Earlier this week, Kobe Bryant and the Golden State Warriors capped off an historic NBA season in perhaps the most spectacular way to date. The Warriors securing 73 wins and Bryant exploding for 60 points in his final game put the entire sports world into a frenzy; and makes for the perfect segway into what should be an equally exciting postseason. Here are my predictions on how the first round will shake out.
1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 8) Detroit Pistons
Preview: This is very much your classic “David vs. Goliath” 1-8 first round matchup. The Cavaliers are coming off an NBA Finals appearance and a regular season Eastern Conference title. Meanwhile, the Pistons are ending a six-year playoff drought with a group of players who weren’t on the team when they last made it in 2009. This series will say a lot about Cleveland moving forward in these playoffs. On paper, the Cavs the better team and should have no trouble with the Pistons. But you can’t help but feel a little weary about Cleveland going into the playoffs this year. The team has had nothing but turmoil since training camp. And despite owning the best record in the Eastern conference, Cleveland never imposed the type of dominance most expected from them this season. If the Cavs can put Detroit away in four or five games, that’ll be a great sign that they’ve put all of the regular-seaosn drama aside. But I get the feeling this rollar-coaster of a season will spill into this first round matchup. Detroit is well-coached and they have a star player (Andre Drummond) who can control the paint on both sides of the floor. Two things that are very important in playoff basketball. Lebron James’ leadership and Cleveland’s firepower carries them through, but this won’t be a cake walk.
Prediction: Cavs in 6
2) Toronto Raptors vs. 7) Indiana Pacers
Preview: No team is under more pressure to get out of the first round this year than the Raptors. Their last two playoff appearances ended in disappointing first-round exits, despite owning home court advantage in both series’. This is probably the best Raptors team ever assembled in the franchise’s short 21-year existence, which only adds to more expectations headed into this postseason.
Similar to last year against Washington and two years ago against Brooklyn, I think the Raptors have been given a bad hand in the first round. While Toronto has more talent than Indiana, the Pacers come into this series with all-star Paul George; who’ll likely be the best player in the series, and a playoff-experienced coach in Frank Vogel. Other players like George Hill and Monta Ellis have been through the ringer of the postseason and won’t be intimidated by the raucous “We The North” crowds. But you have to think the Raptors will break through at some point right? Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozen make up the league’s best backcourt outside of the Bay Area. Jonas Valenciounus, Demarre Carroll and Terrence Ross have all been solid role players all season for the Raptors and should cause problems for a Pacer team that isn’t very deep.
This will be a very competitive series. But it’s hard to believe a group in Toronto that’s this good, could get bounced out early three years in a row.
Prediction: Toronto in 6
3) Miami Heat vs. 6) Charlotte Hornets
This is the first what will likely be two toss-up series’. Miami, Atlanta, Boston and Charlotte all ended up with the same record so tie-breakers had to be determined to figure out which matchups we’d see. Miami taking on Charlotte will likely be the most intriguing first-round series in the Eastern Conference. Both teams are very similar. Miami and Charlotte like to play small and each rely heavily on their guards and wing players to generate offense. They also post nearly identical team defensive ratings (both rank in the Top 10), and both teams are led by Riley-Van Gundy disciples on the bench.
While Miami may not score a lot of points (ranked 23rd in the NBA in points), they’re extremely efficient; finishing in the top five in field goal percentage. That’s surprising for a team that relies so heavily on smaller players for their points. The Hornets offensive efficiency has also improved tremendously this season, posting the NBA’s fewest turnovers over the course of the regular season.
A major key in this series will be how Charlotte tries to neutralize Hassan Whiteside’s rim protection. The Hornets get a lot of their offense from the slashing drives of Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lin and Nic Batum. I expect the Hornets to may be rely more heavily on Al Jefferson to wear down Whiteside and get him in foul trouble. The Hornets guards will also need to accept the challenge of manning up one-on-one against Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, and Joe Johnson, all of whom excel in one-on-one isolation situations. I expect this to be a long and fun series, but I’m going to give Charlotte’s youth the slight edge over Miami’s experience.
Prediction: Charlotte in 7
4) Atlanta Hawks vs. 5) Boston Celtics
Preview: This series also features two teams that mirror each other in many ways. Both teams don’t have a traditional go-to-guy, but instead get their points by committee. Boston’s Isaiah Thomas enjoyed a career year, leading the team in points and making his first all-star team. But because of his 5’9″ stature, the Celtics will often look to other players like Evan Turner, Avery Bradley, or even Marcus Smart to hit big shots for them down the stretch.
What Brad Stevens have been able to accomplish this year with a bag of league outcasts and misfits has been remarkable. But asking his team to consistently get offense against one of the league’s most discipline defensive teams could be too tall an order. The Hawks finished behind only the Warriors and the Spurs in opponent’s field goal percentage. They were also just second behind the Spurs in team defensive rating. But Boston doesn’t slouch on defense either. The Celtics led the league in forced turnovers and finished in the top 5 in defensive rating. With that being said, this series will likely most-resemble a traditional playoff series, with final scores ending in the 90s and maybe even 80s once or twice.
The difference in this series is I think Atlanta is better equipped to win those types of low-scoring games. While they may not have the true star player you want in the playoffs, the Hawks are much more experienced to deal with the type of adversity that comes with the playoffs. While Atlanta’s guards might struggle a little more with tough defensive ball-pressure from Bradley and Smart, I think Millsap and Horford have favorable match ups in the front court.
Predictions: Hawks in 6
1) Golden State Warriors vs. 8) Houston Rockets
Preview: The defending champs come into this postseason riding the biggest high of any team in NBA history. After securing the NBA’s best record in league history, the Warriors will now fully turn their attention to their quest of repeating as champs; the only real goal that matters when it’s all set and done. People around the league have questioned whether the Warriors’ race to 73 wins would possibly drain them headed into the playoffs, but I don’t buy it.
The Warriors come into this first round with a very favorable matchup against the Rockets. Houston has largely been a disappointment this season and needed the last day of the season to secure a postseason birth. Their reward? A date with the 73-win defending champs who swept them out of the Western Conference Finals last year. How generous.
But Houston’s saving grace in this series is James Harden. After a very slow start, Harden ended up posting some of his best numbers in the scoring and assisting department. He also comes into the postseason red-hot, averaging 34.8 points on 48 percent field-goal shooting in the month of March. Harden’s been somewhat of a mixed-bag in his young postseason career, but if you’re a Rockets fan you have to feel great about how he’s been playing recently.
But Rockets fans shouldn’t feel good about anything else in this series. Houston’s a terrible defensive team and they’re now up against one of the most explosive offensive teams in league history. The Rockets also have no favorable matchup against Draymond Green, who’s been a triple-double machine for the Warriors this season. I expect Green to have a huge series against Houston.
Prediction: Warriors in 5
2) San Antonio Spurs vs. 7) Memphis Grizzlies
Preview: In a normal year, this would have been a series to be very excited about. But Memphis has been so decimated with injuries, it’s hard to imagine they’ll have any shot against the Spurs. If it wasn’t for the Warriors’ unbelievable season, we’d probably be talking about how unstoppable the Spurs have been this season.
San Antonio finished the season with 67 wins, and an incredible 40-1 home record. What makes the Spurs so dangerous is they can beat you in a multitude of ways. They can still hammer you inside with LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan, or rely on Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker can beat you on the perimeter. They’re so deep and so unselfish offensively, it’s really difficult to take away one aspect of their offense and still avoid getting burned. If you slow the Spurs down, they’re more than happy to beat you in the half-court. If you try to entice them into a track meet, they have the firepower to outscore anyone.
Memphis will have to keep these games low-scoring to have any chance. But even if they’re capable of doing that, how do they get points? The Spurs are the best defensive team in the league by almost every measurement, and the Grizzlies are the worst offensive team in the playoffs.
Prediction: Spurs in 4
3) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 6) Dallas Mavericks
Preview: It feels like Oklahoma City is the forgotten team in this year’s postseason. Despite posting an impressive 55 wins, and holding two of the top five players in the league, the Thunder come into these playoffs as an afterthought. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant each had seasons worthy of MVP discussion, but Stephen Curry’s historic performance put that race to bed in December. Durant and Westbrook make up the most explosive pair of scorers in the NBA and it’s difficult to believe Dallas will be able to find a way to match both superstars. The Thunder have major issues closing games this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they coughed one up in this series, but with Chandler Parsons out for the season it’s hard to see how Dallas will be able to stay close enough to steal one or two games in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Thunder in 4
4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. 5) Portland Trail Blazers
Preview: This series features what will probably be the most intriguing one-on-one matchup between Chris Paul and Damian Lillard. Paul has been the standard bearer at the position for the better part of a decade, while Lillard finished 6th in the NBA in scoring with 25.1 points per game. Paul is one of the league’s best defensive guards, but trying to cover Lillard in a best of seven series is a tough task for anyone. Luckily for Paul, the rest of the team will be able to pick up the offensive slack while Paul chases Lillard all over the court.
The Clippers have been somewhat of a disappointment this season, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still loaded. Blake Griffin missed more than half the season and the Clippers still won 53 games. Griffin’s now back and while he’s still trying to get his legs under him, he’ll still be able to contribute greatly against Portland’s subpar frontline. DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford, and JJ Redick will also provide scoring punch.
The big question for Portland is how they’ll be able to find offense outside of Lillard. C.J. McCollum bursted onto the scene this year as one of the most explosive shooting guards in the NBA. But Portland doesn’t have many scoring options outside of Lillard and McCollum. Portland has one of the best home-court advantages in the NBA, and if they can find a third scorer to supplement Lillard and McCollum they can make it an interesting series. But expect the Clippers to try and take the Blazers explosive backcourt, and force Portland’s role players to try and beat them.
Prediction: Clippers in 5