Niall Gray previews the first round of the NBA play-offs, beginning with the Eastern Conference.


(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (8) Brooklyn Nets

If there’s one series that will fly under the radar in the first round, it’s this one. Despite compiling the best regular season record in franchise history (60-22) and securing the 1st seed, it seems no-one outside of Atlanta cares.

Such is the lack of interest, that when the TV schedules were announced, major US networks ABC and ESPN didn’t even select a game – the only play-off series they have not picked one from.

Another reason for this apparent lack of interest is down to the team Atlanta will face – Brooklyn Nets and if it wasn’t for the fact the East is so weak, you’d wonder how on earth the Nets made it at all.

Brook Lopez should make this series vaguely interesting for Nets fans and that’s just about it.

With Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Al Horford on form, the Hawks should win this series easily and if they’re not, there’s always the chance that Kyle Korver will get hot from long-range.

If this series goes over five games, it will be a shock.

(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Boston Celtics

This match-up is a contest between a team that has to win it all against one who would be happy to win a game or two.

Ever since Lebron James decided to return home, the message has been clear; win a Championship. It was bad enough the Cavs had to watch as Lebron won two rings in Miami, but it will be even worse if he can’t deliver one for the success-starved city of Cleveland.

The Cavs had decent teams before Lebron took his talents to South Beach and they have assembled yet another talented roster that includes the likes of Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and a strong supporting cast.

On paper, the Cavs are a team built to reach the finals and the only thing they have going against them is the fact that Love, Irving and a few others, they have zero play-off experience up to now.

The Celtics proved everyone wrong this season and instead of heading to the lottery, managed to improve as the season went on, recording winning records for each month from February onwards.

Trading away Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green has not hindered progress and the acquisition of Isaiah Thomas, along with Marcus Smart enjoying a solid rookie season, has made the Celtics fun to watch again. Celtics coach Brad Stevens has been a key part too.

The Cavs are expected to sweep the Celtics but don’t be surprised if the boys from Beantown win a game or two.

(3) Chicago Bulls vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks

The only team who could prevent Cleveland or Atlanta winning the east are the Chicago Bulls, but it all depends on how healthy they can remain.

Reason being that when the Bulls are fully fit, they can be a tough team to beat.

A healthy Derrick Rose will cause problems for anyone, and then you have Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and the experienced Pau Gasol to deal with as well. It’ll also be interesting to see what Nikola Mirotic does in the play-offs after a decent season in the Windy City.

The Bulls also have a great coach in Tom Thibodeau who will be more than a match for opposite number Jason Kidd. However, Kidd has done well to get the Bucks to the sixth seed, especially considering the Bucks lost 67 games only a year ago.

It’s also worth mentioning the Bucks have done this without their 2014 lottery pick, Jabari Parker, who won’t be back from injury until next season.

The addition of Michael Carter-Williams has been a good one and he, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ersan Ilyasova, will make it an interesting series.

Barring a major injury to one of the Bulls, it’s unlikely there will be an upset in this series, although there’s a possibility the Bucks could squeeze six games out of it.

(4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Washington Wizards

This one has the potential to be a long series, which could make it the only one in the East!

Both are decent teams, but not great ones and whoever wins this series is not likely to trouble Atlanta too much in the next round.

So for Toronto and Washington, this is their one chance to really shine and both teams could do with a series win.

The Raptors are still haunted by last year’s dramatic game seven defeat to Brooklyn, and they have a chance to not only exorcise that demon but get their revenge on Paul Pierce, who is now with the Wizards.

Even though Pierce is at the tail-end of his career it would be a mistake to think that he will not have an impact on this series at some point.

However, the battle to watch will be in the backcourt as Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Lou Williams take on Washington’s Bradley Beal and John Wall.

Sixth man of the year candidate Williams might just prove to be the x-factor in getting Toronto through this series as he has proved to be a great acquisition.

If this goes seven games, no-one will be disappointed.

West preview

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