Given that not much has happened NBA-wise since my last post, with the All-Star break taking up much of the time, I will dedicate my post this week to predictions for the second half of the season. In order to do this, I used the NBA playoff predictor to predict every remaining game, which gave me the below bracket. The following paragraphs will be dedicated to breaking down the individual series; why I believe that each team will be seeded where it is and then how every series will play out.
NBA Predictions for Second Half
(1) Houston Rockets vs. (8) Utah Jazz
I actually think that Golden State will put together a very strong second half, but the Rockets have looked virtually unstoppable when everyone is healthy this season. Getting the first seed also likely means more to Houston than it does to the Warriors, so I expect them to chase it head on. They probably need to win close to 20 of their last 25 games to get home court advantage throughout the playoffs, and there’s little reason to believe that they won’t do just that.
Utah entered the all-star break on an eleven-game winning streak, but, shockingly, that long run did not improve their relative standing in the Western Conference. They still sit in tenth, but are now only 1.5 games out of a playoff spot. Utah is tied with Golden State for the easiest remaining schedule in the league, with a number of games coming against teams more likely to be chasing the number pick in next summer’s draft than a spot in the postseason, I fully expect Utah to finish strong and overtake both the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans, both of whom have recently lost star players, for the right to face Houston in round one. With a newfound offensive explosiveness combining with the team’s consistently stingy defense, Utah is the kind of team that will make any team fight to beat it, and they are less susceptible to losing to lesser teams because of that. Unfortunately for them, division rivals Portland and Denver have also impressed of late, and don’t appear to be ready to succumb to a surge from Utah.
The Rockets have beaten the Jazz all three times they’ve faced off this season, and have topped 110 points all three times. For all of Utah’s defensive successes, they, like everybody else, have had a hard time slowing Houston down. Of course, Utah has improved since then, and has gotten back a full-strength Rudy Gobert, but they don’t have the kind of necessary firepower to challenge a team like the Rockets. Once Quin Snyder’s offense comes back down to earth (Joe Ingles can’t shoot 51% from three forever), they will have little to no shot at upending James Harden and company. Rockets in five.
(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) Portland Trail Blazers
Golden State looked tired by the time All-Star weekend rolled around. For the first time in four years, they are not the top seed at the league’s so-called half-way point. Still, they are 30 games over .500 and remain the prohibitive favorites to win a third title in four years. As LeBron James has proven time after time over the last decade, seeding matters little when you have the best players. Therefore, I expect Steve Kerr to focus more on ensuring that his team is fully locked and loaded for the playoffs instead of battling with the Rockets for the rest of the season. For the first three years of Kerr’s reign, his team was able to coast late because they already had the top spot in the conference sewn up , but this year’s Houston team doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Golden State learned the lesson of playing too hard late in the season in 2015-2016, when they were chasing 73 wins, and both Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have a history of injury problems. Golden State should be content to figure out their defense and their rotation and settle for the two seed.
Portland, on the contrary, appeared to be finding their groove before the break. Damian Lillard’s last five games or so were clearly his best stretch of the season. They should comfortably get into the playoffs, but there appears to be a dogfight between the conference’s third and seventh seeds. Due to a combination of their defensive inconsistencies, Denver’s strong play of late, and my gut feeling that Oklahoma City will eventually figure it out, my standings ended up having Portland finishing seventh, one game behind Denver, and just four out of third place.
That is unfortunate for the Trail Blazers. Sure they recently beat the Warriors when Lillard exploded for 44 points, but the last two playoffs give us a solid idea of how this story will end. The Warriors have taken eight out nine against Portland in the past two postseasons, including a perfect 6-0 when Steph Curry suits up. Simply put, Golden State is too good for the Blazers. Portland is a team that prides itself on a hot-shooting backcourt, which the Warriors more than match while adding all-stars Kevin Durant and Draymond Green in the frontcourt. Terry Stotts’ team has recently seemed to stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity, and this year will have a similar end to the past two. Warriors in four.
(3) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (6) Denver Nuggets
These are two of the teams that I am most excited to watch down the stretch and into the postseason. Minnesota has at times not looked as good as many might have thought when they made the blockbuster move to acquire Jimmy Butler on draft night, but they managed to string together wins, especially at home.
Butler might be the league’s most underrated star this season and deserves to be in the MVP discussion. Karl-Anthony Towns is a scoring and rebounding machine and has recently stepped up his much-maligned defense. Even veteran additions Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson have put together more than respectable seasons. The real issues have been a lack of growth from Andrew Wiggins and especially an overall lack of depth on the roster. The bench has struggled to produce, but, more importantly they haven’t gotten the opportunity to in Tom Thibodeau’s rotation. Still, with Kawhi Leonard seemingly out for the season (more on that later), Butler and Towns are probably the conference’s best duo outside of Golden State and Houston. Considering that along with the fact that their remaining schedule is relatively easy, I see Minnesota overtaking San Antonio and clinching the West’s third seed.
Denver is a lot of fun to watch. It seems as if they have finally realized that they need to run their movement-heavy offense wholly around Nikola Jokic, and the center has repaid them with three consecutive triple-doubles, including an insane 30/15/17 statline against Milwaukee shortly before the all-star break. The players around Jokic, notably guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, are shooting the lights out and playing some of the best offensive basketball of their careers. Of course, most of the Nuggets’ shortcomings come on the other side of the ball, where Denver is the third worst defense among teams currently in the playoff picture and the tenth worst overall. The return of Paul Millsap, hopefully to come in the coming weeks, should change that somewhat, but Denver’s personnel just doesn’t translate very well to getting stops.
Although I see the Nuggets ending the season on a strong note, this is a problem that I expect to haunt them come playoff time. The Timberwolves have scored basically at will in two regular season wins so far against Denver. Minnesota is also an impressive 24-7 at the Target Center this season, so home-court advantage will be imperative to them. In playoff series that are relatively evenly matched, I tend to side with the team that has more star power. Denver is deeper and more balanced, but they don’t have a go-to-guy to get a bucket or a stop down the stretch. The Timberwolves have both in the form of Butler. They eke out what promises to be a highly entertaining series. Timberwolves in six.
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) San Antonio Spurs
The Thunder have clearly been one of the league’s biggest disappointments to date. At different junctures throughout the season, they have seemed to figure it out, only to counter a winning run with a losing streak of similar length. Still, with the talent level on the roster, both offensively and defensively, I expect them to eventually put it all together. Russell Westbrook is approaching his MVP form after a slow start and Paul George is making a case as one of the league’s very best two-way players. The Thunder have shown an alarming propensity to play to the level of inferior opponents, but they have also put together a number of impressive showings this season. Late in the season, when wins become more valuable, their veteran roster and the competitive drive of Westbrook should lead them to begin to collect victories at a more consistent rate. San Antonio appears to be the most vulnerable of the West’s top six, and their grasp on the third seed seems feeble at best. With the middle of the conference playoff pack tightly bunched together, a strong finish by Oklahoma City could buoy them into home-court advantage in the first round.
San Antonio spent much of the first half of the season as they often do: Piling up wins and remaining under the radar. However, a rough patch going into the break, and reports regarding Kawhi Leonard’s worsening rapport with the front office has cast a shadow over the franchise that has been the league’s model for stability over the past two decades. Leonard appears unlikely to play again this season due to a quad injury, although reports suggest that he has been cleared by the medical team, and remains on the sidelines on his own volition. The roster without Leonard is not devoid of talent, but it does not stack up well with the rest of the team’s battling it out for a top four seed. LaMarcus Aldridge’s resurgence and the team’s stout defense are incredibly impressive, but they need more offensive options is they want to maintain their current standing. Currently sitting on four straight losses, I see San Antonio struggling to completely turn it around and slipping from third to fifth over the remainder of the season.
As I mentioned in the previous slide, I tend to side with star power in matchups of team’s with similar records. Clearly, the Thunder win that battle. Of course, Gregg Popovich is the great equalizer. His team will be ready for the postseason and he will make the necessary adjustments to keep the series competitive. You can also count of Westbrook to shoot his team out of at least one game. Still, home court makes the difference in this matchup. Thunder in seven.
(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Miami Heat
The Raptors and Celtics have done a good job in separating themselves from the pack in the Eastern Conference. With Boston struggling to find sources of scoring, and Toronto streaking into the all-star break, it seems as if the Raptors will clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history. Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry continue to impress, and this year, they finally seem to have to necessary depth to potentially make some real noise come playoff time. Toronto is on pace to be the only team in NBA history to have eleven guys average six or more points, and their bench is filled with athletic guys who play hard, get stops, and move the ball well on offense. Getting the top seed is likely an important goal for Dwane Casey’s guys, and they will probably play hard for the remainder of the season in order to accomplish it.
After predicting all of the remaining games, I had a three-way tie for the East’s seventh, eighth, and ninth spots between the Heat, Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers. As the tie breakers worked out, Detroit got the seventh seed, Miami the eighth, and the Pacers somehow missed out on the playoffs entirely. Honestly, before I embarked on my predictions, I would have confidently said that Indiana would get to the postseason. However, they do have the league’s toughest remaining schedule and I’m not here to argue with my own predictions. At slightly over .500, the Heat squeak into the playoff picture. Miami is well coached, they move the ball well, and their scoring comes from a variety of sources. They had a hot run that momentarily brought them two within a win of the third seed, but they have recently hit a rut that has them on the cusp of a spot in the lottery. If they do get into the playoffs, they will likely be the least talented group of the bunch.
I like Miami, and it would be quite a story to see Dwyane Wade return to the Heat and get them a playoff series win. However, Miami’s strength comes from their depth, and Toronto even has them beat there. The Heat also have no player at Derozan’s level. Just reaching the postseason should be viewed as a success for Erik Spoelstra. Raptors in five.
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Detroit Pistons
Boston started the season red-hot, leading to talk of them emerging as the front-runners in a weak Eastern Conference. However, their play over the last twenty games has demonstrated an offense that struggles to create good looks, and an overall roster that may be nothing more than a slightly improved version of last season’s squad.This team can grind out wins against the league’s very best, but can also occasionally struggle to put away inferior teams. Kyrie Irving is spectacular, and the team has an exceptionally bright future. However, I expect them to fall behind a motivated Toronto team and barely hold off a challenge from the new-look Cavaliers to hold onto the second seed.
Detroit made a big move to land Blake Griffin prior to the trade deadline, likely in a last-ditch effort to reach the playoffs and perhaps save Stan van Gundy’s job. The team hasn’t been highly impressive so far with the ex-Clipper, but Griffin and all-star Andre Drummond do combine to create the conference’s best frontcourt. They will likely hover around .500 for the remainder of the season, and my predictions have them edging out the tiebreaker with Miami and Indiana to sneak into the seventh seed.
Boston has the potential to get upset early in the playoffs, but Detroit is not the team to pull that off. They don’t have enough firepower in the backcourt or on the wings, or enough overall depth. Brad Stevens is one of the league’s best game-planners, and the Pistons don’t have the kind of talent where they can hurt you in different ways. This is an ideal first round matchup for a vulnerable high seed like the Celtics. Celtics in five.
(3) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (6) Washington Wizards
The Cavaliers may have saved their season with a flurry of action at the trade deadline. They traded away old, slow veterans for fast, athletic young guys with a lot to prove. The team, and LeBron James in particular, looked completely reinvigorated in dismantling the Celtics and Thunder before heading into the all-star break, where James took MVP honors during Sunday’s showcase. James knows that seeding is of little importance to him, as if he feels that he is playing well and his team has solid chemistry, they will be the clear-cut Eastern Conference favorites. Cleveland not only needs to integrate Rodney Hood, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. into their rotation, but they’ll also need to re-incorporate Kevin Love whenever he comes back from his hand injury. Cleveland may lose a handful of games from now until the conclusion of the regular season, but their emphasis, much like the last two seasons, will be on peaking right when the postseason commences.
Washington has gone an impressive 8-3 in the eleven games since star point guard John Wall began an extended spell on the sidelines. Although they have looked good without Wall, Washington is staring at one of the league’s most difficult remaining schedules, including their next 13 games against teams that are currently in playoff position. That might be good news for Washington, however, who has combined impressive victories with a number of head-scratching losses. I can’t envision Washington coming out of the upcoming stretch completely unscathed. Their current hold on the fourth seed is quite shaky, with the red-hot Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers right on their heels. It will be a tall ask for Tomas Satoransky to fill in as Washington takes on a number of tough opponents while needing to constantly keep an eye in the rear view mirror. Assuming that Wall takes a while to get up to speed once he returns, Washington seems likely to fall in the standings in the coming weeks.
The Wizards have the talent to compete with almost anyone in the Eastern Conference. Their performance last season demonstrated as much. Unfortunately, Cleveland may be the one team that Washington has no chance at taking out in a series. Washington has no player even remotely capable of stopping LeBron, and the Cavaliers are likely to take it a step up defensively come playoff time. The Wizards could keep individual games close, and maybe even steal one, but Cleveland has proven again and again over the past few seasons that they are tough to beat in the early rounds of the playoffs. Cavaliers in five.
(4) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (5) Philadelphia 76ers
Milwaukee appears to have turned the corner and become the team many expected them to be ever since firing Jason Kidd. Interim coach Joe Prunty has simplified the offense and led his team to a 9-3 start under his leadership. Giannis Antetokounmpo has solidified his spot as a top-five player in the league and a legitimate MVP candidate. Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and a healthy Jabari Parker are perfect complementary pieces who can do damage in different ways. The team is fast, young, and athletic. Their recent run has pulled them to within two games of the third placed Cleveland Cavaliers. Their second half schedule will test them, but it is not as difficult as Washington’s or Indiana’s, two teams I expect the Bucks to overtake in the standings. A fully unleashed Antetokounmpo is near impossible to slow down, and superstars have a way of leading to wins in the NBA. As long as Milwaukee keeps playing the way they have, the end of the season should treat them well.
Philadelphia is in a similar boat. They may currently find themselves in seventh, but they have captured their last six in a row. Ben Simmons has recovered from a mid-season lull and is in an intense competition with Donovan Mitchell for rookie of the year. He continues to hurt teams with his driving ability, passing, and versatile defense. Joel Embiid finally appears healthy (knock on a lot of wood), and he seemed right in place alongside the NBA’s best over all-star weekend. When suited up, Embiid may be the league’s very best big man this side of New Orleans. He and Simmons, surrounded by a number of sharpshooters, including the recently signed Marco Belinelli, will be a scary sight for any opposing defense. The team’s length and height, enabled by the 6’10’’ Simmons playing the point, has also led it to be among the league’s best defenses over the past few weeks. The Sixers have a bright future, but their present looks equally positive.
In other words, this has the potential to be one hell of a first round series. No one doesn’t want to see Embiid and Antetokounmpo go head-to-head for seven games. And that is exactly what I predict will take place. In the end, Embiid may not hold up under the rigors of a seven-game series. Milwaukee has been here before, and they desperately want to win a playoff series. They have more experience, and that what this series will serve as for the 76ers. Bucks in seven.
(1) Houston Rockets vs. (4) Oklahoma City Thunder
A rematch of last year’s first round series won by Houston, but with both teams retooled. I like the Thunder’s potential as a playoff squad. Depth isn’t quite as much as an issue, so Westbrook and George can play extended minutes, and can avoid the deadly combination of Harden or Chris Paul going against bench units.
Oklahoma City is stout defensively, but Houston has demonstrated an ability to put up points against anybody. History tells us to not fully trust Harden, Paul, or D’Antoni come playoff time, but something about this team feels a little different. PJ Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Clint Capela give the team a stronger defensive identity than last season, and that will give them a better shot to make a deep run in the postseason.
Russell Westbrook will put on a show. James Harden will match him. Houston will struggle, but eventually prevail, handing Chris Paul his first career appearance in the conference finals. Rockets in seven.
(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (3) Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota is a tough matchup for Golden State. Jimmy Butler is one of the few players who can at least try to slow down Kevin Durant, and Karl-Anthony Towns is a load to deal with on the low block, an area in which the Warriors struggle. Minnesota will need to improve its defense to have a chance against the defending champions, but they have the offense to at least somewhat keep up.
Golden State will not lose to the Timberwolves, they are simply too talented. However, the team has only once really been challenged in the Western Conference playoffs since their reign over the conference began. Minnesota, with their youth, hunger, and talent, should provide a tough fight. The Warriors defense has shown soft spots this season, and Minnesota is well equipped to take advantage of those holes. Expect a lot of high-scoring games, with the defending champs eventually prevailing.Warriors in six.
(1)Toronto Raptors vs. (4) Milwaukee Bucks
These two teams faced off last season in the first round, with Toronto prevailing in six games. Both sides have improved substantially since then. Toronto has played brilliantly over the course of the season, abandoning their isolation-heavy offense for more cutting and more ball movement. The results so far have been possibly better than even the Raptors themselves could have imagined. However, neither Kyle Lowry nor Demar Derozan has been particularly impressive in their past three postseason appearances. The Bucks for their part haven’t been too good in the playoffs recently, either.
The gap between these two teams are not as great as their records or seeding suggest. In fact, on paper, Milwaukee’s roster may look better. Toronto’s depth will not be as big a weapon come playoff time, when rotations shrink to seven or eight guys. As I’ve said before, I tend to side with superstars when playoff teams are relatively evenly matched. Milwaukee has the best player in the series in Antetokounmpo. I believe in the Greek Freak, and I don’t really trust the Raptors in the playoffs. This guarantees to be a hard-fought series, but I’m going to go out on a limb. Bucks in seven.
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (3) Cleveland Cavaliers
About a month ago, this series would have been far more difficult for me to predict. Cleveland was looking woeful, and Boston looked motivated to knock them off their perch. Cleveland’s retooled roster is far better matched to contend with Boston’s bevy of athletic wings. Boston’s quick start has begun to fade. They struggle to create offense outside of Kyrie Irving, and even their defensive strength may not exist against Cleveland. Last season, Cleveland shredded an equally heralded Boston defense that has since lost Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder.
You can count on LeBron James being highly motivated to take out the former Robin to his Batman in Cleveland. He has also shown a desire to end series quickly over the years. Boston does not have the firepower to contend with the Cavaliers, as last season showed. Cleveland blew out Boston when they met shortly after the trade deadline, and by the time Love comes back, that should be a reoccurring theme in playoffs. Cleveland has made a habit of absolutely hitting their stride in the second round of the playoffs, easily sweeping their past two conference semifinals opponents. Like last year, Boston should take one gritty win, but not much more. Cavaliers in five.
(1)Houston Rockets vs. (2) Golden State Warriors
The Rockets are, in my eyes, the only team that has a shot to knock off the Warriors. They can keep up with anyone on the scoreboard, and their defense is greatly improved. They have captured two of three off of Golden State so far this season. However, the playoffs are a different animal entirely. The Warriors will step their game off come playoff time, just like last season, when they looked completely unbeatable.
Houston is clearly the best team that Golden State has faced in the Western Conference in the Kerr era, and they have a shot to hold home-court advantage. However, I am not ready to bet against the Warriors. They haven’t lost more than one game in a series since acquiring Kevin Durant and they are still have the most talent to be assembled on one team. Houston gives a stiff fight, but Golden State survives. Warriors in six.
(3) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (4) Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee is the Eastern Conference team with the best chance to beat the Cavs in a seven games series. The reason? Giannis Antetokounmpo. He clearly isn’t LeBron but he is the East’s closest thing to him. LeBron’s teams haven’t faced a player of the Greek Freak’s caliber before the finals in a long time. Milwaukee also has the athleticism and length to create problems on defense.
Prior the new players coming in, this would have been a tougher choice. However, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance are better pieces to handle Milwaukee’s athleticism. LeBron is still LeBron and he is still surrounded by a number of efficient shooters. Their offense will be difficult to stop. I envision this playing out like the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals against Toronto when the Raptors pulled out a few wins, but were never really a threat to capture the series. Honestly, I don’t really want to see Cleveland and Golden State going at it again, but I don’t see any viable alternatives. Cavaliers in six.
(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (3) Cleveland Cavaliers
For the fourth consecutive season, we seem directly headed for another Warriors-Cavs showdown in June. The Cavaliers are probably a little worse than they were last season, as are the Warriors. Cleveland cannot come close to matching Golden State’s talent, but they do have LeBron James. He makes any series winnable.
Still, we’ve seen this movie before. Kevin Durant is the league’s second best player. He can match up with LeBron. Throw in Curry, Thompson, and Green, and Cleveland just can’t match up. They might steal one game with their hot-shooting or a Golden State off game. There will be a lot of threes, a lot of points, and, in the end, a third title in four years for the Golden State Warriors. Warriors in Five.