The playoffs are finally here! Yes, we must start the festivities with a play-in tournament featuring the worst teams each conference has to offer, but each and every one of these contests have a certain level of intrigue.
Can the Boston Celtics rebound after an underwhelming season to make their way into the playoffs? Will Washington maintain this white-hot stretch of basketball that brought them the eighth seed? Charlotte was an exciting young team in the first half but fell on hard times that coincided with injury in the second half. LaMelo Ball will get his opportunity on national television to show the world what the Hornets can be when they play their best basketball. The Pacers are also playing! (Sorry Wes Reynolds, your Pacers are kind of boring)
I am beyond excited and I know you are too, so let’s get started with our preview of the first round of Eastern Conference Play-In games.
Updated odds for every game can be found here.
Updated injury reports for every game can be found here.
Charlotte Hornets at Indiana Pacers (-3.5, 229)
The honor of ‘Most Boring Play-In Game’ goes to this one, but playoff basketball is playoff basketball. This game has the potential to be fun, but the injury report will be key tonight. Domantas Sabonis is considered questionable to play for Indiana with a quad injury, and Aaron Holiday could miss the game due to an issue with his big toe. Malcolm Brogdon is already considered to be a game-time decision for the Pacers, so the health of both Sabonis and Holiday is essential if this team wants to advance to the second round of the play-in tournament.
Those three being available is essential for this version of Indiana, which has been playing lackluster defense since losing Myles Turner to injury. In those 22 games, the Pacers are 23rd in non-garbage time defensive efficiency, allowing 115.3 points per 100 possessions. They have been killed in transition, allowing 1.305 points per play and opponents are adding 3.2 points per 100 possession to their offensive rating through transition opportunities against Indiana. The Pacers have just been winning shootouts lately, which is illustrated by the 15-7 run to the over in the contests without Turner. Thus, having your best offensive weapons like Sabonis, Brogdon and Holiday available is massive, to say the least. Especially when you consider Charlotte’s ability to exploit some of the weaknesses of Indiana, namely through transition. The Hornets rank sixth in frequency of possessions beginning with a transition play, and 14th in offensive efficiency (125.9) in transition. That could be a bad sign for the Pacers, but the Hornets’ offense has not exactly been firing on all cylinders lately.
Over the last 34 games Charlotte has the 25th-best offense in the league, averaging only 109.1 points per 100 possessions. This dip in offensive production has coincided with the team’s efficiency from beyond the arc plummeting. The Hornets are a team that take a lot of 3-point attempts. On the season, they ranked eighth in frequency of 3-point attempts, taking 39.2% of their shots from beyond the arc, and they finished 11th in accuracy (37.6%). However, over these 34 games the frequency has maintained itself (40.5%), but the shooting has not (35.7%). If the perimeter shots are not falling for this team then the offense is a nightmare. In the regular season Charlotte took the ninth-most shots at the rim, but they finished 27th in rim shooting (60.4%) and only made 17.7 free throws per 100 field goal attempts, the 25th-ranked free throw rate. Sure, a hot shooting night could carry them to victory but it hard to handicap if that is going to happen a night-to-night basis.
This lack of offensive production for the Hornets has also put pressure on a defense that is just no good. Charlotte finished the regular season 20th in defensive efficiency at 113.4 points allowed every 100 possessions. This brings us full circle to the beginning off this piece, and the importance of Indiana’s key players. The Pacers have still outscored the opposition by 0.5 points per 100 possessions during their defensive slide due to an offense that has a 1155.5 rating since Turner’s injury. This is an offense that can find success against Charlotte, but it needs to be healthy to do so.
Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics (-3, 235.5)
Everyone seems to want a piece of the Washington Wizards, and why not? Washington ended the season with a 17-7 SU/18-4-2 ATS record over the final 24 games, and they outscored the opposition by 5.5 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, Boston limps into the play-in tournament with a 4-9 SU and ATS record over its final 13 games, and has been outscored by 2.2 points per 100 possessions. However, the market got overzealous pushing Boston down to a one point favorite on Monday! There is a point where Boston is the value play and if the market continues to move in Washington’s direction we will get to that point.
The Celtics will not have Jaylen Brown on the floor, but not all is lost without him. In the minutes without Brown on the floor this team has a + 0.8 net rating, and when Jayson Tatum is on the floor without him the Celtics outscore their opponents by 3.7 points per 100 possessions. In fact, Boston has quietly put together a really great lineup without Brown on the floor. Their new core four of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Evan Fournier and Tatum have a + 18.1 net rating and average 1.218 points per possession. The sample size is small, but that is a group that has shooting at four positions with the ability to attack off the bounce from multiple spots. When those four share the floor they take 44.4% of their shots from deep and 34.4% at the rim. They shoot 38.6% and 71.7% in those areas of the floor respectively. Brown is massive piece for this team, but in a winner take all situation this team is certainly capable.
How healthy is Bradley Beal as well? Beal has been vocal about the hamstring injury he is dealing with, and in the regular season finale he was limited to 4-of17 shooting from the floor through the first three quarters, clearly uncomfortable on a bad wheel. If Beal is not fully healthy what can we expect from the Wizards? We know that in the non-Beal minutes Washington is outscored by 4.0 points every 100 possessions. It likely will not be that bad, but the Wizards trailed the Hornets 90-79 going into the fourth quarter on Sunday for a reason. Boston is still a better team than Charlotte at this point, and will likely make the Wizards pay if Beal is inefficient from the floor.