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NBA playoff preview: LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers must shut up the doubters once again

There is a team whose stars posted career-best numbers while it developed an elite bench.

It ranks in the NBA’s top 10 for offense and defense. It adapted its offense seamlessly and won a franchise-record, Eastern Conference-leading 59 games.

And this team, the Toronto Raptors, still is not the East’s outright playoff favorite.

While Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia all emerged as challengers in the East, TNT and Turner Sports analyst Kevin McHale said he’d still take Cleveland, the defending conference champion, over “any one of those teams.”

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“Philly vs. Cleveland, I’d pick Cleveland,” McHale said. “If you said Boston vs. Cleveland, I’d pick Cleveland. If you said Toronto vs. Cleveland, I’d pick Cleveland. I’m not saying Cleveland will win. I just pick those guys because they have LeBron [James].”

McHale values the regular season as a playoff indicator and compliments how defensively inclined Raptors coach Dwane Casey transformed his offense to improve after being swept by Cleveland in last year’s conference semifinals.

McHale also will not deny the talent and will of James as he seeks an eighth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. James, in his 15th season, set or tied career highs for assists (9.1) and rebounds (8.6) while averaging 27.5 points. Revamping the roster and restoring roles helped star forward Kevin Love.

But the Cavaliers were laden with dysfunction and absent of defense, which rated them 29th in that category before coach Tyronn Lue said it will be “totally different” in the postseason.

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“It always scares me to say ‘I haven’t done it for 82 games but now I am going to do it’,” McHale said. “I have yet to see that honestly in all my years. It’s like saying we walked it up all year long for 82 games and, in the playoffs, now we’re going to run. That just doesn’t work.”

James’ presence gives Cleveland a benefit of the doubt despite looking vulnerable and finishing fourth in the East. Also, the opposition has obstacles to overcome: the past playoff dips of Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Boston losing Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to season-ending injuries, and Philadelphia’s youth and inexperience.

“They (the Cavaliers) are starting to play with a more democratic system,” said Kobe Bryant, whose “Detail” show launched Thursday on ESPN’s new streaming service. “See LeBron at the elbow at the top of the key being the Draymond Green of the Cavs, while the other players, whether it’s Jordan Clarkson or Kevin Love, are running corner split games, playing a rip action, doing stuff on the weak side where they’re moving off the ball. That makes them infinitely more dangerous.”

Boston largely earned the No. 2 seed because of Irving before knee surgery sidelined him for the playoffs. The Celtics must rely on a league-leading defense and get scoring from youngsters like rookie Jayson Tatum.

“By and large, I love what I’m seeing from him, especially on the defensive end,” Bryant said of Tatum. “Most young players coming [into the NBA] nowadays just want to do the cute stuff. He seems to be the kind of player that doesn’t mind getting dirty and being physical and playing hard at both ends.”

Philadelphia also has to lean on a rookie, but Ben Simmons is a playmaking star who almost averaged a triple-double as the 76ers won their last 16 games.

“He’s old-school in that he can control the game and never take a three ,” McHale said. “He’ll probably never take a shot outside eight feet and still put an unbelievable fingerprint on that game.”

Here is a series-by-series look at each Eastern Conference matchup:

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(1) TORONTO VS. (8) WASHINGTON

Records: Toronto 59-23 (Home 34-7; Road 25-16); Washington 43-39 (Home 23-18; Road 20-21)

Season series: Tied, 2-2.

Key stats: The Raptors rank fifth in the NBA in bench points (41.8) after finishing 26th the previous two seasons; sixth man C.J. Miles (10 ppg) has a lot to do with that. Wizards forward Otto Porter has a better plus/minus rating (plus-5.2 per 100 possessions) than John Wall or Bradley Beal.

Outlook: Among playoff teams, only Golden State’s backcourt has started together as long as Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and Washington’s John Wall and Bradley Beal. This is proving ground for Lowry and DeRozan after fading in past postseasons, including Toronto’s 10-game losing streak in series openers. Toronto maintains leads without them better because its revamped offense increased three-pointers and decreased isolation play. The Raptors boast a top-10 offense and defense with the East’s most blocked shots. Washington lost 14 of its final 21 games but went 2-2 in games with Wall, who came back from injury and shook off two months of rust to average 28.5 points and 13.0 assists in the final two games. The Wizards are talented and experienced enough to win a first-round series for the fourth time in five years.

Prediction: Raptors in five.

Game 1: Saturday at Toronto, 2:30 p.m., ESPN

Game 2: Tuesday at Toronto, 4 p.m., NBA TV

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Game 3: Friday at Washington, 5 p.m., ESPN2

Game 4: April 22 at Washington, 3 p.m., TNT

Game 5: April 25 at Toronto, TBD*

Game 6: April 27 at Washington, TBD*

Game 7: April 29 at Toronto, TBD*

*if necessary; Times PDT

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(2) BOSTON VS. (7) MILWAUKEE

Records: Boston 55-27 (Home 27-14; Road 28-13); Milwaukee 44-38 (Home 25-16; Road 19-22)

Season series: Tied, 2-2.

Key stats: The Celtics led the NBA in defensive rating, giving up 101.5 points per 100 possessions. The Bucks ranked last for rebounds per game (39.8) but third in forcing turnovers (14.7).

Outlook: Each team adjusted on the fly but the Celtics handled more adversity with losing Gordon Hayward early and Kyrie Irving late. Boston leans on defense but also ranks second in three-point shooting (37.7%) with rookie Jayson Tatum (43.4%) and veteran forward Al Horford (42.9%) finishing in the NBA’s top 10. Boston’s offense relies on youth but Tatum, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown closed the season strongly. This is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s third try at advancing Milwaukee in the postseason for the first time since 2001. He averaged 26.9 points this season to tie for fourth in the NBA. The Bucks fired coach Jason Kidd, traded for guard Eric Bledsoe and welcomed back forward Jabari Parker, and still clicked for the NBA’s third-best offensive rating over the last month. Khris Middleton had a career-best season for points (20.1) and rebounds (5.2).

Prediction: Celtics in six.

Game 1: Sunday at Boston, 10 a.m., TNT

Game 2: Tuesday at Boston, 5 p.m., TNT

Game 3: Friday at Milwaukee, 6:30 p.m., ESPN

Game 4: April 22 at Milwaukee, 10 a.m., Ch. 7

Game 5: April 24 at Boston, TBD*

Game 6: April 26 at Milwaukee, TBD*

Game 7: April 28 at Boston, TBD*, TNT

*if necessary; Times PDT

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(3) PHILADELPHIA VS. (6) MIAMI

Records: Philadelphia 52-30 (Home 30-11; Road 22-19); Miami 44-38 (Home 26-15; Road 18-23)

Season series: Tied, 2-2.

Key stats: The 76ers’ 16-game winning streak is the longest in NBA history entering the playoffs. Miami played nine overtime games and won six one-point games this season.

Outlook: 76ers center Joel Embiid (orbital fracture) might not be available early in the series and continue his ongoing feud with Heat center Hassan Whiteside, but Philadelphia won its last eight games without him. Embiid is essential to a deep run as a reliable post-up scorer and the anchor to a defense that held opponents to an NBA-low 43.4% shooting. Rookie Ben Simmons averaged 14.0 points, 10.4 assists and 9.8 rebounds with 59% shooting during the 16-game winning streak. Philadelphia’s starting five outscored opponents by 21.4 points per 100 minutes. Miami counters with the balance of an NBA-high nine double-digit scorers, grit and the tactical nuances of Erik Spoelstra, going against Brett Brown in his head coaching playoff debut.

Prediction: Sixers in seven.

Game 1: Saturday at Philadelphia, 5 p.m., ESPN

Game 2: Monday at Philadelphia, 5 p.m., TNT

Game 3: Thursday at Miami, 4 p.m., TNT

Game 4: April 21 at Miami, 11:30 a.m., TNT

Game 5: April 24 at Philadelphia, TBD*

Game 6: April 26 at Miami, TBD*

Game 7: April 28 at Philadelphia, TBD, TNT*

*if necessary; Times PDT

::

(4) CLEVELAND VS. (5) INDIANA

Records: Cleveland 50-32 (Home 29-12; Road 21-20); Indiana 48-34 (Home 27-14; Road 21-20)

Season series: Pacers, 3-1.

Key stats: The Cavaliers went 39-0 when leading after three quarters. Since Jan. 6, Indiana has led the NBA in forcing turnovers and held teams to the fourth-fewest points.

Outlook: It is a rematch from last year, when Cleveland won in a sweep decided by a total of 16 points. The casts are much different with LeBron James carrying a retooled roster. The playoffs are new to Cavaliers like Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson, but veterans Kevin Love, Jeff Green and J.R. Smith have played well lately. Only Phoenix ranked behind Cleveland in defensive rating this season. A fourth consecutive NBA Finals trip might decide James’ future. The Cavaliers’ first step toward that involves handling Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, who averaged career highs in points (23.1), rebounds (5.2), assists (4.3) and steals (2.4, the NBA leader). Darren Collison was another Pacers find. He led the NBA in three-point accuracy (46.8%) and assist-to-turnover ratio (4.28 to 1).

Prediction: Cavaliers in five.

Game 1: Sunday at Cleveland, 12:30 p.m., Ch. 7

Game 2: Wednesday at Cleveland, 4 p.m., TNT

Game 3: Friday at Indiana, 4 p.m., ESPN

Game 4: April 22 at Indiana, 5:30 p.m., TNT

Game 5: April 25 at Cleveland, TBD*

Game 6: April 27 at Indiana, TBD*

Game 7: April 29 at Cleveland, TBD*

*if necessary; Times PDT


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