It’s that time of year again: playoff time. That means it’s time to take a look at each series match-up and preview/predict what I expect to see from each teams.
Eastern Conference: After an exciting finish to the regular season, the 76ers came out of no where and clinched the 3-seed after finishing the regular season on an impressive 16-game win streak. The Raptors and Celtics clinched the top two seeds last week, but the rest of the field wasn’t confirmed until the last few games this week.
- Raptors vs. 8. Wizards
–It happened in college hoops, and it could happen in the NBA. The biggest possible upset in the Eastern Conference playoffs could be the Wizards coming out and beating the Raptors. As sneaky good as the Wizards are, they’ll have to win 4 out of 7 to beat the top-seeded Raptors and move on to the second round.
–The Raptors, who’ve proven themselves as the best in the East all season, finished the regular season with a record of 59-23, compared to the 43-39 of the Wizards. With no serious late-season injuries for either squad, the series will come down to who can make the most game-changing plays.
–Will it be DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry? Or will John Wall and Co. come away with the series win and upset?
- Celtics vs. 7. Bucks
–The Celtics clinched the 2-seed last week, but that was before all-star point guard Kyrie Irving had season-ending knee surgery. Now, after playing (and winning) a few games without their star, the big question will be whether or not the young Celtics team has what it takes to put away the 7-seed Bucks, led by the “Greek Freak,” Giannis Antetokounmpo.
–Winning 55 games this season, the Celtics were in strong position to make a deep playoff run this year. Coming off last season, when they were the 1-seed in the East and lost to the Cavaliers in the ECF 4-1, acqusitions looked to help the C’s this year. Injuries hurt the team all year, starting on opening day when new SF Gordon Hayward fractured his ankle and hasn’t seen the floor since.
–For the Bucks, 44-38, seeing the playoffs again shows progress for the franchise. With the development of Antetokounmpo, the young Bucks team hopes to advance past the first-round, where their season ended last season.
- 76ers vs. 6. Heat
–Winners of their last 16 games, the 76ers took the league by storm in the last month of the regular season. Yet to lose in April, and haven’t dropped a game since March 13 when they fell 101-98 to the Pacers. As the hottest team in the league, the 76ers have a target on their backs. Before this win streak, they were going to be content clinching a spot, but as the 3-seed, facing the Heat, the 76ers will have to continue to impress on the court to compete with D. Wade and company.
–The Heat on the other hand, have had their share of struggles all season. Before trading for D. Wade back in February, the Heat sat at just 29-26. Although they finished just 44-38, the Heat have a strong backcourt, led by Goran Dragic, D. Wade and Tyler Johnson, and a decent frontcourt: Kelly Olynyk, Hassan Whiteside and Josh Richardson.
–It’s been a good year for Philadelphia, and I think the NBA Playoffs will treat the 76ers well. Once they get past the Heat, I expect Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz to carry their team into a deep playoff run.
- Cavaliers vs. 5. Pacers
–It’t no surprise that the Cavs are back in the playoffs. In his 15th season, LeBron is putting up career highs. He played all 82 games, and has more total (not average) stats than every other MVP candidate (Harden included). Sitting at 50-32, LeBron and the Cavs are in a strong position to run through the Eastern Conference.
–After getting the 3-seed sniped from them by the streaking 76ers, the 4-seed Cavs will face the 5-seed Pacers, and easier matchup than I’d expect to see from the 6-seed Heat. Although a Heat-Cavs, LeBron-D. Wade matchup would be a great series to see, the Cavs are too good to end their season in the first-round.
–Finishing the season 48-34, just 2 games back from Cleveland, the Pacers are looking to utilize Victor Oladipo and Bojan Bogdanovic to spread out the Cavs and make them defend them inside and out.
Western Conference: With the seeding for seeds 3-8 up in the air until Wednesday night (regular season finale), every team in the running was playing well. The Timberwolves squeaked by the Nuggets for the 8-seed, and Russell Westbrook made history, again, by averaging a triple-double over the season.
- Rockets vs. 8. Timberwolves
–The Rockets have led the league all season. With the best record in either conference, they sit at 65-17. After acquiring Chris Paul during the offseason, the Rockets are more than equipped to beat any team in the NBA. James Harden, with the dirtiest crossover in the league, is the top candidate for MVP, and that has helped propel him down the stretch.
— After JUST sneaking into the playoffs with their 8-seed, the Timberwolves are just happy they made it. Sitting at 47-35, the Twolves were right on the verge of missing the postseason, but they beat the Nuggets in their regular season finale to secure their spot. KAT, Wiggins and Butler have what it takes to win big games in big moments, but they’ll need to prove it against the best team in the NBA this series.
–Making their first playoff appearance since 2004, when Kevin Garnett was playing in MN, the Timberwolves are above .500 for the first time in 14 seasons. With Butler, Rose, Wiggins and KAT, the Twolves have the skills and ability to play up to their competition, but they have little playoff experience (D. Rose).
- Warriors vs. 7. Spurs
–After the best few seasons in NBA history, the Warriors are back down to Earth. Sitting at 58-24, they are still in a drivers seat in the West. Facing a tough Popovich coached Spurs team, the Warriors will have to survive until Steph Curry can get back on the court. Shouldn’t be an issue, since they still have 3-4 all-stars (Durant, Thompsen, Iggy, Green), but it’s worth noting that since Curry has been out with injury, the Warriors have gone just 7-9.
–The Spurs, without Kawhi Leonard all season, have again managed to see the post season. Gregg Popovich is a legend, and the Spurs have gotten new faces, with less experience but strong potential, to ‘rebuild’ their franchise. Tony Parker saw a steep dropoff this season, but LaMarcus Aldridge and Manu Genobli (along with Patty Mills), have provided enough to get them back into the playoffs.
–A few years ago, this was a dream matchup for the Western Conference Finals. Both teams were playing at such a high level, and both coaches were going great work on the sidelines. Now, without Leonard and Curry for at least a few games, there is much less star power.
- Trailblazers vs. 6. Pelicans
–At 49-33, the Trailblazers have cemented their position as a 3-seed in the West. Taking on a big Pelicans team, they’ll have to spread the ball around and get past Anthony Davis on the inside to get through this series.
–The Pelicans, sitting at a 48-34, just one game back from the Blazers, will have to get the ball inside to big AD, spread the ball with Rondo, and make the Blazers defend them in the half-court. This 3-6 matchup has the potential to go to 7 games if the Pelicans can stay in each game and keep it close down the stretch.
–With Harkless ruled out for game 1, the Blazers will likely play Evan Turner and Aminu a healthy amount and hope for strong production from their bench.
- Thunder vs. 5. Jazz
–With three all-stars, a league MVP and at least 1 future HoF inductee, the Thunder didn’t play as well as they should’ve this season. Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the second straight season, but was alongside Carmello Anthony and Paul George this season. With the added star power, the Thunder should’ve won more than the 48 games they did (48-34).
–The Jazz, who’re making the playoffs for the second consecutive year are relying heavily on Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert to force Westbrook and company into bad passes and make mistakes. To win, the Jazz will have to win the rebounding battle and find a way to limit scoring opportunities from Melo, PG13 and Russ.
–This will be the closest first-round series of the playoffs. I expect it to go to 6 games, but I think at least 2 of the first 4 will go down to the wire or OT.
(1) Raptors–>5 games
(2) Celtics–>6 games
(3) 76ers–>5 games
(4) Cavs–4 games
(1) Rockets–>4 games
(2) Warriors–>5 games
(6) Pelicans–>6 games
(4) Thunder–>6 games
A full schedule of all the games in the first-round can be found HERE.