The NBA playoffs are set to kick off tomorrow at about 3:00 p.m. EST, when the Cleveland Cavaliers will face off against the Indiana Pacers. I already made my series predictions here, but that only scratches the surface. Without further ado, let’s fire off one prediction for each of the eight first-round NBA playoffs series.
Eight Predictions for Eight First-Round NBA Playoffs Series
The Bulls will push Boston to the brink, but ultimately fall short
The Bulls are a popular pick – both by fans and by media members – to shock the top-seeded Celtics. In fact, the statistical model of ESPN’s Kevin Pelton gives this #1 vs. #8 series a 29 percent chance of resulting in an upset, higher than the odds for any other lower-seeded team in the first round. Despite the fact that only five number one seeds have ever lost in the opening round, Jimmy Butler deserves respect as the best two-way player in this series. Furthermore, the playoff versions of Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade have to strike fear in the hearts of Celtics fans. And of course, with some of the games being broadcast on TNT, the deadly TNT Bulls will make an appearance. (National T.V. Rondo is pretty good, too.)
There are a lot of reasons to believe that Chicago will give Boston more of a challenge than a regular eighth seed would. Regardless of the speculation, however, the Celtics are the better team. I expect the Bulls to give them a legitimate scare – perhaps not too differently from what they did in the 2009 playoffs – but in the end, Boston should be able to stave them off in seven games.
Indiana will give the Cavs the wake-up call they need
Since the Pacers brought back Lance Stephenson, who starred for them in multiple deep playoff runs, they have a new bounce in their step. With Stephenson and his All-Star teammate Paul George in the lineup, Indiana has challenged LeBron James-led teams before. They made James’ Miami Heat work to win playoffs series in three consecutive years, from 2012 to 2014. When George is at his best, he can match James shot for shot. Look no further than their latest meeting – a double-overtime thriller that the Cavs won – for proof of that. The Pacers have been mediocre all season, but George has proven time and time again to be a big-time playoff performer.
The Cavs, meanwhile, struggled for the latter half of the season, stumbling to a 23-23 record in their final 46 games. Most believe that they can flip the switch and go into playoff mode, after which they can dominate the Eastern Conference. But it may not be that simple.
Look for the Pacers to start the series strong, possibly even stealing a game in Cleveland. Even if they don’t, they’ll at least make force some games to go down to the wire. That may be exactly what the Cavs need – a wake-up call that ultimately forces them to find their A-game before a tough potential matchup with Toronto in the second round.
Jonas Valanciunas will return to peak playoff form
The Raptors are better than the Milwaukee Bucks, but Toronto has struggled in the playoffs before. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can make shots against Milwaukee’s long defenders, but another relevant X-factor is the play of Valanciunas.
Valanciunas has been inconsistent all season. He has dominated some games, but he’s sat the entire fourth quarter in others. Sometimes, he’s done both on the same night. But in each of the past three seasons, Valanciunas has elevated his play in the playoffs. I expect him to do more of the same in this year’s first round. With rookie Thon Maker starting at center alongside four perimeter players for the Bucks, Valanciunas should have a field day on the interior. He averaged 13.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game in 12 contests during the 2016 playoffs, despite going down with an injury in the second round. If Valanciunas can get back to that form, the Raptors should be able to beat Milwaukee.
The Wizards will rediscover their extra gear
In both the 2014 and 2015 playoffs, Washington clicked in a way that allowed the team to bulldoze through its first-round series. The Wizards just have the extra gear that certain teams find in the playoffs. John Wall and Bradley Beal excelled against the Atlanta Hawks in the regular season, so they should be even better in playoff mode, just as they were against Chicago and Toronto in past playoff runs. If Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat can contain Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard, respectively, then this Wizards team may pick apart the Hawks. Wall and Beal will show up, and that might be enough to make the East’s #4 vs. #5 series shorter than some expect.
Kevin Durant will get his mojo back
After missing 21 contests toward the end of the regular season due to injury, Durant came back for three games just to get back into a rhythm. He seemed to manage that pretty well, scoring 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting (in just 27 minutes) on the last night of the regular season.
With the Golden State Warriors being overwhelming favorites to beat the Portland Trail Blazers in the West’s #1 vs. #8 matchup, nothing too surprising should happen in this series. An important goal for Golden State, though, will be to fully integrate Durant back into the lineup. One might think that he’d start slow, but I disagree. Look for KD to shine as the best player in this series, leading the Warriors to an easy sweep. Durant will be fully prepared to move past the Blazers and on to a tougher second-round opponent.
Kawhi Leonard will show why he belongs in the MVP conversation
The West’s second seed, the San Antonio Spurs, should beat the Memphis Grizzlies, but the Grizz won’t go down without a fight. The Spurs may find themselves in danger of losing a home game at some point in this series. When the going gets tough, it may become apparent that San Antonio’s roster isn’t as deep and talented as it was in past playoff runs. The Spurs will need someone to step up, and they’ll look to Leonard with games on the line.
I expect Leonard to deliver, as he has many times this season. With the outstanding play of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, most fans on social media don’t seem to consider Leonard to be a legitimate MVP candidate at all (despite what some experts say). However, even if he doesn’t deserve to win it, ‘The Klaw’ should at least be in the MVP discussion. He’ll use this series to prove it.
We’ll see the best and worst of Russell Westbrook
Speaking of MVP candidates, Westbrook is the odds-on favorite to win the award. Everyone knows how fantastic he’s been, from his triple-double records to his dominance in the clutch. But Westbrook’s flaws are just as obvious sometimes – his high turnovers (a trait that Harden shares), his low shooting efficiency, and the tendency for all of his mistakes to come to fruition in Thunder losses.
In the West’s #3 vs. #6 matchup of MVP candidates, Harden and Westbrook will both showcase themselves. We’ll see them both at their best from game to game – Westbrook racking up triple-doubles and coming through in crunch time, Harden controlling the pace and creating shot after shot for his team.
But when Houston inevitably tops OKC, it will reflect poorly on Westbrook. Oklahoma City lives by Westbrook and dies by Westbrook. Every Rockets victory will come with some ugly shooting numbers for Westbrook. As great as it is that Westbrook can single-handedly take over games, it also shows his lack of trust in even a single teammate. That will cost the Thunder, as Westbrook will eventually need some help, but it won’t be there for him. He’ll be forced to do it all, which will, at some point, come back to bite the Thunder.
The Jazz will control the pace, but the Clippers will get the win
The West’s #4 vs. #5 matchup might be the consensus pick for the best series. It features the L.A. Clippers and the Utah Jazz, two teams in radically different positions. For the Clippers, a loss might mean the end of the Lob City era. The Jazz, on the other hand, are getting their first taste of the postseason with their current core.
These two teams are very tight, but the Clippers have had Utah’s number for a while now. L.A. has won 18 of the last 20 meetings between the two teams, and even though many of those games came before the current Jazz core existed, it’s still not a good sign for Utah.
The Jazz are the slowest team in the NBA, with a pace of just 93.6 possessions used per game. The Clippers are closer to the middle. I expect Utah to control the pace, bogging these games down and causing most of them to finish with scores in the 80s or 90s. Even so, L.A.’s high-powered offense (ranked fourth in points per 100 possessions) will trump Utah’s stingy defense (ranked third in points allowed per 100 possessions). Chris Paul is the model point guard for execution in a half-court offense, and despite the Jazz controlling the pace, Paul and Blake Griffin are still the two best players in the series. It will be a tough grind for them, but I stand by my pick: Clippers in 6.