After an incredible regular season that ended with a historic victory and a memorable departure, the 2016 NBA Playoffs started this weekend. Can anyone in the Eastern Conference keep LeBron James from another NBA Finals?


Los Angeles Lakers v Cleveland Cavaliers
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The Team To Beat: Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James has made it to five consecutive NBA Finals by being the best all-around basketball player on Earth during most of that time. While Steph Curry may have claimed that title with his otherworldly play over the past year or so, James has more help than he did last year — when he and the Cavs lost to the Warriors in six games. They didn’t catch any break drawing Andre Drummond (16.2 ppg, 14.8 rpg) and the Stan Van Gundy-led Pistons in the first round, with the Hawks-Celtics winner looming in the second round.

Still, LeBron with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love should all but guarantee that Cleveland gets through the Eastern Conference again. Toronto? The Finals? They’ll worry about them later.

The Dark Horse Pick: Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta doesn’t intimidate anyone, but they make everyone uncomfortable. The incredibly balanced Hawks were second in the NBA behind the Warriors with 25.6 assists per game; anyone in their underrated starting lineup can score and defend, too. Paul Millsap and Al Horford anchor a dangerous frontcourt that can grind teams down — and kick out passes to the three-point arc. This team made an Eastern Conference Finals run last year, and could easily do it again.

Most Likely To Disappoint: Toronto Raptors
While the Raptors seem like a competent challenger to the Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference crown, Toronto also has a history of playoff disappointments. They have won just one postseason series in their history: a 2001 first round-victory over the Knicks. The backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan should be enough to get the Raptors into the second round this year, but they will have to beat the veteran Pacers to do so. The frontcourt of Luis Scola and Jonas Valanciunas will need to over-perform for this team to get deep into the postseason.

Players To Watch: Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers; Paul George, Indiana Pacers; Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat; Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

Cleveland forward Kevin Love (16.0 ppg, 9.9 rpg) gets an opportunity to prove how much the Cavs missed him in last year’s playoff run. If he can help shoulder (sorry) the scoring load, it will make his team more dangerous to defend… Indiana’s Paul George (23.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg) returned from a horrific leg fracture to reclaim his place among the NBA’s elite. He can take over any series… Miami’s Hassan Whiteside (14.2 ppg, 11.9 rpg) has become one of the NBA’s budding low-post stars. He should be able to lead the Heat past the young and hungry Hornets, especially against a front court of Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller…Boston’s Isaiah Thomas (22.2 ppg, 6.2 apg) averaged nearly 26 points per game in March. He’ll need to be every bit that good if the Celtics are to knock off the Hawks and advance.

NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Schedule & TV Times:

Indiana Pacers v Toronto Raptors - Game One
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(1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (8) Detroit Pistons

Sun, April 17: Cleveland 106, Detroit 101
Wed, April 20: Cleveland 107, Detroit 90
Fri, April 22: Cleveland 101, Detroit 91
Sun, April 24: Cleveland 100, Detroit 98

(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Indiana Pacers

Sat, April 16: Indiana 100, Toronto 90
Mon, April 18: Toronto 98, Indiana 87
Thu, April 21: Toronto 101, Indiana 85
Sat, April 23: Indiana 100, Toronto 83
Tue, April 26: Toronto 102, Indiana 99
Fri, April 29: Indiana 101, Toronto 83
Sun, May 1: Toronto 89, Indiana 84
Toronto wins, 4-3

(3) Miami Heat vs. (6) Charlotte Hornets

Sun, April 17: Miami 123, Charlotte 91
Wed, April 20: Miami 115, Charlotte 103
Sat, April 23: Charlotte 96, Miami 80
Mon, April 25: Charlotte 89, Miami 85
Wed, April 27: Charlotte 90, Miami, 88
Fri, April 29: Miami 97, Charlotte 90
Sun, May 1: Miami 106, Charlotte 73

(4) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Boston Celtics

Sat, April 16: Atlanta 102, Boston 101
Tue, April 19: Atlanta 89, Boston 72
Fri, April 22: Boston 111, Atlanta 103
Sun, April 24: Boston 104, Atlanta 95 (OT)
Tue, April 26: Atlanta 110, Boston 83
Thu, April 28: Atlanta 104, Boston 92

All series best-of-seven
* if necessary

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