NBA Playoffs First Round Preview
Our day-to-day lives are full of waiting. Waiting for “Avengers: Age of Ultron”to come out so we can stop re-watching the trailers. Waiting for my grandpa to stop writing entire emails in the subject line. And most importantly, waiting for the marathon that is the NBA regular season to end so the playoffs can start. One out of three isn’t great, but I’ll take it. With both eight seeds decided on the last night of the regular season, the matchups are set, and the quest for the Larry O’Brien Trophy is underway. With tip off less than 24 hours away, we break down everything you need to know about the first round series matchups.
Matchup: Atlanta vs Brooklyn
Seeding: 1 vs 8
Prediction: Hawks in 4
Winners of six of their last seven, the Pacers probably deserved it more. Eastern conference fans can take solace in the Nets snagging the eighth seed for at least one reason. Stemming from the Joe Johnson deal, this year the Hawks and Nets will exchange first round picks. Since the Nets squeaked their way in despite losing two of their last three by a combined 50 points, the East’s best record won’t be receiving a lottery pick this June. That’s about the only good thing that came of this.
Much like Meghan Trainor’s singing career, this series is already finished. I still believe that not having a legitimate superstar will hurt the Hawks down the road, but they should have no problems here. Atlanta swept Brooklyn 4-0 by an average of more than 17 points per game during the regular season. Mike Budenholzer’s bunch is top 10 in the NBA in points per game, points allowed, assists and field goal percentage — all categories in which the Nets rank no higher than 16th. Normally I’d call this a five game series because pride will get the lower seed a game on its home floor, but the Nets hardly strike me as a prideful group.
Matchup: Cavaliers vs Celtics
Seeding: 2 vs 7
Prediction: Cavs in 5
Yes the Celtics only have 40 wins, 10 wins less than the seven seed Mavericks in the West, but kudos to Brad Stevens for engineering this turnaround. With a 19-10 record since acquiring pint size firecracker point guard Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline, Boston is looking up. The C’s won their last six games in the regular season, and Boston fans couldn’t be more thrilled. Having said all that, the Celtics are playing the 2015 NBA champions. Yes, you read that correctly.
LeBron and company are on a mission and a roll, winning six out of their last eight. Kyrie Irving taking on Thomas should be a fun bout, but the Cavs are heads and shoulders above the Celtics across the board — not to mention the experience factor. Here’s a scary statistic: LeBron has played in 158 playoff games. All the Celtics combined have played in just 139. With LeBron averaging almost a triple double in the month of April, Cleveland will make quick work of the Celtics if The King can carry those numbers into the postseason. Take the 2-2 regular season series split with a grain of salt. In one of the two Celtic wins none of the Big Three played, and in the other Kyrie Irving sat out. I give the Celtics one win at home if for no other reason than they’re feisty.
Matchup: Bulls vs Bucks
Seeding: 3 vs 6
Prediction: Bulls in 6
The Bucks have become one of the league’s best feel-good stories this season. After winning an NBA worst 15 games last season, Milwaukee is in the playoffs. Head Coach Jason Kidd left the dumpster fire that is the Brooklyn Nets and has led this young group to a very respectable 41-41. That’s despite losing two key players in Kendall Marshall and last year’s number two pick Jabari Parker for the season before the All-Star Break to torn ACLs.
The Bulls have had to deal with a slew of injuries themselves. Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and of course Derrick Rose, all missed significant chunks of time this season. Yet here they are with the third best record in the East. Healthy and ready to go, the Bulls are always a dangerous team and a tough out. Clearly the more experienced of the two coaches, Tom Thibodeau has his squad gelling at the right time, as the Bulls have won their last four consecutive games.
Chicago will take advantage of the Bucks scoring and rebounding struggles. Butler, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson have Chicago as a top-10 team on defense and top three when it comes to rebounding. This will be a great experience for the Bucks with virtually no pressure on them. This has the potential to be an entertaining series between a playoff regular and a contender on the rise. The experience factor as well as the intimidating Chicago frontcourt will ultimately prove to be too much for the Bucks, who will get fatigued and bruised in a long series.
Matchup: Raptors vs Wizards
Seeding: 4 vs 5
Prediction: Wizards in 7
The state of the East is pretty bleak, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see most these first round matchup end in five games or less. Don’t expect that here. The Raptors did sweep the Wizards in the regular season, but Toronto pulled it out in their last two contests by an average of just three points. The matchups across the court are enticing. Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas banging down low with Marcin Gortat, the Polish Hammer (an awesome nickname by the way) and Nene. Two tough, gritty backcourts in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan against John Wall and Bradley Beal. It’s going to be a pendulum series — back and forth the whole way. I’m giving the edge to the Wizards because in a long series — as I expect this one to be — it comes down to who can get stops. Randy Wittman’s club is a superb defensive and rebounding team, whereas the Raptors are average on their best day. Look out for a fun one, and look out for Washington in the second round.
Matchup: Warriors vs Pelicans
Seeding: 1 vs 8
Prediction: Warriors in 5
In an interview with Yahoo Sports, Stephen Curry put it pretty bluntly saying, “If we don’t win our last game this season, it’s going to be a disappointing feeling, one where we felt like we fell short.” The sharp-shooting MVP candidate has made it clear he’s hungry, and he’s about to feast on the Pelicans. New Orleans has a great thing going for it right now, and just making the playoffs is huge. This is a team that just two years ago won a pathetic 27 games. With Anthony Davis playing at an MVP level himself, if the team was a little better he’d have a legitimate case. There is no question this team is on the rise. Of course on the rise means they still have some climbing to do. Making the postseason is as high as they are going to get on the ladder right now. The Splash Brothers will have their way, but New Orleans will be rocking when the series shifts locations. For that reason I give the Pelicans, a group with a lot of spunk and resiliency, one win.
Matchup: Rockets vs Mavericks
Seeding: 2 vs 7
Prediction: Rockets in 6
From one MVP hopeful to another, James Harden has in a short time gone from a good sixth man to a lethal, unstoppable scoring machine. He’ll square off against his former teammate Chandler Parsons, who left for greener pastures and hasn’t quite found them in Dallas. His welcome back to Houston will be less than cordial. This game will be a ton of fun to watch — that is, unless you’re a big fan of defense. If you are, then change the channel because you won’t find it here.
Both teams are in the top 10 in points per game and in the bottom half of the league defensively. In a game that will be played in the triple digits most of the way, it comes down to who has the best scorer. That simplifies things tremendously. Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis will make for a competitive series, but at the end of the day James Harden and his 27 points per game will prove to be too much.
Matchup: Clippers vs Spurs
Seeding: 3 vs 6
Prediction: Spurs in 6
If you listen closely, you can already here the Clippers getting called for a technical foul. LA’s whiniest team couldn’t have gotten a worse first round matchup. The Spurs are the defending champs for a reason, and it didn’t really matter where they were seeded as long as they got in. They are capable of beating anyone, and they’ll start with the Clippers. For all their flashy dunks and stare downs, the duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin has still yet to make it past the second round. After drawing the Spurs, they shouldn’t expect that to change soon.
It will be a great coaching matchup to watch with two title winners in Doc Rivers and Greg Popovich, but there’s no reason to believe that this immature group has what it takes to take down the humble veterans. By the numbers these two are pretty similar. With Griffin, Paul, the sharpshooting of J.J. Redick and the toughness of DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers will go down swinging as they always do. It’s nothing new, though. Just like their uniforms, it’s the same black and white formula for San Antonio. Talent, a myriad of role players, a wealth of experience and one of the best to ever roam the sideline in Pop. It’s not complicated, but it sure is effective.
Matchup: Trailblazers vs Grizzlies
Seeding: 4 vs 5
Prediction: Grizzlies in 6
With both teams banged up coming into the playoffs, this series presents an extremely fun duel as the Blazers try to get out of the first round in consecutive years for the first time since 2000. At 20th in the league in scoring, Memphis struggles to score the basketball at times but makes up for it with its stellar top-three defense. Portland is a bit more balanced but struggled against the intimidating Grizz frontcourt all season long. They lost to the Gasol and Randolph combo all four times the teams faced off and were kept under 100 points in every outing. This rough-and-tough style of basketball Memphis plays is built for the postseason, particularly in a long series. Don’t expect another sweep, but the stifling defense of the Grizzlies will prove to be too much. As long as they contain Portland’s three point shooters in Damian Lillard and Arron Afflalo the Grizz should get the win. If the 3-pointer isn’t falling, the Blazers will struggle to find offense elsewhere. Yes, they have LaMarcus Aldridge in the post, but even with his 23 points per game, the Blazers are almost last in the league in getting to the free throw line. If the 3-pointer isn’t going down, the Blazers are.
Follow David on Twitter @Dshug24 and listen to him on “The Morning Blitz” from 10-11 a.m. Wednesdays on 99.1 FM