2018 NBA Playoffs: First Round Preview
Another historic regular season has come to an At long last, the games matter more the pressure is at its height. No more talk about rest or over analyzing. Just good playoff basketball as we begin the long march to June. Let's get started.
Houston Rockets vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota fought like hell to reach the playoffs and break the second longest playoff drought in NBA history (14 years). Their reward for this is facing the top-seed Houston Rockets in round one. A team they had trouble competing with all season long. On paper, you’d think Wolves had the defensive ability to keep up. Tom Thibodeau is one of the NBA’s best defensive minds and the roster is full of players capable of defending. But the stats tell a different story. Minnesota had the second-worst defensive field-goal percentage in the league. Against the Rockets offense, that’s basically an open invitation to blow the young Wolves off the floor. Speaking of the Rockets, this is where their proving grounds begin. Yes, they’re the best team in the league, but their collective playoff credentials are in question. James Harden is considered a choker by most observers and Chris Paul has never advanced past the second round. Their offense should have no trouble putting up points. I’ll give Minnesota one win, but no more.
Pick: Rockets in 5
Toronto Raptors vs. Washington Wizards
For the first time in history, the road through the Eastern Conference goes through the North. This Toronto Raptors core has set franchise records once again, and this team, in particular, is the best they’ve ever had. Their offense has incorporated more ball movement and 3-point attempts. On defense, they’ve limited their opponent's 3-point attempts while being one of the best rim protecting teams in the league. But no matter what the stats say, the Raptors have a history of performing under standard once the playoffs arrive. They’ve been eliminated in the first-round twice, push to the limit by inferior teams, and embarrassed by LeBron James when they make the playoffs. Their offensive efficiency is known to fall off a cliff. Over the last four weeks, the Raptors displayed slippage and that same lack of mental fortitude that has plagued them in the past. Fortunately for them, the Washington Wizards are also backing into the playoffs. Over the last 21 games (17 without John Wall), the Wizards have been outscored by an average of 9.2 points per 100 possessions when Otto Porter Jr. was on the floor. Their top reserve, Kelly Oubre Jr., will go into the playoffs shooting 31 percent from the field. Speaking of Wall, he hasn’t gotten back to his normal level of play yet. The Wizards are talented but inconsistent at best. The Raptors are the only team to rank top-five in offensive and defensive efficiency, they have two all-star guards in the backcourt, and home court advantage. And even with all that, they will still probably be pushed to six or seven games. It’s just in their nature.
Pick: Raptors in 6
Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs
This Western Conference Finals rematch was expected before the season, but not like this. Both teams are missing their best players. Kawhi Leonard has basically missed the entire season to the chagrin of his teammates and coaches. Steph Curry will always be out for this series, but his absence has proven once again that he’s the one that stirs the drink Oakland. The difference between these two teams is that the Warriors still have three all-star caliber players despite missing their best player. Kevin Durant may not be the man on this team, but his still a top-three talent in this league. All eyes will be on KD to lead this team in Steph’s stead. Personally, I think this mindset is a bit of a trap. The Warriors are best when moving the ball and working for the best shots possible. When KD is the lead on the team, the ball moves a little less and KD tends to isolate a bit more. That’s not too bad of a thing to do when you’re KD, but the Warriors system will always be greater than any individual part. Klay Thompson will be playing with a bad thumb, but that won’t hinder his defensive ability. Plus, he’ll have to take a larger offensive role here. Draymond will have to be the de-facto point for this team and keep the offensive in its proper rhythm. But most importantly of all, the Warriors have to get back to playing elite defense. For most of the season, the Warriors have looked uninterested and uninspired. However, they’ve shown they can flip the switch when needed. Look no further than their first matchup with the Thunder after the all-star break. They not only clamped down and got physical with OKC, they clearly got in their head. This is clearly not the Spurs of old they’re facing. The Spurs streak of 50-win seasons is over and they had to clinch their playoff spot at the last minute. LaMarcus Aldridge is the lone star left on this team and Rudy Gay is the next best scorer they have. What the Spurs do have however is a great coach. I think Gregg Popovich will do everything in his power to keep the Spurs afloat with his coaching. The Spurs have to find a way to defend and make this series as ugly as possible. The Warriors have already proven they will shift focus to the refs when calls don’t go there way. Maybe the Spurs can use that to their advantage. But if the Warriors hit the switch on defense, all bets are off.
Pick: Warriors in 6
Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks
When Gordon Hayward went down in the opening game, the Boston Celtics season was thought to be over right there. But with the leadership of Kyrie Irving and the coaching of Brad Stevens, the Celtics went on to have a good season. They showed a championship level of grit and played teams like the Rockets and Warriors better than anyone else. So it's a shame that Irving will be out for the remainder of the season. There’s some serious upset potential here, with Boston missing Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis from the lineup. Plus, the Bucks will have the best place on the court with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and that means a lot in the playoffs. This series will be a clash of styles—Milwaukee’s high-powered offense against Boston’s stingy defense. I expect a lot of close, grind-it-out games as the Celtics try to slow down the pace. While the Bucks will be the favorite pick among the fans outside of Boston, please remember that the Celtics have the superior coach. I think this series goes seven. And even if the Celtics lose, they get playoff experience for their young roster.
Pick: Bucks in 7
Portland Trail Blazers vs. New Orleans Pelicans
Over the last few seasons, it has been a slow build for the Portland Trail Blazers. Each year, they get a little better and more experienced. Those things have paid off big time as the Blazes have been the hottest team in the West during the second-half of the season. Coming into this matchup, they have the advantage in the backcourt. Damian Lillard is a big-time player when it counts and he will be getting a few votes for MVP. CJ McCollum is another 20 point per game scorer that can create on his own. However, the Blazers did lose twice to the Pelicans during the regular season. And even with DeMarcus Cousins out of the lineup, the Blazers frontcourt will have trouble dealing with Anthony Davis, the best player in this series. Davis is another player will garner a few MVP votes. His play kept the Pelicans afloat in the playoff race and will be the main focus of attack for New Orleans. A player to watch out for in this series will be Rajon Rondo. Rondo has a wealth of playoff experience and was brilliant when available in last year’s playoff. But I don’t know how much you can afford to have Rondo on the floor when the Pelicans were 13.6 points per 100 possessions better with Jrue Holiday on the floor. This is a series of two massive stars leading otherwise ordinary teams that are capable of streaking in either direction. It all depends on how Davis and Lillard impact the series, but also the defense (for Portland) and 3-point shooting (for New Orleans) -- in addition to other factors. Basically, this could come down to role player contribution, and the Blazers are slightly the deeper team.
Pick: Blazers in 7
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat
After years of enduring the strategic tanking system known as “The Process”, the Sixers are finally starting to see the results. They have two young superstars that seem to be poised for great careers, and they’re back in the playoffs at last. They seem to have the makings of a present and future contender after finishing with the three seed in the East. They also have the distinction of being called the hottest team in the NBA following 16 consecutive victories to close the season. But even with their hot streak, they’re probably facing the one team they didn’t want to see. The Miami Heat won’t be backing down for anyone and will serve as a tough out. Their team is based on the sum of its part and they’re not afraid of turning this into a gritty and physical series. Not to mention, the Heat are ripe with playoff experience throughout their roster. With Joel Embiid likely out for this series, that will make things even tougher for the Sixers. That means the mantle of responsibility will fully be on the likely Rookie of the Year; Ben Simmons. Simmons will be the focus on offense and the focus of Miami’s defense. The Sixers will have to be wary of the Heat’s shooting depth. They have five shooters who’ve all hit at least 3-pointers during the regular season. The Sixers can answer with five players who scored 1,000 points. So this will come down to defense in my opinion. While the Sixers saw great offensive improvement, their defense remained solid throughout. While the Heat held the Sixers to 101 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, the Sixers ball movement and passing will always make them hard to defend.
Pick: Sixers in 7
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Utah Jazz
Who would’ve thought the Jazz would make the playoffs a year after losing Gordon Hayward? You have good coaching and a phenomenal rookie to thank for that. Donovan Mitchell snuck up on the league by totally outplaying his Draft position, leading the Jazz and all rookies in scoring. He also served as the bridge from the Hayward regime into the future. The Jazz also boasts a defensive player of the year frontrunner Rudy Gobert and a revitalized Ricky Rubio. Defense and grit have become the identity for the new Jazz. The Thunder entered the season with sky-high expectations after teaming up Paul George and Carmelo Anthony with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. While they haven’t dominated as expected, they still represent a problem for any team playing them. Westbrook is a triple-double machine as he proved again by averaging it for a season once again. George is still a two-way threat while Melo can still get it done in spurts. But the most important piece is the improved Steven Adams. Adams has become a problem down low and will likely cause problems for any team he’s up against. The Thunder have the clear advantage in playoff experience, but Westbrook will have to ease off the reins a bit and allow his teammates to do what they do best. While his competitive fervor is the stuff of legends, Westbrook can sometimes burn too hot and cause a team-wide flameout. While defense won’t be in any shortage, the Thunder have the better offense and hit the boards better. I believe that will be the difference in this series.
Pick: Thunder in 6
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers
You’ll have to go back a decade to find a LeBron-led team that didn’t finish as one of the top-two seeds in the East. Barring any upsets, the Cavaliers will face a road game heavy route to the Finals. This Cavaliers team is probably the weakest on paper since the King returned, but they’re still a dangerous team to face. The system is simple but hard to stop. LeBron will have the ball in his hands and will make the lion share of decisions for the offense. All everyone else will have to do is make shots, defend, and rebound. But if LeBron ever has an off game, who knows how good this team really is. On the other side of the floor, a familiar face awaits. The Indiana Pacers were left for dead after the Paul George trade. That was before Victor Oladipo emerged as an All-NBA performer. LeBron has long been a problem for Indiana. He has helped eliminate the Pacers on four occasions since 2012. While the Pacers do hold a 3-1 head-to-head record against the Cavs, all of those games came before the Cleveland roster renovation. So this is basically a new series between the teams. Ultimately, the Pacers don’t have anyone that can slow down LeBron. The best they can do is prevent anyone else from making a big impact. Focus number one should be limiting Kevin Love any way possible. The Cavs rank 29th in defensive efficiency, but they have designs on improving that. Either way, I believe that deficiency combined with the Pacers confidence will keep this series going longer than it should. In the end, LeBron will be the difference until proven otherwise.
Pick: Cavs in 6