“Crucial Weaknesses: What Each Eastern Conference Playoff Team Must Overcome to Succeed”
The NBA’s Western Conference may be more wide open than the Eastern Conference, but that does not mean the latter is without its contenders and potential spoilers. However, each postseason team in the East has a specific vulnerability that can spell doom for their playoff success. These weaknesses are like the thermal exhaust port of the Death Star: if an opponent hits it just right, the team could be blown out of the playoffs. And while some of these flaws may not be fully exploited until later rounds, they are still areas that teams must address to avoid an early exit.
#1 seed Milwaukee Bucks: Weak efficiency in half-cout sets
While Khris Middleton’s absence during the regular season may have skewed the numbers, the Bucks’ half-court offense was a major issue in last year’s playoffs as well. Their PPP dropped to 0.865 in the postseason, compared to 1.000 in the regular season. Although the Bucks are formidable in transition, if an opponent can slow them down, they are vulnerable. Given that they have the best record in the NBA, stopping them is easier said than done.
However, as the playoffs progress, the Bucks’ half-court offense must improve its efficiency if they hope to avoid history repeating itself. If not, they could be in danger of an early exit. While the Bucks are a formidable team, they are not invincible, and opponents will be looking for any weakness to exploit.
#2 Seed Boston Celtics- Too dependent on 3-pointers
The Celtics have fully embraced the “live by the three, die by the three” philosophy, but this approach poses a significant challenge for their offense.
Boston has attempted the second-highest number of three-point shots in the league, which is a hallmark of the NBA’s high-risk, high-reward style of play. In their victories, the team has managed to convert an impressive 40.3 percent of their long-range shots. However, in their losses, their success rate plummets to a dismal 31.6 percent.
The team’s overreliance on three-point shooting has also impacted their two-point field goal attempts, which are among the lowest in the league, ranking 29th. Even more concerning is the fact that the Celtics do not take many shots at the rim, ranking 25th in attempts according to Cleaning the Glass.
This makes Boston an easier team to defend, particularly if multiple players struggle to find their range from beyond the arc. If the Celtics want to make a deep run in the playoffs, they will need to find a way to diversify their offense and not rely solely on the three-ball.
#3 Seed Philadelphia 76ers- Lack of depth behind Embiid at C
The Philadelphia 76ers seem to have all the pieces required to make it to the Finals, with one major exception: a backup big man.
This has been a persistent problem for Philadelphia, dating back to the heartbreaking end to Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals. During that series, the team had a net rating of plus-18.6 with Joel Embiid on the floor but an astonishing minus-52.5 without him. This discrepancy was a major factor in their series loss.
The same issue arose against the Hawks in the 2020-21 semifinals, with a massive 25.5 net rating swing when Embiid was off the court. Last season, with Embiid injured, the Sixers had to rely on DeAndre Jordan and Paul Reed in the playoffs, which led to their eventual elimination by the Miami Heat.
This year, Philadelphia will once again rely on Reed or P.J. Tucker to serve as backup centers. However, according to Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers have a negative net rating when Reed (-3.8) or Tucker (-6.0) are playing at center.
Those few minutes that Embiid sits out during playoffs games could potentially prevent the Sixers from finally advancing beyond the second round.
#4 Seed Cleveland Cavaliers- Poor shooting from role players
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ success in the playoffs will largely depend on the shooting of their fifth player on the court, who is usually one of Isaac Okoro, Cedi Osman, Dean Wade, and Lamar Stevens. Defenses will try to contain the Cavaliers’ star players like Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen and force the lesser-known players to take shots from beyond the arc. The Cavs need at least two of these players to get hot from deep to keep the defenses honest. Okoro and Osman have shown great improvement in their three-point shooting since the All-Star break, but the team will need the others to step up as well. Stevens and Wade have struggled from three-point range this season, shooting below 35% and 27%, respectively. If the Cavaliers’ role players can hit enough threes in the playoffs, it will help open up the floor for their star players and increase their chances of success.
#5 Seed New York Knicks- Shot selection and creation
The New York Knicks have secured a playoff spot, but their lack of easy scoring opportunities is a concern.
Their offensive strategy relies heavily on isolation plays, and they are not effective in fast-break situations, ranking 22nd in fast-break points. In the playoffs, where transition scoring opportunities are scarce, the Knicks need to capitalize on the few chances they get to take the pressure off their half-court offense.
Although they are ranked 16th in frequency of transition plays, the Knicks need to increase this number to keep their offense from getting stagnant. Isolation-heavy offenses are easier to defend against, making it critical to score on the break. However, the Knicks’ inability to force turnovers, ranked 25th in opponent turnovers per game, is hindering their ability to generate transition opportunities.
To advance in the playoffs, the Knicks must figure out a way to create more easy scoring chances consistently.
#6 Seed Brooklyn Nets- The Boards
The Brooklyn Nets have undergone a transformation at the trade deadline, becoming a longer team, but they continue to struggle with rebounding. Their rebounding percentages rank 26th in the league, while they’re only 24th in rebounds per game since the deadline. Nic Claxton has been their most reliable rebounder all season, averaging 9.2 rebounds, but there’s a significant drop-off after him. The next highest rebounders are Royce O’Neale and Day’Ron Sharp, who are averaging 5.5 and 5.2 rebounds, respectively, since the deadline. The Nets need everyone to contribute, including Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, and Dorian Finney-Smith, to improve their rebounding and compete at a higher level if they want to any chance of taking down the 76ers
#7 Seed Miami Heat- Not enough scoring/slow paced offense
Scoring is the fundamental element of basketball and the Miami Heat have had a hard time with it all season long. They are currently ranked last in the league for scoring, with an average of 109.3 points per game, 4.9 points below the league average.
Despite a slight improvement since the All-Star break with 111.9 points per game, they still rank 26th in the league and dead last in field goals made per game.
The majority of Miami’s scoring is concentrated among three players – Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, and Bam Adebayo. These are the only Heat players to average double digits since the All-Star break. After them, the drop in points is significant, with Victor Oladipo and Max Strus being the next highest scorers at 9.9 and 8.9 points, respectively.
During the playoffs, the Heat could face scenarios where one or more of their big three struggles to score. In such a situation, there would be little hope for Miami to keep up with their opponent’s pace.
#8 Seed Atlanta Hawks- Shooting the 3
Despite having Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanović, and Dejounte Murray on their roster, the Atlanta Hawks are ranked low in three-point attempts, coming in at 28th place. This could be a hindrance for them come playoff time. While Young took eight threes per game last season, he only attempted 6.3 this year, shooting 33.5 percent. Although defenses still respect his threat, this season was atypical of Young’s style.
Notably, it’s not as if everyone on the Hawks has struggled with three-point shooting. For instance, Bogdanović made 40.6 percent of his three-point attempts, while Saddiq Bey, whom they acquired during the trade deadline, had a 40 percent success rate, and AJ Griffin shot 39 percent from deep.
Despite being a high-scoring team, the Hawks’ defense also concedes a lot of points. Therefore, increasing their volume from three-point range could put more pressure on their opponents, especially if Young can get his rhythm goi
#9 Seed Toronto Raptors- Getting to the Charity Stripe
At the start of the season, the Raptors lacked a traditional center, but the addition of Jakob Poeltl resolved that issue. However, the team now faces a major problem with its lack of free-throw attempts. Since the All-Star break, the Raptors have been shooting the fewest free throws per game compared to all other teams. This struggle is due to their shot profile, as Toronto relies heavily on mid-range jump shots rather than attacking the rim. In fact, they attempt the fourth-most mid-range shots but are below average (18th) in shots at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Their over-reliance on mid-range shots makes it challenging to draw fouls and get to the free-throw line. To increase their chances, the Raptors need to focus on more attempts at the rim. While Pascal Siakam is the best at drawing shooting fouls, he has had very few and-ones. Fred VanVleet and O.G. Anunoby are both in the 50-55th percentile in terms of drawing fouls.
For the Raptors to advance past the play-in, they must find a way to increase their free-throw attempts.
#10 Seed Chicago Bulls: Attacking and driving to the basket
Despite having a mid-range king in DeMar DeRozan and an amazing scorer in Zach LaVine, the Bulls struggle with dribble penetration, ranking among the teams with the fewest drives per game this season. While other teams with similar rankings, such as the Nuggets, Warriors, Suns, and Bucks, compensate with better three-point shooting, the Bulls settle for mid-range jumpers that defenses easily concede. This limits their ability to create drive-and-kick opportunities and move the defense. Unless the Bulls improve their outside shooting and dribble penetration, it is unlikely they will make a deep postseason run.
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