(1)Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
This is an unfortunate draw for both teams involved. Houston has been the best team in the league since the all-star break, yet they run into a team that is drastically underseeded because Jimmy Butler missed 23 games with a knee injury. With Butler healthy, Minnesota went 37-22, a 51-win pace, which would have placed them third in the Western Conference. Instead, the Timberwolves had to win a hard-fought, overtime contest with Denver just to get into the playoffs. Their reward? A date with likely MVP James Harden and the Rockets.
With a fully healthy roster, Houston has looked virtually unbeatable this season, amassing a 41-3 record when Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela all suit up. The Rockets are the perfect model for modern NBA basketball. They isolate their guards, either Paul or Harden, two of the best one-on-one players in the league, especially against switches, and let them go to work. Their personnel allows the Rockets to spread the floor to give them space to operate. Both Harden and Paul are capable of playing off the ball, and the rest of the lineup is either knock-down three-point shooters, rim-running big men, versatile defenders, or some combination of the three. Throw in offensive mastermind Mike D’Antoni as head coach and Houston has crafted a historically potent offensive attack.
Minnesota does have three edges that make this matchup more uncomfortable than some others. First off, Jimmy Butler is one of only a tiny number of wings who can at least try to guard James Harden. He’s strong, physical, and quick, and his ability to fight through screens will be crucial to fending off a dreaded switch that would leave slow-footed bigs like Karl-Anthony Towns or Taj Gibson to try to contain Harden. Secondly, Minnesota in used to playing their starters heavy minutes, perhaps more so than any other team in the league. Harden and Paul have done some of their best damage going against their opponents’ second units, with rotations shortening in the postseason, those options will be more limited. Against a Tom Thibodeau -coached team, they may be nonexistent. Finally, Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the biggest nightmare matchups in the league. He can score from anywhere on the floor, and his three-point shooting will draw Clint Capela away from his preferred position under the basket. Since Houston usually only has one big man on the court at once, Towns can open up driving lanes for Butler and Jeff Teague, guards who do their best work around the basket.
Still, Minnesota will be extremely hard-pressed to find a way to knock off the Rockets. Despite having Butler, Minnesota is not a strong defensive team. Between Towns, Teague, and Andrew Wiggins, there are far too many defensive weaknesses for this dominant Rockets offense to exploit. Tom Thibodeau is not known as a master adjuster, and is unlikely to shift from his rigid rotations. Minnesota’s small ball options are limited, but playing Towns, Gorgui Dieng, and Nemanja Bjelica together, as he has throughout the season, is not going to work against Houston. Houston has too many offensive weapons for Minnesota to deal with, and their much improved defense should carry them over the top. The Timberwolves would have had a fighting chance or better against any of the Western Conference’s six other playoff teams, including the Steph Curry-less Warriors. Towns and Butler could steal a game or two, but Houston will eventually prevail. Rockets in six.
(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs
Boy, did the Warriors dodge a bullet here. With Steph Curry out hurt the Warriors have struggled mightily, and with him presumably missing the entirety of the first round, the defending champions seemed as vulnerable as they have since Steve Kerr came aboard. Minnesota would have been scary, as would have Utah or Denver. Playing the Thunder would have been even more dangerous. Instead, Golden State drew the San Antonio Spurs. If the Warriors made a list of who they wanted to play in the first round, the Spurs would likely have been at the top of that list.
Kawhi Leonard has been the x-factor in the Spurs success for the duration of the season. At this point, however, it seems safe to assume that the two-time defensive player of the year is not going to appear in a game this season. What San Antonio has accomplished in Leonard’s absence has been remarkable. They clinched a 21st consecutive postseason berth in a brutal Western Conference, and came within three wins of yet another 50-win campaign. The Spurs accomplished this despite an utter lack of offensive playmakers, especially from the perimeter, where career reserve Patty Mills is arguably their greatest threat. In the era of three point shooting and guard oriented play, the Spurs seem like an anachronism. They don’t shoot many threes, instead choosing the midrange. They start two traditional big men and run their offense through LaMarcus Aldridge in the mid post. One year after being almost forgotten down the stretch of the season, the ex-Trail Blazer has bounced back admirably, averaging over 23 points on better than 50% shooting. Aldridge’s supporting cast plays solid defense and can shoot well, but defenses can focus almost their entire attention on the power forward. Gregg Popovich has once again proven that he can squeeze success out of any personnel, and it is crazy how he can pile up wins despite changing his system dramatically. Over the past two decades, Popovich has gone from a defensive team with an offense that fed Tim Duncan in the post, to a team centered around a Duncan-Parker pick-and-roll, to a ball-movement heavy offense, to running his offense through Kawhi Leonard isolations, and has now circled back to his team priding itself on its defense and feeding a power forward on the block. This time around, though, Aldridge is not as good as Duncan and a team with a purely defensive identity cannot win as easily as in the early parts of the decade.
The Warriors are limping into the postseason. They have gone 11-9 in their past 20 games, and 4-6 in their past 10. That record is only respectable because they have piled up wins against the league’s bottom feeders. Golden State has dropped nine of their past 10 games against teams that made the postseason. Kevin Durant has produced well, as he should, but his exploits have not yet translated to team success. Durant prefers to operate out of isolation situations, but Golden State has remained true to its offensive system. Doing so is incredibly difficult due to the lack of shooting on the court when Curry is out. Klay Thompson and Durant are the only two rotation players for Steve Kerr who can space the floor effectively. Still Golden State has played a lot of basketball over the past three seasons. They appeared tired and burnt out. The playoffs should reinvigorate them. Durant will be the best player on the floor at all times, and Thompson and Draymond Green will be three and four. An uptick in defensive intensity and offensive execution is all the Warriors really need to ensure a win in this series.
In order to beat Golden State in a playoff series, a team either needs firepower or a physical defense. San Antonio has neither. Absent Leonard, they have no one who can hope to contain Durant. For all of Danny Green’s defensive prowess, at 6’6’’, he is simply too small to cover Durant. Although Curry’s injury changes some things, we saw how this book ends in last season’s Western Conference Finals, which, to put it mildly, was not close. Don’t expect this year’s version to be as lopsided, but the Spurs will struggle to score enough to keep up with Golden State. I’ll give them one game out of respect to Popovich, but I would be shocked if they came away with any more than that. Warriors in five.
(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (6) New Orleans Pelicans
This has the potential to be a great series. Both Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis led their teams to impressive second half runs to change the narrative of their seasons. The Blazers have struggled to escape the lower half of the Western Conference for much of Lillard’s tenure, and another season stuck in place was understandably frustrating for Lillard. After a mid-season meeting with owner Paul Allen to discuss the future of the franchise, the Blazers have been on a tear, going 18-7 to shoot up the Western Conference standings. Lillard has been the catalyst, averaging over 28 points during that run. On the other side, the Pelicans were written off after DeMarcus Cousins went down with a devastating achilles injury. Davis, though, had other ideas, averaging over 30 points and 12 rebounds over the last 32 games as New Orleans solidified their postseason position.
Davis’ supporting cast has produced fairly well this season. Jrue Holiday has established himself as a more than competent starter in the NBA, pouring in almost 20 points per night while becoming one of leading candidates for a spot on the NBA’s all-defensive first team. Rajon Rondo has undergone some kind of rejuvenation, and, while inconsistent, is still capable of putting together the occasional brilliant performance. In his last ten games to close out the season, Rondo averaged approximately 11 points and 10 assists per game. E’Twaun Moore and Nikola Mirotic, who appears to have rediscovered his shooting touch, are important floor stretchers. Even Emeka Okafor has done his job rebounding the basketball and diverting shots when inserted into the starting frontcourt alongside Davis. Despite the admirable effort of the rest of the undermanned Pelicans’ roster, Davis does the heavy lifting. That will need to continue, and perhaps even increase, if New Orleans wants a chance to knock off the Blazers.
While Lillard will need a big performance as well if the Trail Blazers are to win, his roster is able produce with more consistency. CJ McCollum is a bona fide second star who can produce efficiently with the ball in his hands or off the catch. He can relieve Lillard of ball handling and creating duties when necessary. Jusuf Nurkic is much improved, and has been the key to Portland’s much improved defense this season. He can score from inside, is a rebounding machine, and is an excellent passer out of the pick-and-roll. As long as the rotation of wings who get minutes–Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Mo Harkless (if healthy), and Pat Connaughton–can produce reasonably well, Portland has the ability to make some noise in the playoffs.
Davis is clearly superior to Lillard because he can score from any spot on the court and he is the far better defender, but they will more or less cancel each other out. This series, ultimately, will come down to the ‘others’. In that department, the Blazers have the edge. They have more shot creators, more athletic players and a higher rated team defense. Anthony Davis deserves all the plaudits that he has received this season, but he really doesn’t have quite enough help. Trail Blazers in six.
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz
The underperforming Thunder won against Memphis on Wednesday to jump up the standings and avoid Golden State or Houston in round one. Their first round series, though, will be no walk in the park. Utah has rebounded from the offseason loss of Gordon Hayward and overcame a tough start, going 30-8 since Rudy Gobert returned from his second extended spell on the sideline. Since his return, Gobert has anchored the league’s stingiest and catapulted himself onto the shortlist for Defensive Player of the Year. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, have not lived up to lofty preseason expectations, but still found themselves in the fourth seed. They have shown glimpses of their potential in a number of impressive wins and a few long win streaks.
Westbrook, who clinched his second consecutive triple-double average in the season finale, is going to need to focus more on getting his teammates into a rhythm come playoff time. Paul George has shown signs of improvement after a difficult run of shooting to end March and open April, averaging 28 points over his final five games. Carmelo Anthony has been a yearlong disappointment, but if Billy Donovan insists on playing him extended minutes, Anthony has to start hitting shots and at least try to play some defense. Steven Adams has often kept the team afloat this season, growing into the third best player on the roster. He rebounds as well as any other player in the postseason and has a nice touch around the rim. The Thunder will count on their physical center to make life difficult for Gobert. There isn’t much else in terms of shot creation on the Thunder roster, but the bench has shown some improvement over last season. The success of the Thunder is going to come down to two things. Firstly, how locked in the team, especially Westbrook and Anthony, are on defense against a team that passes and moves at an elite level. Secondly, they will need to diversify their offense and move away from Westbrook creating everything in order to crack the code that is Utah’s defense.
Utah is almost the opposite of Oklahoma City. They have few superstars, but their team works well together. They move the ball selflessly and rely on body movement to create open shots. They lost a star small forward this summer and were expected to drop off significantly, but have instead performed at about the same level as last year. Although Donovan Mitchell is a revelation, and even if all the credit he has been given is justified, Utah really puts forth a team effort. Rubio runs the offense very effectively, and he is scoring and shooting at a career best clip. Joe Ingles is a secondary playmaker whose passing, shooting, and defense make him a useful, versatile tool. Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder bring toughness off the bench. Gobert is the NBA’s ideal defensive lynchpin. Mitchell eases a lot of the pressure on the Jazz’s offense because he can score so effortlessly, especially for a rookie. Utah was expected to be a tough out, but it is Mitchell’s surprising brilliance that shot them into the middle of the playoff pack. Quin Snyder’s team is one of the most well coached in the league and have had a successful season regardless of the series result.
This is a difficult choice. It should be the most closely contested series of the first round. As much as Utah has defied expectations and proved that it belongs among the West’s best teams, I tend to side with top-end talent come playoff time. If Billy Donovan shortens his rotation, there should never be a time when his team doesn’t have the best player on the court. Utah will make it extremely tough, but Westbrook and George will do enough to close out the series at home. Thunder in seven.
(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Washington Wizards
The Eastern Conference is looking mostly wide-open and almost every series should be competitive. Toronto will enter this series as clear favorites, but Washington should not be counted out. The series will be determined by which version of the Wizards shows up. The entire season has been uneven from them, but they were especially poor to end the year, going 7-14 in their final 21 games. Toronto, meanwhile, has coasted to the finish line after clinching the Eastern Conference’s top seed weeks ago. They will enter this postseason looking to exorcise past demons.
Toronto’s core has remained mostly intact from the team that got swept by Cleveland to close last season. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, and Serge Ibaka remain the four leading scorers and all have done their jobs well this season. What has propelled Toronto to their current standing, though, is a new offensive philosophy instilled by head coach Dwane Casey and much improved depth. In fact, their depth may be unmatched throughout the league. Toronto currently rosters eleven players who contribute over five points per game. Their bench lineup is among the most effective five-man units in the game. Toronto has been collecting athletes in the draft for years, and their strategy finally appears to be paying off. If the team does not succumb to playoff pressure, Toronto will be tough for any team to beat.
Washington, not Toronto was expected by many to be the team that would challenge Cleveland and Boston in the East. Instead Washington has spent the season losing to tanking teams, engaging in intra-team fights on twitter, and failing to adapt to a rapidly evolving league. For a time, it seemed as if the Wizards were playing better without star point guard John Wall, but once defenses adjust, Washington fell into an offensive rut. Wall has played well since returning, which should give the Wizards some hope. However, he has not yet played any back-to-back games and running mate Bradley Beal has looked absolutely gassed down the stretch. Otto Porter continues to do his job, but no one else on the roster has put together a prolonged stretch of good basketball over the past 20 games. Kelly Oubre and Markieff Morris will need to find their strokes for Washington to have a shot. Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi simply do not pass the test as rotation-worthy centers and scoring is difficult to find on the bench unit.
Three years ago, Washington entered the playoffs after rough stretch to close the year and promptly swept the fourth-seeded Raptors. This year is different. Wall and Beal are in questionable physical shape. Toronto’s offense is better equipped to deal with increased playoff intensity. Although this Wizards team might have the talent to spring an upset, they have not shown much on the court over the past month to show that they will win any more than one or two games against Toronto. Raptors in five.
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks
This series will serve as an intriguing look at what matters in determining NBA playoff success. In terms of star power, the Bucks are far ahead of the Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving-less Celtics. Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the perfect position to dominate this series. Even though Boston is a very sound defensive team, they have no rim protector to deter the Greek Freak from attacking the basket. However, Boston makes up for this by having far superior coaching. Brad Stevens has already shown his ability by guiding this team to the second seed, but this series against the talented Bucks will present a new set of challenges.
In addition to Irving and Hayward, Boston will likely be without Marcus Smart for this series, as well. Stevens has had to navigate a litany of injuries so far this season, and the Celtics have acquitted themselves well. They are smart, tough, and selfless. Defensively, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier hound opposing guards, and Al Horford is a defensive swiss army knife who makes all sorts of things possible for Stevens on that side of the ball. Offensively, the Celtics have struggled without their primary shot creators. Horford is solid and can create some plays, but he isn’t going to suddenly turn into a go-to guy. Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum have shown big-time potential but it’s unrealistic to count on such a young duo in the postseason. Greg Monroe was a good addition because he can score with ease out of the post, but he is a defensive liability and may be unplayable if Joe Prunty chooses to send out lineups with Antetokounmpo at the five. Outside of those four, none of whom can be depended on consistently, Boston’s offense is entirely dependent on Brad Stevens’ schemes. There is only so much even the best coaches can squeeze out of limited roster. If Boston is going to win this series, it will have to be on the back on swarming defense and timely shooting.
Milwaukee, along with Washington, is the most disappointing team in the East this season. This roster seems well built to be a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the ball. Giannis is among the league’s five best players, and his impact can be felt on offense and defense. Khris Middleton can be productive without the ball and is an ideal complementary piece. Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker are each legitimate NBA starters, and Malcolm Brogdon, John Henson, and Tony Snell are solid role players. Still, Milwaukee never quite escaped the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee got lucky and was handed a favorable first round draw. Boston is a very weak seven seeds due to injuries. This is Milwaukee’s chance to show what they are capable of.
As I have already mentioned, I tend to lean toward star power in playoff series. This feels like it’s the rare exception to the rule, because Brad Stevens gives his team a puncher’s chance in most series. Still, I’m riding with Giannis. I see him absolutely dominating this series and taking advantage of Boston’s injuries to eke out his first playoff series win. Bucks in seven.
(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Miami Heat
Miami fought hard to earn the number six seed, but it is possible that they would rather have been in Washington or Milwaukee’s spot. Miami is a sneaky good team, and both Boston and Toronto are vulnerable as top seeds. Conversely, the 76ers enter the playoffs with an NBA-record 16-game winning streak. Their offense has been clicking on all cylinders and they are blowing out opponents even without Joel Embiid.
The Heat are going to be hard to beat mainly because anyone that they throw onto the floor can play, and most of them can shoot. Miami is deep, athletic, and vastly underrated. Eric Spoelstra does a tremendous job of putting his players into the best situation to succeed, and they have delivered, rostering eight guys who average double digits double digits (nine if you count Dion Waiters). Miami trots out some funky lineups, but they will all be able to make plays. Goran Dragic runs to offense and is surrounded by versatile wings like Josh Richardson, James Johnson, and Tyler Johnson. Hassan Whiteside is bound to give any opponent fits on the inside. It is impossible to know who will hurt you on what night when playing the Heat. Of course, the lack of a true go-to guy is glaring, because Miami can often get into a rut when their offense isn’t in a rhythm. Especially in the clutch, it is important to have guys who can be counted on to hit the big shot. Dion Waiters was that guy, but he got hurt after only 30 games this season. Dwyane Wade can try to rewind to his glory days, but he probably only has one good game or so per series in him.
Philadelphia’s offense is looking almost unstoppable. Ben Simmons is the ultimate match up nightmare. Due to his combination of height and ball handling ability, Brett Brown has the luxury of being able to play any combination of guys around him. Simmons on the low block against a point guard is a huge mismatch, and double teaming him leaves shooters like JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, and Robert Covington wide open. Throw in should-be-healthy Embiid and the 76ers can score on you anyway they please. When this offense is clicking, and his has been for the better part of the past month, it truly is a joy to watch. Simmons’ versatility also helps on the other side of the ball, where Philadelphia ranks among the league’s best. They are long and quick at almost every position.
Against Toronto or Boston, I would have tempted to go with Miami. But the Sixers are just too good. They have enough strong individual defenders to keep the Heat’s multiple threats at bay, and Embiid will hold it down in the paint. Regardless of what scheme Spoelstra comes up with, Simmons and his group are going to be difficult to stop. This figures to be a fascinating series, but talent eventually carries Philadelphia over the top. 76ers in six.
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Indiana Pacers
The Pacers situation is even worse than the Heat. They battled hard all season to get 48 wins, four more than last season with Paul George, and the fifth seed in the East. Now, they have to challenge the Best Player on the Planet in the first round. For Cleveland, this may be the ideal matchup. I don’t see any Eastern Conference team scaring the Cavaliers less than the Pacers.
Cleveland’s 50 wins marks only a one-game decrease from last season’s total, despite playing with a roster that was largely constructed on the fly at the trade deadline. Over the past three months, LeBron is playing some of the best basketball of his career, even as his supporting cast struggles to get acclimated to one another. That alone would be enough to take care of the Pacers, but Cleveland will also use this series to fine-tune their offense for the later rounds. Cleveland has struggled to find a third option to support James and Kevin Love, and one of Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, or Jeff Green needs to step up in the postseason. James’ presence ensures that points will come for Cleveland, but they also need to figure out a way to improve their defense. At the very least, expect LeBron to become more locked in and make a far more significant impact on that side of the floor.
Indiana is one of the happy stories of this wacky NBA season. After trading away Paul George, the face of their franchise, Indiana was expected to slide down the Eastern Conference standings. Instead, they got better, on the back of a career year by Victor Oladipo and crucial contributions from a number of veteran starters. Indiana has mostly toughed out wins, as they rank at just about the middle of both offensive and defensive rating. Indiana is not going to go all out easily, but it is in the playoffs that the real good teams separate themselves from the ones that just had a good season. Indiana does not create enough offense or make their opponents uncomfortable enough to really have a chance at knocking off Cleveland.
No one on Indiana’s roster is even mildly equipped to guard James. The Cavaliers, and especially LeBron, are known for kicking it into gear come playoff time They are 12-0 in first round games since LeBron’s return. The overachieving Pacers are not the team to end that run. Cavaliers in four.