Toronto Raptors (1) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (4)
*Updated 4/29/18 for matchup*
Prediction: Cleveland in 6
The Cavs barely made it through the first round on the back of LeBron’s heroics. He averaged over 41ppg in their 4 wins, and was not helped by any semblance of a team until Game 7 when George Hill returned and Kevin Love remembered he was on the Cavs. The Raptors looked fine against a Wizards team who played undisciplined basketball and was never a real threat. I don’t trust the Raptors. They should win this series. They’re a better team. LeBron still plays for the Cavaliers and I won’t be the one to sell on him too early. I fully expect the Raptors to make this a series and wouldn’t be shocked to see them win (they are the favorites, after all) but when LeBron goes into LeBron mode, the Cavs pull out close games. He will do it again.
Keys to the series:
1. LeBron. The Cavs sink or swim based on how well LeBron is playing. If he’s playing well, there’s not much anyone can do to stop him.
2. Home Court Advantage. Both teams are great at home, but the Raptors take it to another level. They are 37-7 at home compared to 26-18 on the road. Good thing they got the 1 seed.
3. Clutch. The Raptors haven’t proven that they can show up when the stakes are the highest. The Cavs have. Also, I might have mentioned this before… but LeBron still plays for the Cavs.
Boston Celtics (2) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (3)
*Updated 4/29/18 for matchup*
Prediction: Philadelphia in 4
Get out your brooms because this one won’t last long. Call it a hot take, but though Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are excellent young players who will be great in this league, I’d take the Redick/Covington off-ball combo over them this season. Pair that with Saric over Morris/Baynes and Philly’s stars over Terry Rozier and Horford, and the 76ers are arguably better at every position than the Celtics. It doesn’t feel right that a Brad Stevens team with a returning Marcus Smart would get ran off their home court, but I just don’t see them beating the 76ers. Philly in 6 might have been the safer bet, but I believe in this young squad. Brett Brown is much better coach than
that random guy who stands by the Bucks bench Joe Prunty is, and won’t get severely out-coached. Plus, he has much more to work with than Stevens. The Celtics won the season series 3-1, but the 3 wins came before Kyrie got injured and the 1 loss came after. That matters. Don’t feel bad for Boston – they’ll be heavy favorites in the East next year adding two All-NBA talents back into this rotation. They had a good run and played admirably in their stars’ absence, but this is the year Trusting the Process finally pays off.
Keys to the Series:
1. Al Horford. He’s been the Celtics best player for much of the season (even before Kyrie was out). He will need to keep Embiid in check for this to remain a close series.
2. Coaching. Brett Brown is underrated, but Brad Stevens is still a magician. He will throw out some unique sets and plays. If the 76ers can counter effectively, they will be in great shape.
3. Role Players. Everyone knows that Philadelphia plays through Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. People don’t always recognize that Covington, Saric, Redick, and Belinelli have been incredible around them. Boston has similarly had incredible production from role players, but they have suffered more injuries, and have had to move these players out of their roles. Next season.
Houston Rockets (1) vs. Utah Jazz (5)
Prediction: Houston in 5
The Rockets struggled shooting from deep in the first round, yet still dismantled the Wolves who looked out of place in the playoffs. Every time the Rockets offense started to click, they showed how outmatched their opponents were. The Jazz are not the Wolves. They play structured, coordinated, and disciplined defense. Their offense can stagnate at times (see: round 1, game 5, quarter 3) and they can tend to panic and start hoisting jumpers, when the Jazz are humming, they have a good shot at any team. Unfortunately for them, I don’t see the Rockets continuing their shooting woes. They won’t miss open triples for too long, and the Jazz won’t last when the Rockets get hot. Oh and if you’re wondering, the Rockets went 4-0 this year against the Jazz with an average margin of victory of 17.5. Yikes.
Keys to the Series:
1. Heat Checks. It’s the Rockets. They’ll get cooking.
2. Big Boys. Rudy Gobert is a far superior defender to what the Rockets had to deal with in the first round. Can he handle the constant pick n’ roll offense from Capela? If Capela can hold his own and continue to shine, the Jazz are in trouble.
3. Rubio and Mitchell. Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook for most of the first round. Donovan Mitchell has been incredible. If these two can show up on the biggest stage and hang with the backcourt stars of the Rockets, the Jazz have a shot.
*Update 4/29/18* – Ricky Rubio has been ruled out for Game 1 and could miss up to 10 days with a hamstring injury. Exum will likely take a bigger role, but this does not help the Jazz’s cause.
Golden State Warriors (2) vs. New Orleans Pelicans (6)
Prediction: Warriors in 5
I was quite wrong about the Pelicans in Round 1. Little did I know, Nicola Mirotic is a max player, Jrue Holiday is Michael Jordan 2.0, and Rajon Rondo is a first-ballot HOFer. Hyperbole aside, the Pelicans were amazing. The Blazers helped them by going cold at the wrong time, and their Cinderella story ended when Lillard turned back into a pumpkin. I think the Pelicans revert to the mean (which is still a really good team!) and don’t play at the same level we saw in the first round. Anthony Davis is still the best response to the small-ball Warriors, but the Warriors without Curry just dominated a team with 1 less regular season win than the Pelicans. When the Splash Brothers reunite, this team cannot be stopped, Playoff Rondo or not. Assuming Curry is back by game 3, this series won’t be close.
Keys to the Series:
1. Curry’s Return. Questions linger about how soon Curry will return, and whether or not he will be at full strength. Even in the domination of the Spurs, it was clear the Warriors need Curry. He takes this team from really good to historically great. He’s the difference between a hard-fought series and a sweep.
2. Bench. Over the past few years, the Warriors bench has been deep and great and the Pelicans bench has been, well, neither of those. After the first round, it’s not clear that’s still the case. We’ll see.
3. Small Ball D. Can the Warriors go small and still defend the Mirotic/Davis combo? I trust Kerr to use the lineups he thinks best, but the Warriors are unleashed when they go small. If Davis can prevent that, anything can happen. And by anything, I mean the Warriors definitely will still win.