At the start of the 2017 season, many people expected a boring season that would be dominated by the same two teams from last year’s NBA Finals, Cleveland and Golden State. Cleveland, the reigning champions, brought back essentially the same team as last year and added a few pieces along the way. Coming off of a historic 73-9 season and brutal collapse after leading the Cavaliers 3-1 in the NBA Finals, Golden State just went ahead and added a perennial All-Star and former MVP in Kevin Durant.
And yet, the season was far from what anyone could have predicted. Cleveland has been a hot and cold team all season and managed to let up enough down the stretch to see Boston overtake them for the top seed in the East. Golden State has been great and topped the West yet again, but haven’t been the goliath they were last year, even with Kevin Durant on the roster. Many teams have gotten better, and many players have improved. The regular season is over, and the playoffs are upon us. Here is a look at each of the exciting matchups we get to watch over the next week or two:
#1 Boston Celtics (53-29) vs #8 Chicago Bulls (41-41)
This series should be an easy one to predict the outcome, as the Bulls are far outmatched by the deep Celtics roster. Nonetheless, the two teams split the regular season series 2-2, with Boston winning in their most recent matchup 100-80. The Celtics closed out the season by winning each of their last three games to clinch the top seed over Cleveland. The last time Boston had the #1 seed? 2008, when they won the championship over the Los Angeles Lakers. Isaiah Thomas has continued to prove the doubters wrong, averaging 29 points and six assists per game for Boston. For Chicago, they’ll be glad having Dwyane Wade back for the playoffs after an elbow injury that was expected to keep him out for the year healed faster than anticipated. The team had to battle for the last spot in the playoffs and have underwhelmed by finishing .500, but none of that matters anymore. Jimmy Butler will have to play an unbelievable series for Chicago to have a real chance at knocking off heavily favored Boston, but it should be an exciting matchup nonetheless.
Prediction: Boston 4-1
#2 Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31) vs #7 Indiana Pacers (42-40)
Cleveland was expected to run away with the East this year, and failed to do so. Luckily, they have one of the all time greats leading the way in LeBron James, and plenty of support in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love along with a great bench to back him up along the way. Indiana is a tough matchup for the Cavs though, as Paul George will give LeBron his best shot, and Myles Turner and their big men will look to abuse the mismatches they’ll face. The Cavs will be heavy favorites, but this series could be closer than many may think. In the two teams’ most recent matchup Cleveland won at home 136-130 in double overtime in a thriller. Paul George had 43 points to go with nine assists and nine rebounds, and LeBron bested him with 41 points, 11 assists and 14 rebounds. If these two stars can put on a show like that each night, this series will become must watch TV.
Prediction: Cleveland 4-2
#3 Toronto Raptors (51-31) vs #6 Milwaukee Bucks (42-40)
The Raptors will look to their stars and their experience as they face the young Bucks. After losing to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, Toronto had another great season and will look to make noise in the postseason once again. Demar DeRozan has risen his play to superstar level, averaging 27 points a game, and will give the Bucks plenty to worry about alongside star point guard Kyle Lowry. Milwaukee, on the other hand, will rely on their 22-year-old Greek sensation, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis led the team in every major statistical category and is expected to soon surpass the greats of the league to be one of the best players in the NBA. For now though, he’ll have to lead an inexperienced roster to battle against a consistent Toronto team. During the regular season, Toronto won the series 3-1, but a whole lot has changed since then. Expect tight games and a tight series in this one, but talent and experience should see the Raptors through.
Prediction: Toronto 4-2
#4 Washington Wizards (49-33) vs #5 Atlanta Hawks (43-39)
During the winter, many experts were picking Washington as the only team that could truly contest with Cleveland in the East. Since then, the Wizards have cooled off significantly, and enter the playoffs having won only four of their last nine games. Atlanta, on the other hand, comes in playing great basketball. They won four straight before clinching the #5 seed and resting their key players enroute to losing the season finale. The Wizards have arguably the second best backcourt in basketball in John Wall and Bradley Beal (Golden State has the top spot here, right?), and will look to run and gun on the Hawks. Atlanta will look to play more physically, employing a strong frontcourt of Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard. Washington took the regular season series 3-1, but these teams are trending in opposite directions. This series should be very close, just as many would anticipate with a #4 vs #5 matchup.
Prediction: Atlanta 4-3
#1 Golden State Warriors (67-15) vs #8 Portland Trail Blazers (41-41)
Of all the playoff matchups in front of us, this appears the most lopsided. Golden State enters the playoffs having won 15 of their last 16 games, and Portland squeaked into the last spot by winning three of their last four. Sure, Damian Lillard can talk up his squad and predict the Blazers to win in six games, but Golden State should be too much for Portland to handle. Kevin Durant is back from injury and will be finding his form again, while Steph and Klay continue to make it splash from three. CJ McCollum and D-Lill are great players, but Portland lacks the depth that Golden State boasts. The Warriors won the season series 4-0, and a repeat of that in the playoffs wouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Prediction: Golden State 4-0
#2 San Antonio Spurs (61-21) vs #7 Memphis Grizzlies (43-39)
This series should be interesting, as both teams are largely focused on their defense. Unfortunately for Memphis, they’re quite outmatched by the depth and experience of the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard has put together a fantastic season that has him in MVP consideration (not that he’ll win), and the addition of Lamarcus Aldridge to replace Tim Duncan has worked out swimmingly. The Spurs star power, deep bench, and defensive prowess, mixed with Greg Popovich’s mastermind will make things very difficult for the Grizzlies. Memphis has some quality players in Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, but outside of those two they lack the scoring options to keep up with the balanced Spurs attack. The two foes split the regular season series 2-2, but look for San Antonio to ramp up their intensity and control the postseason series much better.
Prediction: San Antonio 4-1
#3 Houston Rockets (55-27) vs #6 Oklahoma City Thunder (47-35)
This will very likely be the most entertaining first round playoff matchup. Former teammates James Harden and Russell Westbrook have run away from the pack as the only reasonable selections for MVP, but who deserves it more? Harden has transitioned to a point guard role this season and you could say he’s done pretty well at it, leading the league in assists while continuing to score with the best of them. Meanwhile, Westbrook went ahead and beat Oscar Robertson’s record for triple-doubles in a season by posting 42 of them and averaging a triple double for the season. Outside of these two, the advantage pretty clearly leans Houston’s way. The Rockets have been phenomenal scoring the ball all season, and led the league in made threes. Their bench is far deeper than Oklahoma City’s, with Eric Gordon and midseason acquisition Lou Williams providing a serious threat. Houston won the regular season series 3-1, and should take this series as well. The only true chance Oklahoma City will have of winning the series outside of Russ absolutely exploding each night (which you shouldn’t put past The Brodie), is if Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams and company can elevate their game past anything we saw in the regular season.
Prediction: Houston 4-2
#4 Los Angeles Clippers (51-31) vs #5 Utah Jazz (51-31)
This matchup is about as even as it gets. Utah had been holding on to the fourth spot for weeks until L.A. got hot down the stretch and gunned them down for it via the tiebreaker which came from their 3-1 advantage in regular season matchups. The Clippers experienced big three of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan will have to carry the load against a very balanced Jazz team led by Gordon Hayward. Los Angeles is red hot right now, winning seven straight on their way into the postseason, but Utah has been consistent all year and just took down the Warriors a few nights ago. Watching Utah’s Gobert and L.A.’s Jordan in the paint will be a treat, as the two will look to protect the rim on defense and feed on the glass for easy buckets on offense. With so little separating the two teams, the edge here may come down to experience. Clippers coach Doc Rivers has won a title coaching already while he was with Boston, and Chris Paul is one of the league’s best leaders and always plays well in the postseason. This should shape up to be a great matchup, but Utah will have to play very poised, tough basketball if they want to move on to the second round.
Prediction: Los Angeles 4-2