The bracket is set, and the road to the Larry O’Brien Trophy begins this weekend. There’s a lot to watch for, as the defending champs look to retain their crown, while the runner-ups try to avenge their infamous 3-1 blown lead. Meanwhile, resurgent teams will attempt to shake things up. Let’s take a look at how the first round will go down.
Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Portland Trailblazers (8)
The Trailblazers’ reward for outlasting the Denver Nuggets for the last playoff spot is a date with the 2-time defending Western Conference champions. This Warriors team is, of course, a little different from years past. Kevin Durant has made a huge impact this season, and although he was recently sidelined with a knee injury, he has returned to the lineup just in time for the playoffs. The Blazers feature a 3-point barrage of talented point guard Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Allen Crabbe. However, expect Golden State’s sharpshooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to match them shot-for-shot.
Prediction: The only question is whether or not Portland can win a game at home. I’ll say yes- Warriors cruise in 5.
Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5)
The Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers finished with identical 51-31 records, but the Clippers were able to snag home court by winning the season series 3-1. That might be very appropriate for how this series will go. Both also have identical 29-12 home records, among the best in the NBA. With both teams suffering playoffs droughts (Jazz haven’t won a playoff game since 2010; Chris Paul is about to have the NBA record for most playoff games without appearing in the Conference Finals), it’s going to be a question of who wants it more. At the end of the day, it’s L.A.’s veteran shortcomings vs. Utah’s youth and inexperience.
Prediction: A hard-fought series goes the distance, just like these teams’ regular season battle – Jazz wins Game 7 in OT.
Houston Rockets (3) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (6)
If you only have time to watch one series, make it this one. The two best players of the 2017 season are going head-to-head on and off the court. All season experts have weighed in on whether the Rockets’ James Harden or the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook should be MVP. Now, the two will have a chance to go 1-on-1 in a grudge match after the votes have been cast. Westbrook is a machine, breaking the great Oscar Robertson’s once unbreakable 41 triple-doubles in a season record by 1. Without Durant in OKC, he has really shined as a premier player and the focal point of the Thunder. But Harden’s supporting cast as boosted Houston to get 8 more wins and home court advantage.
Prediction: An incredible back-and-forth series ends in game 6, Rockets advance.
MVP Prediction: PLEASE give it to Russell Westbrook. Not even a debate in my mind… just saying.
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)
The Grizzlies have made an impressive 6-straight playoff appearances, but the Spurs have only missed the playoffs once since 1989. I’m not sure anyone can comprehend how incredible that is. Even Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls “only” made the playoffs 14 times in a row and, at best, 20 appearances in any 27-year span. So, it’s fair to say this isn’t coach Gregg Popovich’s first time around the block. With Tim Duncan retiring, Kawhi Leonard has stepped up and had an incredible year. He does it all and never stops hustling from the opening layup to the clutch buzzer-beaters. Mike Conley Jr. will have a big series, but the Grizzlies will have their hands full with this tough opening draw.
Prediction: Get your brooms ready, Spurs easily sweep past the Grizzlies in 4.
Boston Celtics (1) vs. Chicago Bulls (8)
This matchup of all-time great franchises will exceed expectations. Jimmy Butler’s Bulls are far more talented than their record implies, and they have serious upset potential. Also, the Eastern Conference has been much more evenly competitive than the West this year, and this series will prove it. Skillful 5’9″ point guard Isiah Thomas led Boston to a surprise run at the #1 seed, but they face a very tough matchup with Chicago. Butler and Thomas are both incredible athletes that make their teams better. The game will be won when the Celtics have the ball. Boston can score in bunches and have shown excellent ball movement through Thomas, but Chicago’s claim to fame has always been scrappy defense and getting rebounds.
Prediction: After splitting the season series, Boston wins the tiebreaker in game 7.
Washington Wizards (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5)
What seemed to be an epic collapse by the Hawks turned into a solid rebound as they clinched the 5 seed by winning 4 of the last 5 games. Meanwhile the Wizards have held steady as the 4th best team all year. Streaky vs. Consistency. In the long run, you’ll always pick the consistent back court of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Two pure athletes, they average 23 PPG a piece, and Wall averages over 10 assists per game as well. It’s a true asset to know exactly what you’ll get from D.C. every night. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s front court of Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard have been dominant in the paint. But when either has an off night, it affects the entire team.
Prediction: Wizards make quick work of Atlanta, advance in 5.
Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (6)
Giannis Antetokounmpo has had a phenomenal campaign for Milwaukee. Definitely the MVP of the Bucks, he’ll surely settle for the league’s Most Improved Player. That said, the red-hot Raptors are going to be hard to stop. They’re 12-2 since March 17, and have won 4 straight coming into the postseason, including a rout over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday. The tandem of Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan light up the stat sheet and can overpower anyone. With Antetokounmpo controlling just about every aspect of the Bucks, it could be relatively easy to shut him down.
Prediction: Bucks play well and force the Raptors to play hard, but Toronto still sweeps.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (7)
The Cavaliers are firmly at the center of the NBA’s attention. Lebron James and the Cavs look to make their 3rd straight Finals appearance (James’s 7th!), while the Pacers try to derail Cleveland’s hopes of a repeat. Don’t count on any funny business. Although Cleveland limps into the postseason the losers of 4 straight, they know how to win when it matters most. The Cavaliers have simply too much talent from top to bottom to be ousted this early by Paul George and company. I wouldn’t worry yet if I were a Cleveland fan, but the Conference Semifinals could prove to be a challenge if they don’t gather enough momentum with this dream matchup.
Predictions: Cavaliers overcome early deficits and prevail in 5.