King of the Hill
With such an historic regular season, you know the playoffs are going to bring a whole new level of drama.
By Miguel Robles, University of Colorado Denver
In a star-driven league, the NBA playoffs always manage to produce a show, and the 2017 playoffs have the opportunity to produce its finest show yet.
NBA die-hards are sure to see the introduction of fresh characters to the bright lights and the resurgence of old kings. When all the ashes are settled, the NBA may see the fall of some of its oldest dynasties, while providing its fans some new powers. Here, broken down by round, are my most educated guesses on how the playoffs will unfold this post-season.
Eastern Conference- 1st Round
#1 Boston Celtics v. #8 Chicago Bulls
Let’s be clear, this series and the Celtics playoff future hinges on Isaiah Thomas’ mental stability.
On Saturday April 14th, Chyna Thomas, Isaiah’s 22-year-old sister, died in a car crash. The very next day Isaiah suited up at the Garden for Game 1 against the Bulls. Obviously, Isaiah was unable to contain his emotions before the game. The raw emotion was truly heartbreaking, and serves as a reminder that basketball is just a game at the end of the day.
The first #1 seed in the last six years for the Celtics revolves around the mental fortitude of its most important player since Paul Pierce. On that emotional day in Game 1, Isaiah came to play. He put up an impressive 33 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists.
His team unfortunately didn’t show up, as Boston dropped Game 1 to the lowly Bulls. This game really validated the Celtics moniker as the “worst #1 seed in history.” They simply aren’t tough enough or strong enough. In the four games against the Bulls in the regular season, the Celtics split the series. In the two losses, the C’s were out-rebounded by an average of 19.5 rebounds; that’s not playoff basketball, folks.
In Game 2, Isaiah Thomas showed his vulnerability with a tough 20-point game on only 6-15 shooting. The Bulls, on the other hand, showed they’re more than just Jimmy Butler. Old vets Rajon Rondo and Dwayne Wade turned the calendar back to 2010, with gritty performances from two former champions pushing for one last hoorah, which led to an unbelievable 20-point rout to extend the advantage to 2-0.
After dropping the first two in Boston, and with it all of the momentum, the Celtics will scramble for answers in Chicago. While the Bulls have proven to be a wildly inconsistent team throughout the year, the Celtics will always lose this matchup on the glass, as their great star is starting to show his wounds.
Verdict: Bulls win 4-2
#4 Washington Wizards v. #5 Atlanta Hawks
In arguably the least exciting first round matchup of the bunch, these are two teams on opposite ends on the spectrum. The Wizards entered the playoffs surging as a legit dark-horse candidate with the backcourt of the future, John Wall and Bradley Beal.
For the Hawks, on the other hand, the #1 seeded team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015-16 seems like a distant mirage. Acquiring Dwight Howard in the offseason wasn’t enough to halt the wave of mediocrity.
While it was close throughout Game 1, there is a clear talent discrepancy. The guard tandem of Wall-Beal put up 54 points and at times completely took over the game. The Hawks simply don’t have the players that can take over games at this point. Paul Millsap is a solid all-star forward, but he’s never been that guy who could carry the team, Howard simply doesn’t score anymore and young stud Dennis Schroder is too untested.
The fundamentally solid Hawks team isn’t getting swept by a team largely untested in the playoffs, but the Wizards are hemorrhaging young talent at a rate the Hawks can’t keep up with.
Verdict: Wizards win 4-1
#3 Toronto Raptors v. #6 Milwaukee Bucks
For many Raptors fans, this seemed like it would be the year to make a legit run at conference kings Cleveland. Franchise star DeMar DeRozan took his game to elite status with an incredible regular season, new acquisitions Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker strengthened a deep core, while star point guard Kyle Lowry came back from an injury ready for the playoffs. All the pieces seemed to be in place for Canada’s lone basketball team, then Game 1 happened.
In Game 1, the Raptors ran into a brick wall of young talented Bucks, and got spanked on their home court as a result. Kyle Lowry doesn’t look healthy, and the offensive depth looks non-existent as DeRozan attempted to carry the whole team on his back.
The Bucks, on the other hand, look like they’re ready for an extended run a year too early. Young studs Giannis Antetokounmpo and Malcolm Brogdon will give the Bucks a fighting chance in every game, but if Khris Middleton can’t find his shot, I’m having a hard time believing the Bucks can win 4 out of 7.
The Raptors look shook right now, but when it comes to splitting hairs, you always pick the team with the experience. Expect a back and forth series, but in the end, the rich experience of the Raptors will come through.
Verdict: Raptors win 4-3
#2 Cleveland Cavaliers v. #7 Indiana Pacers
The Cavs continued their shaky regular season form by squeaking by the Pacers in Game 1 at home. Game 2 provided a little more space, but was still a largely unconvincing performance by the East favorites. The problem again comes down to their defense. Paul George has been absolutely scorching the Cavs’ putrid defense. George has averaged 30.5 PPG in the first two games, as the Pacers have been well over 100 points in each game.
The Cavs are now up 2-0, and have been pretty much in control in each game, so there should be no reason to worry, right? Wrong. If the Cavs are having struggles against the extremely weak Pacers team, how are they going to be able to handle the offensive powers in the East of the Celtics or Wizards? More importantly, how will they handle the offensive juggernaut Warriors?
At this point, Cavs fans should be worried; not necessarily about the Pacers, but rather the coming onslaught of the playoffs.
Paul George by himself could make this series interesting. If the Pacers steal one back home in Indiana, expect the anxiety levels to significantly rise, but a LeBron James-led team won’t be upset in the first round.
Verdict: Cavs win 4-1
Western Conference- 1st Round
#1 Golden State Warriors v. #8 Portland Trailblazers
While the Cavs look shaky at the start of the playoffs, the Western Conference favorite Warriors got off to a hot start in the Bay. Any question at this point of Kevin Durant’s health was smashed with his 32 points and 10 rebounds in only 35 minutes. That being said, a calf strain may send KD to the bench for the rest of the series, but it doesn’t look too serious.
This team, when Kevin Durant is clicking, is simply unstoppable. A three-headed monster of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and the baby-faced assassin Steph Curry has torn up the league the last couple of years. Add in a healthy Kevin Durant, and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to solve that equation.
However, the Blazers are no pushovers. The backcourt of C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard dropped 75 points in Game 1. They put on a show and out-shined some of the game’s biggest stars. Unfortunately, the guards accounted for nearly 70 percent of their team’s points, and no one on the Blazers had more than 10 points. If budding star Jusuf Nurkic remains injured, the slim odds of this series remaining a contest are over.
Verdict: Warriors win 4-0
#4 Los Angeles Clippers v. #5 Utah Jazz
I personally think this should be one of the most exciting series in the first round. On the one side, there’s the playoff perennial Clippers lead by a triplet of veteran superstars Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul. On the other, you have a rejuvenated Jazz team lead by young superstars Gordon Heyward and Rudy Gobert, and savvy incoming vets George Hill and Joe Johnson.
Predictably so, Game one in LA did not disappoint. After an extremely back and forth game, Johnson shocked the LA crowd with a game-winning shot. At this point the Clippers have the experience and infrastructure to make a deep run every year. The offensive tandem of Griffin and Paul are extremely hard to stop, while Jordan provides a no-fly zone in the paint. Most importantly, the Clips are coming dangerously close to the end of their championship window. A first-round exit, while having home court advantage, could result in blowing up the team which once had strong championship aspirations.
The Jazz are young, fast and exciting, but they are also largely untested. Other than George Hill and Joe Johnson, their player’s playoff experience is slim to none. More importantly, this team is much different without the French giant Rudy Gobert. The Game 2 loss shows Utah is a much different team without one of its franchises cornerstones.
With Gobert probably missing the entire series, I foresee the Clippers having another shot at their hated rivals.
Verdict: Clippers win 4-2
#3 Houston Rockets v. #6 Oklahoma City Thunder
Arguably the most anticipated matchup of the playoffs features the front-runners of the contentious MVP race. Both Russell Westbrook and James Harden are having seasons for the ages. That being said, the two teams couldn’t be more different. The Rockets have Harden leading one of the most dynamic and overpowering offenses we’ve ever seen, with incredible scorers all across the court and on the bench.
The Thunder, on the other hand, are exhaustingly mediocre at both ends of the court, and truly live and die by Russell Westbrook. The Game 1 rout in Houston showed the absolute canyon between the two teams. Houston was able to focus and shut down the Thunder’s only real threat on the offensive end with Westbrook, who had an incredibly tough night with only 22 points on an abysmal 6-23 shooting.
The Rockets’ offense didn’t miss a step. Lead by a scintillating performance from James Harden with 37 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds, something that only Harden can make look routine, the Rockets beat the Thunder by 30 with only 10 made three-pointers. Those are rookie numbers for this Rockets squad.
I don’t see Westbrook going down without a fight. Expect a few games to be competitive, with Westbrook taking the OKC faithful on his back, but Westbrook’s great crusade ends in Houston.
Verdict: Rockets win 4-1
#2 San Antonio Spurs v. #7 Memphis Grizzlies
Epic rants and late game slippages aside, the Spurs and Grizzlies are simply on separate planets right now. To Coach David Fizdale’s credit, the Grizzlies have been hosed by the referees this series. In game 2, the Grizzlies had 15 free throws, while Kawhi Leonard had 19 by himself. For a traditionally strong team in the paint to have that amount of free throws, with bruiser Zach Randolph getting 0 free throws, clearly shows some level of home-court advantage.
But, at the end of the day, none of this matters in the slightest. Fizdale himself probably knows the free throws wouldn’t have made a real dent in the outcome, and the rant could serve as a rallying cry for his troops. In two games, the Grizzlies have only scored 82 points in both games, leading to a 29-point thrashing in Game 1, and a 14-point blowout in Game 2. Memphis has only two players that can push the Spurs defense, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, but unfortunately neither can seem to sync up. In game 1, Gasol had a tremendous game with 32 points, but Conley was non-existent, with 13 points on 5-14 shooting. In Game 2, the roles were changed, with Conley having a redemptive performance of 24 points and 8 assists, but Gasol stepped back in the shadows with a 12 point, 4-15 performance.
The Spurs on the other hand, have something Memphis can’t handle—Kawhi Leonard. In two games, Kawhi has absolutely scorched the Grizzlies with a combined 69 points.
As the series turns to Memphis, expect the Grizzlies to adopt an “Us v. the World” mentality, but in the end, they’ll still get their asses run off of the court.
Verdict: Spurs win 4-1
Eastern Conference Semi-Finals
#8 Chicago Bulls v. #4 Washington Wizards
The Wizards should be careful what they wish for in this second round matchup. By avoiding the #1 seed Celtics, they get a Bulls team that represents the all-too rare NBA Cinderella story. Surpassing the #1 Celtics should reinvigorate both D-Wade’s and Rondo’s drive for another ring. If the former stars can hold off Father Time, there could be a series here worth watching.
Even if Rondo continues his near triple-double form, and if Wade keeps up the hot scoring, they will still be out-shined by the tandem of Wall and Beal. The old legs of Wade and Rondo simply won’t be able to keep up with them. What should balance that out is Jimmy Butler. No defender Washington has will be able to match up with Jimmy. In addition, on the defensive end, Butler should be able to counter his backcourt’s vulnerabilities on that end.
The real difference is going to come down to the depth of both teams. While Washington is loaded with talent from top to bottom, with solid role players like Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat, and some depth on the bench with Kelly Oubre Jr. and Brandon Jennings, the Bulls were not expected to be at this point and are bereft of depth. They nearly blew up the team around the trade deadline when they dumped Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, and were rumored to be shopping Butler.
Robin Lopez is a solid starter and Nikola Mirotic has the occasional game where he’s not terrible, but the bench is fairly sparse. Bobby Portis is certainly a solid prospect but is way too inconsistent. The rest of the bench is pretty similar; a lot of promising young talent, but no one who’s ready for major roles right now.
If the Bulls reach this point, all logic should be thrown out the window, but conventional wisdom says deep talent wins at this point in the playoffs.
Verdict: Wizards win 4-2
#2 Cleveland Cavaliers v. #3 Toronto Raptors
The rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals won’t produce nearly the level of excitement coming from last year’s six-game chess-match. At this point, both Eastern Conference Finalists will have limped out of the first round. Clear weaknesses were exposed from two fairly weak teams.
This was always the goal for Toronto since the offseason: To be able to hang with Cleveland in the playoffs. Now, they have their chance. The Raptors have replenished their chest of weapons, and Cleveland looks more vulnerable than ever. If the Raptors were ever going to get past that crucial barrier, it would have to be this year. They certainly have much more offensive talent than the Pacers, with a superstar-laden backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
This series will not only be a test of how truly vulnerable the Cavs defense is, but also if Lowry and DeRozan will ever be the type to compete with the LeBron James’s of the world.
The Raptors will certainly give LeBron his biggest scare since the Pacers back in 2013, but in the end, a LeBron-led team isn’t going to freeze under pressure, I’m not sure I can say the same about DeRozan and Lowry .
Verdict: Cavs win 4-3
Western Conference Semi-Finals
#1 Golden State Warriors v. #4 Los Angeles Clippers
The great West-Coast rivalry is renewed for possibly a final edition, the only problem is that this isn’t a real rivalry. For a rivalry to be legit, it has to swing back and forth. If the Showtime Lakers crushed Bird and the Celtics all the time in the 80s, it wouldn’t be remembered as the legendary rivalry it is today. When have the Clippers ever had an upper hand on this rivalry? Dating back to the 2014-15 season, the Warriors have won 10 straight, and most of the games haven’t even been close. This season, the Warriors swept the four games, winning by an astounding 21.5 PPG.
To be fair, this series won’t be a rout. Blake Griffin may be playing his last games in LA, and Doc Rivers may be coaching his last games in the Staples Center. You can expect the Clippers to literally be fighting for this team’s longevity. Chris Paul is still Chris Paul, and you can expect him to bring it game in and game out. The combination of the LA big three will make this series interesting and one of the highest-scoring series in the playoffs.
Even if Kevin Durant remains injured however, the Warriors just simply have too much for the Clippers to handle. The Warriors will use the same equation they’ve always used to crush the Clippers: Spread the floor and render DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin expendable on defense. They won’t be able to keep up with the best team in the NBA, and if Kevin Durant’s healthy, ‘fuggedaboutit’.
By series end, the Warriors will show that the Clippers style of big-man basketball is nearly extinct in today’s NBA.
Verdict: Warriors win 4-2
#2 San Antonio Spurs v. #3 Houston Rockets
These are the type of series that made Gregg Popovich a legend. It seems incredible that the Spurs seemingly have been taken for granted for about 20 years straight. Each and every year, the NBA introduces “the next big thing,” meant to take the league by storm. Meanwhile, the Spurs just lick their lips, waiting for a crack at them when it really matters. History has shown Pop’s teams don’t blink when faced against these great teams. The Spurs dynasty outlasted the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, the KD Thunder and LeBron’s Heat.
D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns teams in the early 2000’s was that next big thing. The Suns, led by vintage Steve Nash, won at least 54 games five consecutive years, but they never once made a NBA Finals. Despite having one of the best offenses the NBA has ever seen, the Spurs time and time again blocked the Suns’ path to greatness.
That being said, James Harden is arguably the most dynamic player D’Antoni has ever had. Like the two-time MVP Steve Nash, Harden makes everyone around him look like All-Star caliber talent. If the three-point shot gets going for the Rockets, they’ll be extremely challenging to handle.
Although, exactly like Nash, Harden cannot defend. Most of his teammates are similarly terrible defenders, meaning Leonard should have a field day on the Rockets.
The problem that worries me about this Rockets team is that they live and die by the three. Pop has been able to shutdown offenses that were way more dynamic in the past.
The Spurs dynasty has outlasted some of the strongest offenses of all time; they’ll outlast this one.
Verdict: Spurs win 4-3
Eastern Conference Finals
#2 Cleveland Cavaliers v. #4 Washington Wizards
For the last four years, the NBA community has desperately yearned for a gladiator to give LeBron a true test in the East. This year, John Wall might take up that mantle.
Other than the Pacers a few years back, when LeBron was still on the Heat, no team has really pushed LeBron to the breaking point in his six straight consecutive Finals. The Eastern Conference playoffs have become an afterthought, the “lay-up line” before the Finals.
This series acts as a unique opportunity to shine light on one of the forgotten East teams, by knocking LeBron off of his coveted throne. The Cavs defense is awful, LeBron is beginning to lose confidence in his team and most importantly, John Wall looks like someone Cleveland just can’t deal with.
The instant classic regular season game back on February 6 indicates this series will probably be the closest all playoffs.
The matchups are where I see the difference. Other than Marcin Gortat, who could cause headaches against the undersized Cleveland frontcourt, and John Wall, the Cavs own the matchups across the board. The Wizards role-playing starters of Otto Porter Jr., Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris are good, not great. The trio of Kevin Love, Tristin Thompson and J.R. Smith (assuming that he’s healthy) not only has much more big-time experience, but is just better. The same goes for each superstar “sidekicks.” Bradley Beal is turning into a phenomenal player, but a lack of experience often crushes young superstars in the playoffs.
Say what you will about Kyrie Irving’s career without LeBron, he still has the shot that crushed the Warriors in Game 7 of last year’s finals. That shot showed with emphasis that Kyrie is playoff ready.
However, the only thing that matters when it comes down to the nitty gritty is being able to stop LeBron. I don’t see a single guy that can do that on the Wizards. The same goes for John Wall on the opposite side. The important distinction here is Wall isn’t a guy yet who can single-handedly take a team on his back on route to the Finals. LeBron has proven time and time again he’s that guy.
The Wizard’s team have the swagger and skill to make Cleveland fans anxious, but in the end, the lack of experience will stab them in the back.
Verdict: Cavs win 4-3
Western Conference Finals
#1 Golden State Warriors v. #2 San Antonio Spurs
This series, to me, hinges on the health of Kevin Durant, which is not to say that the Warriors cannot win without KD. The way they’ve played without the Durantula makes him look more like a luxury than a vital cog, but with Durant healthy, I honestly don’t see how the Spurs can match up against these guys.
Assuming that KD remains healthy, the Spurs can slide great defenders Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard on either Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green or Klay Thompson, a classic game of pick your poison. The other Spurs starters, Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge, are sub-par defenders and realistically won’t be able to hang with their respective match-ups. Starting center Dewayne Dedmon is a phenomenal defender, but realistically won’t be guarding any of the giant four threats from the Warriors. When Kevin Durant is on the floor, the Golden State Warriors cannot be defended, plain and simple.
Yet this series won’t be an open and shut case. This Spurs team is not to be trifled with. The combination of Pop, Kawhi and an extremely deep supporting cast makes things interesting. The Spurs won’t lay down for anybody. Behind the mastery of Popovich, they’ll make adjustments and have temporary patches, which will make this one hell of a series. In addition, this would be the first time the Spurs stood in the way of the Warriors Finals run in the Steve Kerr era, the first two going through the Rockets and Thunder. And everyone knows what happens to dynastic offenses against Pop-run teams (see above).
But this team is no D’Antoni fluke. This is the three-headed giant, the same one that took over the league for the last two years, but now with a fourth head.
No, it’s not fair, but that’s the NBA.
Verdict: Warriors win 4-2
#1 Golden State Warriors v. #2 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last year, Kyrie Irving’s game-winning shot sent shockwaves throughout the NBA. LeBron continued his epic hero’s arc, bringing Cleveland their first championship. On the other hand, the Warriors fell from their thrones to become a mockery within the NBA.
Ever since then, their seasons have been mirrored. The Warriors went out and got the 2014 NBA MVP, Kevin Durant, and are playing with a fire not seen since their first championship run.
The Cavs, on the other hand, have put up by far their worst season in LeBron’s second tour. Their defense is irredeemable, LeBron is getting visibly frustrated with ownership and a veteran care package of Deron Williams, Kyle Korver and Andrew Bogut hardly matches up with Golden State’s historic acquisition. The Cavs this year look like they’ve lost that hunger that drove them to one of the most unlikely comebacks in sporting history.
This is truly a match made in hell for Cleveland: A defense full of holes meets an unstoppable offense. Honestly, the Warriors’ true Finals will come against the Spurs. As trilogies have shown us, the third is almost always the worst. The third installment of the Warriors-Cavs saga will follow that trend. It will be pretty damn ugly. Golden State will run the defending champs off of the court, and maybe run LeBron back out of Cleveland.
Verdict: Warriors win Championship 4-1