My favorite time of year is upon us. The NBA Playoffs start today and so many questions are out there to be answered: Will the Warriors continue their year of dominance? Can LeBron finally “win one for the ‘Land?” Is this KD and Russ’s last stand? In a year where the conferences are top heavy, will there be any reason to watch any first round games? Starting with the Western Conference, here are my predictions for the first round, the Playoffs overall, and some thoughts on this year’s postseason.
The Western Conference is where the power is in this year’s playoffs. After their regular season dominance, the Warriors are huge favorites to repeat. After them the Spurs can lay claim to one of the 15 greatest regular seasons of all time and while I don’t expect them to beat the Warriors, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them represent the West in the Finals this year. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a dark horse candidate to get through. They’ll need to beat the Spurs in the second round which is a tough match up for them but I think they are the biggest threat to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The Warriors may have swept the series this year but the games were by no means easy and the Dubs have no consistent solution to the KD problem. And with Russell Westbrook and Durant both playing more minutes that’s less time to take advantage of OKC’s anemic superstar-less lineups. Below those three teams the West is filled with solid teams that will not be easy outs regardless of injuries. The Rockets are the outliers but the other teams all are well coached and have previous playoff experience. And the Rockets, well they have one of the most gifted scorers the league has ever seen. All this being said, the Western conference should go all chalk in the first round because the talent gap between the top-four seeds and bottom-four will be too large to overcome.
Warriors (1) vs Rockets (8)
Prediction: Warriors in 4
The Rockets are a dysfunctional bunch of talent that in the right situation, could steal some games. I don’t think that situation is the Warriors. The Warriors have lost one game to this squad in the last two years and should be locked in. Last year the Dubs started a bit tight in the playoffs and although they swept the Pelicans, people forget how close each of those games were. This year they should not have those issues and I expect the Warriors to take care of business swiftly not only because of the gap in talent and coaching but to reassert their dominance after a few slip-ups at the end of the regular season.
Spurs (2) vs Grizzlies (7)
Prediction: Spurs in 4
Poor Memphis. I’m not a fan of the group but they play hard and Joerger has coached them well this season. However, they are just too depleted by injuries to make any noise. They also have the worst draw for their situation. Against the Thunder or Warriors, a lack of focus by either of those teams might have given the Grizzlies a chance to steal a game or two in the Grindhouse. Unfortunately, Coach Pop consistently has his teams locked in and in a situation like this where the Spurs are heavy favorites, I don’t see them allowing Memphis to even take one game. An early offseason might be good for this group after what might have been the final season of the Grit N Grind era.
Thunder (3) vs Mavericks (6)
Prediction: Thunder in 5
This should be a sweep but the Thunder have proven to be inconsistent over the course of the season. Unfortunately for the Mavs, the Thunder seem to have had their number since the Mavs beat them in 2011 Western Conference Finals (y’all remember that?) on their way to a stunning championship victory over the Heat. I’m giving the Mavs a game because of the evil genius Rick Carlisle and ageless Dirk but don’t be surprised if OKC takes care of business in four.
Clippers (4) vs Portland (5)
Prediction: Clippers in 6
Let’s all take a moment to appreciate what Portland has done this year. Last year they were outside-shot title contenders and then, due to injuries, the floor fell out from beneath them. They lost/traded away four of their starters over the summer and rebuilt on the fly around Damian Lillard. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Instead, after a relatively poor start, they roared out of All-Star Break with a dominant performance over the 73 and 9 Warriors and are an unlikely fifth seed. Lillard looks like a legitimate superstar as is the most dangerous shooter off the bounce not named Steph Curry. Hats off to this team and the coaching staff. Unfortunately, this is where their journey ends. The Clippers have played some tough teams in the playoffs previously and as much as I’d like to see Portland pull off the upset, I see Doc working Blake Griffin back slowly through the series but inevitably winning a-not-as-close-as-it-seemed six-game series.
The Eastern Conference is no longer as “Leastern” as it was in the past but still has a long ways to go in comparison to the West. Outside of the Cavs, I don’t see a true contender for the Finals and if any of the top four teams in the West were in the East, I’d pick them over the Cavs for the Finals. However, the middle class of the East is leaps and bounds ahead of where it’s been in recent history and this side of the Playoff bracket is where you are going to find the more competitive series. In particular, the 3-6 seeds all ended with the same record and are pretty evenly matched. I could see both of those series going either way. Even the top two seeds don’t have easy outs with the Cavs losing the season head-to-head to Detroit (albeit with some significant caveats) and the Raptors having shown that they struggle against the Pacers. Tune in early in the evening if you’re looking for more competitive basketball.
Cavaliers (1) vs Detroit (8)
Prediction: Cavs in 6
I see this going similarly to the Warriors-Pelicans series of last year. Cleveland has some obvious pick and roll issues on defense and the Reggie Jackson/Andre Drummond pairing is one of the better duos in the league when it comes to attacking an unfocused defense. I also respect Stan Van Gundy much more than Tyron Lue and I think he has his team working hard for him. The Cavs are clearly a better team and I have no doubts that they’ll win this series – I just think Detroit is a strong eight seed because of solid coaching and some unfortunate match-up/consistency issues for the Cavs. I also think Detroit is not a team to be scared of the moment. Having said all that, I wouldn’t be surprised if LeBron makes the decision to dominate from minute zero and the Cavs sweep. I just think he ramps up slowly this year to save some for the Finals.
Raptors (2) vs Pacers (7)
Prediction: Raptors in 7
Realistically the Raptors should win in five games, maybe six. But I do think they’ll come up tight in the Playoffs this year due to their history of playoff no-shows. Both Lowry and DeRozan have historically excelled in the iso-heavy offenses and if they get caught ball-stopping too much, that could lead to trouble. Paul George is a defensive beast and has built up his offensive game to almost match it. This Pacers team is also just a few years removed from being the scariest match-up for that dominant Heatles team and I think they’re going to enter this series with a lot of confidence. Mahimni is an under-the-radar Most Improved Player candidate and I think the Pacers are in a position to test the Raptors. Game 7 in Toronto will end up being too much for them and “We the North” will win their first playoff series in franchise history. It should also propel them into a strong showing in the second round and give them a puncher’s chance against the Cavs in the conference Finals.
Heat (3) vs Hornets (6)
Prediction: Hornets in 7
I really want the Hornets to win this series. I hate watching Miami. D-Wade is a ball stopper and Hassan Whiteside is an immature and distracted defender who does nothing but chases blocks. It’s a team that should be playing wild and free with Dragic/Bosh pick and rolls surrounded by shooters but their games always feel like an ugly slog. Bosh is out (prayers for his recovery!) and that’s how they win. They still have plenty of experience and are well-coached. In the end it’s probably wiser for me to pick them over Charlotte because I think the moment may be too big for the Hornets. I’m picking the Hornets because they are a disciplined group and without Bosh, Miami is just vulnerable enough to allow for an upset. The key for Charlotte is most likely going to be Batum – I think he is in a position to dominate this series because Deng is old and Green/Winslow are untested. Here’s hoping his ankle is fully recovered for game one. Miami needs the playoff young’ns to play well for them and that might be too much to ask.
Hawks (4) vs Celtics (5)
Prediction: Atlanta is 7
This is the closest thing to a superstar-less match up you’ll see this year. It all depends on how you feel about Al Horford. I feel bad for Boston because this is probably the worst draw for them out of all the teams with identical records. This should have been Boston’s year for home court but unfortunately it was not to be. Atlanta’s defense is locked in and Boston is a team that has difficulty creating offense. Both coaches are creative and will get the most from their squads but at the end of the day, the difference to me is going to be Big Al. Expect a big series from him as the Hawks/Celtics play a defensive war of a series that will leave Atlanta battered for a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavs.
OVERALL PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
Cavs over Hawks in 4
Raps over Hornets in 5
Dubs over Clips in 4
Spurs over OKC in 7
Cavs over Raps in 6
Dubs over Spurs in 5
Dubs over Cavs in 4
The Cavs will drop some games here and there, not because they’re an inferior team but because they have weaknesses that will be tough to hide. LeBron still has the highest ceiling of any player in the league but does not have the legs to do it for four rounds. He’s going to save as much as he can for the inevitable rematch against the Warriors in the Finals. The East will be the conference with more interesting series but the Cavs have the easier road to the Finals. I have flip-flopped over and over on my thoughts on the Heat this year because a Cavs/Heat ECF match-up provides such interesting subplots but I just don’t see them getting through both the Hornets and the Raptors. It’s too bad because psychologically, the Heat have the best chance of any team to take down the Cavs.
Yes, I picked the Warriors to go 16-1. FiveThirtyEight has them at a 1-in-45 shot to do it (And a 1-in-250 chance to sweep entirely) but I think they make history here and only lose 10 games total when combined with the regular season. This is mostly because they’ve already won it before and will be ready for tough games. Let’s not forget that they went 73-9 as defending champs – they weren’t sneaking up on anyone. They are 21-2 against the Top 10 teams in the league and have an absurd 38.6 net rating in 144 of clutch play this season. Numbers also don’t account for the amount of garbage time the Warriors played without their best players and the injuries they dealt with. Additionally, the Spurs will take out the Thunder in the second round and I think out of all the teams, it’s the Thunder that have the best chance at toppling the Warriors. Unfortunately, they face a historic Spurs team that is engineered to stop them. And in that same vein, the Spurs just don’t have the right match-up to give the Warriors a challenging series. I cannot imagine the Spurs being swept but I also don’t see them winning a single game in Oracle. I also see this Warriors team being locked in and ready in a way that they just were not in last year’s playoffs. This year their offense played at a historic level but what makes them scary is that their defense is otherworldly when locked in. They get up for big moments and this is the biggest moment they’ll face. They have the best chemistry of any team in the playoffs as well as the ability to play at a level that no one outside of the Thunder can match. They are also the team that has the most margin for error. If this season has proven anything it’s that the Warriors don’t need to play their best game to dominate. I think the easy prediction would be to have them drop a game or two in each series but if this season has proven anything, there is no sense it picking against the Warriors on a game to game basis. It’s more fun for me as a Warriors fan to pick the Dubs to roll to the Finals.
There will be much said about a Cav-Warriors rematch and I picture Cleveland being at full strength this year. Unfortunately for Cleveland, that’s going to hurt them against this Warriors team that will attack Kyrie and Love with ruthless efficiency. With Blatt at the helm I could have seen the Cavs stealing a game or two by playing LeBron at the center position but I don’t think Lue has the creative mind or balls to tell LeBron to change his game as such. I don’t think they’ll blowout the Cavs in every game but this Warriors bunch should sweep pretty easily.
My disclaimer is that I’m a Warriors homer. But I’ve lived through 25+ years of mediocrity and am in a position to predict, even at slim odds, one of the all-time great playoff performances and I’ll not be the fan that misses a chance to project Golden State dominance. Much like the Bulls fans of the 90s and the Lakers fans of the 00s, this is a time for irrational confidence and blind faith in a team that has set a precedent for mindblowing levels of play. The slim chance that they pull it off is worth any crow I may eat later. #DUBNATION
Well that’s it. The playoffs kick off in about two hours and I am looking forward to a historically great postseason. Check back in at MediaBrewPub.com for periodic updates and round-by-round predictions.