The NBA playoffs have arrived! The regular season was fantastic, but it’s finally time for the real games to start. We preview all of the first round matchups and make old bold predictions for who will move on to Round 2.
(1) Boston Celtics vs (8) Chicago Bulls
Nick Bair: Bulls in 6. Why does everyone keep falling for the Celtics? Boston has not made it out of the first round of the playoffs since 2012. Brad Stephens is a great coach, but once again this team overachieved over its overall talent level. Isaiah Thomas is going to get exposed defensively in the playoffs, and teams will be able to shut him down on offense. Who else will pick up the slack for the Celtics? On the other side, Chicago has the best player in the series in Jimmy Butler, and will have veterans like Wade and Rondo who know how to take over in big playoff games. Sell your Celtics stock now before it’s too late.
Jordan Curet: Celtics in 5. The Bulls were a Heat win and a Nets win last night from not making the playoffs, which would have been justice. This team was so poorly conceived yet managed to hang on to the eight seed by the skin of their teeth. Now they play the Celtics, who they have faced in four previous playoffs and advanced a grand total of zero times. The teams split their regular season series 2-2, but the Celtics’ two losses came on a combined seven points at Chicago, while they dominated their wins by a margin of 27. I can see Chicago taking another home game, but now Boston is really feeling themselves and can wrap this up in five.
(2) Cleveland Cavalier vs (7) Indiana Pacers
NB: Cavaliers in 5. It’s playoff time and LeBron James and company will be ready to play. Their bad second half is slightly concerning, but Indiana does not have the firepower to keep up with the Cavs. The Cavs have the advantage at every position, which is unfortunate since Paul George plays the same position as LBJ. Indiana can probably steal one game at home, but otherwise the Cavs should roll as they prepare for Toronto.
JC: Cavaliers in 5. This is a tough one to predict after the Cavaliers have shown themselves, for almost a full half of the season, to be an atrocious defensive team. Yes, they dealt with several injuries to key players in their rotation, but LeBron played 74 games and averaged nearly 38 (!) mins (that, by the way, is more than the last 5 seasons). Kyrie and Love were always going to be defensive liabilities, but if the supporting cast fails to pick up the slack, then they are in trouble against the better teams. Fortunately for the Cavs, the Pacers are not a “better” team. PG13 might push Cleveland for a game or two himself, but the rest of that squad is rotation-level at best. But hey, more Lance Stephenson on LeBron!
(3) Toronto Raptors vs (6) Milwaukee Bucks
NB: Raptors in 6. The Raptors have a history of making the first round more difficult than they need it to be. Toronto went to seven games last year with the Pacers, following back-to-back first round losses to Brooklyn and Washington (sweeeeeeep). Toronto has way more playoff experience and talent than Milwaukee, but I won’t be shocked if they falter again. I have some doubts that Giannis can carry his team in a playoff experience, but I will be happy to be wrong about that one. The Bucks will still be frisky, but Toronto is just better.
JC: Raptors in 5. I want to believe this goes to seven games because the Greek Freak outdoes himself, but with Jabari Parker back on ice after tearing his ACL again, it seems like an impossible outcome. The Raptors are deep, strong, and ready for this postseason. Of all the teams in the playoffs, they seem the most ready to take on Cleveland and make it a series. The Bucks rallied to make the playoffs, but have middling stats and own a 1-3 regular season record against Toronto, with an atrocious point differential. They are rising stars to be sure, but winning one playoff game this postseason seems like about the right achievement point for their development.
(4) Washington Wizards vs (5) Atlanta Hawks
NB: Wizards in 4. The John Wall redemption series. Two years ago, the Wizards were rolling through the playoffs until John Wall injured his wrist in the Second Round against Atlanta. Washington ended up losing that series and hasn’t been back to the playoffs until now. Although the teams are close in seeding, the Wizards have been much better all season and should dominate this series. The only worry I have is in the frontcourt if Paul Milsap and Dwight Howard dominate the paint, especially with the injury to Ian Mahinmi. I think Marcin Gortat and company will be fine though, and I fully expect Wall and Bradley Beal to torch the Hawk’s backcourt. The Wiz quickly move on to Round 2.
JC: Wizards in 5. The Washington Wizards are the real deal this season. They own the seventh best offensive rating in the league, which is quite an accomplishment when you have teams like Houston, Golden State, and Cleveland gunning at all times. John Wall looks as healthy as ever, Bradley Beal hasn’t been quite as fragile as many (or at least I) expected, and both Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre have put in legitimate work. They own a 3-1 record against the Hawks this season, who themselves have overperformed given their roster. So long as the Wizards are healthy, they should coast through this series.
(1) Golden State Warriors vs (8) Portland Trail Blazers
NB: Warriors in 4. Golden State might go fo’ fo’ fo’ fo’. They are just that good. Portland stole a few games from GSW last year, but this Blazers’ team is not nearly as good. If both Lillard and McCollum go crazy, the Blazers might steal one game, but I don’t think this will be competitive at all. The most important storyline to watch is if Kevin Durant looks like himself again following injury and if the Warriors can bring him back into the fold without skipping a beat.
JC: Warriors in 4. For the briefest time, it looked like this might be a competitive series, with Jusuf Nurkic adding an element to the Blazers that made them legitimately threatening while the Warriors were without Kevin Durant. Then Nurkic got hurt and despite the probability that he returns during this series, Golden State is ready to roll again. KD is back, Steph Curry found his mojo sometime between February and April, and Klay continues to simply get buckets. The Dubs have the added benefit of playing for revenge in a year where that seems like enough motivation for a lot of teams (see: Cleveland and recent NCAA champs UNC). Golden State will put the Blazers to bed quickly.
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs (7) Memphis Grizzlies
NB: Spurs in 5. Kawhi til’ you die. It’s time for my vote for MVP (I may be biased) to take over in the playoffs offensively. The Grind House will challenge the Spurs, but San Antonio is better across the board besides the point guard position (and Memphis probably has the better Gasol right now). The Spurs swept the Grizz last year and the teams haven’t changed that much sense then (besides the fact that Kawhi has gone to another level and Timmy retired). Memphis will take one of the games at home, but the Spurs should breeze through into the next round.
JC: Spurs in 5. Kawhi Leonard is the quietest super human in the NBA and the Spurs are, as always, right there with the best of them. What more can be said about Gregg Popovich and his year-after-year consistency? The Spurs are a little less Spursy than they have been in the past, but they play good team basketball and have the best defensive rating in the league, including holding opponents to the second fewest points per game. Memphis has started gunning like other teams in the league, including letting Marc Gasol let fly (a healthy .388 three point percentage this season), but they don’t have enough to stay with the Spurs.
(3) Houston Rockets vs (6) Oklahoma City Thunder
NB: Rockets in 5. Cute season Rusty, but the Thunder are about to be exposed as a one man show. The Rockets have a great offensive system that really accentuates Harden’s unique talents (did you know he is Joe Flacco Elite at slowing down?). Houston will score 130 points per game and put on a shooting clinic. Now, I do think Houston will struggle down the line when they play a strong defensive team like Golden State, San Antonio, or Utah. OKC is not strong enough defensively to really challenge them though, and Westbrook’s Revenge Tour will come to end for this season.
JC: Rockets in 5. It sure would be nice to know the MVP outcome before this series. Maybe someone can leak it to Harden and Westbrook right before tip off of the first game? Just to see the fireworks, especially if Harden gets it. In any case, this still ought to be enjoyable watching the two go at each other. The problem for Westbrook is he managed to drag his team to the playoffs on the back of a historic season while Harden now sits comfortably in a system made for his talents surrounded by players that perfectly supplement his game. As incredible as angry Westbrook is, the Rockets ought to cruise through this series.
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs (5) Utah Jazz
NB: Clippers in 7. Does anyone enjoy the Clippers anymore? Most fans don’t like to watch them and it seems like the players themselves hate each other. Still, this team found a way to win 50 games in the West in spite of injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Don’t sleep on LA just yet. This is a playoff tested team that still probably has the two best players in the series. Utah is a great story if you love basketball twitter, but the Clippers are still the better team. There has to be one year where things break right for the Clippers, right? Maybe it’s this year and they can actually get a chance to upset the Warriors. No matter what, this series should be pretty evenly matched, but give me Chris Paul at home in a deciding Game 7.
JC: Jazz in 7. The Clippers are the team most in need of a psychologist. A team with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan should not be so hard on themselves. Yes, they ended the season on a seven game win streak, but four of those teams were actively trying to lose and the Spurs were locked into the two seed already. Meanwhile, the Jazz are ready for the playoffs and in for the first time since 2011-2012. They have a monster defender in Rudy Gobert and the size to frustrate the Clippers the entire series. These teams will not make for pretty playoff games, but they will be tough and if Los Angeles’ fragile psyche doesn’t hold together, the Jazz will take this one.
-Nick Bair & Jordan Curet
Photo Credit: CSNNE.com