With the playoffs set to begin tomorrow, we predict who will be the winners of the first round. Unlike last year, the East’s playoff picture looks really, really good and will most likely have the most competitive matchups with BOS/ATL and MIA/CHA; the LAC/POR matchup out West is shaping up to be superb as well.
The first round on the West looks iffy and, unfortunately, the series won’t be hyper-competitive until the following rounds.
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (8) Detroit Pistons – CLE 4-1
LeBron is on a mission to get back to the finals. He’s lucky enough this year to have both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving along for the ride. Although the Pistons beat the Cavs in three of the four games they played in the regular season, James’ level of play elevates during playoff time, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him dominate a team from Detroit with little playoff experience. If Detroit hopes to pull off an upset, luring the Cavs into playing one-on-one would be major; LeBron jab stepping twice and shooting a 22-foot jump shot would be the best-case scenario on offense.
Player to watch: LeBron James, CLE, 25.3p/7.4r/6.8a
(4) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Boston Celtics – BOS 4-3
In what might play out as the best matchup in the first round, Boston and Atlanta go head-to-head as two teams who are eerily equal. Atlanta boasts the league’s second-best DRtg at 101.4, and Boston has the fourth-best at 103.6. Boston gets the edge because of the offensive capabilities of Thomas, Bradley, Turner, and Crowder and can easily surpass their average of 105 points if they get in a groove. In the end, Boston will end up making more plays on offense than Atlanta.
Player to watch: Isaiah Thomas, BOS, 22.2p/3.0r/6.2a
Matchup to watch: Isaiah Thomas vs. Jeff Teague
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Indiana Pacers – TOR 4-1
Paul George‘s play this year made everyone forget about the gruesome injury he suffered not too long ago. The two-way superstar averaged 23.1 points and seven rebounds per game this year for Indiana. Outside of George, however, there was no consistent scoring threat. The Raptors are lucky enough to have two. Lowry and DeRozan accounted for 41% of Toronto’s points scored this year, and the team has a collective defense that’s top-3 in points allowed; with DeMarre Carroll‘s return, their perimeter defense got even better.
Player to watch: DeMar DeRozan, TOR, 23.5p/4.5r/4.0a
Matchup to watch: DeMar DeRozan/DeMarre Carroll vs. Paul George
(3) Miami Heat vs. (6) Charlotte Hornets – MIA 4-2
There was a point a few months ago where Charlotte was playing the best basketball in the league; Kemba Walker was cutting up everyone, and when he goes, the Hornets go. He cooled off a lot, however, towards the end of the year and averaged just 17.2 points on 39% shooting — a little worrisome for a team getting ready for the playoffs. Miami has been streaky as well, but just on offense. Their defense is top notch on the perimeter with Deng, Wade, Winslow, and Dragic, and inside with Whiteside. I expect the defensive intensity to rise for Miami and push them into the second round while Dwyane Wade turns back the hands of time.
Player to watch: Dwyane Wade, MIA, 19.0p/4.1r/4.6a
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Houston Rockets – GSW 4-0
This is going to be a slow and painful four-game sweep. Houston allows their opponents to shoot 36% from downtown — a statistic that has Curry and Thompson salivating. It gets worse for the Rockets’ defense; as they were 25th in the league and allowed their opponents to average more than 106 points per game. Regardless of how potent Houston’s offense is, the best defensive teams have a tough time holding down the Warriors. You can only imagine what troubles that’ll bring the Rockets as their 108.1 DRtg is the lowest among playoff teams.
Player to watch: Stephen Curry, GSW, 30.1p/5.4r/6.7a
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers – LAC 4-3
This is, undoubtedly, the most competitive first round series in the West. LAC was rolling without Blake Griffin and now that he’s back, their offense is back to full effectiveness, and their depth is increased as well. As a matter of fact, depth will be crucial to the Clippers winning this series. LA has always struggled with bench scoring despite a lethal starting lineup. This year, they have it and can easily go eight or nine deep. Portland now has the Clippers’ old problem and lack the depth to back up Lillard and McCollum. Regardless of the outcome of this series, Portland getting to the playoffs is remarkable after what transpired over the summer.
Player to watch: Damian Lillard, POR, 25.1p/4.0r/6.8a
Matchup to watch: Damian Lillard vs. Chris Paul
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies – SAS 4-0
The Grizzlies have no shot at beating the Spurs. They’re so riddled with injuries that they’re lucky the West was weak this year, or they surely would’ve fallen out of the race. The losses of Gasol and Conley killed them most; then Chalmers went down, and Randolph missed some time as well. Compounding it, Tony Allen is questionable for the playoffs with hamstring tightness. It’s shocking how a Memphis team with a healthy Gasol, Conley, and Allen would be able to push the Spurs to seven games. Instead, Lance Stephenson and Matt Barnes will be leading the Grizzlies. Although, the reduced level of competition could mean one thing: extended playing time for Boban.
Player to watch: Kawhi Leonard, SAS, 21.2p/6.8r/1.8s
(3) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (6) Dallas Mavericks – OKC 4-1
It’s going to take a lot for Dallas to stay with the Thunder, a lot from an aging team. Not only does OKC have the youth, talent, and athletic advantages, they have the depth to carry on all those attributes. Devin Harris, David Lee, and J.J. Barea are all banged up for Dallas, and Chandler Parsons‘ surgery led to a tremendous loss. It’ll be intriguing to see what adjustments Dallas makes in order to deal with the explosiveness of Durant and Westbrook, and how great they are at setting up their teammates to make shots. What’s troubles me about the Thunder is how prone they are to collapsing in the fourth quarter and Dallas, a veteran, isn’t going to just give up in OKC extends a healthy lead.
Player to watch: Russell Westbrook, OKC, 23.5p/7.8r/10.4a