This afternoon, the NBA Playoffs finally get underway. After an incredible regular season, we’ve all got high hopes that this year’s Playoffs will bring more of the same. As usual, there’s all kinds of intriguing matchups, pressure mounting and legacies hanging in the balance. Legendary tales of Playoff valor and heartbreak are about to be added to the annals of NBA history. Some rivalries will be renewed, while some will have their initial seeds planted. It’s the best time of the year, so let’s stop clowning around and take a look at what’s in store for us in the First Round.
(1) Boston Celtics (53-29)
(8) Chicago Bulls (41-41)
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a one seed command such little respect. Already, the Celtics are being hailed as one of the most underwhelming top seeds in Playoff history. People are already latching onto the Bulls as a trendy upset pick for Round 1. Chicago does feature two players that no team would want to deal with over the course of a seven game series: Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade. Then there’s Rajon Rondo, who always seems to go bananas on national television. The Bulls themselves become absolutely unbeatable on TNT, and there’s an awful lot of Playoff games on TNT. Jimmy Butler’s already relishing a chance to shut down Boston’s leading scorer, Isaiah Thomas. They do seem to have a lot of things going for them. Before we get carried away, let’s remember that this team can’t shoot. Let’s remember that the Playoff Rajon Rondo we all remember so fondly has been dead for five years. Above all else, let’s remember that this team doesn’t always seem to try hard, or look like they enjoy playing one another.
Here’s some more things to remember. The Celtics can actually hit threes, they move the ball around beautifully, they’ve got plenty of depth, great defenders to throw at Butler and Wade, and a severe coaching advantage with Brad Stevens going up against Fred Hoiberg. Now of course, the Celtics haven’t won a Playoff series under Stevens, but now’s the perfect time to start. Since when has this Bulls team been anything to worry about? Now, let me just double check to see how much of this series is going to be on TNT…
Prior Playoff History
The Celtics are 14-3 against the Bulls all time in the Playoffs. Those three Bulls wins came in that epic 2009 First Round series, which saw four of the seven games go into overtime, including three in a row, featuring both a double and a triple overtime extravaganza. Boston has never lost a Playoff series to Chicago, going all the way back to the 80s where they swept a young Michael Jordan twice.
Prediction: Celtics in five.
Is this prediction a reaction from a Celtics fan to the lack of respect and surprising amount of people that think the Bulls could actually win this series? Yes. But you know what? This Bulls team is whack, and the TNT thing only counts in the Regular Season.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31)
(7) Indiana Pacers (42-40)
Finally, we’ll all get to find out if the Cavaliers were just lallygagging through the regular season, or if there’s actual cause for concern. LeBron James has never lost a first round series, and as of late, he hasn’t even really been challenged in one. Things could be different this time around, as they face a Pacers team that finished the season strongly. When’s the last time LeBron even faced a player like Paul George in the First Round? The answer is 2012, when the Heat beat Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks in five games. That’s also the last time LeBron’s even lost a game in the First Round. You know what? Forget it. Things aren’t going to be different this time around. Even in their last regular season meeting, a memorable double overtime affair that saw both LeBron and George score over 40 points, the Cavs still came away with the win. This will be a far cry from the great battles between LeBron’s Heat and the Pacers from earlier this decade.
Prior Playoff History
It’s hard not to lump those Pacers/Heat battles into the Playoff history here, since LeBron seems like a franchise unto himself. Nevertheless, it won’t be counted here. As a matter of fact, the Cavs and Pacers have played just one Playoff series against one another, all the way back in the 1998 First Round, which Indiana won, 3-1.
Prediction: Cavs in four.
As much as I want to think that the Cavs are in trouble, that beatdown they gave the Celtics recently is still in my mind. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt until they give me a reason not to in the Playoffs.
(3) Toronto Raptors (51-31)
(6) Milwaukee Bucks (42-40)
The Bucks are a team that really intrigue me. They’re 19-10 since Khris Middleton joined them after missing most of the season with an injury. They have a rookie point guard, Malcolm Brogdon, who kind of reminds me of a young Sam Cassell in the sense that like Cassell did as a rookie once upon a time for the Houston Rockets, Brogdon plays less like a youngster and more like a savvy veteran. Jason Kidd has proved to be a fine coach, and he’ll find some creative ways for them to battle the Raptors. Of course, their biggest asset is Giannis Antetokounmpo, the one of a kind jack of all trades that runs the show.
All that being said, the Raptors have too much depth for them. Kyle Lowry is back from an injury, and Toronto should be at full strength. I don’t see how the Bucks can keep up with the Raptors ability to score. There’s just a little too much that Giannis will have to do by himself. Most importantly, the Raptors finally exorcised a lot of their Playoff demons last season. The weight of an unfortunate franchise Playoff history is off their shoulders, and they’ll be able to play with a lot less pressure, and a lot more experience.
Prior Playoff History
This is the first time these two teams have ever met in the Playoffs.
Prediction: Raptors in five.
The Bucks just aren’t ready yet, but this taste of the Playoffs will be a good step in their development. As for the Raptors, I was just as shocked as everyone else that they weren’t once again selected to kick off the Playoffs with a 12:30 pm game up in Toronto. It’s just not going to feel right when this series gets underway at 5:30 this evening. Maybe it’ll throw off the Raptors and the Bucks will be able to steal Game 1. Hmmm…
Amended Prediction: Raptors in six.
(4) Washington Wizards (49-33)
(5) Atlanta Hawks (43-39)
The Hawks have been one of the trickiest teams to get a grasp on all season. There’s been moments where they’ve seemed like a very worthy opponent, and just as many moments where it’s seemed like they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Which version will show up? Will it even matter? After starting 2-8 after the first ten games, the Wizards have been 47-25. They’re a legitimately good team with one of the league’s best backcourts. I don’t think the Hawks have the consistency, or the firepower to really threaten Washington, though, they might have the defense. Unfortunately, they’re just too erratic to trust.
Prior Playoff History
Out of all the Playoff history these First Round matchups share, the Wizards and Hawks go back the longest: all the way to 1965, when it was the St. Louis Hawks against the Baltimore Bullets. They’ve been evenly matched throughout the decades as well, with the two teams splitting the 22 Playoff games they’ve played against one another. More recently, the 60-win Hawks defeated the Wizards in the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-2. Many think the Wizards could have pulled off the upset if John Wall hadn’t hurt his hand. The series also featured one of my personal favorite Playoff moments from my lifetime…
Prediction: Wizards in five.
I don’t trust the Hawks. I trust that the Wizards are actually pretty damn good.
As I was going through the Eastern Conference matchups, I came to one simple conclusion: the 5-8 seeds are not that great. It’s a top heavy conference. The real excitement should start in the Second Round, but hopefully these series will provide a few surprises, just as long as it’s not the Bulls beating the Celtics.
(1) Golden State Warriors (67-15)
(8) Portland Trail Blazers (41-41)
I waited until the last minute to write this in the hopes that we’d know whether or not Jusuf Nurkic would be able to suit up for Portland. Well, we still don’t know. After providing a key spark to the Trail Blazers in the latter stages of the season, he suffered a fracture in his leg. If I had to guess, it’s unlikely that he’d be back from a goddamn leg fracture so soon, and even if he was, I doubt that he’d be as effective as Portland needs him to be. They’re going up against one of the greatest teams of all time, so needless to say, they’re facing an uphill battle, with or without Nurkic. They do have one of the best backcourts in the league, and it’s tempting to think that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum might catch enough fire in one of these games to steal a win for Portland.
Prior Playoff History
Their only other Playoff meeting came during last year’s Western Conference Semifinals, won by the Warriors in five games.
Prediction: Warriors in four.
As you can see, I wasn’t tempted enough to give the Blazers even one game. The Warriors are rolling into the Playoffs. The Blazers are a fun team, but Golden State’s the kind of team that takes that sort of plucky, feel good fun that you get from the Blazers, crumples it up, and flushes it down the toilet.
(2) San Antonio Spurs (61-21)
(7) Memphis Grizzlies (43-39)
I was really looking forward to this series until I heard that Tony Allen is going to miss it. Nevertheless, if there are two teams that were made to square off against each other, we’ve got them right here. The methodical Spurs against the grit and grind Grizzlies. When Memphis is actually healthy, they matchup really well against San Antonio, and thankfully, they’ll still have Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph at their disposal. Lots of people aren’t excited about the prospect of these two teams meeting in the postseason for what feels like the 48th time, but I’m all for it, even if every game in this series has a final score of something like 88-83.
Prior Playoff History
It’s not quite as extensive as it seems, but these two teams have played four series against each other in the last ten years. Memorably, the 8th-seeded Grizzlies upset the top seeded Spurs in 2011. The four wins the Grizzlies earned over the Spurs in that series are the only four wins they’ve ever earned against the Spurs in the postseason. Not counting that series, which went six games, the Spurs are 12-0 against the Grizzlies in the Playoffs, including last season’s completely depressing sweep of a Memphis team that set a new standard for the term “injury-riddled”.
Prediction: Spurs in six.
Even without Tony Allen, I think this is going to be one of the more competitive series of the First Round.
(3) Houston Rockets (55-27)
(6) Oklahoma City Thunder (47-35)
We’ve arrived at the main event of the First Round. The top two favorites in the MVP race square off to settle the argument once and for all. James Harden vs Russell Westbrook. Thankfully, I’m just a random guy with a lousy blog and therefore don’t get to vote for the NBA’s awards. Instead, I get to sit back, relax, and watch this series. The Rockets shoot, and make, an insane amount of threes, and they hold the advantage as far as supporting casts go. Harden also does a better job of making his teammates better, going out of his way to set them up for open shots. With Westbrook, his teammates are more picking up scraps than having the meal passed to them. Would they be better if Westbrook shared the load a little more, or is this just the only way this team has to win? Let’s not bicker and argue over such things. Let’s enjoy this matchup of two transcendent players who use different means to find their success.
Prior Playoff History
These franchises have played 37 Playoff games against each other, the most we’ve seen so far out of our First Round matchups. Most of these games came when the Thunder played in Seattle and were called the Supersonics. The lone exception comes from the 2013 First Round, a series you might remember for Patrick Beverly injuring Russell Westbrook, causing him to miss the rest of the Playoffs, and derailing OKC’s title chances. Well, Beverly is of course still on the Rockets, and if you don’t think Westbrook is chomping at the bits for revenge, you clearly don’t follow the NBA, and if that’s the case, I have to ask you, what the hell are you doing here?
Prediction: Rockets in six.
Houston is just too good to expect Russell Westbrook to beat them basically by himself. They’re going to hit too many threes for the Thunder to be able to keep up. That being said, Westbrook is so good, he’s still going to win at least two of these games through sheer force of will. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he broke Michael Jordan’s record for points in a Playoff game. You heard it here first!
(4) Los Angeles Clippers (51-31)
(5) Utah Jazz (51-31)
For the 408th straight season, the Clippers might just have the most pressure on them of all the Playoff teams. This time around, it actually seems like this could be their last ride. As I’m sure you know by now, this group has still never made it past the second round of the Playoffs. With free agency looming for Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and JJ Redick, things are finally going to have to come to a head. Facing them are new kids on the block, a Jazz team that has been steadily improving over the past couple of seasons. This is the hardest First Round series for me to pick. The Jazz have a ton of depth, but face a lot of injury woes, though for the first time all year, basically all of their team is available and ready for action. The Clippers have plenty of Playoff experience, but does that count at much when that experience has always involved falling short of their lofty goals? Great, this isn’t their first Playoff rodeo, but how great can it be when that rodeo always ends early and disappointingly? I’m a firm believer that franchise history forever looms over teams. If you’re the Celtics, that’s a good thing, but for some teams, like the Clippers, that history becomes an obstacle. Something they must prove they can overcome before they can be trusted to actually get anywhere. In other words, the Clippers are always going to be the Clippers until they can prove otherwise.
Prior Playoff History
These two teams have a couple of First Round series from the 1990s to look back upon. The Jazz won them both, going 6-2 overall. In 1992, a fun Clippers team did take them to five games, but in 1997, a Clippers team that featured a starting lineup of Loy Vaught, Malik Sealy, Darrick Martin, Rodney Rogers and Lorenzen Wright was swept. Seriously, how the hell did that team even find themselves in the Playoffs?
Prediction: Clippers in seven.
I really wanted to pick the Jazz, but, I feel like this is one of those series where the home team wins every game.
Would you look at that, I didn’t pick a single upset in the first round. As we saw in the East, the bottom half of the Playoff teams is a motley assortment of mediocrity and inconsistency. You wouldn’t feel good about picking those teams, with the exception of the intrepid souls that think the Bulls are going to take out the Celtics. Out West, there’s a little more chance for excitement. Russell Westbrook could win that series by himself. The Clippers could absolutely find a way to cough up that series to a very good Jazz team. However, I don’t see many surprises happening here in the First Round.
Why even watch the First Round if there’s not going to be many surprises? Because we love the game. Because of those new chapters being written. To have our questions answered. Are the Cavs really in trouble? Is this it for the Clippers? Russell Westbrook, or James Harden? Not to mention the sheer amount of talent that will be on display. Even teams that barely made it here feature the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum (we’ve come a long way from the likes of the 1997 Clippers making it to the Playoffs). Isaiah Thomas, Beal & Wall, Paul Millsap, Giannis, Lowry & DeRozan, Kawhi, just to name a few. The Grizzlies gritting and grinding their way into our hearts. I even forgot to mention Dwight Howard. How could you not be excited to see all of this go down? Cancel all of your plans, sequester yourselves from your friends and family, and enjoy the ride.