The race to the NBA playoffs was as close possible in many cases, and definitely the closest in recent memory overall. Expect the first round of the actual playoffs to be just as chaotic and confusing. Yes, the West has Houston and Golden State a cut above the rest. Toronto was easily the top seed to the West, but Cleveland is once again the favorite to reach the Finals.
The other 12 teams suiting up in Round 1 are truly capable of anything. I wouldn’t be surprised by hardly any combination of 8 teams that make it through to the next round. You can picture a majority of upsets as easily as you can see it go all chalk.
I am resisting making any real predictions about what will happen because of how unsure this all is. So I’ll start by going through each series detailing what could happen, which again, could be pretty much anything.
Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
Season series: Houston won 4-0
Going by the regular season faceoffs and just a casual observing of the Rockets for the past 6 months, this could be the simplest one to predict. Houston is really, really, really, really good. The Wolves stumbled down the stretch and only recently got Jimmy Butler back from injury. Butler, Karl-ANthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins all played more than 35 minutes per game. They’re probably tired. Only James Harden reached that mark for Houston.
But Harden and Chris Paul always collapse in the playoffs, you might be saying. Very true. That is concerning, but you must remember that those breakdowns almost always happen in the 2nd round. Is Minnesota solid enough to bring the meltdown early this year? If you watched the play-in game against Denver, Minnesota’s defense was swarming the Nuggets down the stretch. They didn’t come anywhere close to the level against the Rockets so far this season.
Watching Harden and CP pick-and-rolls vs MIN, and I think my computer is about to burst into flames. HOU scored 130 points/100 possessions (not a typo) in four games vs MIN
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 12, 2018
It’s easier to believe they’re more capable of long stretches of it now. But even with all that, it’s overwhelmingly unlikely they can pull out 4 victories against the best team in the NBA. They do, however, have the motivation that Tom Thibodeau might literally kill them if they don’t.
(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs
Season series: Golden State won 3-1
Technically, after the regular season, the Warriors have a 3-1 lead over the Spurs coming into this series. If you get my drift. That’s obviously silly, and the Spurs unfortunately do not have LeBron James. But don’t forget crazier things have (extremely recently) happened. Steph Curry missed time that postseason, too. Just saying.
While Steph is indeed out, San Antonio has the tiny problem of Kawhi Leonard being…somewhere else. He’s basically been Carmen Sandiego this season. Good luck finding out where in the world he is before Game 1. I’d probably take the Warriors’ remaining three All-Stars over LaMarcus Aldridge. This is Kevin Durant’s time. The Dubs were fine this season without Curry, but they have to be great now. The weakest Spurs team in 20 years isn’t a bad place to start. Counting out Coach Pop is a fool’s errand, though. It’s never wise to bet against the Spurs, no matter what the odds.
(3) Portland Trailblazers vs. (6) New Orleans Pelicans
Season series: Tied 2-2
Alright, now we’re into the nitty gritty. The Blazers have been a better team ever since the Pelicans lost Boogie Cousins. On the other hand, New Orleans has Anthony Davis. Portland has somehow become a top-10 defensive team this season. On the other hand, New Orleans has Anthony Davis. Portland has Damian Lillard, a top-5 MVP candidate. On the other hand, New Orleans has Anthony Davis, a top-5 MVP candidate.
For real though, if you’re not ready to see AD and Jusuf Nurkic do battle like medieval knights for at least four games, why are you even reading this? Or the crafty veteran Rajon Rondo trying to wrangle Lillard. You can bet on several instances of Dame Time this series. The Pels did a good job of containing him in the regular season, but Playoff Lillard is another beast.
Don’t be surprised if it comes down to something like that again.
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz
Season series: Oklahoma City won 3-1
I HAVE NO IDEA. The Jazz couldn’t score to save their lives in the regular season against OKC, although Donovan Mitchell was out for one of those games. Rudy Gobert also missed two of them, and he may be the person you’d want most to keep Russell Westbrook out of the paint. Still, now we get two elite defenses trying to stop two dynamic scoring point guards for a whole series.
Plus Gobert facing Steven Adams. Jae Crowder grappling with Paul George. Ricky Rubio, the NBA’s most delightful person, is in the playoffs for the first time! This is great!
The real question here, and it’s the thing that I think will decide the series, is: who in 2018, is the better player? Carmelo Anthony or Joe Ingles? Guess the stat lines!
16.2 PPG/5.8 RPG/1.3 APG – 40.4/35.7/76.7%
11.5 PPG/4.2 RPG/4.8 APG – 46.7/44.0/79.5%
The second line is Ingles, who also has a better Net Rating, assists way more (while turning it over slightly more) and is clearly a much more efficient shooter, all with a Usage Rate of 16% compared to Carmelo’s nearly 23%. Those are the numbers. You tell me who’s better. Maybe this series will be the deciding factor. Here’s another important factor to keep in mind:
— NBA (@NBA) April 8, 2018
— b.hall (@_bhall) April 9, 2018
Just some food for thought.
Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Washington Wizards
Season series:Tied 2-2
It’s been seven years since the 1st seed Spurs lost to the first iteration of the Grit n Grind Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. That result doesn’t seem so crazy in retrospect, though it was scandalous at the time. Let’s not be so naive this time. It’s 2018, we’ve been through a lot of shit since 2011.
If you had a 1st seed with the exact same record and stats that wasn’t Toronto, you probably wouldn’t think twice about this series. But because Toronto is Toronto it’s not so clear-cut. The regular season showed us a new Raptors mentality. But these are the playoffs, and one spectacular season can’t counteract four years of playoff failures. It’s Lowry and DeRozan, battling playoff demons as well as their All-Star counterparts in Wall and Beal. That’s a lot to take on. Especially considering Wall didn’t play in any of those regular season games. This won’t be easy.
Yet if Toronto’s bench stays at the elite level it’s been at this should be over quickly. But they, too, play for Toronto. That doubt will always be there once the calendar hits April. Until we’re proved otherwise. If they slip up in Game 1 once again, all those old questions will come right back to the forefront.
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks
Season series: Tied 2-2
Normally, when in doubt while picking a playoff series, you go with whoever has the best player. Even with Kyrie around, that still would have been Giannis Antetokounmpo. That would have been a much more fun series, but unfortunately the Celtics are down to a every-single-position-by-committee gameplan here. If anyone can get a winner out of that, it’s Brad Stevens. That’s still tough to imagine, though.
Despite Boston’s impressive overachievements, if Milwaukee can’t win this series they need to check themselves. I’m pretty sure they have the THREE best players in this series in Giannis, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker. The Bucks’ defense is a liability, but Boston’s offense is an even bigger one without Kyrie. Joe Prunty just has to be a neutral force and they should get through this. If things do go south, though, I hope Giannis goes out in a blaze of anger like the first time he made the playoffs.
Who is Boston’s equivalent of Mike Dunleavy Jr.? Oddly, I think it’s Shane Larkin. Imagine that showdown. I almost want to see this more than I want to see Giannis in the 2nd round. Not quite, but almost.
(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Miami Heat
Season series: Tied 2-2
I don’t know, dogg. The Sixers won’t have Joel Embiid, at least to start. They’ve still won 16 straight games and half of them without him. Only four of those came against teams with winning records, and Miami will a hell of a lot scrappier than the tanking fleet Philly has faced. Ben Simmons is outrageously good for a rookie, but how will he handle the playoffs. Can he be reigned over the course of a series once Spoelstra gets to study his game? How will he handle it when the Heat switch things up on him?
Still, Simmons is probably the best, most important player in this series. I trust most of the Heat’s supporting cast just as much as Philly’s. This may come down to Simmons against Goran Dragic which…is interesting. Simmons may already be the better player, but he still has to prove himself in the playoffs. Hmm…
One intriguing subplot is Embiid coming back in an attempt to stick it to the increasingly-bench-ridden-and-also-salty-about-it Hassan Whiteside. He’s handled Embiid better than anyone on defense. Will that earn him more crunch time minutes? Plus, there’s real beef here.
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) October 14, 2017
If Embiid comes back to play even one minute in this series with a mask on, it’s over.
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Indiana Pacers
Season series: Indiana won 3-1
I will love Victor Oladipo until I die. He’s the Most Improved Player, no question. What the Pacers have done this season is practically a miracle. Nobody had them even making the playoffs, much less getting the 5th seed with 48 wins. That’s awesome.
And yet their prize is a date with the executioner, who in the first round of the NBA playoffs is LeBron James. Sorry, guys. There’s more doubt in Cleveland than ever before, but Indiana isn’t the team to bring out a crisis in Ohio. At least we get at least four more games of Lance Stephenson (my favorite player of all time) getting all up in LeBron’s business. Hell yeah.
Let the playoffs begin.