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Eastern Conference sleepers to watch in the NBA Playoffs

We take a look at two sleepers who could make runs in the Eastern Conference.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler reacts after making a basket and being fouled by Philadelphia 76ers forward Danny Green (14, not pictured) during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA’s 2020-21 regular season has come to a close and the playoff picture is solidifying. The top-6 seeds in the Eastern Conference have secured playoff berths, but the seventh and eighth seeds still need to be decided by a series of play-in games. This could be a big year for dark horses, and we’ve identified a pair who are capable of making some noise in the Eastern Conference.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks made a splash in free agency by signing Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic to big-time contracts, and their young core is peaking just in time for the postseason. Trae Young is looking like a fringe All-NBA player; Clint Capela is the NBA’s rebound leader, Bogdanovic’s scoring is at an all-time high and De’Andre Hunter is working his way back to provide above-average 3-and-D support on the wing. John Collins and Danilo Gallinari have been at power forward, but Nate McMillan has been a rock for Atlanta since taking over the starting job. The Hawks are 24-11 since he became the head coach and have won 71% of their games with him at the helm. I like the Hawks’ chances to advance to the second round against the New York Knicks — another middle-of-the-road team.

Miami Heat

The Heat’s decision to deal for Victor Oladipo ahead of the trade deadline didn’t pan out because the shooting guard is out for the year with a knee injury, but the Los Angeles Lakers might be the only team that’s scarier outside the top four in either conference. The team that swept the Indiana Pacers and knocked of the Milwaukee Bucks in last year’s playoffs en route to the NBA Finals still has its core group and has had more time to mesh with its veteran role-players. Few defensive duos can compete with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo defensively, and Miami’s current situation is largely a result of injuries and COVID-19 outbreaks. The Heat have won over 60% of their games since the All-Star break. Miami’s 1-2 record against Milwaukee is impressive, considering Jimmy Butler didn’t play against the Bucks once this year.

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