The grind of the 82-game marathon season has finally come to an end. Dirk and D-Wade have set off into the sunset with their hall-of-fame legacies intact, while Luka Doncic and Trae Young have left us yearning for more in the years to come with dazzling highlights from their rookie campaigns. And of course, the Lakers are still the drama kings that never stop giving.
But enough about the past, the future and the unknown. The NBA Playoffs are the present and the now for the next two months, filled with several great first-round matchups to get us started this weekend. Let’s breakdown each series:
1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. 8 Detroit Pistons
The league-leading 60-win Milwaukee Bucks led by MVP and COY candidates Giannis Antetokoumpto and Mike Budenholzer (and also the crazy long surnames) go up against fellow Central Division foe in the banged-up Detroit Pistons. Even if this Motor City team were healthy, they are ultimately outmatched against this Bucks squad even without crucial role players in Malcolm Brogdon, and Nikola Mirotic sidelined through this series. This should be a quick sweep and advance the Bucks into the 2nd round for the first time since 2001.
Prediction: Milwaukee 4-0
2. Toronto Raptors vs. Orlando Magic
Kawhi Leonard’s first season in The Six has been a return to his All-Star dominant form on both sides of the ball, while also being fresh for a deep playoff run by only playing in 60 regular season games. Meanwhile, the Orlando Magic return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012 when Dwight Howard was roaming the middle of the paint. They are now led by first-time All-Star in Nikola Vucevic and several other solid role players led by coach Steve Clifford, who has done a fantastic job for a team predicted to finish in the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. However, this should be a quick series as well, even with the sudden, devastating news that the Raptors OG Anunoby is out indefinitely with a sudden appendectomy. Hopefully, this young player has a healthy recovery and bounces back quickly, as he has had a rough season both on and off the court. The Raptors should be able to take out the Magic with ease and move onto the second round, but they’ll need him for the tougher opponents that lie ahead.
Prediction: Toronto 4-1
3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. 6 Brooklyn Nets
76ers All-Star big man, Joel Embiid’s knee, has flared up again, right before the start of the playoffs, and will be out for the first game of their matchup with the upstart Brooklyn Nets. It’s a frustrating setback for arguably their best and most important player, but perhaps it’s just a precautionary measure to make sure that he’s available for the long haul.
Meanwhile, the Nets have quickly rebuilt and surprised many by qualifying for the playoffs led by a rejuvenated first-time All-Star in D’Angelo Russell and head coach Kenny Atkinson. I think this will be a much more competitive series than people may think, especially in comparison to the previous two Eastern Conference matchups, but the 76ers have a vast advantage in talent disparity. 76ers GM Elton Brand made two bold mid-season acquisitions in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to show the league that they are going all-in this season, so even if Embiid misses a game or two, they should be heading into the second round.
Prediction: Philadelphia 4-1
4 Boston Celtics vs. 5 Indiana Pacers
The Boston Celtics have been one of the most inconsistent teams this season, which has frustrated many and themselves with the amount of talent and depth that they have on their roster. It has been an adjustment incorporating Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back into the lineup after both missed the team’s run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals last season (with the latter still not himself after that devastating ankle injury in the season opener last year), so their chemistry has been a little shaky, to say the least. But they have come on strong to finish out the regular season and were able to capture home-court advantage against the Indiana Pacers, who have fought hard all season despite losing their best player and former All-Star, Victor Oladipo, midway through the year. Head Coach Nate Mcmillan has done a fantastic job leading this team through adversity and buying into the system, their roles and playing for each other. This should be the most competitive series out East, but ultimately Boston’s talent will prevail and send them into the second round for the third straight year.
Prediction: Boston 4-2
1 Golden State Warriors vs 8 Los Angeles Clippers
The Warriors have earned the 1 seed out West for the fourth time in five seasons while playing mostly on cruise control all season in light to this moment to achieve the first three-peat since the Kobe/Shaq Lakers of the early 2000s. They go up against the biggest underdog in over 30 years of the LA Clippers, who were thought by many not to do much going into this year and even more so after trading Tobias Harris to the 76ers midway through the season. But Doc Rivers has done a great job leading this tough, gritty team to play hard every single night with Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, Pat Beverly, and others leading the way. Unfortunately, they don’t stand a chance against Golden State, who has dominated their divisional rival over the past couple of years. The Warriors are one of those teams that can flip the proverbial switch and should take out one of the best feel-good stories of the year rather quickly. The future is bright for this LA team (much more so than the other one right now), but they should bow out of the playoffs in a short series.
Prediction: Golden State 4-0
2 Denver Nuggets vs. 7 San Antonio Spurs
The Denver Nuggets have gone a mile high this season after coming up a game short of the playoffs a year ago by gaining the two seed and qualifying for the first time since 2013, led by the Big Honey in first-time All-Star Nikola Jokic and head coach Mike Malone. However, outside of Paul Millsap, none of the players on their roster have any playoff experience, which contrasts Gregg Popovich’s Spurs that set an NBA record of 22 straight playoff appearances led by LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. I see this being a wild and entertaining series, and if the Spurs can steal a game on the road against one of the best home teams, they could upset the Nuggets. However, I think Denver’s depth and home-court advantage propels them to the second round despite the lack of playoff experience.
Prediction: Denver 4-3
3 Portland Trailblazers vs. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder
Another exciting first-round series out West featuring a great point guard matchup in the triple-double king Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder versus Dame Time Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers. There were some bizarre endings to Portland’s last two regular season games, including a buzzer-beater against the Lakers followed by a 28 point comeback the following night against the Kings when both teams weren’t playing many of their starters. This led to speculation that the Blazers were trying to avoid the Thunder in the first round, a team that swept them 4-0 in the regular season. The basketball gods could not be swayed, so Portland finds themselves against an opponent that has had their number this year.
On top of that, they are missing some key players in both Jusuf Nurkic from his horrific leg fracture a few weeks ago along with C.J. McCollum missing the past ten games due to a knee injury. It’s looking like OKC has gotten a favorable draw on this side of the bracket, and I see them continuing the trend of victory against the Blazers and pulling off the minor upset as far as seeds are concerned. Russell Westbrook is determined to get past the first round finally without Kevin Durant, and they could make a run to the Western Conference Finals with Golden State and Houston on the other side of the bracket.
Prediction: Oklahoma City 4-2
4 Houston Rockets vs. 5 Utah Jazz
A rematch of one of the two conference semifinals series from last season, the Houston Rockets led by the Beard in James Harden goes up against Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz again. Harden has had one of the most insane offensive seasons in NBA history, leading the league in scoring, 50+ points games and killer crossovers plus side-step daggers from the three-point line. But they weren’t expected to fall to the four seed during the last week of the regular season, with some wild circumstances including a near buzzer-beater three-pointer that Paul George made against them in their previous game along with the aforementioned antics the Trailblazers pulled off.
Nonetheless, here they are against the five seeded Jazz for the third straight year who are looking to pull off another first-round upset in as many seasons. With the dazzling Donovan Mitchell, the Defensive Player of the Year front-runner in Rudy Gobert and the Aussie of Joe Ingles leading this Quin Snyder-led squad, they are capable of moving onto the second round again. But I think the unstoppable force that is James Harden is on a mission this season, and with the home-court advantage, I think they move on in one of the more intriguing first round matchups.
Prediction: Houston 4-2
So there you have it. All but one of the top four seeds are moving onto the second round in my predictions, with OKC at the 6 not being that much of a surprise due to their regular season dominance against Portland along with the Trailblazers injuries to key players. I also only had one series out of the eight total going the distance to a Game 7, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see some of the others I predicted going six games to reach seven, especially in the matchups out West where the competition is much higher in comparison to out East.
Will Golden State cap off the illustrious three-peat? Who’s coming out of the East now that LeBron is gone? What team will overcome the injuries that have happened to them? The NBA Playoffs are one of the most exciting times of the year filled with beaucoup drama, intrigue, and subplots, so if it’s anything like the craziness of the regular season, we should be in for one hell-of-a-ride these next couple of months.