The playoffs are here. There isn't much I can say aside from that. After a long 82 game season, the biggest stretch is here. 16 teams. 8 playoff series that will be cut down to 4 playoff series, then 2 playoff series, and the NBA Finals. However, I'm getting ahead of myself. Right now, we have 16 teams to focus on, and these matchups that make up the first round of the playoffs. Today will be a preview of these matchups with a look into how the series could possibly end up. Will the Warriors coast through their first round battle? Will the Cavs get on track and sweep the Pacers? Can the Bulls upset the Celtics. Let's take a look.
The East is not as competitive as the West, but there's some good teams in the conference and this will see some interesting games. The Raptors are on a roll and have their 2nd straight 50 win season, the Bucks were out of contention at one point and managed to come back to snag the 6th seed, while the Bulls manage to keep the super hot Miami Heat out of the 8th seed. The Cavs aren't the no. 1 seed this year, instead they are the no. 2 seed, but that might not even matter. Can the Celtics live up to their no. 1 seed? Only time will tell. Let's take a look.
(1) Boston Celtics vs (8) Chicago Bulls
-On paper, this is closer than anyone would want to admit. Al Horford hasn't made much of a difference for the Celtics, but Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder have been stepping up big time for the no. 1 seed Celtics. The Celtics are the no. 1 seed for the first time in nearly 10 years, and they could have a date with destiny. However, when the Bulls are on, they are on. They had a great record in the regular season against all of the top playoff teams and they swept the season series against the Cavs. If Jimmy Butler can be clutch as always, Dwyane Wade shows up like he did last year in the playoffs, and the rest of the Bulls work well together, we could see a true upset. As a Bulls fan, I'm biased, so I pick the Bulls in 7. Realistically, it could end up as the Celtics in 6. Either way, this should be a good series.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs (7) Indiana Pacers
-The Cavs went through more struggles this regular season than we've seen them before. They upgraded their bench, got that backup PG they needed, added a top tier three pointer shooter to come off the bench and now the Big 3 is all healthy (minus a nagging injury to Kyrie). This has to mean good news for them right? Yes and no. They don't seem as dominant as they have been, but it's the regular season and they could afford to have some bad games. Still, you don't expect the Cavs to lose the first seed in the East and yet for the 2nd time in 3 seasons, they did. Surely, the Cavs dominate like they did the last 2 years in the playoffs right? They should, but I'm not so sure. Bron shows little signs of fatigue but father time is undefeated. Kyrie could go down with an injury and while I expect Kevin Love to be solid, the fact remains that the team chemistry has been lacking. However, Bron will be on the floor at least 42 minutes a game, and that is usually enough to beat most teams (except a few times this regular season). The Pacers have found a rhythm and seem focused, and Paul George has been playing great lately. Will the Cavs defense finally get right? Or will the Pacers surprise everyone and push the Cavs harder than expected. The worst thing to do is face a team that has momentum on their side, and all jokes aside, the Pacers have great momentum at the moment. I still see the Cavs winning in 5 games, but it will not be as easy as we expect it. If I was being honest, I could see a 6 or 7 game series if the Pacers play the best basketball they've played all year in this series. I'm 99% sure the Cavs win, but there's that 1% of doubt, but make no mistake, if the Pacers actually managed to beat the Cavs, they would have to give their all, which would drain their energy for future playoff matchups. I'll still go with the Cavs in 5, possibly 6, if the Pacers can take advantage of the Cavs spotty play on the road.
(3) Toronto Raptors vs (6) Milwaukee Bucks
-Giannis carried the team on his back after losing Jabari Parker, and they are in a prime position. The Bucks have had a solid run leading into the playoffs, and they can turn that into a virtual upset of the Raptors, but Toronto is a sleeper team in the East. They have Ibaka now, a focused starting lineup, a healthy Kyle Lowry, and a deadly DeMar Derozan. I'd like to think the Bucks can fight with the Raptors, but something leads me to believe the Raptors can walk away with the victory in a 6 game series. If the Bucks pull off the upset here, I'll be surprised. Giannis deserves more, but I think the Raptors are just the better team by far.
(4) Washington Wizards vs (5) Atlanta Hawks
-I did not expect the Wizards to be here. By the way they've played the last few weeks, they don't even want to be in this position. However, with Bradley Beal and John Wall both getting some rest, it is very possible that they could get back in form that made them seem unstoppable during the stretch that had them contending for the 2nd and 3rd seeds at one point. If the Wizards played hard over the last 15 games or so, it's a chance they could have walked away with the 1 or 2 seed. Still, the Wizards are a focused team and stand the best chance of beating the Cavs if anyone. However, the Hawks have been pretty hot to end the season after an inconsistent ride, and they have been solid overall. Their bench beat the Cavs with the big 3 in the game and that honestly would interesting to watch. Still, the Hawks have a fighting chance against the Wizards here, much like they did 2 years ago when they matched up. However, I see the Wizards taking the win in 6 games, led by the consistency of Wall and Beal. Hawks could take it in 7, but I'd go with the Wizards in 6.
The toughest conference has the tougher and more exciting matchups for the most part. The two MVP finalists are playing each other, the Blazers get another shot at the Warriors after coming up short last year. The Spurs and Grizzlies have what feels like their 20th playoff series against each other, and the newfound rivalry of Clippers and Jazz continues over to the playoffs. This should be a lot of fun to witness and I can't wait to watch the Western Conference side of things.
(1) Golden State Warriors vs (8) Portland Trailblazers
-I don't expect much out of this series if I'm being honest. One thing that's deadly is a team that's on a mission. Granted, every team should be on a mission, but there is no team more on a mission than the Golden State Warriors. After blowing a 3-1 lead in the Finals after a 73-9 season, expect to see more of the dominance we have come to see from the team during the last few seasons in this series. This is not to say Dame or CJ won't show up, but Nurkic had a terrible injury and he won't be 100% during this series at all. KD is back and in rhythm, Steph is Steph again, Draymond is the best defensive player in the league this year, Andre Iguodala is a top choice for 6th Man of The Year and Klay Thompson is going to be focused as well. That's too much for just about any team to overcome. The Blazers will put up a fight, but I expect the Warriors to either sweep them or win in 5 games. The Warriors win.
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs (7) Memphis Grizzlies
-The playoff series that just never seems to end. Don't get me wrong. I was excited to see Kawhi in the playoffs and Vince Carter get another run, but with Tony Allen out, I expect this series to be boring and slightly disappointing. The Spurs could either sweep the Grizzlies or end up winning in 5 games, but the Grizzlies don't stand a chance. Grizzlies were a tough match in the regular season, but that won't work as well here in the playoffs, especially without Tony Allen.
(3) Houston Rockets vs (6) Oklahoma City Thunder
-The battle we all wanted. The chance at redemption for the Rockets after losing in 5 games last year in the first round, and a chance to prove his team is better and he deserves the MVP (though it's a regular season award) over Harden. The two MVP candidates doing battle in the first round is a great story and I think this will be a tougher than expected series. Many have the Rockets easily winning, but this leads me to believe that they've once again underestimated Russell Westbrook. Russ has been the most clutch player for his team and with breaking the triple double record monkey off his back, I think he goes hard and leads the Thunder to an upset victory in this series. Realistically, the Rockets should win in 5 or 6, but the longer the series the goes, the more it benefits OKC I believe, so I'll go out on a limb and say OKC in 7.
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs (5) Utah Jazz
-The Jazz and Clippers had a pretty intense game where tempers flared this season. For that alone, I'm looking forward to this series. The defensive juggernaut that is Rudy Gobert will be a force to be reckoned with I'm sure and the matchup between him and DeAndre Jordan will be interesting to say the least. Gordon Hayward, Chris Paul, and of course Blake Griffin will be the players to watch in this one. I predict the Jazz in 7, but if the Jazz can't get an offensive rhythm going, I'll say the Clippers could steal it in 6 or 7. Defense would be the deciding factor here and Utah has better defense and that's why I think they will win and move on to likely face the Warriors.
The playoffs are exactly what we have been waiting for, and now that they're here, the best is yet to come. Could we see a sleeper team get out the first round like the Pacers, Bulls, or Grizzlies? It's possible. Will any series go 7 games? It's also possible. Only one way to find out and that's to tune in.