(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers: Warriors in 5
The Golden State Warriors coasted through the regular season waiting for this moment. This playoff run will be their redemption for losing in the finals last year. Their first round opponent could be one of their biggest challenges this postseason. The Trail Blazers underachieved all season, but have enough talent to give the Warriors problems. The dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is one of the few in the NBA that can match Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on a nightly basis, but they’ll have to get help from their teammates if they want to compete with the Warriors. The Warriors don’t have the depth that they had last season, but they added a superstar in Kevin Durant that will be instrumental in their efforts to get back to the finals. The Trail Blazers just don’t have enough firepower to match the Warriors. They’ll probably win either game three or four at home, but I don’t expect them to push the series beyond five games.
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies: Spurs in 5
After an injury to Tony “first team all defense” Allen in the last game of the regular season (in a meaningless game), I expect the Spurs to defeat the Grizzlies in five games. I would’ve chosen the Spurs to win in six games if defensive star Tony Allen was healthy, but his injury won’t be the deciding factor on who wins the series. The Grizzlies have a lot of talent and veteran leadership, but they are no match for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. The Spurs have the coaching advantage, which is an extremely important factor in the playoffs. Grizzlies coach David Fizdale is a rookie head coach, so we won’t know how he’ll respond to adversity until the moment that he faces adversity. He seems like he is the right man for the job, but he’ll be outclassed in this series by future Hall of Famer Gregg Popovich. The Spurs have the best player in the series in Kawhi Leonard, better overall depth, and a better coach. This series won’t be very competitive. I like the Grizzlies’ “Grit and Grind” mentality and hope they can keep the games competitive, but I’ll be surprised if they’re able to win more than one game in this series.
(3) Houston Rockets vs. (6) Oklahoma City Thunder: Rockets in 6
In the first round series that most fans are looking forward to more than any other, the two MVP candidates will try and outclass each other and make their case for being the best player in the NBA this season. Although the Rockets are the more complete team and will be favored in this series, the main storyline of this matchup is the battle of Russell Westbrook and James Harden. These two former teammates were the two best players in the NBA this season (and neither was the best player on the Thunder when they were teammates). Although Westbrook got more publicity because of his triple-doubles, James Harden had an equally impressive season that translated into more wins for his team. I think Westbrook will singlehandedly win two games for his team in this series, but he won’t be able to overcome the firepower of James Harden and his Houston teammates. The Rockets have more depth than the Thunder, which is the main reason why the Rockets are favored in this series. I expect the games to be exciting, but I don’t think the Thunder have enough talent to advance to the second round.
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Utah Jazz: Jazz in 6
In a series that could go either way, I expect the Utah Jazz to defeat the Clippers in six games. Selfishly, I hope this series goes seven games because it’s between two extremely talented teams. If both of these teams didn’t suffer a plethora of injuries throughout the regular season, they could’ve both been fighting for the number two seed in the Western Conference. These teams are that talented. They are both relatively healthy heading into the postseason, which should make the series competitive. The Clippers have a lot of star power, but they’ve been extremely inconsistent all year. The Jazz haven’t been as inconsistent, but their peaks also haven’t been as good. They are an extremely deep team, which is why they were able to win games while losing key players during the regular season. I picked the Jazz as my sleeper team in the Western Conference before the season, so I’ll pick them to pull off the upset over the favored Clippers. If the series goes to a seventh game, I think the Clippers will have the advantage at home. So I’m picking the Jazz to close out the series in Utah in six games.
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (5) Utah Jazz: Warriors in 7
Before the season started, I picked the Utah Jazz as my sleeper team in the NBA. I said the Jazz were the only team in the Western Conference that could beat the Warriors in the playoffs. I liked the Jazz because they are two-deep at every position. Although depth isn’t as important in the playoffs because teams typically play their bench less minutes, I think the Jazz have enough overall talent to give the Warriors fits. They have the personnel to go big or small, which means they can matchup with any lineup that the Warriors throw at them. Gordon Hayward is one of the most underrated players in the NBA, and should be able to score against anyone the Warriors throw his way. Rudy Gobert is a defensive monster and clogs the lane offensively, which will open things up for shooters. The Jazz have enough shooters to space the floor, and have one of the most underrated floor generals in the league in George Hill. I don’t expect the Jazz to win the series, but I think they can push the series to seven games. If the Jazz win, I’ll look like a genius. But I’ll give the Warriors the benefit of the doubt in the seventh game at home.
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (3) Houston Rockets: Rockets in 6
Although the Spurs are the higher seeded team, I expect the Rockets to defeat them in six games. I think the Spurs are a great regular season team, but I don’t see them as a great playoff team. In my opinion, the Spurs are the fifth most dangerous playoff team in the Western Conference behind the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, and Los Angeles Clippers. I like Kawhi Leonard, but I don’t think he has enough help around him to push the Spurs into the conference finals. Pau Gasol isn’t the same player he used to be, and LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t fitting in with San Antonio as well as they hoped when they signed him. James Harden has been a superstar all season with the Rockets. His transition from an off-ball shooting guard to point guard in Mike D’Antoni’s system has been one of the most pleasant storylines in the NBA this season. The Rockets have a plethora of three point shooters around Harden that are making shots at an extremely high rate. This Rockets team is not only fun to watch, but they are extremely dangerous. I don’t think the Spurs match up well with the Rockets, and I’d be surprised if they were able to defeat them in this series.
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (3) Houston Rockets: Warriors in 5
The Golden State Warriors should beat the Rockets to head back to the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year. The Warriors are the best team in the NBA, and it’s not even close. They added the second best player in the NBA to a team that was the best in the NBA last season (even though they didn’t win the championship). The Rockets play an exciting brand of basketball that will give any team issues. They shoot the three at an extremely high rate, which could help them win a few games if they’re shooting lights out. I expect the Rockets to have one game in this series where they are making a ton of threes, but that won’t be enough to pull off the upset in this series. Mike D’Antoni will once again fall short of making it to the NBA Finals, but his team will give the Warriors a challenge.
(1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Chicago Bulls: Celtics in 6
Although the Boston Celtics are the top seed in the Eastern Conference, few experts think they’ll make it to the NBA Finals. Most experts believe the Cavaliers are the favorites (including myself), and many of them think the third seeded Raptors are better suited for a postseason run than the Celtics (including myself). The Celtics will use this as motivation going forward, but I don’t think they’ll need much motivation against the Bulls. Chicago has the best player in the series in Jimmy Butler, and two veterans in Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo with championship experience. But this Bulls team underachieved all season, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll figure things out now that the playoffs have begun. Isaiah Thomas has been a superstar for the Celtics all season, and they have a lot of depth around him that should propel them into the second round. I think the Bulls will be able to win two games in the series because of their top-heavy talent, but their depth will be an issue that prevents them from advancing.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Indiana Pacers: Cavaliers in 5
LeBron James and Paul George will go head-to-head in another postseason battle. Although King James has won every matchup, the Pacers aren’t afraid of LeBron and the Cavaliers. Paul George is starting to look like the pre-injury Paul George again, which will be an issue all series for the Cavaliers. The Pacers aren’t as good as they’ve been in years past, but they do have an emerging sidekick to George. Myles Turner is an emerging star at center that plays at a high level on both ends of the floor. Although he’s young and inexperienced, he has enough game to give the Cavaliers issues. Cleveland basically handed the Celtics the number one seed by resting their starters and struggling down the stretch, but they are the most talented team in the Eastern Conference. I expect Paul George to dominate in each game, but he won’t be able to single-handedly defeat the Cavaliers in this series. I’ll give the Pacers one win at home in game three or four, but I’d be surprised if this series goes beyond five games.
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks: Raptors in 7
In the playoff series that I’m looking forward to more than any other, the Raptors and Bucks will face each other in the first round. Although most people don’t think this series will be as competitive as I do, I’ve watched the Bucks play all season and think they have enough talent to challenge the Raptors. This isn’t the best matchup for the Bucks, but they do have the best player on the floor. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been one of the best players in the NBA this season. He became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in overall points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. He’s a one-man wrecking crew that should be able to single-handedly change the series. After the Jabari Parker injury, few people expected the Bucks to make a postseason run. But Khris Middleton proved he’s the second best player on this team (because he’s a two-way player, unlike Jabari Parker) when he returned from injury. Toronto added Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline to help make an NBA Finals run. If they didn’t add these two pieces, I would’ve picked Milwaukee to pull off the upset. I think these additions will make Toronto the second best team in the Eastern Conference behind the defending champion Cavaliers. Although I like the Bucks, I don’t think they have enough behind Antetokounmpo and Middleton to defeat the Raptors in a seven game series.
(4) Washington Wizards vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks: Wizards in 5
Although most 4-5 matchups are competitive, I don’t expect the Hawks to give the Wizards any problems in this first round playoff series. The Hawks are trending upward and the Wizards are trending downward heading into the playoffs, but I don’t think this trend will continue. I don’t think the Hawks are a good matchup for the Wizards, and I’m not buying Atlanta as being a good playoff basketball team. They have some talent, but I don’t think their talent will translate to victories in the playoffs. The Hawks have the better bench, but that strength gets minimized in the postseason when teams traditionally play their starters more minutes. The Wizards’ starters played more minutes than any starting unit in the NBA, which could end up causing them to tire during this playoff run. But I don’t see this being an issue during this series (maybe during a later series). The Wizards have the best player on the floor in John Wall, and have two-way wings that can score and lockdown opponents on defense. I think Atlanta will win either game three or four at home, but I’d be surprised if this series goes more than five games.
(1) Boston Celtics vs. (4) Washington Wizards: Celtics in 7
The Celtics face a tough challenge in the Washington Wizards. The Wizards’ starting five have played more minutes than any other starting unit in the NBA this season, and they have the right pieces to pull off this upset. Although Isaiah Thomas is an elite offensive player, he struggles to defend his position. John Wall is the fastest point guard in the league, and he should be able to dominate against the smaller Thomas. Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are the two starting wings for the Wizards, and they both have great abilities on both ends of the floor. The Celtics have defensive wings in Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Marcus Smart that can slow down Beal and Porter, but they don’t have anyone that can slow down John Wall. I expect Wall to single-handedly win a few games in this series for Washington. The Celtics are the much deeper team, which is why I give them the advantage in this series. I think the Celtics are more of a regular season team than a playoff team, but they have enough firepower to outlast the Washington Wizards.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (3) Toronto Raptors: Cavaliers in 7
The Raptors present more challenges to the defending champion Cavaliers than any other team in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors added Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline with the hopes that they could help them get past Cleveland. The Raptors’ backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are still the most important players for Toronto, but these two additions will be crucial pieces for their quest to win the championship. The Raptors wanted P.J. Tucker because of his defensive capabilities. Although nobody has enough talent to stop LeBron James, P.J. Tucker has the capability of limiting his impact. His role in this series will be to make LeBron James’ life difficult. The Cavaliers will still be the favorites in this series because of the talent of their big three. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have championship experience, which should give them an advantage. Toronto has struggled to play up to their potential in the playoffs over the last few seasons. If they have similar struggles against Cleveland, they could be embarrassed. I think the Raptors will be competitive, but will fall just short of pulling off the upset. Cleveland will win game seven in front of their fans to head back to the Eastern Conference Finals.
(1) Boston Celtics vs. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers: Cavaliers in 6
This series gives the Celtics a chance to show that they aren’t the worst number one seed in NBA history. That narrative has been communicated by the media, which has understandably upset the Celtics. Although I don’t think they’re the worst number one seed ever, I do think they aren’t the best team in the Eastern Conference. I would pick both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors to defeat the Celtics in a seven game playoff series. The Celtics have a lot of nice role players around Isaiah Thomas, but they don’t have a superstar to get them over the hump. Isaiah Thomas is a star, but he’s a better fit to be a number two option on a championship contending team. The Celtics have a trio of wing defenders in Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Marcus Smart that can give the Cavaliers issues, but they don’t have enough to slow down the big three entirely. If the Celtics are able to win the series, they would prove that the Cavaliers made a mistake to rest their starters and concede the number one seed. I didn’t like the decision to rest their starters, but I don’t think it will cost them a chance of returning to the NBA Finals. The Celtics will be a challenge for the Cavaliers for years to come (especially if they get the number one pick), but they don’t have enough firepower to beat them this season.
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers: Warriors in 5
The Warriors have waited all year for this rematch, and they’ll finally get their redemption. The Warriors were the more talented team last season before blowing a 3-1 lead (couldn’t help it) in the series. With the addition of Kevin Durant in the offseason, there’s no question that they are even more talented than last year’s record-breaking team. The Warriors and Cavaliers will likely become the first teams to face each other in three straight NBA Finals. This will be the rematch of the rematch, and should be different than both other years. This series will be more lopsided than the last two years. The Warriors should have more problems with the Rockets (in the Western Conference Finals) and Jazz (in the second round) than the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers have been waiting all season for this matchup too and aren’t scared of the Warriors. But they’ll be in for a rude awakening when they get dominated in five games. I’ll give Cleveland the benefit of the doubt at home in game three of this series, but I expect Golden State to rebound in game four before heading back home to win game five and their second championship in three years. I hope I’m wrong because I’d like to see another competitive series between these two teams, but I think the addition of superstar Kevin Durant will make it nearly impossible for Cleveland to repeat as NBA champions.