2017-18 NBA Playoff Predictions – Round 1

Eastern Conference

Toronto Raptors (1) vs. Washington Wizards (8)

Dwane Casey

Prediction: Toronto in 6
The Raptors have been the best team in the East over the course of the regular season. In the playoffs, their depth means less and they have historically struggled. That being said, I don’t think Washington can push them to 7 games. Toronto probably won’t lose at home, but we haven’t seen peak Wizards yet. If Wall can get his groove back and fit into the chemistry the Wizards developed, or perhaps just displayed in his absence, then they could be a real tough out. Overall, I haven’t seen enough of the Wizards to think that they have a real shot at an upset, but I haven’t seen enough from the Raptors stars in the postseason to think this will be a blowout.

Keys to the Series:
1. Toronto’s Bench. Does Dwayne Casey continue to rely heavily on his bench production or do the rotations shorten and will they still be as productive? If they stay productive, Toronto should have no problem.
2. The Guards. Who wins the backcourt battle between Lowry/DeRozan and Wall/Beal will be a big factor in who takes the series.
3. Otto Porter. Can Otto Porter be the X-Factor? He’s been very good all season, but he might need to take a bigger role in the playoffs if the Wizards want to upset.

Boston Celtics (2) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (7)

Giannis.PNG

Prediction: Boston in 6
I feel strange picking back to back road series-clinchers, but what can I say – the East matchups are strange. Celtics have a disciplined defense, and even after losing a good portion of their starting lineup, they have continued to be stingy on defense and methodical on offense. Brad Stevens deserves a lot of credit for the amount of winning the Celtics have done considering the injuries they’ve survived. The Bucks actually have a more talented (active) roster than the Celtics, but for some reason they can’t seem to put it together. Giannis has nights that convince me he’s going to be the best player in the league for the next decade, but he also has nights where he shies away from the spotlight and defers to his teammates too often. If Giannis plays well, the Bucks should win this series. The reason they won’t is they lack a defensive identity and have an inability to play well for more than a few games in a row. Combine that with Brad Stevens being a mastermind and Jason Kidd Joe Prunty being, well, not a mastermind, and you have a recipe for a Bucks disaster.

Keys to the Series:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo. If he plays his best, or close to his best, the Bucks win this series. But he needs to not only be the best player on the court, but take over and dominate the series.
2. Defensive intensity. I fully expect the Celtics to continue their excellent defensive play and grind out close games. Can Milwaukee match? They have the length and athleticism to be a good defensive team, but discipline and intensity have been issues.
3. Adjustments. At some point this series, Brad Stevens will bring something Joe Prunty isn’t ready for. Can he adjust accordingly?

Philadelphia 76ers (3) vs. Miami Heat (6)

Simmons-Embiid

Prediction: 76ers in 5
With Embiid, the 76ers are one of the best teams in the league, and this is probably a sweep. He’s out for Game 1 at least, and maybe longer. Without Embiid, the 76ers are still pretty damn good. Ben Simmons has been incredible as a facilitator and defender, and his inability to shoot doesn’t really hurt his offensive impact. He drives hard to the lane and finishes with both explosiveness and finesse, drawing comparisons to a young LeBron. He also feasts in transition, and with the shooting Philly has assembled around him, it’s more than enough to overcome his lack of spacing ability. Covington and Saric are almost universally underrated and have been outstanding. The Miami Heat drew a bad matchup. Josh Richardson, Justice Winslow, and James Johnson have all improved, but I don’t think it’s enough. Goran Dragic and Olynyk have been good, but look uninspired compared to past heights. Hassan Whiteside hasn’t been the same since returning. Of course, Spoelstra is great and this team has some potential (especially with me picking against them), but I think the 76ers are just too good for this to be competitive.

Keys to the Series:
1. The Bigs. When does Joel Embiid return? Can Whiteside get back to the level we saw him at early in the season? If Whiteside plays well and Embiid is out for an extended period, this could get dangerous.
2. Young Guns. Both teams rely heavily on young and inexperienced players. Who shines and who flops will be something to watch.
3. Confidence. The 76ers have played their best coming into the playoffs. Riding a 16-game winning streak (the past 8 without Embiid) has them looking great. If Miami takes a road game, how do the 76ers respond? Trust the Process.

Cleveland Cavaliers (4) vs. Indiana Pacers (5)

LeBron Dunk

Prediction: Cleveland in 5
The Cavs struggled through the middle of the year. The Pacers gained an identity around Victor Oladipo’s two-way play and solid coaching from Nate McMillan. Unfortunately for the Pacers, they don’t have the key factor in this matchup: LeBron James. He remains the best player in the NBA, and he doesn’t look like he’s slowing down. The Pacers are a good team with a solid foundation, and I fully expect them to get better next season, but I haven’t seen enough growth from Myles Turner, especially down the stretch, to expect an upset. Until I see a scary matchup, give LeBron 4 G-League players and I’m still not betting on him dropping a first round series.

Keys to the Series:
1. Defense. The Pacers have been average defensively, and the Cavs have been awful. Can the Cavs turn it on? Can the Pacers stop LeBron by himself the Cavs offensive? This will determine how this series plays out.
2. Secondary Stars. Kevin Love has more responsibility on this team than ever before in his Cavs tenure. If he outplays Myles Turner, the Pacers shouldn’t be able to hang.
3. LeBron James. Can the best player in the world mitigate his team’s deficiencies? He’s done it before.

Western Conference

Houston Rockets (1) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (8)

Butler Harden

Prediction: Minnesota in 4 Houston in 5
I want so badly to believe the Timberwolves have a real shot at the Rockets. By the time Game 1 starts, I will have fully convinced myself they will win. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is out. Ryan Anderson might be out. Jimmy Butler is back! Yep, Wolves in 4. Unfortunately, the Wolves have no answer for Harden. He will do what he always does to teams that don’t play defense – distribute for easy threes and score at will. The Wolves have struggled defensively against everyone, but have allowed a staggering 130 points per 100 possessions against the Rockets. This one will not be pretty. I think the Wolves should be able score better than most on the Rockets, and if Karl-Anthony Towns gets going, I don’t think the Rockets can stop him. That won’t be enough if the Wolves can’t stop the Rockets.

Keys to the Series:
1. Heat Checks. If the Rockets get hot, they win. If they don’t, the Wolves have a chance.
2. Foul Trouble. As deep as the Rockets are, they can’t afford Capela to get into foul trouble or they risk Towns feasting on backups (don’t @ me with Nene). Similarly, if Towns gets early fouls, book it – they can’t win without him.
3. Availability. If the Rockets don’t have their full rotation (only 2 players missed less than 10 games this season) they could be vulnerable. Okay fine, Rockets in 4.

Also – Excuse me for a second while I vent. The Minnesota Timberwolves have a favorable matchup against pretty much everyone in the West except the Rockets and Warriors. The Wolves ended 2 games back of the 3 seed (with the tiebreaker) and 1 game back of the 4 seed (also with the tiebreaker). They lost 2 games each to the Suns and the Grizzlies (they also lost another 8 or so bad losses, but that is expected of any good, but not great team) who were the 2 worst teams in the league this season. If they win just 1 of each of those losses, they have the 3 seed. An annoying “what if” from this clearly, absolutely, definitely objective fan.

Golden State (2) vs. San Antonio (3)

Green Durant

Prediction: Golden State in 4
For some reason, this seems to be the sexy upset pick. I get it – the Warriors have struggled, San Antonio has exceeded expectations, Steph Curry is out, etcLet’s remember who we’re talking about. This is the best team in the league, with at least 2 active HOFers in their prime playing against an overachieving team with a low ceiling. We have seen the peak of the Spurs as they are currently assembled, and unless reports change and Kawhi suddenly looks likely to play again, this is not going to be close. I fully expect the Warriors to come ready to play and make everyone who doubted them look dumb. I won’t be one of those people.

Keys to the Series:
1. Intensity. The Spurs rarely don’t get up for a game. Popovich will have this team ready to play and ready to play hard. The Warriors are better, but after strolling through the second half of the season, flipping the switch might prove more difficult than they expect.
2. Health. Is Draymond fully healthy? Could Steph or Kawhi make an unlikely return? Who is better rested and ready for the postseason? These human factors are more important than people realize.
3. Coaching. Pop has done it again with this group. Steve Kerr let his team coach themselves for a game. The postseason is more serious and I’m excited to see the adjustments and re-adjustments made in this coaching chess match.

Portland Trail Blazers (3) vs. New Orleans Pelicans (6)

Lillard Davis.PNG

Prediction: Portland in 7
Damian Lillard has been insane in the back half of the season. So has Anthony Davis. The Blazers have a much better supporting cast, but I think this will come down to the stars. The Blazers have played great defense and won games by C.J. McCollum’s steady play and Lillard’s late game heroics. The Pelicans have grinded out wins by relying heavily on Davis, as well as Jrue Holiday stepping his game up to the next level. This will be a slugfest, but in the end the Blazers have home court advantage, and Lillard and McCollum have a greater margin of error and more playoff experience than Davis and Holiday. Tough call, but give me the Blazers.

Keys to the Series:
1. Star Power. Who performs better between Lillard and Davis will be a big part of who wins the series.
2. Jusuf Nurkic. He’s been great leading the defense and plays a bigger role than you’d expect on offense. The Blazers need him to hold Davis in check and put pressure on him on the offensive end.
3. Lineup Changes. How the coaches employ matchups will be vital to their success. Terry Stotts has been excellent, but Alvin Gentry is capable as well. How staggered are star rotations, and how often will each team play big or play small to determine defensive matchups? The answers will be fun to watch.

Oklahoma City Thunder (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5)

PG13 Russ

Prediction: Jazz in 6
The Oklahoma City Thunder have the potential to be one of the best teams in the league. Unfortunately, they won’t ever live up to that potential until they get a coach that can help Russell Westbrook become the player he should be (that coach may not exist). He shot less than 30% from deep this season. That isn’t too big of deal since they play the Jazz and Ricky Rubio is a notoriously bad shooter, right? Ricky Rubio shot 35.2% from three this season. Yes, Ricky Rubio is a better 3-point shooter than Russell Westbrook. And Russell Westbrook shoots more than 4 per game! Paul George is amazing, and I hope for the Thunder’s sake he takes over as the alpha in the playoffs. I doubt it will happen, as this is Russell’s team, damn the outcome. Everyone who knows basketball has known Carmelo should come off the bench since 2 weeks into the season. They have stayed afloat despite the inability to play any semblance of good basketball by the pure talent of Westbrook and PG13, as well as Steven Adams blossoming into an arguably top-5 center in the NBA. The Jazz have been awesome. I fully expect them to continue to be awesome. But I think they hit their peak. They are great on defense, can score, and have a very deep, very good rotation. The only way they lose this series is if the Thunder can figure out who they are and how they should play… Or if Russell Westbrook takes this blog personal and goes terminator-mode and makes me look dumb for ever doubting him. Jazz in 5?

Keys to the Series:
1. Matchups. Who will guard each position becomes extremely important. If the Thunder exploit a mismatch, they can get hot quickly.
2. Rudy Gobert. We’ve seen a version of Gobert that gets played off the court in the playoffs. He’s better now, and I fully expect him to dominate the defensive end and continually work on offense. That might be a heavier task against Adams than he expects.
3. Shooting. Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and even Paul George to an extent have been streaky. Whoever heats up might swing the series. Can’t wait.

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