performance here? The Raptors went 3-1 against the Sixers this season, but all those games happened before the trade deadline, so no Tobias Harris on the Sixers and no Gasol on the Raptors. (Also, it’s fair to point out that the one game they did win against the Sixers, the Raptors were playing without Kawhi.)

chris.herring: Not too much, in my opinion. We mentioned it before, but the Sixers only had 10 regular-season games with their entire starting five together. That group has been so jumbled all season. I think we saw both the best and worst of the Sixers in the last series. That first game against Brooklyn, they played as if they were total strangers. Shot totals were out of whack, and Jimmy Butler finished with 36 points. Simmons and JJ Redick were awful that game.

gfoster: After going all-in on this season with Harris and Butler, the Sixers are very top heavy. They really don’t get much from their bench, and now Mike Scott’s status doesn’t look good for the start of the series. How much does this matter? It seems like depth is more an issue for the regular-season grind.

chris.herring: It’s huge. The Nets’ bench outplayed Philly’s for most of the series. Sixers are going to need their starters to be fantastic.

natesilver: In the playoffs, you can go about seven players deep instead of eight to 10 players deep, but Nos. 6 and 7 still matter quite a bit.

chris.herring: Yep. And that means on both ends of the floor. It hasn’t been talked about a whole lot, but Harris is going to be a big swing player in this series, I think. Figuring out who he can guard in this series is critical.

tchow: Would we see him on Pascal Siakam? Siakam seems like a nightmare for a lot of the Sixers’ starters.

chris.herring: Maybe you can put him on Danny Green? But that’s the sort of assignment he’s not exactly used to. If he guards Siakam, Siakam will feast like it’s Thanksgiving. He’s definitely not guarding Kawhi. And it’s already strange in the sense that you might end up having to put Redick on Kyle Lowry, which is far from traditional in the first place. The Sixers are such an interesting team.

natesilver: For Philly, what’s the threshold between a successful season and a failure? Do they need to win this series? If they play a good, tough series and lose in seven, is that a failure?

tchow: It feels like they put this team together to reach the NBA Finals.

chris.herring: Assuming it’s not a five-game series or shorter, I think Brett Brown can make an argument that this was a brand-new team that wasn’t cohesive at all. They’re going to need to re-sign either Butler or Harris, if not both. I think you could run this team back and see growth next season. No one is old at that point. I don’t feel like many people are taking the Sixers here, and an 81 percent chance for the Raptors seems like such a high number to me, given the talent Philly has. But they don’t have the experience together. Nor do they have home-court advantage.

tchow: As much as I want a Sixers-Bucks Eastern Conference finals, I don’t think I’m taking the Sixers here either.

gfoster: Part of that is us not having seen them very much at full capacity. And they aren’t even at full capacity now with Embiid banged up.

natesilver: I guess all I’m saying is that both Boston and Philly are in this weird bucket where getting knocked out in the second round might seem like a disaster — but there are also two VERY good teams at the top of the conference and there isn’t necessarily a lot of shame in losing to them.

chris.herring: Absolutely. I agree with that notion.

gfoster: Speaking of getting knocked out in the second round, the Raptors’ playoff history is grim. But things are obviously different. For starters, they won’t be swept by LeBron for the third straight year. Also, Lowry is the only real holdover from those previous teams. Does this seem like a team that can go to the finals and make noise? We give them a 54 percent chance of making the finals, for what it’s worth.

chris.herring: They are so difficult to believe in because of the slow, “Are they really doing this again?” sorts of starts they get out to.

tchow: Game 1s are just not Toronto’s friend.

chris.herring: They are a pretty complete package. I still don’t know that I would take them over the Bucks, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said they are taking Toronto to win the East.

natesilver: Our model is REALLY high on Toronto right now. Which has been the downfall of many a good model in the past, being too high on the Raptors.

chris.herring: And speaking of not playing at full strength, the Raps weren’t leaning heavily on Kawhi at all this season. You’d hope that pays dividends now, with him being rested and healthy.

natesilver: Yeah, the model is basically saying that the fully intact, healthy version of the Raptors’ rotation is almost Warriors-level good.

chris.herring: They are missing OG Anunoby, who may be back if they get to the Conference finals or NBA Finals. He’s solid for them, as a 3&D option. But they’re in a good place.

gfoster: Interesting that their “full-strength Carmelo” is less than their current Carmelo. How does that work?

tchow: I think it’s because our model is not high on Anunoby.

natesilver: Yeah, it thinks Anunoby is a replacement-level player, whereas the other guys they’d play instead of him are closer to league-average players

tchow: I agree with Chris that he’s a solid option for Toronto once he returns. But according to our model, he’s a negative on both offense and defense.

gfoster: Boston and Milwaukee met in the first round a year ago, with the Celtics winning in seven games (without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, no less). Obviously things are different this time around. We give the Bucks a 77 percent chance of winning this. Does that sound about right to you?

chris.herring: I think so. I’m almost as high on Milwaukee as I am the Warriors, which sounds wild to say out loud. But I am.

natesilver: It sounds about right to me: 3-to-1 favorites with the best player in the conference, home-court advantage, and a much better regular-season record seems reasonable.

chris.herring: I do feel like this series has the potential to make me look stupid, though.

gfoster: Best player in the conference or in the league, Nate?

natesilver: Don’t bait me into answering that! I think he was probably the MVP this year, but answering if he’s the best player in the league going forward is trickier.

tchow: Just to make sure our readers follow, we’re talking about Giannis right? There’s no Bucks fan out there that’s going to assume Nate thinks Eric Bledsoe or Malcolm Brogdon is the MVP.

natesilver: We’re talking about Nikola Mirotic, Tony.

tchow: Of course.

gfoster: Who guards Giannis? Boston has two great defenders in Al Horford and Aron Baynes.

tchow: I would assume Horford gets the assignment for the most part, but they’re going to have to double.

chris.herring: They’ll use everyone. Probably starting with Horford, who’s guarded him pretty well before. I don’t think they’ll have to double! And it’ll be dangerous to try that, given all the shooting the Bucks have.

tchow: For what it’s worth, Giannis averaged 31 points against Boston in the regular season. That’s his third-highest scoring average this season against a team he played at least three times (behind the Knicks and the Sixers).

chris.herring: I just think they’ll try to confuse him by using a lot of different faces over the course of each game.

natesilver: Don’t Horford and Baynes seem a little too slow to guard Giannis? I mean, 90 percent of the league is too slow, but they’re in that 90 percent, no?

chris.herring: Horford’s been pretty decent at this before. If you can force him to pass without doing it through a double-team/over-helping, it’s a win. He was really, really good on Simmons last year, which is similar in some ways, even though Giannis is obviously the better player. It’s strange, but I almost feel like looking at last year’s series doesn’t help a whole lot. Milwaukee was playing such a stupid offense, and Giannis couldn’t kick the ball out to anyone because of their spacing.

gfoster: It seems like the strategy for some teams is to just let Giannis get his points and shut down the perimeter. Could that work for Brad Stevens?

chris.herring: It could. I think the biggest fear if you’re Boston is Horford getting into foul trouble, which, as Nate brought up, would force you to play Baynes a lot in a matchup that’d be tough for him.

natesilver: I suppose that’s the strategy you have to try — shutting down the perimeter. Which is different than saying that strategy will succeed, but you have to try it because this Bucks team without the perimeter shooting is basically last year’s Bucks team, and that team was very beatable, obviously.

chris.herring: The other alternative, if those guys simply can’t stay with Giannis, is to play small — Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, etc. This is another series where they’ll miss Marcus Smart. (And Milwaukee could really use Malcolm Brogdon as another ball-handler/shooter.) I really do think the key to the series will be more about how Milwaukee defends, though.

natesilver: Yeah, I think Smart would have been huge in this series.

chris.herring: To me, this series will probably answer the biggest question I’ve had about Milwaukee all along: Is their defense — which gives up more threes than any team in basketball — one that can work in the playoffs? They dare teams to shoot threes. In today’s NBA, that’s going against the grain hardcore. Especially when the other team has a big with that sort of range.

And can the Celtics exploit that sort of defense, with Brook Lopez dropping back in pick-and-rolls instead of stepping up? Horford can shoot! It’s dangerous to sag off him.

natesilver: I guess I didn’t realize how problematic the Bucks’ 3-point defense was during the regular season. They let opponents shoot 36.3 times per game — most in the league — at a 36.1 percent clip. Now, some of that is that their interior defense can be so good that threes are the only shots you can get. But if you’re forcing opponents to take undesirable threes, the percentage should be lower than 36.

chris.herring: Exactly. That’s their entire strategy: To allow threes from the top of the key, which Lopez doesn’t venture out to, but to try and limit them from the corners, and to play a smart strategy in terms of who you’re letting take them. Mike Budenholzer’s idea is straight out of the Popovich/Spurs’ belief that you can plan to allow certain guys to get open and bait them into taking those shots.

tchow: By the way, shoutout to Ben Falk from Cleaning the Glass. Just out here creating smarter basketball fans everywhere.

chris.herring: But the Bucks go to an extreme with it, and a lot of it is rooted into having Lopez protect the rim, where he’s more comfortable. It’s amazing that Milwaukee basically lets teams take threes — in this day and age — yet still is the best defense in the league. It says a lot.

But think about it: If you decide you aren’t going to take a three, it means you’re either pulling up from midrange or going into the paint against the long arms of Giannis AND Lopez?

gfoster: Do we believe in the Gordon-Hayward-is-back narrative?

chris.herring: I don’t know. His end of the season was encouraging. I feel like the Bucks could be a tough matchup for him, though. He was simply average, or slightly below average, against the Bucks this season.

tchow: I see where that narrative is coming from though. His stats against Indiana last series aren’t that far off from his career averages. But yeah, this is a tough, tough matchup.

chris.herring: I just kind of feel like the Bucks can bring you back down to reality very quickly with the way they defend. A shot that seems like it’s there and open can vanish really quickly against a defense that moves like Milwaukee does.

gfoster: Hayward only had a 16 percent usage rate in the first round, so he’s not a huge part of the offense at the moment.

chris.herring: I think it could be a great series.

tchow: It’s kinda strange we’ve gone this long without even mentioning Kyrie.

gfoster: I feel like if you are in the middle of the regular season and draw Giannis, it’s a nightmare. But if you give Brad Stevens four to seven straight games to plan a way to limit him or his teammates, maybe things change? (Or maybe I’m just too high on Stevens’s impact.)

chris.herring: There’s been so much talk this year about Stevens and whether the media crowned him too quickly.

gfoster: <—media idiot

chris.herring: It seems like it’s been a real challenge for the Celtics to jell this season. They never really hit a true stride. And even their sweep over Indiana wasn’t the most convincing.

natesilver: In some sense, I guess Stevens is a victim of his own success, because last season raised expectations so much.

chris.herring: I’m just not sold on the Celtics. Which is saying a lot, because I picked them as my preseason NBA champs.

tchow: Bold pick, Chris.

chris.herring: It just seemed like there wasn’t a real answer for how to shake them out of their funk this year.

natesilver: I mean, I don’t quite get the notion that the Celtics were huge juggernauts.

They probably only have one top-25 player (Kyrie).

chris.herring: I get it. They were a win shy of making the NBA Finals last year without two max players. Then they added those guys back in, and you figured you’d get the maturation from the youngsters who were so impressive in the playoffs.

natesilver: Well, with a full-strength Hayward, it’s a different case, although even at his best he was also in the top-25-but-definitely-not-top-10 discussion.

chris.herring: Absolutely. But their growth hasn’t been linear at all. Terry Rozier was pretty bad this season. Horford looked at least a half-step slow at times. And as you said, Kyrie is the only star who’s truly on a lot of the time. Hayward’s recovery and rehab into the player he was before still isn’t fully complete.

natesilver: I’m just saying when you rely on grit and teamwork and so forth, sometimes those teams actually have limited upside because it implies they don’t have all that much talent.

tchow: The leap, or lack thereof, of Jayson Tatum and Brown has also challenged those high expectations.

chris.herring: Hence the “Is Brad Stevens the best coach in the league?” talk, which also seemed really premature.

gfoster: Part of that narrative is people watching him take Butler University to the NCAA title game twice.

natesilver: Yeah, this season was toward the lower end of expectations for Tatum. Some of that was probably because he was freakishly good (43.4 percent) on threes as a rookie, which really inflated his metrics. But it’s also not totally unusual for a guy who was perceived as overachieving in year one to regress a bit in year two.

gfoster: OK, let’s talk about the West. The Warriors series was supposed to be over. It’s not. Is anyone a bit worried about them (not against the Clippers)? It seems like we are waiting for the switch to be flipped.

chris.herring: Not worried, no. It may show us that when a team is giving everything it has — and is good, like the Clippers are — that’s enough to beat the Warriors. I don’t think there’s any indication that the Warriors would take a team like the Rockets for granted. And that may be all that matters once Golden State finishes this series.

tchow: I’m still not worried, but maybe I should be? It’s still tough to bet that they won’t win it all, though.

natesilver: At times during Game 5, it looked like they were ready to flip the switch and just didn’t have the energy for it. But, yeah, I’m with Tony that the question is less about whether they’ll beat the Clippers than what it says about the road ahead.

chris.herring: Their defense is the real concern

tchow: Yeah, if they advance (and our model gives them a 98 percent chance of doing so), I’m expecting them to be highly motivated against Houston. I don’t think you can say they were against LA.

chris.herring: Lou Williams has been amazing, and they just haven’t had an answer for him in late-game situations.

tchow: Lou is playing out of his mind.

chris.herring: I will say this about the Warriors: I don’t know what it is, but Steve Kerr seems like he’s reaching a breaking point.

natesilver: What do you think that means, Chris? That he knows this is the last run for the team as currently constructed? That it’s his last run?

chris.herring: I just think the annoyances have built up to a level that they’ve never reached before.

tchow: Kerr has talked so much about how tough it is to three-peat, mentally. I don’t think he was exaggerating.

chris.herring: The video I posted is a small thing. But earlier in the season, there was the video of Kerr in which many people though he had mouthed that he was sick of Draymond Green. There was the stuff with Draymond and Kevin Durant. There’s the stuff with KD potentially leaving. The gap between the Warriors and other teams has closed. We haven’t even mentioned the DeMarcus Cousins thing much, because there’s still this perception that they should win anyway. And, as Tony said, it’s really hard to three-peat, and Kerr knows that better than anyone.

natesilver: I feel like the Warriors sort of benefit from the fact that their two toughest series are in the second round and the finals and the Western Conference finals matchup might be comparatively easy. You bear down to beat Houston, and then you get another break where you can play not your best for a game or two and then still beat Portland or whatever. And then you can bear down again in the finals. That seems easier than having to play 12 or 14 really tough games in a row.

chris.herring: I think the odds of them doing it without being truly pushed by someone in a series are slim at this point. Yeah. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t even think it’s a given that they get past Houston. Will they? Probably! But Houston had them on the ropes last year.

And I’m amazed at how quickly we seem to write that off.

gfoster: It’s odd that GSW seems to be a worse team at Oracle.

natesilver: Oh, of course not. I’m not sure they’re particularly heavy favorites against Houston and didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

chris.herring: I’m guilty of it, too, at times.

natesilver: We now show Houston with almost a 40 percent chance of winning that series.

chris.herring: It’s also amazing that the Clippers have beaten them twice — at Oracle, as Geoff mentioned — and we aren’t even slightly worried that it could become a series again.

The Warriors can’t do anything to impress us anymore (not that this series would be a sign that we should be impressed). I think that expectation has to weigh pretty heavily on them at some point. But all of that said: If they come out dull in Game 6 — and particularly if they lose — the noise will reach a fever pitch. And I’d go as far as to say that Houston would be favored by a lot of people in the next series. Maybe they should be if they have that much rest.

tchow: The Warriors are like sound mixers on films. You’re never impressed or notice sound mixing when everything sounds right, but the moment something sounds off, it’s all you can focus on. I don’t know if that analogy really works, but I’m running with it.

natesilver: I was in San Francisco for the NBA Finals last year — not actually for the finals, I just happened to be there when Game 1 was being played — and the atmosphere was awfully nonchalant for it being a major pro sports championship. I went to the game, and inside the arena, it was better — although it’s a weird arena — but I don’t think it’s one of the bigger home-court advantages at this point.

chris.herring: Thank goodness we’re doing this chat from our offices/homes, because Nate’s last message would have Warriors fans coming after us with pitchforks.

tchow: Nonchalantly though. Coming after us, nonchalantly, with pitchforks.

gfoster: Imagine what it will be like when they move to actual San Francisco. My understanding is that many Oakland residents resent the Silicon Valley scene their games have become.

natesilver: It was a weird crowd. Everyone was either like a super awesome old-school die-hard fan or like a Rich Venture Capital/Tech Bro who whined about how unfair the refs were being to Golden State, without a lot in between.

chris.herring: !!!

gfoster: That sounds like 1990s Madison Square Garden. But bankers instead of Tech Bros.

chris.herring: I love Oracle and will miss the roar that you hear when Steph or Klay goes nuts. And I feel for the folks in Oakland who feel like their team is being gentrified/taken away. (I honestly empathize with that part. Seriously.) But on a lighter note, as a journalist, I won’t miss the awful Wi-Fi or being shoulder to shoulder.

gfoster: Lastly, we have a Game 7 on Saturday. Hooray! We still have Denver at 58 percent to make the conference finals. That seems high. Unlike Portland, the Nuggets still have a game to win to get into the semifinals.

tchow: Our model still down on Portland.

natesilver: Our model doesn’t really like any of the teams in this part of the bracket, so if it’s high, it’s not because it loves the Nugs so much as that it isn’t that enthralled with Portland. Or San Antonio, for that matter.

chris.herring: I don’t feel particularly great about anyone on that side of the bracket, either. But I am kind of loving this “why not us?” mentality that Damian Lillard and his team have. They really shouldn’t be here. Extreme failures in their past. A first-round sweep to an underdog last year. Injury to arguably their second-best player this year, right at the end of the season. But here they are. And Lillard has been the best player this postseason, hands down.

gfoster: After that performance, I’m officially on Team Dame in next round.

tchow: These playoffs gave us that Dame stare-down meme. Whatever happens the rest of the way, it’s already been a great postseason.

natesilver: Denver’s advantage in that series, according to our model, is all about (1) Jusuf Nurkic being out and (2) home-court advantage (the Nuggets have a big one). It’s not like they’re really a better team per se. But Portland is forced to either play a ton of Enes Kanter or some very strange lineups. And they have to win at least once at 5,280 feet. And those things aren’t easy.

gfoster: Colorado’s venues need to be moved to sea level in all sports.

chris.herring: Who knows if Denver even gets there? Jokic had the game of his life in Game 6 — one of the most sound NBA games ever — and it wasn’t enough. Although I did see that a No. 7 or No. 8 seed has never won a Game 7 before. Which is kind of a nitpicked stat, since seeds that low have won winner-take-all Game 5s before. But still.

natesilver: Yeah, I’m being presumptuous, I guess. Our model would have Portland as like 2:1 favorites or better against San Antonio, which seems like exactly the kind of series that would boil down to “Portland wins because Dame Lillard is by far the best player on the court.”

chris.herring: At this point, Portland and Golden State would be the most fun matchup we could ask for. Golden State seems to enjoy putting Denver in its place, whereas Lillard has shown that he’s not afraid and that he can dominate a series. I think round 2 is fascinating because Houston and Golden State will almost certainly meet then. But for the sake of spreading out the best series, I wish the Rockets had finished as a No. 2 seed instead. Because the East will be more than enough entertainment already, but I feel like we’re already somewhat down on the WCF.

tchow: This is just more fuel for Dame’s fire, Chris.

gfoster: All right, enjoy the second (and the rest of the first) round! We will be back next week to discuss each series.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Geoff Foster is the former sports editor of FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.