Apr. 22, 2017
NBA Playoffs: First Round Preview/Predictions
A historic yet predictable regular season has come to an end. So at long last the games finally matter. No more talk about rest or over analyzing. Just good playoff basketball as we make our way to June. So let’s get started.
Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trailblazers
For the second straight year these two teams will meet in the postseason. In 2016, the Blazers gave the Warriors a tough series, but Steph Curry did miss games with a knee injury. Now Steph is healthy and Harrison Barnes is now Kevin Durant. So things are already drastically different entering this series. For those worrying about potential chemistry issues, allow me to remind you that the Portland defense only ranks 21st in the league. So scoring shouldn’t be an issue even if chemistry is.
Now Portland can hold their own in a shootout with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. However, that will only result in competitive losses. To have any chance in this series, they need to attack Golden State at their weakest point: the middle. Which means all eyes are on Jusuf Nurkic’s leg. He’s been out since March with a fractured fibula and might not be ready to start the series. Before his injury he was averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. His size and skill could’ve gave the Warriors trouble, but now his absence may force the Blazers to try and win a shootout. And against the Warriors, it’s just not going to happen.
Prediction: Warriors in 5.
Boston Celtics vs. Chicago Bulls
First let us give credit to the Celtics for having the best record in the East and having the best chances to get the top pick in the draft thanks to their Brooklyn heist. Now they have something to look forward to in June even if they don’t make it out of the East. That aside, the Celtics look like a weak number one seed. They finished outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency and rank near the bottom in defensive rebounding percentage. In a league where defense wins championships and no rebounds usually equal no rings, this isn’t good.
Add in those problems with the fact that the Bulls have the chops to take advantage of those deficiencies and you have have a series here. Chicago is one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the league thanks in large part to Robin Lopez getting three a game. Al Horford has a documented history of getting out worked on the glass in the playoffs (see the last two times he saw the Cavs in the playoffs) and he’s their best post player. The best player in this series also happens to play for the underdogs. His name is Jimmy Butler and he has veterans like Rajon Rondo and Dwayne Wade to back him up. Fortunately for the Celtics they have wing defenders for them.
Prediction: This one is going seven. Boston will need to rely on their wing defenders like Avery Bradley, Jae Crower and Marcus Smart to keep Bulls in check. Then it will come down to Isaiah Thomas’ ability to take over games down the stretch. So I’ll pick the Celtics to win in 7.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Another playoff rematch from last year. But this time the Spurs won’t be playing the Grizzlies corpse this year. Also Gasol vs. Gasol should be fun to watch. Under first year head coach David Fizdale, the Grizzlies are still the same grit and grind team they were at their height. Memphis is top 10 in defensive rating and defensive rebound percentage, but bottom three in pace. They also drastically improved their three-point shooting which is saying something since they were usually awful in that aspect. The Spurs are still the Spurs even without Tim Duncan. They rely on the whole rather than the sum of their parts even with Kawhi Leonard becoming an MVP-caliber player.
Looking at this matchup the Grizzlies have one big problem. Their best perimeter player is their only good perimeter player. So Mike Conley can expect to see a lot of Leonard when he’s coming up the court on offense. And with Tony Allen out, Memphis losses some defense of their own. So this series probably won’t take long.
Prediction: Spurs in 5.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers
LeBron James gets to see an old foe from his Miami days when the Cavaliers take on the Pacers. And once again, it’s advantage to the LeBron squad. Without Roy Hibbert and David West from years past, the Pacers no longer boast the size inside to give LeBron any resistance. The only improvement is Paul George, who has become one of the best two way players in basketball. Lance Stephenson may make it entertaining, but not much else.
The real story (if you want to call it that) of this series is the Cavaliers level of play. Honestly they’ve been below average down the stretch of the season. They’re defense has been atrocious and they’ve looked lackadaisical in everything they do. Everyone is waiting for the defending champs to flip the switch and look like champions. In a conference where all you need is LeBron to win, the media will get their wish.
Prediction: Cavs sweep.
Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Presenting the best playoff series of the first round. How rare is it to see the top two MVP candidates clash this early in the postseason? Russell Westbrook’s historic MVP campaign in terms of stats and usage lifted a Thunder team who many doubted would even make the playoffs. The big problem is that the Thunder go as their MVP does. And even when he is excellent they could easily lose the game. James Harden may not have much help himself in terms of star power, but at least he has other scorers to put the ball in the basket. The Rockets also happen to have Patrick Beverly who is one of Westbrook’s biggest rivals given their past.
Even if Westbrook is all but unstoppable, the Rockets have the advantage. The Rockets set new records for three-point shooting this season while OKC struggles in that department. Harden can call upon Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Lou Williams and Trevor Ariza for help scoring the ball. Westbrook has to hope and pray someone hits a shot without his assistance. OKC;s only hope is their bigs dominate the glass and they make it a very ugly series. If they can slow down the Rockets pace in any way, it would aid them greatly. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening.
Prediction: Rockets in 7
Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Why does this series intrigue me so much? On paper the Raptors are the superior team by far. Toronto ranks top ten on offense and defense while the Bucks are middle of the pack in each category. The Raptors beat the Bucks three out of four times during the regular season. The Raptors are more battle tested when compared to the Bucks and arguably the deeper team. Oh that’s right, the best player in this series is Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 22-year old freak of nature that can dominate a game on both ends.
Also, the Raptors aren't the most reliable team when the playoffs come around despite their experience. Last season you can argue the Pacers should've beaten them and the Heat would've beaten them had they been healthy. Then they were embarrassed by the Cavs in three of six games. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry sometimes fade during the postseason. Plus they have a knack for being overshadowed by their opponent. Paul George, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade all outplayed the Raptors all-star duo at one point or another. The Greek Freak is capable of doing the same. So with all that known, the Bucks can easily push the Raptors to a long and competitive series.
Prediction: Raptors in 7
Utah Jazz vs. Los Angeles Clippers
Take the regular season games between these two with a grain of salt since both teams were banged up. The Clippers are healthy for the most part and hopefully it stays that way. The Jazz are in a similar situation after not having their full team at any point during the regular season. Unfortunately for Utah, nothing can save them from the clear mismatch in this series. You see, Utah plays at the league’s slowest pace and prefers to play slow grind it out basketball. Now the Clippers aren’t the fastest team ever, but they have the athletes to get up and down the court if needed.
The Clippers also will get a boost in their pace considering the Jazz have the 10th-highest turnover rate in basketball. On top of that, the Jazz are an inexperienced team. This is their first time in the playoffs since Jerry Sloan was on the sidelines coaching Deron Williams. But even with the mismatches, you’re never truly out of it when you’re playing the Clippers in the playoffs. So who knows, they might pull something off.
Prediction: Clippers in 6
Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks
The Wizards have been given the dubious tag of “team that can challenge the Cavs in the East” and for good reason. When the Calendar flipped to 2017, they became one of the best teams in the league. What was once a struggling offense is now one of the NBA’s best. The Hawks on the other hand have been an inconsistent bunch all season long. Their defense comes and goes just like their offense. But give credit to them as they lost their two best players from last year’s team and are still a playoff team.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, it’s a guard-driven league and the Wizards have two of the best. Although the Hawks have a top-five defense, they struggle guarding the three-pointer. And that is a recipe for disaster against the Wizards. Also, their offense is near the bottom in offensive efficiency with the likes Brooklyn, Orlando and Philadelphia. So the Hawks will have to hope they find a groove on offense while hoping the Wizards shooters don’t shred them on the other end. Good luck with that.
Prediction: Wizards in 5.