The NBA Playoffs are upon us, and over the next two months we will see 16 teams all vying for the title. It is my personal belief that, as I’ve stated here: http://toplevelsports.blogspot.com/2014/10/ranking-playoff-formats-of-big-5-sports.html, the NBA has the best playoffs out of every major team sport in the USA. I’m obviously very excited to watch all the games and see who comes out on top at the end of it all. However, before teams can play for a shot at the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, they must defeat all the other teams in their conference, and to do that, they must start in the conference quarterfinals. The games begin today, and here’s who I like to move on to the next round.
#1 Golden State Warriors (67-15) vs. #8 New Orleans Pelicans (45-37)
The New Orleans Pelicans are not to be taken lightly. They are by no means a playoff team without Anthony Davis, but with him they have the potential to be any team in the league, as they showed by defeating the Spurs on the last day of the season. However, while they might take one game off the Warriors, this is the Warriors we’re talking about. They have a stacked roster and are one of the best teams in the NBA since Jordan’s Bulls. They have depth, great shooters, great passers, great defenders, and are fun to watch. Fivethirtyeight gives them a 48% chance of winning the championship. I’m not sure if it’s really that high, but they’re one heck of a basketball team. And they have the MVP in Steph Curry, just one half of the Splash Bros.
Warriors in 5.
#2 Houston Rockets (56-26) vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks (50-32)
It’s a Texas battle in the West’s 2-7 matchup, and man is this going to be a great series to watch. The Mavericks are underrated as just a 7 seed with the same record as the East’s 3 seed Bulls, and have more experience than the Rockets. The game plan for the Rockets will be to take and make as many threes as possible, mixing in Dwight Howard’s post game as needed. The Rockets could struggle from the free throw line, as none of their bigs shoot over 60% from the strike. This will be a closer series than people think, but in the end James Harden will prove too much,
Rockets in 6.
#3 Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs. #6 San Antonio Spurs (55-27)
This could be the best 3-6 matchup ever. No, seriously. These teams both have legitimate chances to come out of the Western Conference, and are separated by only one game. The Spurs were the two seed the day before the season ended, but in the insanely crowded West managed to slip four spots with just one loss. However, prior to that loss they were the hottest team in the league, and the Spurs always seem to play hard in the playoffs. This could be the final run for Tim Duncan, but then again we say that every season. The Spurs are a well oiled machine, and they have at least seven guys that can take over on any given night. On the other hand, the Clippers are led by Chris Paul, always one of the league’s best, and probably still underrated. Then there’s the beast that is Blake Griffin, leading the team with over 21 points per game. DeAndre Jordan has taken his usual great rebounding to a whole new level, averaging 15 per game to lead the league. He also led the league in free throw percentage and finished top five in blocks. Two of the league’s best shooters are JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford, who both also average over 15 points per game. They have a bunch of great pieces, which will make for a fantastic series, but in the end I smell an upset (if you can even call it that).
Spurs in 6.
#4 Portland Trail Blazers (51-31) vs. #5 Memphis Grizzlies (55-27)
Because division leaders need home-court advantage, the Blazers get the 4 even though their record would give them the 6. Hey, it’s not their fault the Thunder had a down year and the ENTIRE Southwestern Division made the playoffs (but seriously, best division ever? The Pelicans were last at 45-37). Could this be the year for the Griz’ veteran bigs? Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are some of the best big men that go unnoticed, and you can count on Mike Conley getting them some good looks. All five starters average double figures, and Tony Allen is one of the league’s best defenders. The Blazers come into the playoffs on a four game losing streak, but don’t expect the two-man tandem of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard to go down lightly. Both averaged over 20 points per game during the regular season, and allow the role players to get good looks when the defense concentrates on them. The key matchup will be Aldridge vs. Randolph and Gasol. Whoever wins that could win the series. Advantage Memphis, but it could go either way.
Grizzlies in 6.
#1 Atlanta Hawks (60-22) vs. #8 Brooklyn Nets (38-44)
What a job Mike Budenholzer has done with the Hawks, turning them from a 37-win team to a 60-win one with the same group of starters. No one expected the Hawks to be any more than an average team, and they surprised everyone by beating out the Cleveland Cavaliers- by seven games- for the East’s top spot. The Hawks do it through selflessness and great passing. All five starters average between 12 and 17 points per game, and the lowest scoring starter just happens to be the league’s best shooter, Kyle Korver, who finished the year shooting 49% from three. They’ve done this without having any starters play 33 minutes per game, so in the playoffs they’ll probably see even more play time. Their opponents, the Nets, come in with a record six games under .500, and stole the 8 seed from the Pacers on the last day of the regular season. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are each having their worst seasons since their first few years in the league. Even Coach Lionel Hollins said the team has no advantages over the Hawks. Even their best position, center with Brook Lopez, is matched by Al Horford. The Hawks won all four matchups in the regular season, and they’ll get four more wins with relative ease.
Hawks in 4.
#2 Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29) vs. #7 Boston Celtics (40-42)
Boston was 16-30 at one point in this season, but managed to go 24-12 down the stretch to finish one game shy of .500, and see a familiar foe in the playoffs- LeBron. Props to Brad Stevens for the team’s strong performance and overall 15 game improvement from his first season, and for doing it without Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. Without any real star power, the Celtics will need some players to step up and especially Evan Turner will have to really play great defense to contain LeBron. For the Cavaliers, it is important for them not to underestimate the Celtics and bring their “A game”. Additionally, role players will need to step up and provide reliable offense so the team doesn’t have to rely on the Big 3. One of the main reasons for the Cavs’ struggles earlier in the year was the lack of bench production. Surprisingly, the Celtics actually split the season series 2-2, and I think they’ll continue having strong performances against the Cavs, but ultimately fall like they’re supposed to.
Cavaliers in 6.
#3 Chicago Bulls (50-32) vs. #6 Milwaukee Bucks (41-41)
Healthy Derrick Rose or not, the Bulls have managed to maintain their position as one of the best teams in the East. The Bucks have their own injury woes in the form of Jabari Parker, who tore his ACL back in December. However, they’ve managed to make the playoffs with a well-balanced offense. Michael Carter-Williams will lead the Bucks against Chicago for their first playoff series win since 2001. However, I don’t think it will be an enjoyable series for Bucks fans. This year has seen the emergence of Jimmy Butler into one of the league’s best young players, and a resurgence for Pau Gasol after struggles of late with the Lakers. Derrick Rose is healthy and will play in the series, and Joakim Noah remains a defensive beast and the best passing center in the game. The Bulls have a good bench and are stronger in just about every category, which makes me feel this series will be over quickly.
Bulls in 5.
#4 Toronto Raptors (49-33) vs. #5 Washington Wizards (46-36)
This is a really intriguing matchup, and easily the closest series in the East. The Raptors lost in a seven game series last year, and are looking for their first series win since the times of Vince Carter. I think it is likely they play in another seven game series this year. The guard play in this series will be critical, as Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan have both made an All-Star game over the past two seasons, while John Wall has developed into one of the league’s best point guards alongside sharpshooter Bradley Beal. Inside, the Wizards have the edge with both Marcin Gortat and Nene, but the Raptors have incredible depth with nine players averaging at least 7.9 points. This series is really a toss up, but I’ll give it to the Raptors because of their home court advantage.
Raptors in 7.
Do you agree with my picks? Comment with who you think will advance.