We did it guys! Everyone give yourself and your basketball-loving friends and family a big pat on the back because we made it through the NBA regular season. Now the rubber meets the road and the men are separated from the boys and all that good jazz. Today I’ll do a pretty quick and dirty preview of every first round series, but fear not I’ll return after every night of games to update everyone on what we saw the night before. Also, one last note: for every game I think a given team is going to win in a series I’ll provide a reason why they might win the series, partially because if I can’t come up with four good reasons why a team is going to win a series then they probably aren’t going to win right?
#1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. #8 Detroit Pistons
LeBron James is still one of the two best basketball players in the world, and even though he has been a horrific teammate this season you have to think he and everyone around him is about to find their highest gear. Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith are both probably good for at least unreal shooting night this postseason that should count for two wins right? Kevin Love seems to have found some semblance of rhythm within Cleveland’s offense over the last few weeks of the regular season. All of those things taken into consideration, and the fact that Cleveland is both a little bit more talented and a lot more battle-tested than Detroit and that should add up to a first round victory, but it won’t necessarily be a cakewalk.
Andre Drummond is in a highly contested battle with “Big Game Dame” Lillard for the least widely known superstar in the NBA, and probably clinched it after Lillard’s explosion to beat Golden State right after the All-Star Break. Drummond is a force down low and should be able to more than match Tristan Thompson’s aggressiveness on the boards. Reggie Jackson is also developing into a first rate scoring point guard and Stan Van Gundy is a significantly better coach than the Tyronn Lue/LeBron James head coaching combo.
Final Verdict: Cavs take it in six
#2 Toronto Raptors vs. #7 Indiana Pacers
Toronto and Indiana will kick off the NBA playoffs at 12:30 Eastern on Saturday (a.k.a. this afternoon). Indiana actually has a decent chance to win this series if you factor in these things: the Pacers have the best player (Paul George), best coach (Frank Vogel) and they don’t have a history of first round playoff collapses. Monta Ellis is also one of those scorers capable of winning a team a playoff game, and Toronto let him get way too many easy buckets after a made basket of their own in their last meeting on April 8th.
However, the Raptors have clearly made a leap this year. DeMar Derozan is every bit as capable as Ellis, maybe even more so, at potentially winning a playoff game. Kyle Lowry and DeMarre Carroll offer some of the best perimeter defense the NBA has to offer. Amir Johnson has a solid back-to-the-basket game and while Toronto’s frontcourt will be a question that needs addressing as the playoffs go on, Indiana may not have the personnel to attack that potential Achilles’ heel. Let’s also add in, since we need a fourth reason, that Dwane Casey may have learned some things from last year’s playoff failures and be a better coach this time around.
Final Verdict: Toronto needs 7 but the homecourt helps. “They the North”.
#3 Miami Heat vs. #6 Charlotte Hornets
What a great story the Hornets have been! Their over/under coming into the season was around 30 if I remember correctly and here they are comfortably in the playoffs! Linsanity gives Charlotte a good bench spark. Kemba Walker is also developing into a really nice scoring guard. The Hornets have a deep and divers rotation of big men, especially now that Big Al Jefferson has returned from injury. Steve Clifford won’t get coach of the year honors, but he very well might deserve them. This team is well-coached, has a good primary scoring option, and has decent depth. Tell me that’s not enough to pull an upset.
Miami, as the three seed, is the obvious favorite here. They have a superior homecourt advantage, more talent, and significantly more playoff experience. Here’s the problem: they haven’t been a particularly trustworthy team this season. Bosh and Wade are dependable, even if they are nearing the twilight of their prime, if not careers. Dragic doesn’t have much playoff experience to speak of, nor does Whiteside. Winslow is a strong perimeter defender, but he can’t shoot yet and has (obviously) never played a playoff game.
Final Verdict: Charlotte pulls it off in 7 and the Miami fans start to clear out with 4:00 left in Game 7
#4 Atlanta Hawks vs. #5 Boston Celtics
Game one of this series will tell us more about the series going forward than perhaps any other game one in this playoffs. Atlanta and Boston play fairly similarly and have fairly similar makeups. Both are extremely well-coached, and even though Coach Budenholzer has one more Coach of the Year award than Brad Stevens the coaching battle in this one is probably a wash. Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley are better perimeter defenders than anyone on Atlanta’s roster and have the ability to neuter Kyle Korver for 4-7 games if they choose to do so.
Jeff Teague has had an underwhelming season, and it’s probably a negative that the Hawks couldn’t find a deal for him at the deadline. Dennis Schroeder is the future though and is a more personable Rondo. Much like a young Rondo, he can’t shoot yet and that could be a major pitfall for Atlanta. The Hawks have the stronger frontcourt, maybe the strongest in the East, with Horford and Millsap. Millsap’s versatility on both defense and offense will be a key for Atlanta if they are to win the game. If you love watching good team basketball then this is probably going to be the best first round series to watch.
Final Verdict: Boston in 7 but every game will be tight
#1 Golden State Warriors vs. #8 Houston Rockets
If you look up the verb “backdoor” in the Webster’s Sports Dictionary, you will see 2015-16 Houston Rockets listed “e.g.” Houston managed to sneak into the playoffs, and it is great that James Harden does make a postseason appearance but does he really have to drag Dwight Howard there with him? If you are looking for a reason the Rockets could pull the upset, it’s that James Harden is one of 5-7 players on earth capable of carrying a team in a series against the “greatest regular season team of all-time”.
Do I really need to spell this out for you? Ok I will. Golden State has the best player in the game. The most versatile defender in the game. One of the three-to-five best coaches in the game. One of the three best shooters not named Steph in the game. They can go ten deep. They are even better than the team that won the NBA Finals last season, and I’ve already given you four reasons without even mentioning the guy who won NBA Finals MVP for them last season who, ohbytheway, is still on their team, doesn’t start, and is still a great teammate.
Final Verdict: Harden gets the Rockets one game at home like he did in last year’s Western Conference Finals, but that’s it. GSW in 5.
#2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #7 Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis is a team that I would not have wanted to play in the first round. Not because I would fear an upset, unfortunately they are just too banged up, but because they are still tough and play bully ball and will leave the team that plays them black and blue heading into Round 2. San Antonio is just too good though. Especially with Gasol and Conley out for the playoffs. Kawhi and company (weird that we can call them that now right?) will handle their business and move on, but they will do so at a physical cost.
Final Verdict: Spurs get some hard-earned rest and pull off the sweep
#3 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #6 Dallas Mavericks
If NBA games were 44 minutes long, Oklahoma City might have matched Golden State’s 73-9 regular season record. However, late game woes, particularly offensively, have plagued the Thunder in Billy Donovan’s first season as head coach. This is largely due to the fact that OKC’s late game offense consists of Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook dribbling for 10-15 seconds then launching a Kobe-esque mid-range jumper. That won’t hack it in the playoffs any better than it did during the regular season.
Rick Carlisle is the best coach in the series, and the Mavs don’t have the Rondo stench looming over their locker room this postseason, but they are overmatched in this one. Durant and Westbrook are two of the six best players in the NBA right now and the complementary pieces are good enough in this one for the Thunder to advance even if it means stranding a few fans on Waiters Island.
Final Verdict: OKC in 5
#4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. #5 Portland Trail Blazers
The Clippers deserve some sort of recognition for managing to largely stay out of the news for the last month of the season. Blake Griffin still doesn’t look right. However, Chris Paul is still one of the smartest players in the league and capable of both putting the team on his back or locking down team’s number one in the 4th quarter. (Save it with the “What has CP3 ever won?” argument). Doc Rivers is still a fantastic coach and LAC’s starting five and sixth man are stronger, on the whole, than Portland’s. Plus, with the Lakers not in the playoffs and no more Donald Sterling to protest, the Staples Center should be a tough place for playoff opponents to come play.
But, and this is a big but, Damian Lillard might just be the best player in the series, at least as long as Blake Griffin is only at 80ish%. Lillard is a scoring machine who can light up anyone on any night. C.J. McCollum also gives him a dynamic one-two scoring backcourt. Allen Crabbe and Al-Farouq Aminu provide help on the wing. Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee give the Portland a decent low post presence too. Meyers Leonard could have been an X-factor in this series, unfortunately he’s done for the year. However, I think Lillard and McCollum will be enough. Last year, everything fell apart for Portland at the wrong time. This year, Portland isn’t so much limping into the playoffs as they are humming.
Final Verdict: Portland wins in 6