The NBA Playoffs are finally here.
While the Eastern Conference is top-heavy and doesn’t figure to get interesting until some combination of the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Chicago Bulls collide, the Western Conference is going to be fascinating right away.
Here are our predictions for the first round:
Atlanta Hawks (1) vs. Brooklyn Nets (8)
Head-to-head record this season: 4-0 Hawks
One thing to know: Brook Lopez finished the season strong, averaging 20 points, 54% shooting, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game over March and April. The Nets may need to lean on his height advantage over the Hawks’ small front court.
Tony: The Nets are the worst defensive team in the playoffs. They’re also terrible at defending the three-point line. Atlanta is more vulnerable than their No. 1 seed suggests, but not here. Hawks in 4.
Scott: The Hawks may have limped into the playoffs, but they beat a lacklustre Nets team by an average of 17 points per game in the regular season. Hawks in 5.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs. Boston Celtics (7)
Head-to-head record this season:Tied 2-2
One thing to know: One of the Celtics wins over Cleveland came when LeBron James and Kevin Love played 26 and 30 minutes, respectively. The other came when James, Love, and Kyrie Irving sat out.
Tony: LeBron teams will historically drop a game in the first round against a clearly overmatched opponent. That’s the case here. Cavs in 5.
Scott: The Celtics are brilliantly coached by Brad Stevens, but the only way they get a win is if LeBron purposely takes a backseat to let Irving and Love get their feet wet in their first-ever playoff series. Cavs in 5.
Chicago Bulls (3) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (6)
Head-to-head record this season: 3-1 Bulls
One thing to know: Neither team scored over 95 points in the four regular season matchups. Expect a defensive battle, with the Hawks ranking third in defensive rating since All-Star break, the Bulls ranking 10th.
Tony: The Bulls are always worn down at this time of year. They might have a lame duck coach. And the Bucks are outscoring teams by 9.9 points per 100 possessions when they play Michael Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ersan Ilyasova, and Zaza Pachulia together. As Brandon Jennings would say, Bucks in 6.
Scott: The Bucks went 11-18 after trading point guard Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams, and their already-lousy offence falls off a cliff without Carter-Williams. Not enough punch to beat the Bulls. Bulls in 4.
Toronto Raptors (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)
Head-to-head record this season: 3-0 Raptors
One thing to know: The Raptors and Wizards are a combined 26-31 since the All-Star break. The Raptors have been top-10 in offence, bottom-10 in defence, while the Wizards are bottom-10 in offence, top-10 in defence during that stretch.
Tony: For some reason, I have more faith that the Wizards can find a lineup than can score than the Raptors can find a lineup that can defend. Wizards in 7.
Scott: Weirdly, both teams have issues playing their centres (Jonas Valanciunas, Raptors; Marcin Gortat, Wizards) at the end of games. Small-ball, stretch lineups benefit the Raptors’ offence more than the Wizards. Raptors in 7.
Golden State Warriors (1) vs. New Orleans Pelicans (8)
Head-to-head record this season:3-1 Warriors
One thing to know: In his two games against Golden State this year, Anthony Davis averaged 29.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks.
Tony: I love Anthony Davis as much as anyone, but predicting anything less than a sweep underrates how good Golden State was this year. Warriors in 4.
Scott: The Warriors had a historically dominant regular season. Anthony Davis presents matchup problems for every Warriors big man and might just be good enough to steal the Pelicans a win. Warriors in 5.
Houston Rockets (2) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7)
Head-to-head record this season: 3-1 Rockets
One thing to know: This might be the most heated series of Round 1. Mark Cuban has already called Houston “not a very good team” outside of James Harden.
Tony: The Rockets are really devoid of options if Rick Carlisle figures out how to take away Harden. Dwight Howard has barely played this year, and both Patrick Beverly and Terrence Jones are out injured. Mavericks in 6.
Scott: This series will allow us to judge the Mavericks’ Rajon Rondo trade and whether Rondo really does have another gear for the playoffs. 46 regular season games with the Mavericks suggest not. The Mavs don’t have any wing defenders capable of slowing down Harden. Rockets in 7.
Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. San Antonio Spurs (6)
Head-to-head record this season:Tied 2-2
One thing to know: The Clippers have the second-best record in the league after the All-Star break, while the Spurs have the fourth-best.
Tony: It’s really a shame that with so many banged-up teams in the West, two of the top contenders got matched up on Round 1. Ultimately, San Antonio’s depth and experience wins out. Spurs in 6.
Scott: The Clippers’ athletic front-court is the type that can give the Spurs problems. However, Kawhi Leonard’s defence helps dull the Chris Paul effect, and the Spurs’ depth is superior to the Clippers’ extremely weak bench. Spurs in 7.
Portland Trail Blazers (4) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5)
Head-to-head record this season:4-0 Grizzlies
One thing to know: Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley didn’t play the final four games of the regular season with a foot injury and his status is unclear.
Tony: So much depends on the health of Mike Conley and Tony Allen. If they can play close to 100% Memphis is a significant favourite here. If not, advantage Portland. Grizzlies in 7.
Scott: Memphis isn’t in great shape, but the Blazers have been devastated by injuries. Losing their best wing, Wesley Matthews, destroyed their title hopes, and losing backups Arron Afflalo and C.J. McCollum destroys their depth. Grizzlies in 6.
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