(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 their way. Gordon Hayward is one of the most underrated players in the NBA, and should be able to score against all of the Warriors’ wing defenders. 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 propel 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) Boston Celtics vs. (4) Washington Wizards: Celtics in 6
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 5
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, and those struggles continued in their first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Their “trash bros” backcourt lived up to their nickname by playing inconsistently throughout the series. If they have similar struggles against Cleveland, they could be embarrassed. I think the Raptors will be competitive, but will fall short of pulling off the upset. The Cavaliers looked like a championship caliber team in the first round, and should be able to ride that wave to the Eastern Conference Finals.