(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers: Warriors in 4
Even with Steve Kerr and Kevin Durant missing multiple games, the Golden State Warriors were able to sweep the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland’s backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum played at a high level during the majority of the series, but they didn’t get much of a contribution from the rest of their team. Jusuf Nurkic tried to return from a broken leg, but was ineffective in the one game he played in the series. The Warriors won by an average of 18 points per game, with game three being the only competitive game in the series. Golden State proved that they can win games without their best player. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are talented enough to carry the Warriors through the Western Conference playoffs. With a healthy Kevin Durant in the mix, it’s unlikely that the Warriors don’t win the championship. The Warriors will face the Utah Jazz in the second round of the playoffs.
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies: Spurs in 6
The San Antonio Spurs were able to dispel the Memphis Grizzlies in six hard-fought games to advance to the second round of the playoffs. After losing the first two games in San Antonio, Grizzlies coach David Fizdale became an internet sensation for his postgame press conference. Fizdale was upset that Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard shot more free throws than the entire Grizzlies team. He had every right to be upset because every questionable call went the Spurs’ way. Fizdale became famous for his “take that for data” speech that incited the Memphis crowd in games three and four of the series. The Grizzlies were able to win both of those games at home. The Grizzlies won the fourth game of the series 110-108 in overtime on a game-winning shot by Marc Gasol. Kawhi Leonard did his best Kobe impersonation by hitting clutch shot after clutch shot in the fourth quarter and overtime, but wasn’t able to propel his team to victory. The Spurs won game five at home and were able to clinch the series with a road victory in game six. Kawhi Leonard was fantastic on both ends of the floor in all six games, stating his case that he’s the best two-way player in the NBA. The Spurs will face the Houston Rockets in the second round of the playoffs.
(3) Houston Rockets vs. (6) Oklahoma City Thunder: Rockets in 5
The Houston Rockets were able to defeat the fighting Russell Westbrooks in five games to advance to the second round of the playoffs. The Thunder proved that they are a one-man team, and Russell Westbrook proved that he is human. Although Westbrook put forth a herculean effort in every game, he was only able to single-handedly win one game. He struggled in the fourth quarters with his shot, and continued to shoot despite having open teammates. He clearly didn’t trust his teammates, and nobody can blame him. They were putrid every time Westbrook was off the floor, but passing to keep the defense honest would’ve helped his team in crunch time. It was hard to resist calling him “Westbrick” when he started forcing up shots late in games, but the Thunder would be competing with the Nets for the worst record in the NBA without him. James Harden also put up amazing stat lines in this series, but was able to rely on his teammates when his shot wasn’t falling. Watching the two MVP candidates go head-to-head made for exciting television, but the Rockets were able to win the series because of their depth. The Rockets will face the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs.
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Utah Jazz: Jazz in 7
The battle of the oft-injured teams was won by the Utah Jazz in a tough seven game series. Both the Jazz and Clippers have enough talent to be the second best team in the Western Conference (behind the future NBA champion Golden State Warriors), but struggled with injuries throughout the season. Unfortunately, both teams had to deal with injuries during this playoff series. The Jazz lost star center Rudy Gobert just ten seconds into the first game, but he was able to return for the last four games of the series. Clippers star Blake Griffin injured his toe in the third game of the series and was ruled out for the remainder of the postseason. This was a huge blow to a team with championship aspirations, but they have played without Griffin numerous times over the last few seasons. Griffin’s injury was too much to overcome, as they weren’t able to win the final game of the series at home. The Clippers often run their offense through Blake Griffin, and struggled to find secondary playmakers to run their offense through when Chris Paul needed to rest. With both Griffin and Paul becoming free agents, this could be the end of an era for this Clippers team. The Jazz are one of the deepest teams in the NBA, which allowed them to rely on role players when their stars weren’t playing up to their potential. Joe Johnson, Joe Ingles, Boris Diaw, Derrick Favors, and Rodney Hood all stepped up at key moments during the series. The Jazz will face the Golden State Warriors in the second round of the playoffs.
(1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Chicago Bulls: Celtics in 6
After losing the first two games of the series at home, the Boston Celtics were able to win the series’ final four games to advance to the second round of the playoffs. The Chicago Bulls were one of the most underachieving teams in the NBA this season, and started to play like a championship contender during the first two games of this series. The Bulls had the best player in the series in Jimmy Butler, and also were able to rely on Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo’s championship experience. During game two, Rondo suffered an injury that sidelined him for the rest of the series. Rondo hadn’t played well during the regular season, but looked like prime Rondo during the first two games. After Rondo went down, the Bulls were a completely different team. Rondo’s backups struggled all series on both ends of the floor. Isaiah Thomas played this series with a heavy heart because his younger sister died right before game one. Although his team lost the first two games, he was playing at an All-Star level. His teammates didn’t play up to their standards until the last four games of the series. The Celtics have been called one of the worst one seeds in NBA history, and that narrative seemed accurate after two games. But they were able to rally behind their leader and dominate games three through six. The Celtics will face the Washington Wizards in the second round of the playoffs.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Indiana Pacers: Cavaliers in 4
Another first round playoff series, and another sweep by LeBron James’ team. King James has made a habit of leading his team to a first round sweep. The Indiana Pacers were competitive in a couple of games, but weren’t able to keep up with Cleveland in the final minutes. Paul George looked like the pre-injury Paul George during the first three games of the series, but wasn’t able to single-handedly win any games for his team. He struggled in game four, but still had a chance to redeem himself with a three pointer that would’ve tied the game in the final seconds. Unfortunately for George, he badly missed that uncontested shot. George put forth maximum effort at all times, but needed more help from his teammates in order to pull off the upset. The defending champion Cavaliers won all four games in this series, but they still need to improve if they are going to repeat as champions. LeBron James was dominant in all four games, but didn’t consistently get help from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. If all three members of the big three are playing up to their potential, the Cavaliers are impossible to beat. They’ll need to be more consistent in the rest of the playoffs as their opponents get tougher to beat. The Cavaliers will face the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the playoffs.
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks: Raptors in 6
The Toronto Raptors were able to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks in six tough games. The up-and-coming Bucks had their chances to win the series, but were too inconsistent and inexperienced to pull off the upset. The Bucks were able to steal game one in Toronto because of the putrid performance from Toronto’s “trash bros” backcourt. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan finished the series playing up to their potential, but struggled with inconsistency during the first three games. They were able to rebound in game two before getting blown out in game three. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the best player in the series, but didn’t get enough help from his teammates. Khris Middleton is the Bucks’ second best player (with Jabari Parker injured), but struggled with his shot all series. Toronto had a 25 point lead in the second half of game six, but allowed Milwaukee to go on one of the most impressive runs in playoff history to take the lead in the fourth quarter. It was almost comical to watch Toronto collapse. They’ve had a history of collapsing in the playoffs, and it looked as though they were going to blow this game and have to try to close out the series at home in game seven. But the players that led the charge for the Bucks were exhausted in the games’ final minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the primary catalyst for the comeback, but was physically drained because coach Jason Kidd played him 47 minutes. The Bucks lost the lead in the final minutes but had one last chance to tie the game in the final seconds. Down by three points with less than ten seconds remaining, Antetokounmpo elected to drive to the hoop for an uncontested dunk instead of shooting a contested three. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, they didn’t have enough time after Giannis’ dunk to tie or win the game. It’s hard to blame Giannis, because they would’ve lost by forty points without him. The Bucks missed nine free throws in the fourth quarter, which ultimately cost them the game. The Raptors were the more talented team, but their inconsistent play almost cost them the series. They’ll have to play better if they want to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors will play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs.
(4) Washington Wizards vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks: Wizards in 6
The Washington Wizards outlasted the Atlanta Hawks in six games to advance to the second round of the playoffs. After the first five games were won by the home team, the Wizards were able to pull off a road victory in game six to clinch the series. John Wall was the best player in the series. His backcourt mate Bradley Beal put up solid numbers in this series, but struggled with his jump shot at times. In the first two games in Washington, the Wizards’ bench played at a higher level than they did during the regular season. In games three and four in Atlanta, the Wizards’ bench struggled like they did all season. The Wizards played their starting five more than any other team in the NBA, which was largely due to their inconsistent bench. The Wizards won games five and six because of the stellar play of their backcourt and the emergence of Otto Porter. Porter had a breakout season this year, but struggled with consistency in this series. Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder and Paul Millsap played at a high level all series, but didn’t get consistent help from anyone else on the team. Dwight Howard rebounded and defended at a high level, but he’s an offensive liability at this stage in his career. Although they played well enough to beat the Hawks, the Wizards will need to get a more consistent effort from their bench if they want to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Wizards will face the Boston Celtics in the second round of the playoffs.