After an exciting regular season that came down to the last game to determine seeding for several teams, including an actual head-to-head matchup for a postseason berth, playoff basketball is upon us.
Questions and concerns surrounding the inconsistencies of the defending conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors make this postseason one of the more enticing in recent memory.
Granted, the Cavaliers-Warriors trilogy was an exciting piece of basketball history, but their roads to the Finals seemed all-too-easy the past couple of seasons. Now, only four members of the 2016 champion Cavaliers team remain and Golden State seems lost without their two-time MVP and floor general Steph Curry.
The Warriors went 7-10 in their final 17 contests witkh Curry missing all but one of the games. Head coach Steve Kerr has already ruled Curry out for the first round. Although Golden State has suffered injuries to several players over the final quarter of the season, few will feel sorry if the trio of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are unable to will the Warriors to a fourth straight Finals appearance. Golden State still has enough elite talent, shooting and depth to win the West, but their path is filled with teams capable of beating them.
Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs
That starts with San Antonio, and wouldn’t it be a series if the Spurs rolled out Kawhi Leonard, who has recently been rehabbing his quad away from the team and has played in just eight games (most recently Jan. 13) this season. This is an extreme long shot but one that the Spurs might need if they want to beat the Warriors, even without Curry. San Antonio held GS to 75 points a few weeks ago in a Spurs win, but the Warriors were without Curry, Thompson and Durant for that game (The Warriors won the other three season matchups).
The Spurs are an extremely well-coached team, which is something that seems to be underrated in the NBA. They have good enough pieces to steal a game or two, but it is hard to envision them forcing this series to seven games without Leonard. I am of the belief that Golden State’s recent struggles will not carry over to the postseason, and that they will be able to beat the Spurs and receive Curry back for their second round matchup as anticipated.
Prediction: Golden State in 5
After two games: As anticipated, Golden State was able to push aside their end of season troubles to win the first two games. Despite a first half push by the Spurs in Game Two, Golden State ended up winning both games by double digits. Also, no Kawhi Leonard. Toss up if this goes 4 or 5 games, so enjoy playoff Popovich while you can.
Pop's mad ??? pic.twitter.com/ECLCmzrpk2
— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) April 14, 2018
New Orleans Pelicans vs. Portland Trail Blazers
If and when that happens, Golden State may have a tough second round matchup. The Portland Trail Blazers went 17-7 after the All-Star break, including a 13-game win streak – featuring two wins over GSW – that helped them climb up to the No. 3 seed in the West.
Damian Lilliard and CJ McCollum are an extremely talented offensive backcourt, while Jusuf Nurkic is a solid interior defender and offensive piece. However, they do not have the depth and talent to keep up with Golden State in a seven game series.
New Orleans had a very similar path to making the postseason, using a 17-8 record after the All-Star break, including five straight to finish the season.
They did all of that despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a torn Achilles in January, largely due to the dominant play of Anthony Davis. Davis averaged 35 points, 13 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 2.5 blocks on 51-percent shooting (34 percent from 3) in the month of February. That included seven games of at least 38 points.
Nikola Mirotic was a nice trade-deadline addition and Jrue Holiday had perhaps his best season. Rajon Rondo is a very good distributor and E’Twaun Moore had a career year as well.
However, I am not sure if that starting lineup is good enough to defeat anyone in the West in a seven-game series, and their bench is extremely weak (Ian Clark and Solomon Hill being the two best options). I expect them to put up a fight against Portland and perhaps even force Game 7, but I would be surprised if they won the series. Portland has good coaching and will find a way to attack Davis on defense, while I don’t think the Pelicans backcourt will be able to handle that of the Trail Blazers.
Prediction: Trail Blazers in 6
Game One Update: The Pelicans held on late in Portland to win game one, 97-95.
THis Anthony Davis move might be the best attack on the catch I’ve ever seen pic.twitter.com/WFx5uBnAMu
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) April 15, 2018
Anthony Davis was dominant, pouring in 35 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocks and 2 steals. On the other end, Damian Lilliard and CJ McCollum combined for 37 points on 13-of-41 shooting. A big win for New Orleans on the road, but they still won by just two with Davis dominating and Portland shooting awful. I still like Portland, but it might go to 7 now.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Utah Jazz
Utah’s loss to the Trail Blazers in the last game of the season knocked it from third to fifth. Now the Jazz have to face the Thunder, who will enjoy the one round of home-court advantage.
The OKC crowd can get rowdy and high-energy guys like Russell Westbrook feed off that emotion and thrive in that environment.
This series is perhaps the most evenly matched of the postseason, with Utah possessing one of the best team defenses in the league (if not the best) and OKC having three extremely talented offensive players. The X-factor for me is Westbrook, as he usually is; if he is able to shoot well and is making the right reads, the Thunder should win this series in six, maximum. If not, they could be done in five. Westbrook averaged another triple-double this season and is an electric athlete, but he has struggled with shooting and overall decision-making frequently in the past.
In the end, I think Utah’s bench depth will be the key to the series, as they are clearly the more well-rounded team despite OKC possessing the best two players in the series. On a personal note, I would love to see Donovan Mitchell come out and defend Westbrook off the tip. The rookie had several highlight reel plays this season and plays very stingy defense, leading to a potentially intriguing matchup.
Prediction: Jazz in 7
Game One Update: Utah started and finished strong but the Thunder were able to hold on in Game One thanks to a big performance from Paul George and another near triple-double from Russell Westbrook.
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) April 16, 2018
George finished with 36 points and 7 rebounds on 13-of-20 shooting (8-of-11 from 3), while Westbrook had 29 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists. Donovan Mitchell looked comfortable in his playoff debut on the road, dropping in 27 points and grabbing 10 boards (both team highs), but Ricky Rubio struggled in his Jazz postseason debut (5-of-18 shooting). I still like the Jazz in this series, especially if they can steal Game Two.
Houston Rockets vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
This series is the most intriguing of the postseason to me, and that is because I truly believe Minnesota COULD win this series.
Call it a gut feeling, but Houston and James Harden’s late game struggles, paired with Minnesota’s talented and deep roster has me thinking this is a lot closer than a typical 1 vs. 8.
Jimmy Butler is back from injury at the right time and his clutch factor and tough defense will be needed if Minnesota wants to challenge the No. 1 seed. Butler is a great defender, but has only played in three games since March, so tasking him with chasing Harden around might be too much. If he is feeling good coming off a 42-minute regular season finale, however, I would expect Butler to guard Harden, at least in late-game situations. Houston is possibly the deepest team in the league, they have the MVP, and they have the shooters around Chris Paul and Harden, but my gut tells me Minnesota wins this series.
Prediction: Minnesota in 6
Game One Update: James Harden was unstoppable on Sunday night, picking apart the T-Wolves from start to finish.
The Timberwolves literally couldn't stop James Harden in isolation in Game 1. pic.twitter.com/0wPHwLwVr4
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 16, 2018
He simply had everything going, from the step back 3 in opponents faces to tough drives after sizing up his defender at the three point line to flawless decision making in the pick and roll. Clint Capela dominated his matchup against All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns, putting up 24 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks on 10-of-15 shooting, while Towns was held to 8 points and 12 rebounds on 3-of-9 shooting. Minnesota is going to need more from Towns and Butler, who finished with 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting and was (ineffectively) chasing Harden all evening, if they want to upset Houston.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers
As I’ve mentioned, Cleveland has just four remaining members from its 2016 championship team, as the roster has seen quite a few changes over the past several months. However, one of those four is the best player in the league in LeBron James.
For the first time in his career, LeBron played all 82 games of the regular season. In his 15th season and eyeing an eighth straight Finals appearance, one might question that decision. It seems that James was more interested in becoming acclimated with his new teammates on the court than sitting out some games for rest as he has done in recent years.
We’ll see how valuable that playing time was when Cleveland faces a tough Pacers team that took three of four from the Cavs this season.
Victor Oladipo took a huge step forward in his development this season, thriving as the No. 1 option for this Indiana team even when Myles Turner became healthy and rightfully earned an All-Star nod.
The Pacers’ depth will likely caused Cleveland problems, as Indiana possesses good guard play, three capable big men, and endless wing players to throw at LeBron. Indiana’s only hope is to limit the pick-and-roll efficiency of James and get a balanced team effort on offense (had six guys average double figures).
However, I think the Cavs will be able to pick apart the Pacers with the pick-and-roll and perimeter shooting, despite the games being tight.
Prediction: Cleveland in 6
Game One Update: Indiana used a 33-14 first quarter to pace their way to a statement-making 98-80 victory in Cleveland Sunday. Victor Oladipo led the way with 32 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals, while Myles Turner added 16 points and 8 rebounds. LeBron was able to still get a triple-double despite the rough team performance, scoring 24 points on 7-of-17 shooting to go along with 12 assists and 10 rebounds. Jeff Green was held scoreless in 27 minutes, while Kevin Love scored just 9 points on 8 shots. JR Smith was the only other player in double figures for Cleveland with 15 points. The Cavs will be looking for a more well-rounded performance on Tuesday night if they want to head to Indiana with the series tied. The Pacers look postseason ready and this series could go the distance, but I still like Cleveland to come out the victor.
Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks
As a Boston fan tracking the playoff picture on the last day of the season, this scenario was the least desirable for me.
I know Washington always plays Boston tough and has two very talented guards and Miami has a very deep roster, but neither of those teams have Giannis Antetokounmpo. And it isn’t just him this time.
Khris Middleton has developed into a very good all-around player, having a career year this season in almost every statistical category. Eric Bledsoe is extremely athletic and has struggled with shooting consistency in the past, but those shooting percentages went up in Milwaukee this season. They also have Malcolm Brogdon back from injury and Jabari Parker seems to be recovered from his torn ACL after seeing his minutes and usage increase heavily from March to April.
On the other side, Boston has lost its two stars in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward for the season. They will also be without Marcus Smart until April 27 as he recovers from surgery on his thumb. I love what this Boston team has done and I value the Brad Stevens’ impact perhaps more than anybody, but this seems like too much of a mountain to climb. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Boston willed their way into winning this series, something they have done on numerous occasions this season, but I just can’t see it happening.
Prediction: Milwaukee in 6
Game One Update: Boston just seems to find a way to win these types of games. It was clear that the message from Brad Stevens to his young team was to play aggressive and not become overwhelmed by the postseason stage. It was also clear that getting Al Horford involved often was the plan early on and he stayed aggressive throughout the afternoon, finishing with 24 points (13-of-14 FT), 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals while playing tough defense.
— NBA (@NBA) April 15, 2018
Boston also got big contributions from their young trio of Jaylen Brown (21 points), Terry Rozier (23 points) and Jayson Tatum (19 points, 10 rebounds). Giannis Antetokounmpo led all scorers with 35 to go along with 13 rebounds and 7 assists, while Khris Middleton added 31 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. Milwaukee is going to need more consistent play from Eric Bledsoe (9 points, 5 TO) and Jabari Parker (2 points in 15 minutes) if they want to defeat a motivated, resilient Boston team.
Miami Heat vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia is the hottest team in the league, entering the postseason on a 16-game win streak led by rookie Ben Simmons. Oh, and nine of those wins came without Joel Embiid, who will miss the start of the 76ers matchup against the Heat.
Simmons averaged 16 points, 9.1 rebounds, 9 assists, 2.1 steals and 1 block per game on 62-percent shooting over eight April contests. That work led this young 76ers team to the No. 3 seed in the East.
Philly has the shooters around Simmons, and if Embiid plays in the series, it will win.
However, Miami has the depth and a very well-rounded roster that could cause problems for Philadelphia when Simmons is off the floor. Miami had seven players average double figures this season (not including Dwyane Wade and Dion Waiters who both also averaged double figures but played in limited games) and possess shooters at nearly every position. But their lack of a star could cost them when/if Embiid returns in the series.
Prediction: Philly in 6
After two games: The sharp shooting that led Philadelphia to a 130-103 victory in Game One (18-of-28 from 3) disappeared in Game Two (7-of-36 from 3) as Miami was able to even the series before heading back home for Game Three. Miami was led Monday by Dwayne Wade, who scored 28 points (11-of-16) in just 26 minutes off the bench.
Turn back the ⏰ pic.twitter.com/FENkWDcjG6
— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 17, 2018
Ben Simmons has looked far from a rookie in his first two playoff contests, averaging 20 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds and being extremely aggressive on the offensive end. Miami will be looking for a bigger contribution from Hassan Whiteside, who has played just 27 minutes in the first two games due to scheme fit and foul trouble in Game Two, while Philly is hopeful that All-Star center Joel Embiid will return for Game Three. Yet another series that could go the distance, but if Embiid returns by Game Four I still like Philly to win.
Toronto Raptors vs. Washington Wizards
Toronto comes into the postseason as the No. 1 seed, a spot acquired through great team play and consistency post All-Star break. The Raptors had 11 players average at least 15 minutes per game and five average at least 10 points, led by their All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
However, lineups tend to get shorter in the postseason as minutes restrictions are not as important as victories, so it will be interesting to see if coach Dwayne Casey modifies this strategy.
Washington will be relying heavily on their own All-Star backcourt as well. But the Wizards will need big contributions beyond John Wall and Bradley Beal. They need held from the supporting cast. Players like Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mike Scott need to hit shots and defend their positions hard if they want a chance to knock off the No. 1 seed.
Although I think Washington has the better backcourt and will play this series tough, I like the team mentality of Toronto and just the way they are playing at the moment.
The Raptors have struggled in the postseason recently and the Wizards are not a team to take lightly, but I think the drop-off when Wall and/or Beal are off the floor is too significant for Washington to overcome.
Prediction: Toronto in 7
Game One Update: Toronto was able to win this game despite DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combining for just 28 points. The Raptors kept their rotation deep with nine players averaging at least 15 minutes and six players scoring in double figures, led by Serge Ibaka’s 23 points and 12 rebounds. Washington was able to get big games from role players like Mike Scott (14 points off the bench) and Markieff Morris (22 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists) but a rough shooting night for John Wall (6-of-20) was costly. Toronto is just playing too well as a team for me to envision them losing this series.
Video credit: @Bballbreakdown, @NBCSWarriors, @barstoolsports, @espnnba, @NBA, @NBATV