Finally, the way-too-long NBA playoffs are here! Here’s roughly what’s at stake: the Heat have a chance to join the rare three-peat club, becoming only the fifth team to do so. LeBron has a chance to win his third straight ring, likely solidifying his status as a top 4 or 5 player of all time. The Spurs have a chance at redemption, avenging their gut-wrenching Game 6 loss to the Heat. Kevin Durant has a chance to catapult himself over LeBron, if he can lead the Thunder over the Heat in the Finals. The Clippers have a chance to reach their first Finals that would probably throw Blake Griffin into the discussion with LeBron and Durant as the best player in the league. Hell, the Raptors (THE RAPTORS!!!) have a chance to reach their first Conference Finals. (Don’t worry, that won’t happen. BUT IT COULD.) Without further ado, let’s get into our playoff picks.
(1) Indiana Pacers vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks
This is one of the most intriguing matchups in the first round. The Pacers are one of the most vulnerable 1 seeds in recent memory. Roy Hibbert hasn’t looked the same since his concussion against the Heat back at the end of March. The last time the Pacers faced the Hawks, Hibbert was benched for the second half after getting torched by Pero Antic. Translation: THE HAWKS WERE UP 32 AT HALF. THE PACERS SCORED 23 POINTS IN THE FIRST HALF. So this isn’t your garden-variety one seed versus eight seed matchup. And this is not a way of saying the Hawks are a legitimate team. They are a below .500 team that doesn’t deserve to be in the playoffs. The Hawks are basically the reason why many people want the NBA to change the playoff structure. The Hawks are a team that chucks a lot of 3’s though, and if Korver, Lou Williams, Antic, and Jeff Teague get hot, the Hawks could put a scare into the Pacers. All in all, even with the Pacers’ recent struggles, it’s crazy to think they could lose this series.
Prediction: Pacers 4-1
(4) Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Washington Wizards
Tell me if this sounds familiar: the Bulls are considered prime contenders in the East, then Derrick Rose gets hurt, everyone counts out the Bulls, and then they somehow manage to still be one the best teams in the East. Somehow, they still managed 48 wins this year, riding MVP candidate Joakim Noah and his barrage of triple-doubles this year. The Wizards are worthy challengers, even without a healthy Nene, but this prediction rides on how much the Bulls contain John Wall. Coming off a career year and his first All-Star appearance, Wall will face arguably the toughest defense in the league. As usual, the keys to Washington’s offense will likely be corner 3’s from Ariza, Webster, Beal, and Otto Porter (just kidding about the last one). The Wiz have the talent to win this series, but it’ll be tough playing a team with the playoff chops of the Bulls.
Prediction: Bulls 4-3
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets
Everyone is picking the Nets. Let’s start with what we know: the Nets have KG and Pierce, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, a coach who spills sodas on the floor to ice free throw shooters, and no Brook Lopez. Brooklyn has surged through the standings without Lopez, before basically dropping their last couple games to maneuver their way into a matchup against the Raptors. Now, let’s move onto what we don’t know. HAS ANYONE SEEN THE RAPTORS PLAY BASKETBALL? Seriously, the only things that have been publicized regarding the Raptors were the Rudy Gay trade and the alleged Kyle Lowry trade that never happened. And that one of their role players randomly scored 51 points in a game this year. People should be talking about Kyle Lowry though. He’s the best point guard that no one talks about and arguably one of the best four or five point guards in the league. Lowry is good enough to carry Toronto past the Nets. Between its star guard, freak athlete wings in Derozan and Ross, and rotation of big guys, the Raptors have more than enough ammo to win this series. It’s just too hard to pick them this year. Brooklyn has played arguably the best Basketball in the East since the All Star break.
Prediction: Nets 4-1
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats are finally *kind of* relevant again! Their reward? The two-time defending champs! In all seriousness, the Cats have made huge strides this year and reason to be optimistic because of Al Jefferson’s career year, Kemba Walker’s emergence, and the fact that they’re one year closer to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist being a free agent. Jefferson could give the Miami bigs some trouble, but this series will be short and sweet. It’s that time of the year again, where Wade miraculously gets healthy and LeBron elevates his game to a level unmatchable by anyone else in the league. Nothing to see here. Move along, move along.
Prediction: Heat 4-0
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Dallas Mavericks
This is a throwback matchup between Dirk and Duncan. Unlike the East, where the last couple seeds basically unsuccessfully tanked, the West is loaded with all of its teams winning at least 49 games. The Spurs are playing vintage Spurs ball, with no player averaging more than 30 minutes per game. They looked poised to get back to the Finals, but the West is too loaded to slot them that far with any confidence. Going against Dirk is never easy, no matter who is surrounding him. Just ask the Heat. Nevertheless, it’s a safe bet to put the Spurs in the next round, given they haven’t lost to the Mavs in the past two years. Dirk could steal a game or two, but the Spurs should take care of business without too much trouble.
Prediction: Spurs 4-1
(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Portland Trailblazers
This should be the highest scoring series of the first round and rates high on watchability. It’ll be entertaining to see LaMarcus Aldridge back in the playoffs and Lillard’s first appearance on a playoff stage. The Blazers opened up the season on a torrid pace as one of the highest scoring teams in the league, but their defense has been their downfall. While they closed the season winning nine of their last ten, there’s still plenty of reason to worry about the Blazers. There will be little defense played in this series and it could come down to how well Batum can contain James Harden.
Prediction: Rockets 4-3
(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) Golden State Warriors
There’s no doubt this will be the most entertaining series of the first round, even without Andrew Bogut playing for the Warriors. With Bogut, the Warriors would be a popular upset pick, and they may still be. Blake should dominate this series down low though, without Bogut defending the paint. It’s been well-chronicled that these two teams do not like each other. This series will probably involve a couple ejections, Blake flops, Curry gif-bombs from deep, and hopefully no DeAndre Jordan free throws. Almost every individual matchup is tantalizing. Watching Curry duel CP3, Klay and J.J. try to outgun each other, Iggy and Matt Barnes try to out-dirty-work each other, and Blake and David try to kill each other will be worth watching.
Prediction: Clippers 4-3
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies
Poor OKC. They really don’t deserve this. As a reward for having the second best record in the grueling Western Conference, they get to play a 50 win team, the third best team in the league over the past 46 games–the same team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year. The Grizzlies are more like a three seed than a seven. With Marc Gasol back patrolling the paint, there are few teams that are tougher down low than the Grizzlies. Yes, it’s true that the Thunder have Westbrook this time around against the Grizzlies. And yes, it’s also true that Durant is having the best season of his career and will probably bring home the MVP trophy this year. But someone else needs to step up for the Thunder if they’re going to move on. Ideally, Ibaka should be that guy, but the jury is out whether he can score around 20 a game. The Grizzlies will double Durant and pack the paint when he backs guys down. They’ll make Jeremy Lamb and Thabo Sefolosha beat them from the perimeter, and that is enough to make most Thunder fans queasy. Durant will eventually carry his team onto the next round, but this round could be harder than the next for the Thunder.
Prediction: Thunder 4-3