For the first time since Marreese Speights heaved a right-corner nothing, and then Timofey Mozgov did the honors of launching the orange Spaulding into the stratosphere to declare a championship, basketball fans will wait for a referee not named Tim Donaghy to re-launch the NBA Playoffs with a toss of the ball in Cleveland. Running through some quick takes on the 8 primary series, we offer a anticipatory 2017 1st Round discussion.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Indiana Pacers
Tommy: These teams engaged in one of the better regular season games a little more than a week ago. The Pacers still feel like a potential sleeping giant after being inconsistent and a disappointment to many people’s pre-season expectations (myself included), while the Cavs have done nothing to ensure confidence in their repeat effort since the All Star Break. Cleveland’s struggles have drawn a line in the sand between the crowd believing they’ll “flip the switch” and those that think their defense truly has irreparable issues. Indiana should see some benefit from post-season officiating by avoiding some of the above league average free throws they give up. The next thing they will need to do, that feels unlikely, is force Cleveland to turn the ball over because they rely on the 4th highest Opponent Turnover Rate. The Paul George-LeBron James matchup will be as good as expected. George has been one of the better playoff nemeses to James’ legacy. His shiftiness can outstep LeBron, and stay in front of him on defense, but George’s slender frame will be bullied by James enough to demand considerable help. Love will hold an advantage against Young in the low-post. The Pacers have struggled with defensive rebounding all season, and keeping Tristan Thompson off the glass is no easy task.
I look at Jeff Teague and J.R. Smith being the most pivotal players in the series. If Teague can establish the drive-and-kick scheme that the Pacers thrive on, Cleveland will continue to look miserable on defense. When Smith starts and closes, it demands that Kyrie guard the opposing point guard instead of the much more capable Shumpert. Smith is important because if he isn’t shooting well, and his defense remains suspect, he’ll provide very little value, if not hurt his team. One extra prediction, Deron Williams will have a very good series.
Prediction: Cleveland 4-1
Michael: I know there is a lot of talk about Cleveland not having the same defense as last year, and I don’t disagree. I still see no route for the Pacers to win this series, or even one game of this series. The Pacers have looked really good on both sides of the ball over the last 15 games, but the matchups in this series look pretty one sided, in favor of the Cavs. Myles Turner is the second best player on this team, and I expect Thompson to eat him up. In their last matchup, Turner had 8 points and 3 rebounds in 47 minutes, while Thompson had 12 and 9, with 5 offensive rebounds. The George and LeBron match up will be the highlight of the series (unless this happens again). Sadly for the Pacers, George cannot be in two places at once, so there will be no one able to guard Kyrie. Teague is a decent defender, but Kyrie is not bothered much by only decent defenders. I expect Kevin Love to have some big games in this series. With the struggle Indiana has rebounding, it would not surprise me to see Love with some 25/15 or 20/20 games. I think the other guys to watch are CJ Miles and Kyle Korver. If CJ is able to do more damage than Korver, it may give the Pacers a chance to steal a game, but this series still ends with the Cavs moving on.
Prediction: Cleveland sweep
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
Tommy: The return of a much more refined Giannis Antetokounmpo, bolstered by a better Milwaukee team all around, is one of the more exciting story lines of the opening round. Toronto has a roster of great wing defense to throw at Giannis and alter his attack, but there isn’t one guy that seems likely to really bottle him up. Carroll will probably guard him the most, and with the starters on the floor, this will most likely put Ibaka on the corner statue of Tony Snell. Each team’s Effective Field Goal Percentage ranks in the upper half of the league, but the Raptors opponent eFG (50.7%) is reasonably better than the Bucks (51.8%). We saw Toronto’s inability to draw fouls hurt them at times in the playoffs last year, and their free throw attempt rate is the 6th-highest in the league this year; Milwaukee could gain a serious edge with the less frequent whistles of the playoffs. The next factor that needs to be considered will be the turnover battle. Toronto had the 5th-lowest turnover rate, while the Bucks forced the 5th highest opponent turnover rate. If the Raptors take care of the ball, they will remove one of the Bucks more serious chances to steal games. Milwaukee (26th Opp OREB%) should be at odds trying to keep Toronto off the offensive glass to create extra possessions (another thing Toronto is elite at). The pace of the games could very well be a slow tempo because both teams finished near the bottom of the league in possessions per game. The Bucks rely on Greg Monroe to create points off the bench, and the Raptors countered him with Serge Ibaka during the last regular season matchup. I predict this matchup will come out in the Raptors favor with Ibaka doing a solid job on Monroe, while also exposing Monroe’s inferior defense by pulling him away from the basket. In a similar trade off, Jason Kidd gave Spencer Hawes some time to bring Valanciunas out of the paint. I am confident we will see a couple of stunning performances from Antetokounmpo, Kidd will employ some clever strategies, and Lowry or DeRozan will be underwhelming at least once, but there are too many reliable advantages for Toronto to lose this series.
Prediction: Toronto 4-1
Michael: I want to write something awesome here about Giannis taking over this series and pushing it to 7 games where it is anyone’s series, but the more likely outcome is a mostly dominant performance by the Raptors. The combo of DeRozan and Lowry is going to be a handful for the Bucks backcourt. Even if Lowry pulls another Houdini act during this first round, DeRozan is more than capable of making up for him. Valanciunas and Ibaka also pose serious threats to the Bucks, specifically if they play their regular line up of Giannis, Middleton, Snell, Brogdon and Maker. Maker lines up with Valanciunas, which should favor Valanciunas as his real weakness on defense is stretch bigs, which Maker is not. Then…chaos ensues. Ibaka is going to push around any of those other guys, even if it is Giannis. Brogdon will guard Lowry and Middleton has to guard DeRozan. Snell had a whole game of 0’s this season, and Carroll, although not the most devastating offensive player, is smarter than Snell on both ends of the court. The Bucks’ bench could be a difference-maker here, with Monroe, Dellavedova, Hawes and Teletovic playing really well since the All Star break (and the return of Beasley). However, the Raptors have a backup point guard with loads of playoff experience in Joseph, a solid two player in Powell, along with the defense and intensity that PJ Tucker always brings to the court (which should be even more passionate as this is the first playoff appearance of his career). On top of all this, the Raptors have been on a tear since Lowry’s return. They are 4-0 with Lowry back in the line-up, and he has been a cumulative +34 in those games. This will be a solid learning experience for both the Bucks players and Jason Kidd. I like Kidd as a coach and think he has done an over the top job developing the young players on his roster, but with very little playoff experience among his players, the Raptors are going to feast.
Prediction: Raptors in 5
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies
Tommy: A rematch of the same 2-7 matchup from last year in which San Antonio prevailed from in a sweep of pretty close games. The Grizzlies’ regular season concluded with the untimely injury of Tony Allen, who is not expected to play in the series. Allen’s resume as a defender is well-known, and he was the Grizzlies’ best option for limiting Kawhi Leonard’s offensive impact. Now Memphis’ cast of feisty guards and wings, that function much like Miami’s perimeter players thanks to David Fizdale, will be tasked with stopping one of the serious MVP candidates, the best Clutch team, and possibly the best coach of all time. The Grizzlies 2nd-worst eFG% will have to be better against San Antonio’s 10th best shooting percentage. Three things Memphis does do better than the Spurs are give the ball away less and take it back from opponents more, as well as create extra shots with offensive rebounds more. All of those factors will be absolutely necessary if Memphis is going to win a game against the Spurs 2nd best defense that surrenders an opponent eFG% of 49.2. A couple of interesting matchups, given their respective relationships, are the Gasol brothers, and Zach Randolph against LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs have both Danny Green and Kawhi to put on the all important Mike Conley. The regular season series did end in a split, with one of the Spurs victories coming in overtime, but I see this playing out very similar to last year, if not less competitive.
Prediction: Spurs 4-0
Michael: If Tony Allen was going to play in this series, I would give the Grizzlies a chance to steal some games off the Spurs while at home. With Allen now not being an option, this is probably going to be an ugly scene on both courts.There is no one to guard Kawhi now, and he will have some down time on the defensive end, likely guarding Carter or Ennis. Marc Gasol should be able to out-muscle his older brother and Mike Conley will need to be the best guard on the court all of the time. But I foresee Danny Green being an issue for Conley, as his length, athleticism and footwork should slow down Conley, even with the double screen sets the Grizzlies run for him. Expect Kawhi to take over whenever the games are close and look for LaMarcus to try and go at his old mentor, Zach Randolph. Plus, the Spurs have Popovich, so….
Prediction: Spurs Sweep
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Utah Jazz
Tommy: In what’s sure to be one of the closer 1st Round matchups, the Jazz’s combination of playoff veterans and virgins is pitted against a Clippers team that knows the primary round all too well. Gobert vs. DeAndre is immediately a fun matchup of superior rim protection. Utah has finally reached near full strength, but the Clippers will likely be without Austin Rivers, who is nursing a hamstring injury, for most of the series. Los Angeles has a slightly better offense in contrast to the Jazz’s better defense. The Clippers have the highest free throw attempt rate in the league. The Jazz turn the ball over at a much higher rate than LA. Neither team relies too heavily on offensive rebounds, but the Jazz are better at preventing opponents from obtaining them. I believe that Rudy Gobert will display a breakout performance in this year’s playoffs. The style of officiating, and ability to effectively prepare for an opponent can boost the value of rim protection defense in the playoffs. It’s this type of environment that could allow Gobert, and the reserved defensive identity of the Jazz, to flourish. If this is the case I see the Clippers self-imploding like usual: there will be blaming the officials, then blaming each other, then losing focus and getting away from what they’re good at. If Los Angeles is to win this series they will either need Griffin to be spectacular and not just good, Jordan to be better at being Gobert than Gobert himself, or CP3 to absolutely carry them playing almost the entire game. Austin Rivers injury will be costly.
Prediction: Jazz 4-3
Michael: This is the series in the West I’ll be watching every second of, no matter the score. It is the finale for this Clippers squad if the Jazz win this series, so I expect some real tenacity and hunger from them. CP3 is still the best all around point guard in the league, and he appears to love the postseason even more than most players.
He will be up against George Hill, who has been overly solid for the Jazz this season, but is not CP3. Redick and Hood are kind of a wash to me on offense, with a slight edge to Hood in the defensive roles. Gordon Hayward is going to get his, but if Luc Richard Mbah a Moute can make his life more difficult than normal, it will bode well for the Clippers. DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert are going to be the title fight of this series. They are incredibly similar players, who can change the course of the game on both ends of the court. I love how DeAndre plays in the Clippers’ system, but Gobert should have the larger effect on the series. This leaves the most important players for each team: Blake Griffin, and his counterpart Derrick Favors. Blake has to unload on the Jazz for the Clippers to win this series. And I don’t mean averaging 20 and 10, I mean averaging a triple double and being an unstoppable force going to the rim. He needs to show Gobert, who is still young and unproven in the postseason, that getting in his way is going to end in poster after poster after poster. Sadly for the Clippers, that is a lot of things that need to fall their favor to win this series. I think this is the last we will see of this Clippers squad and the beginning of a annual tradition for the Jazz to win at least the first round of the playoffs.
Prediction: Jazz in 7
(4) Washington Wizards vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
Tommy: The Wizards have been somewhat of an unlikely success story this year. Sometimes they’ve looked poised for a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, but then again, don’t feel too far from slinking back into the mediocrity displayed early in the season. The Hawks nearly free-fell from the playoff race when Paul Millsap got hurt, but they’ve maintained an elite defense almost the entire season. Predicting this series seems like it has a lot to do with whether offense or defense is more likely to win games in the playoffs. The Wizards boast the 6th highest eFG%. The Hawks are the only team in the playoffs with a turnover rate that ranks in the 5 highest of the league. That being said, the only playoff team that ranks in the 10 worst Opponent Effective Field Goal Percentages in addition to Washington, is Houston. The Wizards are also a poor defensive rebounding team. The thing that both of these teams have been good at is forcing turnovers: Hawks are 2nd, Wizards 3rd. If Dwight Howard can overcome his recurrent back injuries, he could wreak havoc grabbing Hawks misses, especially if Gortat gets into foul trouble. Ian Mahinmi is hurt again and will miss the series, leaving Jason Smith as Washington’s backup center once again. Most of the Wizard’s identity takes on that of John Wall’s: a gambler. Normally I would go with the more dependable option of a sound defense, but Wall and the Wizards are too good.
Prediction: Wizards 4-2
Michael: I am glad the talk of Durant coming home to D.C. did not take place this off season. Durant coming to the Wizards would have taken small pieces away from watching the underappreciated greatness of John Wall. This is maybe (hopefully?) the paramount turning point for John Wall. Let me get this out of the way, I think the Wizards win this in 5 or 6 games, but what I am really looking for is a breakout postseason from John Wall. We could talk all day about how impressive Wall is on both sides of the ball, but what we need to talk about is when he is going to elevate to that next level of taking over games when his team needs it the most, specifically, during the most crucial time: the playoffs. The supporting cast for Wall is very good, if not great. Gortat is a legitimate NBA center. Otto Porter is one of, if not the best, 3 and D forwards in the league. Bradley Beal is a great scorer who fills the perfect 2 guard role on this team. And Markieff Morris is one of the better stretch 4s in the NBA, who can still bang for boards and defend the post. If not now for the Wizards, when?
Prediction: Wizards in 6 (but really they should finish the Hawks in 5)
Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers
Tommy: The lay up of projecting this series is whether or not Jusuf Nurkic will play. The trade Portland made before the deadline grabbed headlines when Nurkic and Damian Lillard galvanized arguably the most disappointing team of 2016-2017. Kevin Durant has looked good since his return from injury, mostly dispelling concerns. The Trail Blazers gave the Warriors a little bit more than expected in the quarterfinals last year before Steph Curry returned from his injury to rip each and every one of the Blazers’ players and fans hearts out. Curry’s brilliance drained most of the fun out of the unlikely series and showed how much better Golden State was. Lillard is certainly capable of big games and not shy from the moment; and Nurkic’s impact was certainly palpable. While this matchup could be closer in the coming years, I don’t see a Portland squad, even with a healthy Nurkic, stealing more than a game or two.
Prediction: Warriors 4-0.
Michael: Quick heads up: I am more a Blazers fan than any other team. This is mostly due to personally watching Damian Lillard play in college (twice). Will Cherry, from the University of Montana looked like the better player in a one on one matchup with Lillard in college and he didn’t make it past a ten day contract in the NBA. But Lillard?…he is now one of the best 25 players in the world. I will never truly understand this transition, so I am therefore, not only always excited to watch it, but enamored by it. All that being said, Portland has no chance in this series.
While Dame and CJ may be able to put up 60+ points together each night, the Warrior have at least 4 players on their team that could account for that many combined points when paired together. Not to mention the Warriors have 4 of the top 15 players in the league on their starting roster. Steve Kerr will have his team ready for the Blazers, whether or not Nurkic returns from his broken leg. This one is going to be a blow out boys and girls.
Prediction: Warriors Sweep
(1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Chicago Bulls
Tommy: Boston’s unlikely accomplishment to unseat Cleveland from the throne of the East hasn’t necessarily turned them into the favorite to advance to the Finals. The fact that they finished with the worst net rating of any 1 seed since the 78-79 Supersonics has been heavily publicized. The fact that the Bulls don’t lose when they play on TNT (both wins against the Celtics this season were on TNT) is also well-known. I honestly don’t know how to feel about the Bulls. Their offense was so ugly this year that I hated watching them. They were easy to write off when Butler and Wade clashed with Rondo, and then they made the playoffs.
Their defense is great (6th best Defensive Rating) and their offense is awful (worst eFG%). The single most important component of this series will be Chicago’s ability to get 2nd Chance Points. The Celtics are the 4th worst defensive rebounding team, and the Bulls are the 4th best offensive rebounding team. I expect the games to be close, and potentially chippy, but think this will be the year Brad Stevens wins a playoff series.
Prediction: Celtics 4-2
Michael: Oddly enough, taking over the 1 seed in the East, should mean nothing to the Celtics. They still have to prove themselves to the world in the postseason and their first test won’t be easy. Wade, Butler and Rondo are going to surprise people in this series. Their defense is incredibly underrated and Wade is always, always, always a BEAST in the playoffs. Additionally, the Bulls are a great rebounding team, which is the Achilles Heel of the Celtics. All that being said, the Celtics better come out on top for this series. They have the significantly better coach in Brad Stevens and the better top to bottom roster, with IT leading the charge.
Prediction: Celtics in 5
(3) Houston Rockets vs. (6) Oklahoma City Thunder
Tommy: No other 1st Round series will garner as much attention as Houston-OKC. The Rockets prevailed in 2 of the first 3 games that were close, then soundly beat the Thunder in a nationally televised game a couple weeks ago. If anything, this series is most interesting for all the teammate comparison arguments surrounding the MVP candidacies of Westbrook and Harden. The Rockets are the absolute prototype of a team that mostly lives, but can die by the 3 pointer. If Houston experiences too much of a cold shooting hand, and can’t adapt to drawing fewer fouls than they have relied on (2nd most), the door could be left open for the gutsy Westbrook squad to steal the show. Similar to the Bulls, but even moreso, the Thunder rely on offensive rebounding to subsidize the league’s 7th lowest eFG%. Clint Capela, Nene, Ryan Anderson and Montrezl Harrell are crucially responsible for curbing the Steven Adams, Taj Gibson, and Enes Kanter crashing prowess in a way that the Spurs never figured out last year. I hope I’m wrong, but imagine the end-of-March beatdown in Houston will be mostly what this series looks like. Matchup I can’t wait to watch: Patrick Beverley vs. Russell Westbrook.
Prediction: Rockets 4-2
Michael: I still want to imagine a world where Harden, Durant and Westbrook all coexist on the greatest big three the NBA has ever seen. Wistfully, that is not the case. So, finally we come to the series everyone has been waiting for: Harden vs. Westbrook…I mean, OKC vs Houston. Naw, I actually meant Harden vs. Westbrook, because that is what we all, honestly, want to see. This series will have all the fireworks. Westbrook will be great, continuing to average his regular season numbers of outrageous triple doubles. He will single-handedly win 2 games in this series. Harden will amaze us with his open court vision and unstoppable euro steps that always end in buckets or buckets and a free throw. But the key here is how much less Harden has to do on both ends of the court. The supporting cast for Harden is just overall better than the players Westbrook will have in the blue and orange. I want this series to go the distance on a fourth quarter in Game 7 for the ages, but I just can’t see it. Look for Gordon to go off and Kanter to posterize Anderson a couple times. But this one is going to be a win for the fans in Texas.
Prediction: Houston in 6
All stats from NBA.com