The 82-game slog is over, the seedings have been locked up and the Spurs, Cavs and Warriors are fully rested: it’s time for the NBA playoffs to get underway. Rather than drone on like the regular season, let’s get down to previewing the first round.
Chicago Bulls (8) vs. Boston Celtics (1)
The Celtics took a leap forward this season, winning 52 games and chasing down the Cavs to secure the top seed in the in the East by finishing with an 11-4 stretch. They did it in large part thanks to 5-foot-9 scoring machine Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 29.1 ppg, with better shooting from every part of the floor. Avery Bradley also stepped up, doubling his rebounds while also increasing his scoring, and free agent center Al Horford has been a welcome addition. The Celtics will face old friend Rajon Rondo and the Bulls, who had to go 7-2 at the end to edge out the Heat for the final seed. The Bulls are little more than a .500 team, despite Rondo, All World small forward Jimmy Butler and Hall-of-Famer Dwyane Wade. The two teams split the season series 2-2, but the Celtics won the last matchup on March 12, 100-80. Prediction: Celtics in 6.
Indiana Pacers (7) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (2)
It’s been a weird, ugly season for the defending champs. They celebrated Christmas with a 109-108 win over the Warriors that put their record at 23-6, and had them looking like world beaters. But since then, they’ve gone just 28-25, and won just 11 of their final 25 to boot away the #1 seed. Meanwhile LeBron’s gotten into pissing contests with Tristan Thompson, Charles Barkley, the Cavs front office, and Lonzo Ball’s dad, among others, Kyle Korver missed 11 of 15 games with an injury, and Kevin Love missed 15 of 16 games. They hoped midseason pickups of Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut would give them the depth they need for the playoffs, but Bogut broke his leg one minute into his Cavs career. And now Kyrie Irving is battling tendinitis in his knee. Still, they should have more than enough firepower to cruise past the Indiana Pacers, who had to win their last five in a row to sneak into the playoffs. Prediction: Cavs in 5.
Milwaukee Bucks (6) vs. Toronto Raptors (3)
That Raptors went into a midseason ditch, going 16-20 at one point, and when Kyle Lowry got hurt, it looked like it was gonna spell doom for them, but DeMar DeRozan and the gang got their act together and went 12-2 since St. Patrick’s Day. And for their efforts, the Raptors are being rewarded with a date with the Bucks, whom they beat in 3 of 4 contests this season, The Bucks have been battling the injury bug all season, going without Khris Middleton for the first 50 games of the season, and then losing Jabari Parker for the year on the night Middleton returned. But a 14-3 run in March has them back in the swing of things and ready to take down the Raptors. Just this morning my five-year-old asked me how to kill a dinosaur — the answer is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Prediction: Bucks in 6.
Atlanta Hawks (5) vs. Washington Wizards (4)
There was a week there in March where it looked like the Wiz had put all the pieces together, and were trying to sneak up on the outside and into first, but a 5-7 skid brought them back to reality. But they still have one of the best guard tandems in the league in John Wall (23-4-11) and Bradley Beal (23-3-4), while Marcin Gortat has averaged a double double at center, and Otto Porter has developed into a legit scoring threat hitting 44% of his threes, while also grabbing 6.4 boards per game. The Hawks have some talent, with Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard and Tim Hardaway in the fold, but despite their 43-39 record, they were outscored by .9 ppg and went 1-4 against the Wiz this season. Prediction: Wizards in 6.
Portland Trail Blazers (8) vs Golden State Warriors (1)
The Warriors have the best record in the league for a third straight season, setting such high expectations that when they were 52-14 people were wondering what’s wrong? They responded with a 14-game winning streak. They got a scare when Kevin Durant went down with a bum knee, missing 18 straight games, but he wrapped up his season with a 29-8-5 Wednesday against the Lakers. The Blazers dropped all four games against the Warriors, including a 135-90 drubbing in December. They’ve played pretty well since the All Star break, going 18-11, and still have the dynamic duo of Damian Lillard (27-5-6) and CJ McCollum (23-4-4), but it won’t be nearly enough. Prediction: Warriors in 4.
Memphis Grizzlies (7) vs. San Antonio Spurs (2)
In the first year of the post Tim Duncan Era, Gregg Popovich has led the Spurs to their 18th consecutive 50-win season, a time during which they’ve finished no lower than second in the Southwest. Kawhi Leonard’s offensive game took another step forward, as he’s averaged 26 points per game, while continuing to play world-class D. LaMarcus Aldridge still isn’t hitting the boards like he once did in Portland, but he’s still a presence down low. One has to wonder how much longer Popp can keep going with Tony Parker (34), Manu Ginobili (39), and Pau Gasol (36). Once 33-22 and loving life, the Griz are limping, finishing the season 43-39. It’s incredible that the worst shooting team in the league (43.6%) is in the playoffs, but here we are. Prediction: Spurs in 6.
Oklahoma City Thunder (6) vs. Houston Rockets (3)
The matchup we’ve all been waiting for: Westbrook vs Harden, the top two finishers in the MVP balloting (yes, we’re calling it well before the results are announced), and former teammates. The Rockets won the season series, going 3-1 with three of the games decided by 3 points or less. Over the course of the four games, Harden averaged 20.5-7.25-12.25 to Westbrook’s 36.3-9-9.3. The Rockets are clearly the better team, with bench depth for days, but Westbrook is ornery enough to make anything happen. Prediction: Rockets in 7.
Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5)
At first blush this feels a little dull, no? But the truth is very different. The Jazz are 10 wins better than last year, thanks to the development of Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert, and the acquisition of George Hill. And though the general consensus is that the window is closed on the Clippers’ title chances, the fact remains that Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Andre Drummond are really, really good at playing basketball. The Clips, fooled us once again, starting out 14-2, but when went 8-12, won 7 in a row, then went 11-15, only to go 11-2. And off course, it wouldn’t have been a real season without Griffin going down for 18 games. The Clips beat the Jazz in 3 of 4, but won’t have it so easy in the second-best matchup of the first round. Prediction: Jazz in 6.
Indiana Pacers vs Cleveland Cavaliers, 3pm ET on ABC
Milwaukee Bucks vs Toronto Raptors, 5:30pm ET on ESPN
Memphis Grizzlies vs San Antonio Spurs, 8pm ET on ESPN
Utah Jazz vs LA Clippers, 10:30pm ET on ESPN
Atlanta Hawks vs Washington Wizards, 1pm ET on TNT
Portland Trail Blazers vs Golden State Warriors, 3:30pm ET on ABC
Chicago Bulls vs Boston Celtics, 6:30pm ET on TNT
Oklahoma City Thunder vs Houston Rockets, 9pm ET on TNT