NBA Playoffs: First Round Predictions
And then there were 16. For those looking for something new and fresh, rejoice in the fact that there won’t be another Golden State versus Cleveland matchup. As Bleacher Report’s Game of Zones once said, “there will be a new King in the East. Meanwhile, the Warriors remain the favorites out West. However, many view the Warriors as vulnerable due to a lack of depth and attrition built over multiple championship runs. But before we get too ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a look at the first round. If you just want the predictions, scroll down to the bottom,
One thing we all know about the East is how top heavy it is. There’s a pretty large talent disparity between the top four teams and the bottom four teams. Two of these series shouldn’t go beyond five games. The Milwaukee Bucks should have no issues getting past the Detroit Pistons. The Bucks swept the regular season series against the Pistons and are better in just about every category. Plus, the Pistons are terrible on the road. Giannis Antetokounmpo should be able to dominate his way to his first appearance past the first round. The other no-brainer series will be the Toronto Raptors topping the Orlando Magic. Orlando deserves all the credit in the world for making a postseason appearance. However, the talent difference is too great for them to make up. The Raptors are more consistent than last year and are one of the deepest teams in the league. At times, it will look like Toronto is coming at them in waves.
What makes the Celtics/Pacers series interesting is the inconsistent nature of the Boston Celtics going up against a blue-collar Indiana Pacers team. Yes, the Pacers are missing their best player. Yes, they’ve stumbled down the stretch of the regular season. But at least I know what they’re going to give effort wise. Effort alone can’t win a playoff series, but it can give a team like the Celtics some trouble. Boston entered the season as the favorites to come out of the East. Their season has been filled with egocentric narratives and unnecessary drama. Everyone has been waiting on them to flip the switch and turn into the contender they’re supposed to be. The combination of Boston’s inconsistency and the Pacers effort will push this series to at least six games. But ultimately, Boston’s talent will win out.
Series to Watch Closely: 76ers vs. Nets
This is the only series out East to pay close attention to. It will come down to the health of the of Joel Embiid, who may miss the first game due to knee soreness. He typically dominates the Brooklyn Nets when he plays them. This season, he averaged 30 points and 14 rebounds per game against them. But despite that, these teams split the regular season series. One of those games were decided by a Jimmy Butler buzzer beater. This is a classic example of styles making fights. The Nets style gives the Sixers a little trouble. To start, Brooklyn’s guards will give the Sixers some trouble. Philly is a middle of the pack defensive team this year. Their major struggle comes against the pick and roll. It's part of the reason why Spencer Dinwiddie is averaging 23.8 points per game against them. Meanwhile, D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert are averaging 21 and 19 points per game respectively. And speaking of Russell, he emerged as an all-star caliber player and one of the best clutch players in the league. Another problem for the Sixers is that they have a depth problem. While their starting five looks great on paper, it starts looking a little thin when you look at their bench. Mike Scott may very well be their most reliable player coming off of the bench. Meanwhile, the Nets bring the aforementioned Dinwiddie and LeVert off of the bench.
This series has the makings of a seven-game series. And if Embiid is compromised in any way, this could turn into an upset. Ultimately, I’ll pick the Sixers to come out on top. Remember, Philly is 31-10 at home and have more playoff experience. That could definitely make the difference.
The Western Conference looks like it’s the go-to for compelling series once again. There’s one series that could end quickly, but even that one could be compelling. The defending champion Golden State Warriors will face off against the Los Angeles Clippers. Many thought the Clippers would be back in the doldrums after the Lakers star-studded offseason. Those thoughts were supposed to become a fact once the Clippers traded away their best player. Instead of tanking, the Clippers made winning and culture their priority. They’ve become the blue collar workhorse team of L.A. Their ability to scrap will annoy the Warriors. Their ability to got hot from beyond the arc will give them so trouble. However, the Warriors have owned the Clippers since their rise to prominence in 2015. Since then, the Dubs have only lost the Clippers twice. Ultimately, talent will win out in this series. Meanwhile, the biggest threat to the Warriors could be coming in the second round. First, however, the Rockets must go up against the Utah Jazz. Since the calendar flipped, the Jazz have been the best defensive team in the league. The problem is their lack of consistent scoring outside of Donovan Mitchell. And in a scoring matchup between James Harden and Mitchell, you have to take Harden. The Rockets will likely win that series in five games.
Also, this blog owes an apology to the Portland Trailblazers. I thought they would suffer a regression following an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Pelicans last season. Instead, the Blazers finished top three in the west once again. Unfortunately for them, they lost Jusuf Nurkić right when he was breaking out as a player. To make matters, worse, they’re facing an OKC Thunder team they failed to defeat even once during the regular season. Enes Kanter will serve as the x-factor. He’ll have to fill the void left by Nurkić. Also, all eyes will be on Dame Lillard after what happened during last season’s playoffs. He was thoroughly outplayed by Jrue Holliday in nearly every way. As for the Thunder, their elite defense will need to be up to the task of stopping the Blazers. Also, the matchups between the star duos will be very telling to who wins this series. The bad news for the Blazers is that C.J. McCollum is dealing with a knee injury that might slow him down a bit. In the end, this series will go to the Thunder in six games.
Series to Watch Closely: Denver Nuggets vs. San Antonio Spurs
The Nuggets couldn’t have asked for a worse opponent in the opening round. Yes, the Nuggets have the best home record of any playoff team. Yes, the Spurs have been very bad on the road. But one thing we all know about the Spurs is that they’re playoff tested. You can add up the playoff experience of a few Spurs players, and it will be more total experience than the entire Nuggets roster. Also, you can’t discount the experience of Coach Pop. These teams split the regular season series with two wins apiece. Denver has the more talented roster, but the Spurs make up for that in intangibles and coaching. There’s nothing the Nuggets can do to them that the Spurs haven’t seen before. The x-factor in this series will be DeMar DeRozan. In the two losses against Denver, the Spurs guard averaged just 13 points and four assists per game. In the two wins against the Nuggets, DeRozan averaged 27 points and six assists per game. Also, we cannot ignore DeRozan’s spotty playoff history. Sometimes, he plays up to expectations. But just last season, the Raptors had to put him on the bench in crunch time against Cleveland. We’ll see what he’ll do this year. The Nuggets will have to step in when it comes to defending the three-pointer. The Spurs are jump shot dependent and efficient from beyond the arc. The Nuggets struggle to defend the three. And going back to experience, the Spurs may be able to take advantage of a young team just getting their footing.
All in all, this will be a tough series, but I’ll give the edge to the Nuggets in seven. However, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the Spurs moving on to the second round.
Warriors over Clippers in 5
Rockets over Jazz in 5
Thunder over Blazers in 6
Nuggets over Spurs in 7
Bucks over Pistons in 4
Celtics over Pacers in 6
76ers over Nets in 7
Raptors over Magic in 4