After the Raptors eliminated the Magic and the 76ers ousted the Nets on Tuesday night, the Eastern Conference semifinals were officially set. It's No. 1 Milwaukee vs. No. 4 Boston, and No. 2 Toronto vs. No. 3 Philadelphia. A trip to the conference finals and a potential Finals run is at stake. But there's a lot more than that on the line.
Unless you've been under a rock, you know that Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler are all free agents this summer, and where they end up will once again shake up the ever-shifting NBA landscape. One would think how these series, and the remainder of these playoffs, play out will impact those respective decisions.
Kyrie got way ahead of himself and said way back in October, before the season had even started, that he intended to re-sign with Boston this summer. But it wasn't long before Boston's season started going a little crooked, and a frustrated Kyrie, come February, walked back that commitment by saying of his looming free agency: "I don't owe anybody s--t." Then he elaborated:
"I still have confidence in Boston and what they can promise for the future and what they have in terms of our pieces. That's what excited me a lot about the beginning of the season, was the opportunity to come into this season and doing what we planned on doing. Set a goal and go after it and then see what happens at the end of the season.
"That was the plan before and that's still the plan now. Obviously Boston's still at the head of that race. So that's just where it stands."
You don't have to read very deep between the lines to deduce how much these playoffs are going to impact Kyrie's decision. That goal the Celtics, and Kyrie, set at the beginning of the season was certainly not a second-round exit. Not to think pessimistically, but this Milwaukee team is a monster. If the Bucks, just for the sake or argument, roll through the Celtics in five or six, and Kyrie starts to get frustrated again, that isn't the taste the Celtics want to leave in Kyrie's mouth as he embarks upon on a summer of rich options.
On the other hand, what if the Celtics continue this momentum they created in sweeping Indiana and upset the top-seeded Bucks? One of the most noteworthy things from the first round of these playoffs was the noticeable uptick in Kyrie's, shall we say, mood. He looked and sounded ... happy. Positive. Excited. Kyrie is a philosophical guy, and as such, he can overthink just about anything. But that's the good thing about the playoffs. It's only winning and losing. In the regular season, even when the Celtics won, Kyrie was all about nitpicking. If they keep winning in the playoffs, now matter how pretty or ugly it looks, he's going to be all smiles.
Can the Celtics beats the Bucks? Absolutely. Can they then beat the winner of Toronto-Philly and make it to the Finals? Absolutely. So let's say that happens. Is Kyrie really going to leave the Celtics on the cusp of a championship? Boston would have to like its odds at that point. The Celtics might be at the head of the race, as Kyrie said, but they can fall back quickly. The sprint to the finish starts now.
Same goes for Butler in Philadelphia and Kawhi in Toronto. There have been questions as to whether the Sixers would even want to re-sign Butler, and that they might prefer to move forward with Tobias Harris, who is also a free agent. A conference finals run, or for sure a Finals run, would make it tough for Elton Brand to let either one go, and conversely, it would give Butler a lot to think about as he considers his options.
I think Philly is in the most danger of losing ugly in the second round. They're not terribly deep and Ben Simmons' inability to shoot, as worn out as that talking point is, poses serious problems at this stage of the season against team like the Raptors, who can lock down defensively as well as anyone. If the Sixers get bounced here, clearly that will impact Butler's, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Harris' decision.
On the flip side, it feels like the only real chance Toronto has of retaining Kawhi is a deep playoff run. It might take a trip to the Finals. The Clippers are looming as a potential landing spot for all these guys, and they have looked like a pretty promising destination with their gritty performance against the Warriors. If Toronto loses to Philly, it is very hard to imagine Kawhi going back. If they win, and then perhaps beat the winner of Boston-Milwaukee and end up in the Finals? That would be tough for Kawhi to walk away from.
Even the up-and-coming Bucks will have a couple of key free agents, led by first-time All-Star Khris Middleton, who will likely opt out of his $13 million contract for next season to become a hot commodity on the market. But Middleton isn't a guy that a team has to pitch, so much as a guy who will have options as a backup plan for the teams chasing Kawhi, Butler and Kyrie. In that way, the results of these series are not as tied to his ultimate destination.
None of this is set in stone, obviously. When the Thunder got embarrassed by the Jazz in the first round last year, everyone assumed Paul George was a goner. Instead, he stayed with OKC without even taking any other meetings. These teams have had an entire year -- or in Butler's and Harris' case, the better part of the season -- to pitch these guys on their teams and cultures and futures. But this is the real sales pitch. The last word. You can either walk into a meeting this summer and say, "We're right there. We just went to the conference finals, we've got everything in place, let's run this back," or you can say, "Man, we just got bounced in the second round and we might still have a ways to go."
The thing that makes this so compelling is that nobody has any idea how this is going to play out. Typically in the NBA playoffs, you have a pretty god idea who's going to win. But this is different. You can make a strong case for any one of these four teams to make the Finals.
"I was literally having this conversation the other night with some other scouts, just asking each other, like, 'who do you see coming out of the East?' There were three or four different answers. I mean, nobody really knows," an Eastern Conference scout told CBS Sports. "I think it's all going to come down to matchups. Who's healthy? Who hits a few big shots? It could be something very small that tips a series."
It could be that same thing that ends up tipping the entire NBA landscape this summer.