Last season’s playoffs were intriguing because there was legitimate potential for the Golden State Warriors to be dethroned.
The Rockets had won a league-best 67 games. James Harden had taken yet another leap in his production and finally been crowned MVP. And Houston’s defense had improved sufficiently to pose some realistic problems.
The Rockets had the Warriors on the brink. And then Chris Paul got injured. And then Houston missed 27 straight 3-point attempts. And that was that. Golden State then whupped the overmatched Cavs … champs again … back to back and three out of four. Yawwwwwwwwwwwn. See you next year.
This year’s playoffs maybe don’t have that level of built-in intrigue. There’s no real sense, in spite of some noticeable cracks in the Warriors’ facade, that anyone can exploit them enough to ultimately overcome a lineup that features Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and DeMarcus Cousins.
Which doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth watching. The first-round matchup between Portland and Oklahoma City should be fascinating because the Blazers tried so hard to avoid it, but screwed it up and got it anyway. Damian Lillard has said he “wants that smoke” from Russell Westbrook. And he’ll get it.
And despite the general inferiority of the Eastern Conference, that side of the bracket may actually provide more of the excitement this time around. Milwaukee is the favorite to go the Finals, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s lack of shooting ability might again prove a hindrance in a slowed-down series. Can the Raptors finally reach the top, and thereby convince Kawhi Leonard to stay? Can the Sixers’ star-studded lineup prove enough? Can the Celtics — who were everyone’s preseason darlings — manage to not trip all over themselves long enough to cobble together a special run?
Who knows?! But we’re about to find out.
That said, here’s a lightning-round breakdown of each first-round series, complete with predicted winners.
No. 1 Bucks vs. No. 8 Pistons • Milwaukee’s a pretty complete team. They’ve got the presumptive MVP in Giannis, and they’ve enabled him to rampage to the rim by surrounding him with shooters — though a few of those guys are hurt. Still, Kris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcom Brogdon, and Brook Lopez have been an exceptional supporting cast. Furthermore, coach Mike Budenholzer has morphed this group into one of the elite defensive units in the league. As for the Pistons? Blake Griffin has had a renaissance season as a stretch-four. And that’s about it. Nothing to see here. Move along. Prediction: Bucks in four.
No. 2 Raptors vs. No. 7 Magic • Toronto has been one of the league’s top teams for several seasons, but always seemed to fall apart in the playoffs. That’s what spurred acquiring Kawhi and Danny Green. The trade deadline deal for Marc Gasol gave them another intriguing veteran piece. They have versatile lineup options. Will it be enough to finally get to the Finals? Maybe, maybe not. It’ll definitely be enough to get by Orlando, which has been bolstered by the improvement of free agent-to-be Nikola Vucevic, but is otherwise extraordinarily meh. Prediction: Raptors in five.
No. 3 76ers vs. No. 6 Nets • Philly’s years of suffering have culminated in this — all the chips being pushed to the middle of the table. Sam Hinkie’s “Process” resulted in the drafting of an elite but oft-injured big man in Joel Embiid, and a versatile but shooting-deficient All-Star point guard in Ben Simmons. Additional assets were cashed in for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. It’s a top-heavy group with a serious lack of depth. Are their stars enough? When they play together, they’re great. But they haven’t done that often enough. Brooklyn, meanwhile, is a nice feel-good story, an overachieving bunch of cast-offs and spare parts that shocked everyone by being this good. Kenny Atkinson & Co. should be proud for making it this far. But the ride stops here. Prediction: Sixers in six.
No. 4 Celtics vs. No. 5 Pacers • Everyone figured after last year’s surprising run in spite of injuries that Boston would plow through the East this season. That hasn’t happened. Gordon Hayward’s bounce-back from gruesome injury has taken longer than expected. Youngsters Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown haven’t taken that transcendent next step. And Kyrie Irving has been critical of his teammates’ mental fortitude and often seems disengaged. Can Indiana exploit that? The Pacers have been a plucky bunch since Victor Oladipo went down, but they ultimately probably don’t have the firepower to take down the Celtics, unless the latter have a really proper meltdown. Prediction: Celtics in six.
No. 1 Warriors vs. No. 8 Clippers • I was really hoping OKC would fall to the eighth seed: 1) Because of the Westbrook vs. Durant pissing contest bound to take place; and 2) Because the Thunder might be one of the few teams that could put the fear of god into Golden State. Alas, we wound up with the Clippers, who’ve been another scrappy, pleasant story that makes you feel good about them making it in, but which ultimately pose zero threat. I mean, everyone thought they were tanking when they traded Harris to Philly. It’s cool they’ve got all these bench guys and second-rounders overachieving, but they can’t handle Golden State. Prediction: Warriors in four.
No. 2 Nuggets vs. No. 7 Spurs. Denver’s been another great story. Not only do they finally break their playoff-less streak, but they rise all the way to the West’s second seed. Problem is, everyone and their mom was rooting for their team to get matched up with the Nuggets because of their perceived exploitability. For one, they’re young and inexperienced; for another, who’s scoring the clutch buckets for that team when things get tight? Nikola Jokic is an incredible playmaker as a big, but is he a No. 1 option? Who is? The midrange-loving Spurs, helmed by LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, may not be able to pull off the first-round upset, but hardly anyone believes Denver is making it past the conference semis. Prediction: Nuggets in seven.
No. 3 Trail Blazers vs. No. 6 Thunder • Portland was the other top Western team viewed as being beatable, on account of a too-recent awful injury to center Jusuf Nurkic, plus the recent return to action of CJ McCollum. Then there’s the fact that, as the No. 3 seed last year, the Blazers got kicked in the teeth by the Pelicans. What will be different this time, considering it’s still not a particularly deep team? Well, OKC has featured split personalities this year. When the defense was elite, so were the Thunder. When they stopped getting stops, the team wen into a freefall. Still, Paul George was an MVP candidate most of the year until he suffered a shoulder injury, and no one can take advantage of a perceived slight like Westbrook. That may be enough. Prediction: Thunder in six.
No. 4 Rockets vs. No. 5 Jazz • Let’s be honest — no one views Houston as the fourth-best team in the West. Overcoming the hangover of last year’s painful elimination took awhile, as did making the defense passable again after Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute departed. Then, they had to overcome injuries to Chris Paul and Clint Capela. James Harden carried them through with a near-unprecedented scoring binge. He’s one of the most unguardable guys in the game right now — which is an issue for an opponent built on defense. Can Rudy Gobert & Co. slow Harden and Houston down enough? And can the offense be prolific enough from deep to prevent Donovan Mitchell from having to try to match The Beard bucket for bucket, which is near-impossible right now? If Utah can slow the likes of Paul and Capela, and get big contributions from the likes of Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder, they have a chance. Prediction: Rockets in six.