The Annual NBA Playoffs Preview & Predictions
This year’s Playoffs are set up to be a spectacular finish to the season — but who will survive and advance past the first round?
Normally around this time of the season we’d be saying, “Let’s just get the Playoffs already!” This season has been different. The NBA is in a new Golden Era, with transcendent stars in their late prime (LeBron, Chris Paul), mid prime (KD, Curry, Westbrook, Harden, Kawhi, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, John Wall) and young stars challenging for the crown (Giannis, Lillard, Hayward, Beal).
This has created a league flush with talent, and eye-popping plays have made their way around the internet on a daily basis throughout the season, even in the Post-Vine Era (PVE). Exhibit A:
So this season the Playoffs are almost the cherry on top. We can bank on the fact that these guys are going to come out and put on one hell of a show from now through til the Finals in June.
Let’s take a look at the matchups and make some predictions about who will make it to the second round. This reminds me of what Lleyton Hewitt always used to say about making his way through a Grand Slam draw, “You can’t win a Slam in the first week, but you sure can lose it.”
You can’t win the NBA championship in the first round, but you can sure lose it. This is about ‘Survive and Advance’. Nobody wants to be the next 2007 Dallas Mavericks (1-seed) losing to the ‘We Believe’ Golden State Warriors (8-seed).
Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Portland Trailblazers (8)
If there’s a team in this year’s Playoffs with nothing to lose, it’s the Portland Trailblazers. Facing a team with two MVPs, in the third year of the winningest three-year run in NBA history, no one except for Damian ‘Blazers in 6’ Lillard is expecting the Blazers to win this series. A quick note on Dame’s prediction — what’s he meant to say? “I think we’re gonna get cooked. Book my vacation.” Of course he’s going to say he thinks they’ll win, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Moving on, and the strengths of the Warriors are plain for all to see: they have 4 of the top 15 players in the league in Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. They’re the number 1 ranked defense and the number 1 ranked offense. They can kill you in so many ways, it’s like a Monty Python skit.
For the Blazers’ part, they need to rely on Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum to go toe-to-toe with the Warriors offensively, and catch fire long enough to get to the finish line in a game or two. Fortunately for the Blazers, these two guys can fill it up in a hurry, as I experienced first hand last weekend when I saw Damian Lillard aka. ‘Lard’ drop a franchise record 59 points against the Utah Jazz.
X-Factor: CJ McCollum.
CJ is averaging 23 points per game, which is good for 20th in the entire league, ahead of Giannis (22.9) and Klay Thompson (22.3). He has one of the best mid-range games in the league, which when paired with his three point shooting (42%) makes for a lethal combination. We can pretty much count on Dame to get his at this point — but if CJ can back him up, the Blazers might be able to catch lightning in a bottle and steal a game or two.
Prediction: Warriors in 5.
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)
Spurs gonna Spur. Every year we’re tempted to think this is end of the run for the Spurs, and every year they prove us wrong. The fact that these guys have put together another 60-win season (61 to be precise) is astounding. Kawhi has developed into a legitimate MVP candidate (but not legit enough, if you ask me) and they have added LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol to their core in recent years to ensure that they simply never fall off the pace. Patty Mills is shooting lights out at 41% from three, and Manu is still doing it despite being age pension eligible.
The Grizz have kept the Grit ’n’ Grind band together yet again, running it back with the core of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. I’ve never been convinced they’ve had enough to win the title though, and this year is no exception, particularly as Tony Allen being ruled out indefinitely with a calf strain. If he was there to make life tough for Kawhi, they would’ve had a puncher’s chance. Without him, I fear for the Grizz.
X-Factor: The Spurs’ depth.
Parker, Ginobili, Kawhi, Green, Pau Gasol, Aldridge, Mills, Bertans, Dwayne Dedmon, David Lee, DeJounte Murray, Jonathon Simmons… they’re as deep as a glass of Gregg Popovich’s red wine in the offseason.
Prediction: Spurs in 5.
Houston Rockets (3) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (6)
Boy oh boy. This is the series that, as a Thunder fan, I’ve feared would eventually come to haunt us. Although we are now almost five years removed from the dreaded Harden Trade, it still stings a little (read: a lot). The thought of losing a playoff series to the team that we traded him to is tough to deal with, and may require several trips to the bar (for cans of Natty Light) to come to terms with.
The Rockets own the season series 3–1 and any objective measure would probably have the Rockets winning this series. Their shooting in Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Lou Williams around the juggernaut that is James Harden is somewhat overwhelming. If they can maintain their slick ball movement and knock down threes, it’s goodnight Oklahoma.
For the Thunder, Russell Westbrook is Plan A, B and C. We need him to go ultra supernova, even more so than he did in the regular season, if we are to have a chance in this one. The good thing is, he averaged only 34.6 minutes during the regular season, less than many of the league’s stars, and he is likely to play for longer stretches and nudge that minutes total closer to 40 in the Playoffs. That means less Semaj ‘Worst backup point guard in the league’ Christon, and that can only be a good thing.
X-Factor: Victor Oladipo.
Although the battle of the bigs (Capela and Nene vs Steven Adams and Enes Kanter) will be one to watch and will be important, Oladipo has a chance to show everyone why the Thunder traded for him and gave him his four-year, $84 million extension. He has had a sneaky good season, averaging 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.2 steals on percentages of 49 / 36 / 75. If he can give the Thunder consistent scoring and be a legitimate threat that the Rockets have to game plan for, he can be a major fly in Daryl Morey’s ointment.
Prediction: Rockets in 6.
P.S. F*ck Patrick Beverley. This is what happened the last time the Thunder met the Rockets in the Playoffs. The guy is shameless, and unfortunately for Thunder fans, he seems to be the one dude that can get in Westbrook’s head. My hope is that Westbrook is now just on another level and that he can ignore any shenanigans that Beverley tries to pull on him, but Patrick Beverley will go to any lengths to throw Westbrook off his game. Stay tuned.
Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5)
This is probably the best series of the first round. Although the Clippers own the season series 3-1, the Jazz are loaded with young talent and have a chance at creating an upset here.
The pressure is all on the Clippers, with this being Year 6 for their core group of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (and Doc Rivers). If they can’t break through this season, a rebuild is surely the only option. (Doc, the Orlando Magic GM job is now open thanks to the departure of Rob Hennigan — how are your photography skills?)
How far do they need to get to justify keeping this core together beyond this season? Probably the Western Conference Finals. With J.J. Redick out of contract at season’s end, and a lack of draft picks in the kitty, the Clippers are all-in on this postseason, and they need to make a deep run.
The Jazz are an NBA Twitter darling, with Rudy Gobert being the latest rim protecting big to draw widespread praise around the league for anchoring an elite defense, and could win him the Defensive Player of the Year Award. This would be a sweet victory for those of us who object to Draymond Green’s unique play style.
The Additions of George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw have bolstered the Jazz’s depth and experience, and their key guys in Hayward, Gobert, Rodney Hood, and Derrick Favors (when healthy) need to step up in a big way if they are to take this series from the Clippers, who have been here many times before.
Side note: If the Clippers win there is a chance I might be able to attend a Clippers home game in Round 2, so all I can say is, “GO CLIPS!!”
X-Factor: Favors’ health.
With the season he has had injury wise, I’m not expecting a huge performance from Favors, however if he can get his knee right he could make an impact playing alongside Rudy Gobert in a big lineup.
Prediction: Clippers in 7.
Boston Celtics (1) vs. Chicago Bulls (8)
The Rondo Revenge Series. This is a chance for Rajon Rondo to stick it to his former team with Jimmy Butler as an A-List assassin backing him up, and for Rondo to say to D-Wade, “Yo — Playoffs are starting, son. Wake yo’ ass up!”
If the Celtics don’t win this series I would advise the citizens of Boston to evacuate because that city will burn. After credible rumours have emerged that the Celtics had offers to add either Jimmy Butler or Paul George at the trade deadline (at varying prices), to turn around and lose to Butler + parts in a 1 vs 8 series would be cause for panic in Beantown.
Since the Bulls decided to give up Taj Gibson and Doug McBuckets for Cam ‘D-League’ Payne, they have been given a lift by the return to form of the inconsistent Nikola ‘F*ck your fantasy team’ Mirotic. With Miro playing the four and adding much-needed spacing to the Bulls’ lineup, the Bulls have made their way into the 8-seed and a shot at redemption for their uninspiring season.
The Celtics will look to their leader, Isaiah ‘Go Huskies’ Thomas, to continue his stellar season which has seen him score an eye-popping 28.9 points per game — good for third (!) in the league behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden. They have Avery ‘Tacoma Dome’ Bradley to throw at Jimmy Butler, their hard-nosed crew of Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, plus Al ‘Dinner’s on me’ Horford. They’re a weird roster, but they’re extremely well coached by Brad Stevens, and they win a lot of games. I don’t see them losing too many in this series.
Can Dwayne turn back the clock and flash enough of his old man game to make this series a dogfight?
Prediction: Celtics in 6.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (7)
The Pacers are one of my personal favourite least impressive teams. I’ve received a leaked copy of President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird’s plan prior to this season from an anonymous source:
“We just want to bring in a bunch of dudes. Any dudes will do, as long as they ain’t very good. Thad Young, Jeff Teague, hell I don’t give a shit — sign Big Al Jefferson if you have to! Just make sure we don’t sign any actual good players. Now get out of my office, my waffles are gettin’ cold.”
The Cavs have LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Enjoy the first round, Indiana fans.
X-Factor: Lance Stephenson. PSYCH!
Prediction: Cavs in 4.
Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (6)
The Raptors have a history of underperformance in the Playoffs, and they face a dangerous opponent in the Bucks. Their GM John Hammond has done a tremendous job in adding pieces to their already promising core of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton. A flyer of a draft pick in Malcolm Brogdon at pick 36 (!) in the second round has turned out to be a stunner — and potential Rookie of the Year. He also drafted the enigma, Thon Maker, who is a mystery wrapped in a riddle. Add to that Matthew ‘Got Milk, Got Paid’ Dellavedova and you have a squad that can make life difficult for the Raptors in the first round.
For their part, the Raptors have also bolstered their squad with the addition of Serge ‘Thank you, Rob Hennigan’ Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline. They have got Kyle Lowry back just in time for the Playoffs, but will his wrist be anywhere close to 100%? If it’s not, they’re in Barney. Barney Rubble. Trouble. They’ll need DeMar DeRozan to return to his early season form, where it appeared for a few weeks that he was, in fact, the second coming of Michael Jordan.
This guy is legit. He has vaulted up into the fringe of the MVP discussion with a rocket, averaging an astounding 22.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.9 blocks (!) — good for 6th in the league, and shooting 52% from the field. He’s ready to shock the world on the Playoff stage, and if he does, the Bucks are in with a show.
Prediction: Raptors in 6.
Washington Wizards (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5)
The Wiz are my pick to make a deep run in the East. Otto Porter Jr aka. OPJ has been a revelation, ranking 5th in three point percentage, and justifying the number three pick they spent on him in the 2013 Draft. Bradley Beal has stayed healthy, and lived up to the hype. He’s turned into a dead set killer, averaging 23.1 points per game, good for 19th in the league, and he looks set to make a mark in this postseason. John Wall has had a year that has put him into the fringes of an historic MVP discussion, and has established himself as a truly elite point guard, who is one of the very best at finding his shooters.
Wall this season, along with LeBron and Harden, actually broke Steve Nash’s record for assists on three pointers. That’s insane.
The Hawks have been a top 4 defensive team this season and they have weapons in Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard to make life difficult for the Wizards, but they still fell 6 wins shy of Washington’s record, and they don’t appear to have the depth to get over the line here.
X-Factor: Tim Hardaway, Jr.
Hardaway has been good for 14.5 points per game and his improved conditioning has led to some spectacular plays:
If he can play like that in this series matched up against Bradley Beal, he will give the Hawks hope.
Prediction: Wizards in 6.
Quick update: Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have come out and said that: A) The Warriors are the underdogs for the championship; and
B) There’s no pressure on them.
Curry: “In theory, we’re not the hunted,” Curry said Friday when I asked him to expand on his comment. “I mean, obviously we have the best record, but we’re not defending a championship… Really, there’s no pressure.”
KD: “Almost feel like the underdog with so many people that want us to fail. We know we have a really good team. But it just feels like our are backs against the wall, everybody is watching us and wants to see us fail. And that’s fun.”
Excuse me while I call bullshit on this. You just added Kevin Fucking Durant to a team that broke the all time wins record. It’s championship or bust, and the Warriors know it. All I can say is, “Long live 3–1.”
Let the games begin.
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