Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs. Detroit Pistons (8)
Prediction: Milwaukee in 4
The Bucks have been the best team in the East, and they are built perfectly to continue that success into the playoffs. Giannis should be the MVP, and his ability to get to the rim at rates we haven’t seen since prime Shaq has opened the floor for the shooters that Milwaukee has surrounded him with. And calling Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Malcolm Brogdon simply “shooters” is underselling them. Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton were borderline all-stars (neither made my cut, but both were close, and Middleton made the real cut), Brook Lopez was incredible offensively all season, to the point he has executives across the league wondering why Milwaukee was the only team who wanted him. (It’s still crazy the Lakers gave him up in order to pay… Michael fucking Beasley). Brogdon has become a 2-way nightmare for opposing teams. The Bucks are solid across the board, and with Giannis leading the way, they have realistic title aspirations.
The Pistons shouldn’t be a playoff team. They had a .500 season that was largely defined by what they couldn’t do. Blake Griffin is the only reason this team isn’t in the cellar. Even so, they finished 19 games behind Milwaukee. (For reference, the 8th-seeded Clippers are just 9 games back in the West from the first seed). The rest of this Pistons team is a mashup of imperfect players who are just good enough to survive in the East. Andre Drummond eats everything at the rim, but he’s not as good of a defender as his reputation suggests, and he’ll be in a matchup nightmare against the Bucks, where he’ll be forced to guard out to the perimeter. Luke Kennard has flashed potential of being a solid starter, but he still makes simple defensive mistakes, and he’s not athletic enough to overcome when he makes them. Reggie Jackson improved his efficiency across the board, but he’s still a below-average starter. The rest of the Pistons can’t really do much. Reggie Bullock had a sneaky good year, but when we’re talking about the Playoffs, that’s not going to be enough.
Keys to the Series:
1. Giannis. Who matches up against Giannis will be key for the Pistons. They mostly used a combination of Blake Griffin and Stanley Johnson during the regular season. They no longer have Stanley Johnson, and Griffin can’t work that hard on defense for a whole series if he’s going to carry them on offense, too. Interestingly, they could try to put Drummond on him, but he’d get smoked in transition. I’m not sure what the right answer is, or even if there is one. This is rough matchup for Detroit.
2. Pace. The Pistons are 28th in pace, and the Bucks are 4th. Detroit needs to try and slow the game and make every possession a grind. They work much better in the half court than Milwaukee. (Relative to how good their team is – the Bucks are better at nearly everything by a lot).
Toronto Raptors (2) vs. Orlando Magic (7)
Prediction: Toronto in 4
The Raptors do this thing every year where they look unstoppable heading into the playoffs and then turn into a pumpkin when it matters. LeBron James owns the Raptors more than Larry Tanenbaum (their owner). They were so embarrassed last season that they fired the Coach of the Year (Dwane Casey) after losing that series. But I think this year will be different! (Please roast me in a few weeks when they get swept in the 2nd round). Kawhi Leonard is the best player the Raptors have ever had, and he’s far better than DeMar DeRozan. Lowry has been his usual self (his pre-pumpkin regular season self), and Pascal Siakam has become a budding star. Adding Marc Gasol was a big win. This team hasn’t exactly looked great down the stretch, but I’m banking that they have another gear once the games start to matter. The Raptors were my preseason pick out of the East, and nothing they’ve shown me has made me doubt they can do it.
The Magic improved by 17 wins under new head coach Steve Clifford, and the crazy part is that it’s basically the same team as last year. They didn’t sign any big free agents (no disrespect to Jerian Grant and his 4.2ppg) or draft a superstar who immediately made them better (before his injury, Mo Bamba flashed potential, but he wasn’t helping them win games). They just all got better. And this team is actually good! Not ‘might win a playoff series’ good, but ‘this team is no longer drafting in the top 5’ good. Nikola Vucevic has a case for MIP, and the rest of the team has made strides alongside him. This is has been a fun team to watch grow, and I hope they continue it into next season.
Keys to the Series:
1. Shooting. Toronto shoots better from deep, on more attempts per game, but the Magic are still solid. The Magic are streaky, and if the Raptors pull a Raptors and get cold in the playoffs, this could be a problem.
2. Stars. After Vucevic, there’s nobody on Orlando who can match up well against anyone on Toronto. If Lowry, Kawhi, and Siakam play well, it will take a herculean effort from Vuc to keep the Magic in the game.
Philadelphia 76ers (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)
Prediction: Philadelphia in 5
On paper, the 76ers should be the best team in the East. They have 4 All-Star caliber players, and the perfect role player to start alongside them. They don’t have great depth, but as rotations shorten in the playoffs, that should play to their advantage. Tobias Harris has been stellar all season, and it’s good to see him on a competitive team. Playing on 5 teams in your first 8 seasons isn’t easy, and he’s been the consummate professional throughout his career and it looks to be paying off. It will be fun to see what he can do in a playoff run (he’s played in just 4 playoff games – Pistons were swept by the Cavs in 2016). Embiid, when healthy, is arguably the best player in the East, but he and Ben Simmons both floundered against the Celtics last season. Adding Butler might not be the best move for chemistry, but there’s no doubt this is a better basketball team with him on the court.
The Nets are one of my favorite stories of the past few years. They were in the worst spot in the NBA with their picks gone, no young talent, and a team that was consistently at the bottom of the league. Now they have 2 first round draft picks, a young star in D’Angelo Russell, a few solid role players, and a ton of cap space. It just goes to show how much good management can affect a team. D’Angelo Russell is probably the favorite for MIP and he’s completely deserving. He’s a weird case of a players drastically improving, while also not really changing anything he does. He just got better at all of those things. Spencer Dinwiddie has grown into a great bench piece, Caris LeVert hasn’t looked the same since his injury, but he’s getting there. The always-solid Ed Davis and DeMarre Carroll have been just that – solid. Joe Harris has been incredible. He’s shooting an unbelievable 47.4% from deep on more than 5 attempts per game. This team is building into something special, and if they can retain their cheap pieces and add a max player in the offseason, the league better watch out.
Keys to the Series:
1. Embiid and Simmons. Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis will have their hands full this whole series. If they can limit Embiid, the Nets can make some noise. If not, the 76ers won’t be beat. Simmons’s flaws (or flaw – shooting) can be exploited by the right kind of defense – just ask Brad Stevens – and the Nets have the pieces to make life difficult for him. Stopping those 2 will be the key.
2. Nets from deep. D’Angelo Russell and Joe Harris take a combined 13 triples per game at an insane 41% clip. If they get hot, they could easily steal a few games.
3. Role players. The 76ers stars will win a few games off talent alone. The Nets can’t allow Redick or McConnell to have a big game. The Nets are deep and they need their role players outplay the 76ers’ role players to have a chance.
Boston Celtics (4) vs. Indiana Pacers (5)
Prediction: Boston in 7
At the start of the season, I thought Boston would cruise to a 1 or 2 seed. They were returning their 2 best players to a team that won 55 games and went to the Conference Finals. What could go wrong? Well, basically everything. Gordon Hayward was a shell of himself (except, of course, against the Timberwolves), Jaylen Brown regressed for the first half of the season before returning to form, Kyrie’s improved defense went back to, well, less than improved. Even the ever-steady Al Horford started to show signs of his age. Those problems have mostly been resolved. Hayward has played better in a smaller role, Brown has come on strong, Kyrie looks to be trying again, and Horford is a machine whose continued success reminds me of a poor man’s Tim Duncan. The only lingering problem is Jayson Tatum still looks pretty average, and he was supposed to be the next star. He went from a plus-8 net rating as a rookie to an even (plus-0) rating this season. He needs to step up for the Celtics to make any noise.
When Oladipo went down, I wrote off the Pacers. I thought they were done. I thought, well their role players are solid, but without a star to take the attention of the defense, they won’t be anything more than average. I was wrong. This team is crafty, fun, and rarely makes mistakes. They take good shots, and work together perfectly. Ironically, they remind me of last year’s Celtics after they lost Hayward and Irving. Bojan Bogdanovic has been wonderful, Myles Turner is becoming a force of nature defending the rim, and Thad Young is rock solid. But their best player now might be Domantis Sabonis. He’s a creative scorer, decent passer, and he’s a ball-magnet on the glass. He’s also developed a solid chemistry with Doug McDermott, who’s been catching fire lately.
Keys to the Series:
1. Coaching. Nate McMillan has a strong case for Coach of the Year, and Brad Stevens couldn’t seem to figure out how to get the most out of his players. That being said, Stevens is still of the best Xs and Os coaches in the league, and one season doesn’t take away from the playoff greatness we’ve seen from him. With two teams who can play a lot of different ways, this will be a fun one to watch.
2. Celtics Stars. If Tatum plays like he did last year, and we get a taste of 2016-17 Gordon Hayward, the Celtics will dominate. If not, this will be a grind. I trust Kyrie and Horford to show up and play well, but the Pacers aren’t going to get beat by them alone.
3. Home crowd. Both teams are about .500 on the road and about 8 games above .500 at home. If either team steals a road game, they’ll likely win the series.
Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (8)
Prediction: Golden State in 4
The Warriors are the best team in the NBA. It’s not exactly a secret. They have one of the 5 best players at every position, and a deep bench. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are still two of the five best players in the world, and they’d both be mentioned in the MVP race if they didn’t play on a team that doesn’t need them. Draymond Green had a rough start to the season, and he’s scoring at his lowest rate since entering the starting lineup. But he’s still great at making a defense pay for not guarding him. When they sink into the lane to let him shoot, he’ll quickly pass to the Curry or Klay Thompson and screen for them (it’s almost a handoff) and because his defender is so deep, there’s plenty of room for Curry or Thompson to shoot. There’s really not much to do against them except hope they get cold and hope you get hot. We’ve seen how this works out.
The Clippers deserve to be in the playoffs, and Lou Williams deserves to win another 6th Man of the Year award. This is a team that has grown together into something greater than the sum of it’s parts, and that should be celebrated. But after trading away Harris, and with no players who would even crack the Golden State starting lineup, this matchup is a bit lopsided.
Keys to the Series:
1. Slowing down Golden State. One of the things that makes the Warriors special is their ability to get hot and go on runs like we’ve never seen. They turn close games into blowouts faster than any NBA team I’ve ever watched. You need to contain those runs to have a chance.
2. Physicality. Not everyone can get away with playing physical against the Warriors, but you need to try. If you can disrupt Curry at the point of attack, you can limit what he does offensively. Patrick Beverley will have his hands full, but he relishes these types of matchups. He’s going to need to play well.
3. Luck. If Golden States plays anywhere near average, the Clippers have no chance. They need the Warriors to get cold, and they need some heroics of their own. Good luck.
Denver Nuggets (2) vs. San Antonio Spurs (7)
Prediction: Denver in 5
The way the Nuggets have continued to thrive throughout the injuries they’ve had is a testament to how special Nikola Jokic is. He’s the constant that has kept this team playing at an elite level all season. Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and Will Barton have returned strong after extended absences. Combine that with the leaps made by Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley, and Monte Morris (a sneaky 6th Man of the Year candidate), and you have a recipe for an elite team.
The Spurs have now made the playoffs for a record 22nd consecutive season. Popovich is a magician. This team has no business being as good as it is. Aldrich and DeRozan are solid, but outside of them, they don’t really have anyone you’d lock in as a starter. Still, everyone knows their role, and they play it perfectly. They have 7 players who average at least one 3PA per game. Only 1 of those players shoots less than 37% (league average is 35.5%) and 4 of them shoot over 40%. DeRozan and Aldrich have brought back the midrange, which is known as an inefficient shot. But it’s only inefficient if you don’t make it. And they make it.
Keys to the Series:
1. First 2 games. If the Spurs steal a game from the Nuggets on the road, Denver could be in trouble. They have almost no playoff experience: of the 11 players who played the most for the Nuggets this season, only 4 have been in the playoffs, and 2 of those (Trey Lyles and Will Barton) were only for 1 series. Paul Millsap is the only Nuggets player with extended playoff experience. If the Spurs take an early game, experience could win out.
2. Adjustments. In a long series, adjustments will need to be made, especially when one team has more talent. Popovich is one of the best at exploiting matchups and adjusting better than his opponent. He’s going to need to do a lot because the talent gap is huge.
3. Aldridge and DeRozan. Aldridge has shown he can turn into a killer in the postseason. DeRozan has not. The Spurs will need both of them to step up and play well for them to have a shot.
Portland Trail Blazers (3) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (6)
Prediction: Oklahoma City in 6
The Blazers are one of those teams that never really seems like they’re that good, but they somehow find a way to win tough games. All of sudden you look at the standings and they’ve won 50 games. Lillard is one of the most clutch closers in the NBA, and he’ll be out for blood after last season’s embarrassment at the hands of Jrue Holiday. The Blazers won’t have Nurkic, which is a huge loss. He’s been their 3rd best player (even sniffing at 2nd best) all season, and he’s really their only big man capable of fighting in the paint against Steven Adams. Meyers Leonard can try to hold his own, but Skal Labassiere and Zach Collins are just too slight. Still, the Blazers have been more than the Lillard-time heroics and sidekick CJ McCollum teams they’ve had for the past few years. Enes Kanter has been a good addition, and their bench rotation has been more productive than in the past. They are a good team, and earned this home court advantage.
The Thunder are just an awful draw for the Blazers. They went 4-0 in the season series (side note: it would be crazy if the Blazers lost 8 games in a single season to the same team) and have looked like the better team. Paul George looked like an MVP for most of the season before he tweaked his shoulder and has looked human again. Russell Westbrook is inefficient in the aggregate, but he thrives off big matchups, and Lillard is a big matchup. Steven Adams has continued to improve and the Thunder are great with him on the floor. Dennis Schroder has been a scoring spark off the bench, though he doesn’t really do anything else. As the playoffs shorten rotations, that’s all they’ll need him for. The Thunder are looking good.
Keys to the Series:
1. Westbrook vs. Lillard. Westbrook isn’t as important to the Thunder as Lillard is to the Blazers, but he’s going to make this series about this matchup. Lillard will stay composed and will be solid, but Westbrook is streaky and erratic. If Westbrook tries to shoot with Lillard, he’ll likely lose. He needs to do what he does best and get to the basket.
2. Playoff P. I still can’t believe people tried to make Playoff P happen – what an awful nickname. Anyways, Paul George is amazing during the regular season, he’s amazing in the postseason, and he’s the biggest reason I have the Thunder winning this series. In a close matchup, I’ll almost always take the best player in the series. No disrespect to Lillard, but Paul George is a 2-way monster, and I expect he’s gonna show us why he’s called Playoff P (which, again, is so dumb).
3. Blazers defense. The Blazers defense struggled without Nurkic in the lineup. They’ll need a creative scheme to help on Steven Adams, while not providing Paul George or Russell Westbrook extra space. It’s a tough situation to be in, but the Blazers are used to winning tough.
Houston Rockets (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5)
Prediction: Houston in 7
James Harden is something special. 36 points per game speaks for itself. He willed this team to a top-4 seed in the loaded Western Conference, despite losing players in the offseason combined with extended absences from Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and Chris Paul. He’s been amazing. That being said, this team isn’t the same as last year, and that’s okay. When they’re healthy, they’re still a version of that team that took Golden State to 7 games and nearly toppled the giant. Chris Paul is a force in the playoffs, and he’s going to dominate as usual. And despite the decrease during the playoffs in the types of fouls that Harden lives off (touch fouls, rip-throughs, etc.) he’s going to get his, and the Rockets will be tough to beat if he’s hot.
The Jazz are just a solid squad. You know what you’re going to get from them – Great defense and average offense. They can score, but they win by shutting down their opponents. Rudy Gobert is the best rim defender in the league (a healthy Embiid might have something to say) and when the Stifle Tower is on the court the Jazz, well, stifle their opponents. Rim protectors aren’t as valuable in today’s NBA where teams can go small and make them defend the perimeter, but the Rockets almost always play with a traditional big man, so for this round, Gobert will do just fine.
Keys to the Series:
1. Containing Harden. If Harden scores like he’s done in the regular season, the Jazz are going to have a tough time keeping up. They need to go in with a game plan, and be ready to change it on the fly if it’s not working. Quin Snyder is one of the best coaches in the league and I fully expect him to have a good game plan prepared.
2. Donovan Mitchell. I know this sounds crazy (and it is) but Donovan Mitchell kind of reminds me of Allen Iverson. He has those games where it just seems like nobody can stop him. He’s not the most efficient scorer, but he can fill it up, and he’s perfect for a team like the Jazz. He’s going to need to fill it up for the Jazz to stay competitive.
3. Bigs. Gobert is the best big man in the series, but Nene and Kenneth Faried play a weirdly similar style to him. They’ll be tasked with playing Gobert to a draw and if they can handle it, the Rockets are in good shape.
40 days of games every day. Let’s Begin!