The first round is in the books, and famed sports blogger Mark Leopold is 8-0, including the daring prediction of the Jazz prevailing in game 7. Now as we march on to the Conference Semifinals, the final 8 teams look to move one step closer to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. So many questions loom: Which teams can be the first to 4 wins? Which teams will enter their offseason prematurely? But most importantly… will Mark Leopold improve to 12-0?? Let’s take a look…
Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Utah Jazz (5)
Even though the Jazz just came away with one of the biggest wins in their franchise’s history, they now must face a red-hot and well-rested Warriors team that is out for blood. Golden State hardly broke a sweat in its first round sweep of the Trailblazers, and they look to do the same against the Jazz. With a healthy roster complete with 4 All-stars, the Warriors look unstoppable. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have built chemistry all season, and now is the time for it to pay off. The only thing that can get in the way of the Warriors’ advancing to the Conference Finals is if their textbook ball movement gets disrupted.
For the Jazz, it’s imperative to keep playing tenacious defense, and to avoid letting Golden State play within their game. Gordon Hayward has been the leader for Utah all season, and he’ll need to step up and play the best series of his life for the young Jazz to have a chance. Furthermore, it’s a gift that Rudy Gobert is back, but he needs to stay healthy and stay out of foul trouble. His presence inside is invaluable, and he’ll look to win the one-on-one match-ups with Draymond Green. You cannot overstate this David vs. Goliath series, but if the Jazz follow this plan and catch some lucky breaks, they might have a chance to win a game or two at home.
Prediction: The Warriors are forced to fight hard on the road, but don’t drop a game… move to 8-0 in the 2017 Playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Houston Rockets (3)
From one MVP candidate match-up to another, now the #2 and #3 contenders square off. With the superior Russell Westbrook out of the way, James Harden can breathe a sigh of relief as his Rockets turn to face a complete Spurs team. From veteran point guard Tony Parker to the newly acquired Lamarcus Aldridge, this team has it all. Of course, the x-factor is superstar Kawhi Leonard. Coming off the best season of his career, he continued to dominate on both ends of the floor against the Memphis Grizzlies in Round 1. Hitting clutch shot after clutch shot while providing suffocating defense on the other end gives San Antonio a huge boost in the Conference Semifinals.
As for the Rockets, the key is guard play. Both of these Texas teams’ strengths are in the back court. It’ll be very important for Houston’s Harden and Patrick Beverley to win the battle against the Spurs’ guards. With San Antonio owning a slight edge under the rim thanks to Aldridge, it’s imperative for Houston to beat Parker up top. Harden is certainly capable, as he averages almost 30 points and 11 assists per game, but can he do it against the league’s 2nd best overall defense?
Prediction: A back-and-forth series comes down to who wants it more, Spurs pull it out in 6.
Boston Celtics (1) vs. Washington Wizards (4)
This blossoming bitter rivalry will come to a head in these next couple weeks as All-star point guards Isaiah Thomas and John Wall go one-on-one for a chance at their first Conference Finals appearance. Not only that, Wall hopes he can lead his team past the Conference Semis for the first time in 38 years. But a resilient Boston team stands in his way. Following the unexpected passing of Thomas’s sister, the Celtics dropped the first two games of the first round series against the Chicago Bulls before rattling off 4-straight wins. How Thomas performed at such a high clip despite unimaginable pain is nothing short of incredible. It’ll be interesting to see if he gets better as time passes, or if his emotions get the best of him.
For Washington, watch for them to continue the excellent team ball they’ve showcased this season. Beyond the hot shooting of Wall and Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. has shown he’s capable of greatness, too. Finally, long-time big man Marcin Gortat has competed with the best from the league, and should control Al Horford’s numbers. All in all, The Wizards are a complete team with outstanding guard play run by Wall. His handles, ball distribution, and trust in his teammates to hit big shots are the reason they’re in the position they are. It’s been 38 years in the making, but could this be the year the Wizards finally break into the National Semis?
Prediction: Isaiah Thomas is just too good for Washington, Celtics outlast Wizards in a high-scoring series… winning in game 7.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs. Toronto Raptors (3)
After a scare from Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, the Raptors return to the Conference Semis. More importantly, they have a chance to exact revenge on the team who ended their title chance in Game 6 of the Conference Finals. Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan will have a tough challenge when not one, but three superstars come up north. As frustrating as the Greek Freak was, imagine how they try to handle Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. Toronto will have to hope their home crowd and blistering momentum can help them escape Cleveland, because I’m not sure that all the talent is there for revenge.
The Cavaliers just need to stay focused and play their game. This won’t be an open and shut series, so Cleveland needs to learn from mistakes and have a tactical approach. Go moment by moment, and don’t let the slides snowball. If they keep up chemistry and continue to fight, there is no reason they won’t see the final 4. Look for Irving and James to control the tempo and make the necessary plays to clinch this series.
Prediction: Cavs are in full playoff mode, and regardless of how short or long this series is, they don’t get eliminated- I’ll predict it ends in 5.