Enough with the debates over resting players and tanking. From this point on, it’s win or go home.
The NBA playoffs officially begin Saturday, and while there are a few nice storylines, there’s only one real question up for debate: Will the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors meet in the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year?
The Cavs’ latest play suggests the door is open in the Eastern Conference, as the Boston Celtics vaulted ahead of them to capture the No. 1 seed. But we’ve seen LeBron James and Co. flip a switch in the postseason before, and they’re still the favorites to defend their East crown.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, there’s plenty of drama to be had in the first round, including a terrific matchup of MVP candidates and a redux of one of the greatest first-round series in league history.
With that, let’s get to our first round predictions.
No. 1 Boston Celtics vs. No. 8 Chicago Bulls
The last time these teams met in the first round, we were treated to an epic seven-game series featuring four overtime games. This matchup might not be that tight, but expect Bulls star Jimmy Butler and seasoned playoff veterans Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo to make things interesting. The Celtics need to shore up their poor rebounding on both ends and get continued production from Isaiah Thomas to shake the specter of back-to-back first round exits. They’re a deeper, more talented team than Chicago and should be able to accomplish that goal. But this won’t be a typical 1 vs. 8 cakewalk.
Prediction: Celtics in six
No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 7 Indiana Pacers
Yes, the Cavs lost seven of their last 11 regular season games. Yes, they’ve shown signs of weakness this season. But this squad is built for the playoffs, and the ample rest head coach Tyronn Lue gave his star players down the stretch means Cleveland is ready for another title run. Paul George should help Indiana take a game at home, but the Cavs will have no problem moving on.
Prediction: Cavs in five
No. 3 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks
Don’t sleep on the Raptors, folks. Kyle Lowry returned from a wrist injury to help Toronto win its last four games and nearly catch Cleveland for the two seed. The Raptors also should benefit from the trade deadline acquisitions of P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka, and they’re playoff-tested after last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Giannis Antetokounmpo and rookie Malcolm Brogdon lead a scrappy Bucks team that should put up a fight, but Toronto is much deeper.
Prediction: Raptors in six
No. 4 Washington Wizards vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks
This is a tough one to call. The Hawks play terrific team defense and won four of their last five to close out the regular season, but they’ve struggled at times on offense without an elite go-to scorer. The Wizards, meanwhile, have two in guards John Wall and Bradley Beal. But Atlanta is a more seasoned bunch that’s playing in its fourth consecutive postseason under coach Mike Budenholzer, and Dwight Howard has the ability to neutralize Wall at the rim. The Hawks go into Washington and steal this series in seven.
Prediction: Hawks in seven
No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard thinks the Blazers will shock the world in a historic upset. Is he right? No. But don’t be surprised if Portland avoids a sweep. The Warriors still are adjusting to life with Kevin Durant back in the lineup, while Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Co. took a game off Golden State in last year’s playoff series and nearly won a second in an overtime loss. The Warriors move on, but the Blazers make this a fun series to watch.
Prediction: Warriors in five
No. 2 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies
Gregg Popovich worked his usual magic and Kawhi Leonard delivered an MVP-caliber season to help the Spurs top 60 wins for the third time in four seasons. The Grizzlies are a hardened club that’s much healthier than it was last season, and Marc Gasol won’t let his older brother sweep him out of the playoffs. But San Antonio should advance with relative ease.
Prediction: Spurs in five
No. 3 Houston Rockets vs. No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder
James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook. What more could you ask for? Outside the two MVP front-runners, though, the Rockets have a better supporting cast, and Harden is a (slightly) better facilitator who can help Houston win without scoring all of its points. But we know better than to count out a man who just averaged a triple-double for an entire season. For selfish reasons, we hope this series goes the distance, with the Rockets powering through in Game 7.
Prediction: Rockets in seven
No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz
This is the closest series (on paper) of the first round, with the Clippers owning just a 0.4 point differential advantage over the Jazz. L.A. boasts the big names and veteran talent, but Utah has the ability to neutralize that talent with its elite defense. Alas, the Jazz don’t have much firepower outside Gordon Hayward and lack real playoff experience. This could be the Clippers’ last real chance to make a playoff run with this core, and they won’t waste it with a first-round exit.
Prediction: Clippers in six
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images