(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers
- How GSW wins: The Warriors need to continue playing their brand of basketball and stay healthy for this round. They match up well against the Blazers, where they completed their season series sweep by an average win by 19.5 PPG. KD should be back to full strength and having him back adds yet another dimension to a team that won 15 straight to close the season. Kerr was able to experiment with many new lineups with KD sidelined due to injury, along with giving extra minutes for the Warriors' relatively young and shallow bench to give them some valuable experience, both of which should be a huge help as they gear up for another championship run.
- How POR wins: Portland has been the second hottest team in the NBA since March 1st, trailing only their first round opponents with a 17-6 record. Nurkic needs to come back fully healthy and assert his dominance over a vulnerable Golden State front court. Dame and CJ need to have some of the best games of their lives, where their hands will surely be full trying to stop the Splash Brothers on the defensive end as well. They also need to have an answer for the Warriors' small ball lineup, which the Warriors have mostly saved for the playoffs but has shown to be incredibly efficient and deadly when executed well.
- Prediction: Portland could keep the games close but not make the series long. A fully healthy KD helps Golden State dominate Portland on both ends of the court and Warriors complete the sweep.
- Pick: Warriors in 4
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies
- How SAS wins: The Spurs struggled offensively against Memphis this season, averaging 90.5 PPG on 43% shooting in 4 games this year. They need to find a way to hide Parker on defense to not get exposed by Memphis' back court, likely with Kawhi shadowing one of the wings and coming to help on the defensive end. They have more offense, defense, coaching, and playoff experience, so this series shouldn't be as long as some are making it out to be.
- How MEM wins: Memphis needs to lock down on defense as they've been doing all year. Tony Allen is currently injured and may not be 100% for the series, which would be a huge loss for them on the defensive end. Randolph is the X-factor this series because the Grizzlies don't have as deep of a bench as the Spurs and need all the help they can get on the offensive end when Conley/Gasol are out. If Memphis can't get any production out of their bench unit against the Spurs, this is going to be a short and ugly series.
- Prediction: Fizdale has done a great job with this squad this season but the Grizzlies are aging, banged up and won't be able to handle everything that Pop is about to throw at them.
- Pick: Spurs in 5
(3) Houston Rockets vs. (6) Oklahoma City Thunder
- How HOU wins: Houston continues to play D'Antoni-ball and jacks up 50 threes a night at a half decent clip. Harden's wrist needs to be healthy because their entire offense hinges on him drawing defenders toward him and creating space for the wings to launch threes all game long. Beverley needs to keep Westbrook in check while offering help defense, especially late in the game when OKC's offense becomes increasingly one-dimensional.
- How OKC wins: Westbrook goes berserk and continues his historic season with a triple-double in every game. More importantly, Russ needs to ensure that he's playing efficiently and creating offense for the front court, where Kanter and Adams have a definite edge over Houston in the paint. They need to find ways for Russ to score against a terrific iso defender in Beverly while being able to limit Harden's trips to the line on the other end. This series is sure to be physical and as long as the refs allow it, that favors the athleticism and size of this OKC squad.
- Prediction: In this showdown between the top MVP candidates, Westbrook falls short in carrying his team to the next round, and the Rockets shoot well enough from deep against a solid OKC perimeter defense to advance.
- Pick: Rockets in 6
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Utah Jazz
- How LAC wins: This is a great matchup for the Clippers, who have won 3 of 4 against Utah during the regular season, limiting them to just 41.7% shooting. The Clippers have elite defenders to take care of a Utah offense that has struggled at times behind a weak back court that should have their hands full against CP3. The center matchup should be a good one on paper but neither are primarily post players, with both being used in setting screens and some pick and roll action. DJ has the weight and size advantage which has helped him with rebounding efficiency during their matchups this season, as long as he doesn't run into foul trouble, this should prove to be a key advantage for this series.
- How UTA wins: The Jazz need their potential DPOY Gobert to step up and defend effectively against the Clippers' front court. It'll be interesting to see if Utah plays Favors alongside Gobert in crunch time because their spacing would be severely limited, but Diaw won't be able to keep up with Blake's athleticism and Hayward might not have the size to slow Blake down. They also need production on the offensive end from more than just Hayward and Gobert if they're going to take down the Clippers and advance to the next round.
- Prediction: Clippers hang on to advance behind their playoff experience and veteran leadership.
- Pick: Clippers in 7
(1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Chicago Bulls
- How BOS wins: Crowder will draw the primary assignment against Butler, but Boston needs to throw everyone at their disposal at Butler to slow him down and not take over like he's been able to do at times this season. Thomas is also having one of the most efficient volume scoring seasons in NBA history, Boston should be hungry after securing the #1 seed and have one of the best coaching minds in the game in Brad Stevens to make some noise in the East.
- How CHI wins: Chicago has a huge advantage in the playoff experience category, with Wade having more playoff minutes logged than the entire Celtics roster. Rondo also makes his playoff return to what should be a crazy atmosphere at the Garden, making this an interesting matchup in many ways. Bulls have shown their ability to step up in big games on national TV (looking at you, Cavs), and can no doubt make the Celtics path difficult behind their veteran leadership.
- Prediction: The Bulls have a ton of talent and playoff experience, but won't have the consistency to put it all together for a 7 game series.
- Pick: Celtics in 6
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Indiana Pacers
- How CLE wins: The Cavs have been shockingly inconsistent as of late, with a 23-23 record to close out the year. It seems like the whole team was coasting at various stretches during the season but everyone is expecting the big 3 to turn it on when the postseason comes around. The LBJ vs PG13 matchup we saw a few weeks ago was one of the best 1 on 1 matchups all year, with the Cavs winning in double OT behind LBJ's 41/14/11 against PG13's 43/9/9. With their minds set on another championship run as a 2 seed this time, the Cavs should be able to turn it on and take care of Indiana.
- How IND wins: PG13 is probably the toughest assignment LeBron will draw until a possible Finals Part 3 showdown against Golden State, and he needs to give it his all to have a shot at upsetting the defending champs in a 7 game series. He'll also need plenty of help from the rest of the team who hasn't showed to be of much value, including Ellis who put together one of the worst seasons of his career with a -2.3 BPM and -0.2 VORP. The Cavs defense has been one of the worst in the league, allowing 108 points per 100 possessions, and Indiana needs to be creative in their offensive scheme to pull off the upset.
- Prediction: Indiana hangs in there but lack the depth to do much other than pull off an upset or two against an inconsistent Cavs team warming up for a Finals run.
- Pick: Cavaliers in 6
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
- How TOR wins: Guard Giannis. It looks like Tucker should get the first crack at it and should continue to be the primary defender instead of Carroll. They're also one of the best 4th quarter teams in the league, outscoring their opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions, ranking in the top 5 on both ends of the floor in late game situations. That shows they have the coaching and discipline when it comes to crunch time, and it'll be what puts them over the top in the first round.
- How MIL wins: Milwaukee has the length and athleticism in their back court to make it tough for Lowry and Derozan. They have one of the most aggressive defensive schemes in the NBA and need to keep that up to slow down a multi-faceted offense with a deep and talented bench. The Bucks also need to figure out playoff basketball relatively quickly, as no one has more than 16 games of playoff experience, while all five Raptors starters have 23+ playoff games under their belt.
- Prediction: Bucks show their playoff inexperience against a clutch Toronto team that exposes their defense.
- Pick: Raptors in 6
(4) Washington Wizards vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
- How WAS wins: Washington won their division for the first time in decades and carry that momentum to make some noise in the playoffs. Wall should keep up his all-star season but the bigger matchup is Beal vs Sefolosha. Wall can't do this alone and is going to need Beal to prove himself in a playoff situation against a top-five wing defender in the league. Wall has to rely on his team to make their shots when he passes out of the pick and roll instead of dropping 35 a night and putting the team on his back.
- How ATL wins: Atlanta needs to defend the transition buckets and really lock down their defense behind Millsap and Howard. Schroder has shown flashes of looking like an elite scorer but has been inconsistent and sometimes hard to rely on in late game situations. This is a talented team from top to bottom with a deep bench, and could give a young Washington team a run for their money in the opening round.
- Prediction: Hawks go the distance and pull off the only upset of the first round.
- Pick: Hawks in 7