First thing’s first: let’s get the elephant out of the room. I am horrible at maintaining this blog. I started off the season on a nice run, and made it nearly two full months before falling off the face of the earth, which still means that I had a more productive season than Kawhi Leonard.
Now, let’s get the second elephant out of the room: every year I endeavor to watch every NBA playoff game because I am ridiculous, and every year, I fail. It’s just impossible to not have other obligations pop up over the course of two months, and on top of that, I don’t even get home from work in time for the 7:00 pm starts. That being said, overcoming adversity and rising to the occasion is what the NBA playoffs are all about, and with that spirit, here I am once again, fighting a losing battle in search of playoff glory.
With that in mind, and with the playoffs getting underway tomorrow, it’s definitely time to fire up the ol’ blog and embark on yet another playoff journey, typing furiously along the way to document the proceedings. Why? Because I like writing, like basketball, and think it’s fun, and after such an intriguing regular season, we’re no doubt in line for an exciting and memorable postseason. As is customary, before the real action starts tomorrow, it’s time to take a look at our first round matchups and try and predict just what the hell is going to happen, and what better place to start than the Eastern Conference…
(1) Toronto Raptors (59-23)
(8) Washington Wizards (43-39)
The Raptors had their finest season in franchise history, finally becoming a team that seems like it has the goods to be a true Eastern Conference contender, in large part because of the emergence of their bench, which dominated throughout the season in support of their steady starting lineup. Yet, the demons remain hovering around them. They’ve lost nine straight Game 1s, which is an utterly ridiculous feat. Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have a documented history of taking a step back in the playoffs, a reputation that needs to be shed if they’re going to have any chance this year. However, this team really rounded into form this year, and earned the top spot in the East. You’d think they shouldn’t have any first round problems.
Then again, they face the Washington Wizards, a team with an equally formidable backcourt that features John Wall and Bradley Beal. Though they lack the depth the Raptors do, Washington is no stranger to the playoffs, and they’ve become fairly accustomed to playing beyond the first round. Slowed by injuries this season, the proud and feisty Wizards fell to 8th this year, and recently, they’ve been dealing with some inner turmoil, with coach Scott Brooks going so far as to describe their recent play as “selfish”. The Wizards have long thought of themselves as an accomplished and worthy team, yet they’ve failed to make it past the second round of the playoffs. They remind me a little of this decade’s Clippers: lots of talent, lots of hype, plenty of talk, but little to show for it.
Last Playoff Meeting: 2015 First Round (Washington 4, Toronto 0)
An infamous series. Kyle Lowry was not at full health, and as a result, the Raptors struggled mightily, culminating in a horrendous 124-95 loss in Game 4 in which the team seemed to just give up. Adding insult to injury, Washington’s Paul Pierce famously declared that he didn’t want to go through customs anymore after the Wizards won the first two games in Toronto, and with the series ending in an embarrassing sweep, he didn’t have to. Series like this is why the Raptors have so many skeletons in their playoff closet, and why nobody would be surprised if the Wizards added yet another Game 1 loss to Toronto’s playoff resume.
Prediction: Raptors 4, Wizards 0.
This will be a big test for the Raptors, one which I think they will pass, with the added bonus of exacting a little revenge on the Wizards. Washington’s been out of sorts lately, while the Raptors have been the opposite all season long. Their bench should dominate Washington’s, and beyond Beal and Wall, I don’t think they have the firepower to keep up. If this was any other team than the Wizards, I would fully expect the Raptors Game 1 curse to continue, and for Canada to enact a state of emergency. However, this year, there’ll be no extra trips through customs, because there’ll be no need for them to return to Toronto after the Raptors sweep them.
(2) Boston Celtics (55-27)
(7) Milwaukee Bucks (44-38)
The Celtics perseverance through their myriad injuries this season has been well documented. They’ll soldier on without two all stars, and a couple of other key rotation players. Understandably, there was talk over the last week or so of the season of the Wizards, Bucks and Heat all fighting to try and finish seventh, setting up an ideal matchup with a battered and bruised team that finished the season trotting out lineups of youngsters, reserves, and dudes you’ve just straight up never heard of. As a Celtics fan myself, I have felt personally offended by this. Boston can still hang with just about anyone else in the league, and in my admittedly biased opinion, it’s laughable to think that any of these lower rung Eastern playoff teams could upset them, which brings me to the Milwaukee Bucks.
On paper, you’d think that any team, even one that was fully healthy, would be dreading the prospect of spending up to seven games in the trenches battling the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker. That is a lot of talent and firepower to have to get through, but for some reason, the Bucks have seemed off all season long. They changed coaches midway through the season, but they remained the same middling team, often leaving you thinking that they should be better. Hopefully next year they can find a coach that can get the best out of them.
As for the Celtics, untold amounts of words have been written and said about their coach, Brad Stevens, and his genius. He does deserve a lot of credit for keeping them afloat with all of their injuries, so much so that at times, it can seem that he overshadows the players, who have all stepped up their games and risen to the occasion. I expect they will continue to do so, despite the formidable group of players the Bucks can throw at them.
Last Playoff Meeting: 1987 Semifinals (Boston 4, Milwaukee 3)
It’s been awhile since these two teams in green squared off in the postseason, in fact, I wasn’t quite born yet back in May of 1987, when they submitted a classic series that went all seven games, with Games 2-5 decided by no more than five points, including an overtime Game 3, and double overtime Game 4. Overall, they met four times in the playoffs during the 1980s, including twice in the Conference Finals, so this series provides a nice throwback to the days of Larry Bird and Sidney Moncrief. Of course, they also met in the Finals back in 1974, when Milwaukee was in the Western Conference. Boston prevailed in seven games.
Prediction: Celtics 4, Bucks 1
It’s not going to be easy, and the games are going to be close, and in a situation like that, whether or not you win comes down to how well you execute your game plan. In other words, coaching is going to matter a lot in this series, and it’s execution and coaching where the Celtics, despite all of those injuries, have a distinct advantage. Also, I’m horribly biased. It can’t be helped, I’m from Massachusetts, after all.
(3) Philadelphia 76ers (52-30)
(6) Miami Heat (44-38)
We all knew the Sixers were going to be much improved this year, but I don’t think anybody saw them winning over 50 games, thanks to an insane, franchise record setting 16 game winning streak to close out the season. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are the real deal, and they have surrounded their young stars with savvy veterans and role players, and the result is a fun and entertaining team that is poised to wreak havoc for years to come.
The Heat are a funky team with no true superstar, though Goran Dragic got a well deserved all star nod this year. More than any team in the Eastern playoffs, Miami’s sum is greater than their parts. They’re well coached, always play their asses off, and always submit a top notch effort.
Adding to the fun of this series is the rivalry between Philly’s Joel Embiid, who may or may not be available in Game 1, and Miami’s Hassan Whiteside. The two big men have exchanged a fair amount of trash talk this season, both on the court and via social media. It should be fun to watch them continue their rivalry over the course of the series, and settle the score once and for all. (Or, at least until next season). Please, Basketball Gods, let Joel Embiid come back in time for Game 1, and let he remain in good health going forward.
Last Playoff Meeting: 2011 First Round (Miami 4, Philadelphia 1)
This was back when Miami had LeBron, Wade and Bosh, and Philadelphia was starting Spencer Hawes and Jodie Meeks.
Prediction: Sixers 4, Heat 0
Perhaps it’s recency bias resulting from Philadelphia’s season ending 16 game winning streak, but while I think the Heat will put up a good fight, I just don’t think they have quite enough to snag a win. The Sixers have taken it to another level as of late, and there’s no better time to peak than now.
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32)
(5) Indiana Pacers (48-34)
It’s the most frustrating team of the year: your Cleveland Cavaliers! After about a month of LeBron James not trying, the Cavs revamped their roster at the trade deadline, but most of the time, they remained uninspiring. Recently, however, the effort has picked up, and they’ve looked like their old, unbeatable selves lately, though they did lose to the lowly Knicks in the regular season finale. It all hinges on LeBron James, one of the few players who can literally just go out there and win you a series all by himself. We know that he takes it to a different level in the playoffs, making it hard to judge them on their lackluster regular season, especially on the defensive end. Even lousy defense can be compensated for by LeBron, who even in his 15th season, remains one of the league’s few truly unstoppable forces (when he feels like it).
As for the Pacers, nobody expected much from them after they traded superstar Paul George to the Thunder, getting Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in return. Instead, they finished the season with the exact same record the Thunder did as Oladipo established himself as a star, and Sabonis proved to be a useful role player. On top of their solid play all year long, they went 3-1 against the Cavs during the regular season, though, once again, it’s nearly impossible to judge anything from Cleveland’s regular season performance and apply it to a playoff atmosphere.
Another exciting aspect of this series is that once again, we get to see Lance Stephenson go up against LeBron James. Hilarity is bound to ensue.
Last Playoff Meeting: 2017 First Round (Cleveland 4, Indiana 0)
Despite every game being close, the Pacers couldn’t manage to steal a game from the Cavs in last year’s playoffs. In fact, LeBron James hasn’t lost a game in the first round of the playoffs since 2012.
Prediction: Pacers 4, Cavs 2
Yeah, I said it. One of these days, the crummy defense and general tumult that this team lives under is going to catch up to them, and perhaps spectacularly. My other predictions for the East have been boring, so, I’m going way out on a limb here and saying that something completely ridiculous is going to happen. If a 16 can beat a 1 in March Madness, then the Pacers can shock the Cavs here in the NBA playoffs. You heard it here first, and probably only here, because this is, admittedly, a ludicrous prediction.
(1) Houston Rockets (65-17)
(8) Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35)
On the final night of the regular season, the Timberwolves clinched their first playoff spot since 2004 with an exciting, do or die overtime victory against the Denver Nuggets. For their efforts, they’re rewarded with a matchup with the 65-win Houston Rockets. Some were initially skeptical of how the Chris Paul/James Harden backcourt would mesh in Houston, but it didn’t take long for all of that skepticism to be washed away by a torrent of wonderful ball movement and shooting. Along the way, the Rockets did something many thought was improbable: they emerged as a convincing opponent for the Golden State Warriors. Whether or not they can actually overcome the Warriors is another story that we’ll probably get to further down the playoff road. The playoff struggles of James Harden and Chris Paul are well documented, but they usually don’t occur until after the first round, so we can leave them for later.
I have to say, it is great to see Minnesota in the playoffs for the first time since I was junior in high school. Those were simpler times. Anyway, this marks the first time the Timberwolves have made the playoffs without Kevin Garnett, which gives you an idea of just how depressing the annals of their franchise history can be. Despite featuring three young stars, one of which, Jimmy Butler, is a proven warrior with playoff experience, it is looking like another depressing chapter is about to be added to the Wolves playoff lore. Defensively, they’re simply not good enough to have a hope in hell of slowing down the Rockets machine, and that’s enough to spell doom. If only Jimmy Butler didn’t miss time with injuries. There was a time when they were as high as third in the West, but, without him, they struggled, and find themselves here.
Last Playoff Meeting: 1997 First Round (Houston 3, Minnesota 0)
This was actually the Timberwolves’ first trip to the postseason, and it didn’t last long. They were handled pretty easily by a Rockets team that still featured the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley.
Prediction: Rockets 4, Timberwolves 0
We could be in for a similar series, and the Timberwolves will have to wait even longer to earn their first playoff win against Houston. Nevertheless, it’s nice that they’re even in the playoffs after such a long drought, and the future there is bright. They should be in for longer playoff appearances before too long.
(2) Golden State Warriors (58-24)
(7) San Antonio Spurs (47-35)
While most teams would love to win 58 games, seeing the Warriors do it makes them feel a little bit closer to earth. They have had a funky season which has featured nagging injuries to Steph Curry, who will remain out for at least the first round, as well as various injuries throughout the year to their core group of stars. Even without Curry, that core group presents any opponent with a tall task. With the rest of the group now mostly healthy, they can still handle most of the teams in the league, though they do lose a sizable chunk of their identity when Curry is sidelined.
Speaking of coming back down to earth, the Spurs failed to win 50 games for the first time this century, and for a brief period, their 20 year playoff streak seemed in jeopardy. They of course rallied and extended that streak to 21 straight seasons, but for the first time in nearly a generation, they have been susceptible to adversity and turmoil that they have otherwise been immune to. Star Kawhi Leonard missed all but nine games this season, with his status unclear at times. Though he has been cleared by the Spurs doctors, he remains out, and they have been moving forward as if he will not be returning this postseason. Without him, they are still a formidable foe, but he is the one that lifts their ceiling to its highest level, and his defensive prowess simply cannot be replaced.
Last Playoff Meeting: 2017 Conference Finals (Golden State 4, San Antonio 0)
This one remains fresh in our minds. In Game 1, the Spurs built up a 20 point lead. But then, Kawhi Leonard landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot, and the rest is history. The Warriors came back to win Game 1, 113-111, then went onto dominate the rest of the series. Frankly, the Spurs, and Kawhi, haven’t been the same since.
Prediction: Warriors 4, Spurs 1
Neither team is at full strength, but Golden State still has three other all stars to rely on, while the Spurs have just one, LaMarcus Aldridge. He’s usually good for at least one monster game each year in the playoffs, and that should be good enough to nab one win for the Spurs (I’m thinking something along the lines of 43 points and 17 rebounds in one of San Antonio’s home games). Other than that, the Warriors shouldn’t have too much trouble.
(3) Portland Trailblazers (49-33)
(6) New Orleans Pelicans (48-34)
Nobody would deny that the Utah Jazz had the best in-season turnaround this year, but the Blazers deserve a lot of credit, too. At one point this season, they were 22-21, and hovering around the last playoff spot. Eventually, they won 13 straight games, propelling them all the way up to third in the West, a spot they were able to hold onto, despite a late season slump, thanks to their 102-93 victory over the aforementioned Jazz in their season finale. Damian Lillard had perhaps his finest season as the team rounded into shape, with everyone knowing their roles and performing them fairly well.
Meanwhile, nobody would have blamed you if you declared the Pelicans dead after they lost DeMarcus Cousins for the season. It was such a shame, too, as they had finally seemed to figure out their twin tower lineup of him and Anthony Davis, and some real momentum had been built. Instead of careening off the rails, that momentum was sustained, thanks in no small part to Davis’ otherworldly play throughout the second half of the season. Aside from that, a pretty solid supporting cast evolved, and what’s been a frustrating team in recent years has finally figured itself out a bit. Here’s hoping they bring Cousins back, and that he’s fully healthy, next season.
Last Playoff Meeting: NONE
That’s right, this is the first playoff meeting between these two franchises, mostly owing to the fact that the Pelicans have only made the playoffs once since changing their name from the Hornets, and returning both that name, and all associated franchise history, to Charlotte. What sort of first impressions will these teams make on each others playoff history?
Prediction: Trailblazers 4, Pelicans 3
This has all of the makings of one of those series where the home team wins every game. Expect to see epic performances from Lillard and Davis as the battle rages on. This could very well be our most entertaining first round series.
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder (48-34)
(5) Utah Jazz (48-34)
In a splashy offseason, the Thunder had perhaps the splashiest, swooping in out of nowhere to acquire the services of not only Paul George, but Carmelo Anthony as well, teaming them up with Russell Westbrook, who has just become the only player in NBA history to average a triple double for a season twice. The results, however, were mixed. It’s been an up and down season in OKC, exacerbated by the season ending injury suffered by defensive specialist Andre Roberson, someone who never puts up gaudy numbers, but whose influence was sorely missed once he was gone. Furthermore, Melo has struggled all season long by his standards, though he has admirably accepted a more limited role than he’s been accustomed to throughout his career.
The Jazz, of course, spent much of the first half of the season on the outside of the playoff hunt. They were, at one point, 19-28, only two games ahead of the atrocious Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference standings. Then, they won 11 straight, and finished the season by going 29-6 the rest of the way. They have the league’s best individual defensive player, Rudy Gobert, and a delightful young rookie, Donovan Mitchell, who led them in scoring after they stole him from Denver in a draft day trade that is poised to make Nuggets fans miserable for years and years to come. Like the Miami Heat, and the current, injury ravaged Celtics, they are another well coached, sum is greater than their parts team, and they have great depth. Though they lack the star power that the Thunder enjoy, they are going to cause them a whole mess of problems.
Last Playoff Meeting: 2000 First Round (Utah 3, Seattle 2)
You have to go all the way back to the Seattle Supersonics days to find the most recent playoff matchup between these two franchises. The Jazz fended them off with a 96-93 victory in a decisive Game 5. Let me tell you something, I was there, and the first round of the playoffs was better when it was best-of-five. Anyway, in 1996, these two met in the Conference Finals, where Seattle won in seven games. 1993 saw another first round battle go all five games, this time with the Sonics getting the upper hand. These two franchises have a proud, yet recently dormant history of pushing each other to the limit in the playoffs.
Prediction: Jazz 4, Thunder 3
That tradition should be carried on this year. The Thunder have been inconsistent all year, and the Jazz are the kind of team that can exploit another’s inconsistencies. Their defense is going to cause problems for the Thunder, who lack scoring punch beyond their Big 3, one of which, Carmelo Anthony, has struggled so much this year that he appears to have lost his superstar status. Of course Westbrook is going to win them a game or two on his own, but he’s just as capable of losing them a game or two on his own. Whether or not Paul George can provide consistent scoring will be a key factor in this series, and I think the Jazz have enough to slow him down just enough to pull off an upset in what should be a pretty grimy series.
That does it for my predictions. It will be tons of fun watching them all go up in flames as the playoffs unfold completely differently. As the games roll along, I plan on documenting the proceedings with the same running diaries I’ve done in the past, and I vow to do a better job this time around, and not disappear for no reason. It won’t be easy, and there’s no way I’ll see every minute of every game, but goddamn it, I’m going to die trying, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with the two or three of you that read this lousy blog.