NBA·Preview

NBA East preview: Can LeBron James end Cleveland's drought?

The NBA playoffs begin Saturday, with the Raptors kicking things off against the Pacers at 12:30 p.m. in Toronto. We preview the Eastern Conference matchups.

The Cavs, Raptors and 14 other teams will begin chase for championship on Saturday

Cleveland teams haven't won a professional sports championship in 51 years and LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will attempt again to end the drought. Last year the Cavaliers fell to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. (David Liam Kyle/Getty Images)

With the NBA playoffs set to begin Saturday, we preview the Eastern Conference matchups.

No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Detroit Pistons

Season series: Pistons, 3-1. That's right, Detroit won the series. The teams split two games in Auburn Hills, and the Pistons were winners in both of their trips to Cleveland — though the last one was on the final day of the regular season and neither team was using anything remotely similar to what will be their playoff lineup. All four games were close, average score Pistons 105, Cavaliers 103.

Story line: Is this the year? LeBron James carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals last season, even while losing Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving along the way, and wound up falling to Golden State in another ultimately futile attempt to end Cleveland's half-century title drought. There's so much at stake for Cleveland in this post-season, especially since the team could take on a very different look next year if this post-season run isn't a success. Detroit has zero pressure, especially because it has been seven years since its last post-season appearance.

Key Matchup: Irving versus Reggie Jackson. Point guard play will set the tone in this series, even with James still being a dominant force. Irving will be tested by Jackson's speed; Jackson will be tested by Irving's explosiveness, and neither can even think about getting into foul trouble without his team potentially looking at some serious consequences.

X-Factor: The coaching matchup. Tyronn Lue's post-season debut comes against Stan Van Gundy, who has now taken a third franchise to the playoffs and is 5-2 in first-round series. And some of the Van Gundy-James chess matches in the past have been delightful to watch.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 5.

No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Indiana Pacers

CBC Sports has a complete Raptors–Pacers preview here.

Season series: Raptors, 3-1. Toronto got 24.3 points per game from DeMar DeRozan and 23.7 from Kyle Lowry in extending its success against Indiana to seven wins in the last eight games, including five straight at home. The Pacers won 106-90 on Dec. 14 at home when Toronto was on the second night of a back-to-back. "They spanked us really good at their place," Raptors coach Dwane Casey recalled.

Story line: It's time to get working on post-season failures. Toronto has been ousted in the first round as the higher seed in consecutive seasons, getting swept by Washington last year.

Key Matchup: Lowry versus Monta Ellis. Lowry was banged up and appeared on fumes by the time the playoffs arrived last year, and his struggles in being outplayed by John Wall doomed the Raptors to their quick exit. He got some rest down the stretch — he and DeRozan sat out the Raptors' victory over the Pacers on April 8 — and is ready to go. Ellis averaged 13.8 points in 81 games and Casey called him a "human scoring machine."

X-Factor: Norman Powell. The second-round pick capped a surprisingly strong April with a career-best 30 points in the Raptors' season-ending victory in Brooklyn. But he's made just 24 starts and now may find himself matched up against seasoned playoff veterans such as Paul George and George Hill.

Prediction: Raptors in 5.

No. 3 Miami Heat vs. No. 6 Charlotte Hornet

Season series: Split, 2-2. Both teams went 1-1 on the others' home floor, with the Heat winning in Miami to start the season on Oct. 28 and at Charlotte on Feb. 5. The Hornets blew out Miami at home in December by 18 — the lead was as much as 30 — and won on the Heat floor on March 17, overcoming a 15-point deficit.

Story line: The four teams in the middle of the East bracket — Miami, No. 4 Atlanta, No. 5 Boston and Charlotte — finished with identical 48-34 records, so how perfect is it that they're going against each other in the opening round of the playoffs? For the Heat, it's a redemption year after missing the playoffs a year ago and for the Hornets, it's a chance for a long-awaited post-season breakthrough.

Key matchup: Goran Dragic versus Kemba Walker. Dragic has surged since the All-Star break, averaging 17.3 points and 6.7 assists (as opposed to 12.2 points and 5.3 assists before the break, when the Heat were playing at a dramatically slower pace and had Chris Bosh in the lineup). Charlotte has touted Walker as a most improved player candidate, and it's easy to see why after he finished with career bests in scoring (20.9) and three-point shooting (37 per cent).

X-Factor: Dwyane Wade. Miami's franchise player is a three-time champion, and when games get tight in this series — both sides expect them to be that way — it's going to be on Wade to either get it done on the floor or be that proverbial coach on the floor, a role where he's flourished at times this season. With Bosh not expected to be back after being sidelined over All-Star weekend by a blood clot, Wade's role is even more important.

Prediction: Heat in 6.

No. 4 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 5 Boston Celtics

Season series: Hawks, 3-1. Atlanta won twice at home, by 24 on Nov. 24 and 11 on April 9, and once in Boston, 109-101 on Dec. 18. The Celtics got their lone win in the series at home on Nov. 13, 106-93.

Story line: This series should be as closely contested as the matching records indicate. Two hard-nosed defensive teams that feature under-the-radar stars in Atlanta's Paul Millsap and Al Horford and Boston's Isaiah Thomas and up-and-comer Jae Crowder. Bring your brass knuckles.

Key matchup: Mike Budenholzer versus Brad Stevens. Two highly respected coaches matching wits in a series that could go the distance. Adjustments from game to game will be crucial to try and find ways to score against each team's defence.

X-Factor: Jeff Teague. The Hawks point guard was an All-Star last year, but got off to a slow start and was involved in trade rumours around the deadline in February. He's picked up his game down the stretch and the Hawks have responded around him.

Prediction: Hawks in 7.

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