It’s weird that the Jazz lost two at home in the last series and still managed to win. They had to win Game 1 in LA after Rudy Gobert went down in the opening seconds and then Game 7 with Gobert in foul trouble (he played only 13 minutes). But, they lost 2 games at home, one of which Blake Griffin didn’t play at all, and the other being the game he went down in. But, while playing in their arena might not be a huge advantage to the Jazz, they’re certainly mentally tough enough to step up to a challenge and won’t be scared, even when the Warriors go on big runs. The talent gap is too wide for the Jazz to have any real shot at the series, but I won’t be surprised if they’re able to take one, which is more than I could have said for the Clippers.
Warriors in 5
San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets
There are so many X factors in this series, it’s hard to say how the Rockets as a team will shoot, how James Harden, specifically will play after not being great in the last series against the Thunder, despite beating them in 5. On the Spurs, Kawhi Leonard has been the only reliably great player so far. Tony Parker has had flashes of his previous greatness and LaMarcus Aldridge has been good at times. I think Kawhi Leonard has another great series the Spurs dominate Rockets unless Harden comes back into his early-mid season form.
I think the Celtics will struggle out of the gate. They’ve had poor playoff showings, and the Bulls can be good with enough rest, which the first round provides. I do think they eventually pull it off because they’re definitely the better team. But, I wouldn’t be totally surprised if the Bulls pull off the upset.
Celtics in 7
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indian Pacers
It’s that time of year, LeBron will go supernova and make everyone feel silly for doubting they could turn it up in the playoffs. This might end up being a sweep, but I think Paul George wills his team to win at least one at home.
Cavaliers in 5
Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are great, and just having Giannis Antetokounmpo means they have a chance to win every game. In fact, the Bucks winning the series is totally plausible. But, I think the Raptors getting deep into the playoffs last year puts them in a better space and will give them the mental edge they’ll need to win a tough series.
Raptors in 7
Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks
It’s tough to trust either of these teams in a playoff series, but I think the Wizards have shown they’re the more consistent of these two. John Wall and Bradley Beal have been incredible this year and the Hawks have had great flashes, but I don’t think they can win four against this Wizards team.
Wizards in 5
Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trailblazers
The Blazers kept the series somewhat competitive last year, and I think it’s possible they might’ve won one in Portland if Jusuf Nurkic was healthy, but without him, the Warriors biggest weakness isn’t much of a weakness at all against this Blazers team. The Blazers might get hot at the same time the Warriors go cold, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Warriors in 4
San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies
The Spurs and Grizzlies split the regular season series 2-2 this year. The Spurs are definitely the better team, but I think the mostly-healthy Grizzlies will make it a competitive series this year.
Spurs in 6
Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Rockets are the better team, but the “clutch” stats are where the Thunder have a major edge. Also, a lot of Harden’s game is getting to the line for fouls that get called less often during the playoffs. The Rockets could end up blowing out the Thunder and sweeping, but I think the Thunder take this series.
Thunder in 6
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Utah Jazz
I so badly want to pick the Jazz, but they seem to beat up on bad teams and rarely beat good teams. The Clippers can always find a way to blow it, but I think they’ll wait till the 2nd round to do that. I just hope the Jazz put up a fight.
While the Cavs are definitely scarier this year than they were last year, and the Warriors showed some vulnerabilities in their 7-games against the Thunder, I just do not think the Cavs will be able to match-up well with this Warriors team. Last year the Cavs went big and slow to mess with the Warriors quick-paced game and take a 2-1 series lead. In the last series, the Warriors were forced to alternate between their smaller/quicker lineups and bigger/slower lineups to defeat the Thunder, making it a lot more difficult for the Cavs to find a style that will work.
Golden State Warriors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder – Warriors in 6
I was wrong about the Thunder losing to the Spurs and very happy to see them advance. They definitely have decent chance to beat the Warriors here, but I still think the Warriors win this series. Andrew Bogut‘s health is a mystery right now, but I think we see the Warriors go small anyway and maybe need Festus Ezeli more any way because of his speed. Speed is something the Warriors have that the Spurs didn’t and will be something they’ll need to win this. Where the Spurs win with suffocating defense, the Warriors will have to keep the pace fast and keep it a high scoring game, forcing Russell Westbrook, Dion Waiters, and Andre Roberson to keep shooting. They all made crucial shots in the last series, but if they’re forced to shoot significantly more in this series, I don’t think as many shots are going to fall. Kevin Durant, on the other hand, rarely has trouble himself against the Warriors, and this series may end up similar to last year’s Finals against the Cavaliers, where the Warriors simply have to accept that one play (in that case, LeBron James) is going to score 30-50 points a game and try to keep everyone else on the team from making other shots.
Eastern Conference Finals
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Toronto Raptors – Cavs in 4
San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder – Spurs in 6
I want to pick the Thunder to win this, so bad. The Westbrook–Durant duo are so much fun to watch, and, as much as a Spurs–Warriors (or Spurs-Blazers?) Conference Finals should be enjoyable, watching the Thunder is just so entertaining, that I would much rather see them advance.
All that aside, this series is interesting because it’s another study in coaching talent and depth vs. superstar player talent. The Spurs obviously have incredible talent in Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge; Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Danny Green, and David West still play at an extremely high level when needed; and, the rest of their roster can always compete. But, Kawhi is the only player on that team that (in 2016) can hold a candle to Durant and Westbrook. The problem for the Thunder is, the rest of the guys on the floor, including their coach, can be inconsistent. Serge Ibaka, usually the obvious 3rd best on the team, hasn’t been as good this year. Enes Kanter has had some great moments this season and post-season. But, he his defense is usually weak and his offense only makes up for it on his best nights. The biggest mismatch with the Spurs is the coaching. While not many coaches can compare to Gregg Popovich, Billy Donovan has really struggled adapting to the NBA, and now he’s headed to a playoff series against one of the best coaches in the league (many would argue, THE best). My hope is that Donovan can make the right adjustments and avoid 4th-quarter meltdowns, but I’m not optimistic for the Thunder.
Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trail Blazers – Warriors in 5
It’s tough to say how this series goes without knowing when Stephen Curry comes back from injury and how he’ll play upon his return. That said, I think this is a great matchup for the Curry-less Warriors. Klay Thompson can be inconsistent without Steph to draw the attention of the best defenders on each team. But, the Blazers rely so much on their offense, that Klay (and others on the team) will likely do well against their weaker defense. The Blazers had such a bizarre season that it’s tough to say how good they really are. But, seeing as the Blazers were able to win one against a fully healthy Warriors in the regular season and one against a (reasonably) healthyClippers team, I think the Blazers take at least one game in Portland, likely charged by a mega-game from CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. But, ultimately, with Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, and Shaun Livingston on the floor, the Warriors defense can do a lot to contain the Blazers most nights. The Blazers will get one, but definitely not 4, even without Curry.
The Raptors last 2 playoff appearances ended in first round exits. In 2014 they lost in 7 games to the Brooklyn Nets, then got swept in 2015 by the Wizards. They’re a better team this year, and they know they have to advance this year. They were in striking distance of the 1st seed for most of the season and have been great against the leagues best teams. The Pacers, however, will have the best player on the floor in Paul George. The Pacers had a great start this year but started declining as the season went on. I think Paul George will takeover a game in Naptown and win one of these by himself, but the Raptors will make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Miami Heat vs. Charlotte Hornets – Hornets in 7
The Heat have the talent and the experience to win this series. Their problem is age. Dwyane Wade has been incredible in so many games this season. But, they’ll likely need to lean on the inexperienced players (in the playoffs) on this team to win 4 our of 7. Goran Dragic has been on and off this season. Hassan Whiteside has barely played a full NBA season before and Justise Winslow is a rookie. Luol Deng is in a similar situation to Wade, he’s been great, but it’s unclear how tired he’ll be a few games in. I have to assume Bosh won’t be playing, but if he is, he’ll still need time to get back into rhythm. The days off between games may give Deng and Wade enough rest time to stay fresh for this series, but I think the Hornets are good enough to keep it competitive long enough for those guys to wear down. Steve Clifford has done an incredible coaching job this year, but Kemba Walker, Nic Batum, and Jeremy Lin have all been great this season and propelled the Hornets to the playoffs when many assumed they’d be awful without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. This series could swing either way, but I think the Hornets can pull it off and avenge their 2014 sweep (as the Bobcats).
Atlanta Hawks vs. Boston Celtics – Hawks in 7
These teams are evenly matched in being well-coached units with no single player required to make it work. Both teams certainly have all-star caliber players, but no one that specifically makes either the offense or defense work. While the Celtics have the better coach, Brad Stevens, I think the Hawks have big enough edge talent wise with the duo of Paul Millsap and Al Horford on both offense and defense to win this. But it’s entirely possible the Celtics survive and advance.
Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets – Warriors in 4
I know the Rockets won one against he Warriorslast year by sleepwalking through the first half. But, if Trevor Ariza doesn’t knee Steph Curry in the head, the Rockets would’ve gotten swept. The Rockets are a mess and there’s not much else to say about that. They backed into the playoffs by beating the Lakers and the Kings‘ bench. Against any other team, I would count on James Harden taking over a game and the Rockets winning one, but the Warriors have at least three guys who can take over in response. Assuming the Rockets don’t resort to reckless fouls (they probably will), there’s no way this is competitive.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies – Spurs in 4
This is just going to be sad. Dave Joerger has done an awesome job with the Grizz-zombies. But the Grizzlies have a tough enough time getting their offense going against most teams, there’s no way they’ll be able to make it work against one of the most suffocating defenses ever in the Spurs. This one will be tough to watch and a bummer considering what the Grizzlies have accomplished short-handed.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Dallas Mavericks- Thunder in 6
This is similar to the Cavs-Pistons series. A much more talented team with a (so-far) not-great coach against an incredible coach. The difference here is that the Mavericks have playoff experience and Rick Carlisle isn’t just a great coach, but one of the greatest of all time. The Mavericks do not have the talent or the legs to win this, but Dirk and Rick will take advantage of the Thunder‘s 4th quarter woes and win a couple.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Portland Trail Blazers – Blazers in 7
Since returning from injury and suspension, Blake Griffin only got 5 games in before the post-season. But the Clippers won all of them. Only two were against playoff teams (the Mavericks and Grizzlies), but it’d be surprising if he’s fully ready for the playoffs and the team as a whole might be in a weird place. These teams seem to be on opposite trajectories. The Blazers surpassed all expectations and went from an 11-20 start to get the 5th seed with a 44-38 record. Damian Lillard is as determined as ever to prove he’s one of the best players in the league, and CJ McCollum has taken an incredible leap this year. The Clippers on the other hand went from briefly being title favorites in 2015 to having just a truly bizarre season. The Clippers obviously CAN win this. But, I predict an earlier implosion than last year’s.