- The NBA playoffs begins on Saturday, April 14th and we have expert picks and analysis for every single first round match-up
- Can the new-look Cavs sweep the Pacers?
- Can the Sixers defeat the Heat without Joel Embiid?
The final night of the NBA regular season featured more drama than Tristan Thompson’s love life. The Timberwolves needed overtime to claim their first playoff berth in 14 years; the Pelicans needed a vintage performance from Rajon Rondo to claim the sixth seed in the West; and Russell Westbrook needed both of his elbows to knock his teammates out of the way in his pursuit of personal glory.
It was a wild night, and now after 82 games, we finally know which teams will be facing off in the first round of the 2018 NBA playoffs. I’ve sized up every match-up and have included my expert analysis and predictions below.
Ryan Murphy 2017-18 Straight Up Record: 388-154 (71.5-percent)
(1) Toronto Raptors vs (8) Washington Wizards
Many fans are skeptical of Toronto after years of playoff futility, but these aren’t your father’s Raptors. This year’s squad ranks in the top five in offensive and defensive rating and has the highest scoring bench in the league. These dinos are deeper and more talented than ever before and have finally embraced a modern, free-flowing offense that empowers all five players on the court.
Ball game. Raps win! pic.twitter.com/YTYGKdEKDU
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) April 10, 2018
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have heard all the criticism about their past playoffs meltdowns and are ready to show how far they’ve come against the reeling Wizards. This one is going to be over early.
Prediction: Raptors in 5
(2) Boston Celtics vs (7) Milwaukee Bucks
Has there ever been a more vulnerable two-seed than the Celtics? Boston enters the postseason without leading scorer Kyrie Irving and All-Star Gordon Hayward, who is still weeks away from being ready to contribute despite his many protestations.
The good news (yes, there is a little bit of that), is that the Celtics are an impeccably coached and well-prepared group that play suffocating defense. They have the length and athleticism to switch one-through-five and can grit out a few wins on heart and hustle alone. Their lack of playmaking will eventually catch up to them, but they’re still good enough to slip by the Bucks in the first round.
Prediction: Celtics in seven
(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs (6) Miami Heat
No team enters the postseason with more momentum than the 76ers, who capped off their most successful season in years by winning a franchise best 16 straight.
By now you know all about Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, but what makes this Sixers squad so good is the quality of its role players. JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli have both been lights-out from deep, Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova are among the craftiest players at their position, and Markelle Fultz just posted his first triple-double despite the fact his jump shot is more broken than a plate at a Greek wedding.
Embiid will likely be back before the end of the first round and when he does return Philly will be a force to be recknoned with.
Prediction: 76ers in six
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs (5) Indiana Pacers
Don’t be deceived by Indiana’s record against Cleveland during the regular season. The Pacers may have won three of their four games, but they did so against a dramatically different roster full of ageing vets and badly mismatched pieces. The new-look Cavs have the youth and speed to keep up with Indiana’s frenetic pace, and possess a pair of players in George Hill and Rodney Hood who can limit the number of clean looks Victor Oladipo receives on the perimeter.
LeBron averaged 28.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 10.3 assists against Indy this season and is hellbent on returning to the NBA Finals for the eighth consecutive year.
They also happen to have the league’s ultimate X factor in LeBron James. The four-time MVP averaged 28.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 10.3 assists against Indy this season and is hellbent on returning to the NBA Finals for the eighth consecutive year. No amount of ear blowing by Lance Stephenson is going to slow him down.
Prediction: Cavs in five
(1) Houston Rockets vs (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
The definition of mixed emotions used to be watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your brand-new Porsche. These days it’s sneaking into the playoffs only to find out you have to face the Rockets.
Minnesota’s joy in ending their 14-year playoff drought quickly turned to sorrow on Wednesday night when they discovered they’d be facing the 65-win Rockets. Houston easily swept its four-game series against Minnesota this season, thumping the Wolves by an average of 15.7 points per game. James Harden and co. should have zero problems dispatching Minnesota in the playoffs.
Prediction: Rockets in four
(2) Golden State Warriors vs (7) San Antonio Spurs
Most playoff series are won by the team with the best player, but in this case the best player will be watching the games from a rehab facility in New York. Kawhi Leonard’s refusal to rejoin the Spurs has doomed his franchise and, more than likely, has paved the way for an offseason trade.
Pop’s going to trade Kawhi Leonard for Odell Beckham Jr. and start another dynasty in San Antonio
— Clemzingis (@TheClemReport) April 3, 2018
Without Leonard, the Spurs are just a collection of castoffs and guys with male pattern baldness. Gregg Popovich has enough tricks up his sleeves to still win a game or two, but the Warriors are too good, too deep, and too experienced to allow San Antonio to advance.
Prediction: Warriors in five
(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs (6) New Orleans Pelicans
The playoffs belong to big-time shot makers, and no one makes bigger shots than Damian Lillard, who has repeatedly buried teams with his late game heroics. The three-time All-Star has scored 110 points in 126 “clutch time” minutes this season, and enters the Blazers’ first-round match-up averaging 26.9 points per game.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans are good enough to win at home, but count on the Blazers to prevail when games enter the “Lillard Time” zone.
Prediction: Trail Blazers in six
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs (5) Utah Jazz
The Thunder and Jazz entered the 2017-18 season with very different forecasts. Utah was expected to be lottery-bound after losing Gordon Hayward to free agency, while OKC was expected to compete for the top seed after adding a pair of potential Hall of Famers. And yet 82 games later, the two teams enter the playoffs with identical 48-34 records.
Oklahoma City won three of its four games against Utah this season, holding the Jazz to just 89.5 points per game.
Although the Thunder and Jazz may be neck-in-neck in the standings, the two teams are far from evenly matched. Oklahoma City won three of its four games against Utah this season, holding the Jazz to just 89.5 points per game. Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio were unable to contain Russell Westbrook and Paul George, and OKC consistently controlled the boards.
The Thunder don’t have the look of a title contender, but they do look like a team capable of beating a club led by a 19-year-old rookie.
Prediction: Thunder in five