My NBA Playoffs First Round Preview

The 2017 NBA Playoffs get underway this weekend. Here is my preview of the eight first round match-ups (seeding in brackets):

Eastern Conference

Celtics MVP, Isaiah Thomas

Boston Celtics (1) v Chicago Bulls (8)

This series will either be a sweep for the Boston Celtics or go to six or seven games. That’s how the Chicago Bulls are; they can be brilliant or terrible.

The Bulls have two champions in their team in Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, and it is easy to forget that just last year Wade almost singlehandedly beat a superior Toronto Raptors team while he was with the Miami Heat. Toronto eventually won that conference semifinal in seven games but it showed Wade still has what it takes to have a major impact on a playoff series.

Rondo, meanwhile, had been playing his best basketball in a few years before the wrist injury he suffered two weeks ago and was a major reason the Bulls turned things around to make it into the postseason.

Rondo is expected to play and that only further boosts a Chicago team that heads into the playoffs after going 7–3 over their last 10 games.

The Celtics, however, are the better team. They have the series’ best player in Isaiah Thomas who finished third in the NBA in scoring (with a career-high 28.9 points per game) in an MVP-caliber campaign. There is also Al Horford who is flying under the radar because of a solid but unspectacular debut season in Boston but remains one of the league’s most polished big men and could be a dominant figure in this series.

Most importantly, Boston has the tools to stop the Bulls’ best player, Jimmy Butler. Butler dragged Chicago into the playoffs over the second half of the season averaging 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists. However, against the Celtics he only averaged a little over 20 points and shot just 25 for 69 (36 percent) from the floor in four games.

I would like to think the Bulls will show fight in belief they can pull off an upset, i.e. we will see Good Bulls instead of Bad Bulls. If that will be the case then this series won’t be as straightforward for the Celtics as it ought to be.

Prediction: Celtics in 6 games

Cleveland Cavaliers (2) v Indiana Pacers (7)

Will LeBron James rise above the Pacers’ challenge?

The Cleveland Cavaliers versus the Indiana Pacers is a tougher series than most people think. It is true that LeBron James teams constantly head into the playoffs with drama. This was always the case in Miami and was certainly the case last year when the Cavaliers ended up winning it all. But, this year feels a little different because the Cavaliers have been so bad for so long now. The Cavs are 17th in the NBA in win percentage (12–15) since the All-Star break and an appalling 29th in defensive rating, giving up 111 points per 100 possessions.

Tristan Thompson’s health is also an issue.

He suffered a sprained right thumb against the Orlando Magic on April 4 and the Cavs absolutely need him to be fully healthy because he is a vital player for the Cavs when it comes to the playoffs because of his rebounding. Thompson is the team’s best rebounder at both ends of the floor and he gives Cleveland a ton of second-chance points, a key in the postseason.

Indiana have a quite a good frontcourt of Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson that could take advantage if Thompson isn’t the playoff superhero he has been over the past two years for the Cavs.

The Pacers also have Paul George who is one of the league’s very best players and who scored 43 points the last time the teams met.

Crazy stat to finish: LeBron James teams have not lost a single first round game since 2012, winning 17 in a row. But, they are ripe for the taking. It is very conceivable they lose the first game at home.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 7 games

Toronto Raptors (3) v Milwaukee Bucks (6)

The Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Raptors are a sexy pick to do something special in the East but I’m skeptical they will make it out of the first round. The only thing that sways me is the All-Star break addition of Serge Ibaka. He brings experience, defense and toughness, three ingredients that are critical to playoff success.

Ibaka and fellow mid-season addition P.J. Tucker helped Toronto to the fourth stingiest defense in the NBA after the All-Star break (allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions).

The two are a perfect complement to a duo of talented stars that are hungry to finally be recognized as superstars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

The problem is the Bucks are similarly hungry, and they are younger. Milwaukee will have no fear and nothing to lose in this series. In addition, their star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, just became the only player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks and the Bucks were the East’s second-best team after the All-Star break.

The Bucks will fight hard and they might even steal a game in Toronto but the Raptors’ superior firepower of Lowry and DeRozan will tell in the end.

Prediction: Raptors in 7 games

Washington Wizards (4) v Atlanta Hawks (5)

Ready for his moment? John Wall.

I have always been a big fan of John Wall. He is from the animal breed of point guard like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose and this year he has finally joined the conversation of the best point guards in the NBA.

However, to truly be considered elite, he has to excel in the playoffs and, with the Wizards in the same bracket as the Celtics, that means Wall has to get his team to Eastern Conference finals.

Atlanta is an enigma.

Quite similar to Chicago, the Hawks are a team that has had eye-catching highs and head-scratching lows and are probably still searching for an identity heading into these playoffs.

Apart from Wall the most interesting player in this series is Dwight Howard. Paul Millsap is unquestionably Atlanta’s best player but the most important player in terms of how he performs in this series could be Howard (though this is a tie with Dennis Schroder because if Schroder comes out erratic and irresponsible then Atlanta will have absolutely no chance of winning because they face one of the league’s most prolific backcourts in Wall and Bradley Beal).

Still, Howard’s play, especially defensively, will decide how long this series goes.

Prediction: Wizards in 5 games

West

Golden State Warriors (1) v Portland Trail Blazers (8)

Too much to handle; Kevin Durant aand Steph Curry.

This is the easiest series to call. The Blazers are a mini Golden State and they are not even as good as they were last year when they lost to the Warriors in five games in the West semifinals (when Golden State didn’t have Stephen Curry for the first three games and hadn’t added Kevin Durant).

There is really no contest here because the Blazers have no one to guard Durant. He could average 30 points in this series. The only question is if Durant is fully fit after only recently returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for 20 games. That being said, he looked fine in the few games he played to end the regular season.

Prediction: Warriors in 4 games

San Antonio Spurs (2) v Memphis Grizzlies (7)

Grit, grind and skill… Mike Conley.

This series is tougher than most people think and could really go to seven games. Kawhi Leonard had an MVP-type season for the Spurs as he combined brilliant defense with 25.5 points a game. But, there are cracks. San Antonio didn’t end the season well and Tony Parker showed his age.

Also, how will Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge fare against Memphis’ monsters on the inside, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph?

Memphis point guard Mike Conley also figures to be a key figure seeing as he is coming off the best season of his career and, perhaps more than ever, is ready to embody the Grizzlies’ toughness and unselfishness.

It will be a tough series. The teams split their four regular season games with the home team winning on each occasion. San Antonio and Memphis are also similarly brutal on defense. The Spurs finished the regular season first in the NBA in defensive rating (100.9 points per 100 possessions) while the Grizzlies finished tied for sixth at 104.5.

This one will be dogfight.

Prediction: Spurs in 7 games

Houston Rockets (3) v Oklahoma City Thunder (6)

Russell Westbrook will be unleashed in the playoffs.

This is the battle of the MVPs and another matchup that I think will be much closer than people think. This Thunder team is good especially after the All-Star break additions of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott. And, Russell Westbrook will have complete and utter license to go wild in this series. It could get very crazy and very scary. It is a recipe that can steal a game or two and take this series down to the wire.

The Rockets are the better team, more polished and in tune with their system. But, they are yet to earn benefit of the doubt that they won’t be flustered by Westbrook which we would give to the Spurs or Warriors because this is Houston’s first season together under Mike D’Antoni and they don’t really have a long resume of playoff success as a group.

Houston will win the series. James Harden would have been MVP in almost every single season in the history of the NBA. Unfortunately, this year there was an animal named Russell Westbrook who overtook him down the final stretch with unbelievable triple-double record-breaking feats.

Harden will control this series for most parts and he has better support. Eric Gordon is probably the sixth man of the year and Lou Williams is one of the league’s most sizzling scorers he gets in his zone. There is too much firepower for the Thunder to handle over seven games.

Prediction: Rockets in 6 games

Los Angeles Clippers (4) v Utah Jazz (5)

The last hurrah for the Clippers Big Three?

The Clippers are just unlucky they are in the same bracket as the Golden State Warriors because they are the league’s hottest team right now and this could be the year they finally break their duck and get over the hump.

The ingredients are there. The Clippers are under the radar a bit and expectations are not as high after years of disappointments. But, once again, unfortunately, they are in the same bracket with Golden State to whom they have lost the last 10 games in a row.

More bad luck: they face the Utah Jazz in the first round, arguably one of the league’s most complete teams when George Hill is available. Utah have a quality point guard (Hill), an elite scorer (Gordon Hayward), the league’s best center (Rudy Gobert), Derrick Favors (if healthy) coming off the bench and versatile, highly-skilled veterans in Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson primed for the big moments. This is a very good team that has the capability to give the Clippers fits.

The thing, though, is the Clippers seemingly have Utah’s number. They have won 18 of their last 20 matchups with the Jazz.

The Clippers will win the first two at home and they will steal one in Utah. That will be enough to make this series shorter than the talent on show would suggest.

Prediction: Clippers in 5 games