The Golden State Warriors finally completed their quest for 73 wins Wednesday. But their journey is far from over.
The best regular season in NBA history wouldn’t mean much without a championship attached to it, and the Warriors will seek defend their 2015 title when the 2016 NBA playoffs kick off Saturday.
Golden State’s path to immortality won’t be easy, as the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder loom in the Western Conference. But the only team that can beat the Warriors in a seven-game series is themselves, which is why we’re straying from our preseason title prediction of the Spurs over the Cleveland Cavaliers and taking Golden State over Cleveland in the NBA Finals.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, let’s break down every first-round playoff series before things tip off this weekend.
Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 1 seed) vs. Detroit Pistons (No. 8)
Prediction: Cavs in five
The Cavs emerged from a rocky, drama-filled regular season as the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and something tells us they’re saving their best for last. Unlike last season, the Cavs have no major injuries to speak of, and with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love all on the floor, they’re the favorites to win the East.
The upstart Pistons present a tough matchup for the Cavs and have beaten Cleveland in each of the teams’ last two meetings, so we wouldn’t be surprised if they take a game in Detroit. But LeBron will turn it on and settle this series in short order.
Toronto Raptors (No. 2) vs. Indiana Pacers (No. 7)
Prediction: Raptors in five
Don’t sleep on the Raptors. Toronto finished just one game behind Cleveland and now has DeMarre Carroll back for the playoffs alongside the All-Star backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Carroll can provide defensive help against Paul George, who really is Indiana’s only hope of making this a series. George’s efforts likely will help the Pacers win a game, but the Raptors’ depth will be too much for Indiana to handle.
Miami Heat (No. 3) vs. Charlotte Hornets (No. 6)
Prediction: Heat in seven
Don’t be fooled by the disparity in seeding. The Heat and Hornets enter this series with identical 48-34 records and split their season series at two games apiece. Charlotte is a very dangerous team when it’s knocking down 3-pointers and boasts the East’s third-best home record.
But Miami is the better defensive club and is led by battled-tested veterans in Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson. Their leadership should be enough for the Heat to win Game 7 at home and survive the pesky Hornets.
Atlanta Hawks (No. 4) vs. Boston Celtics (No. 5)
Prediction: Celtics in seven
The Hawks probably are the toughest matchup Boston could have gotten. Paul Millsap dominated the Celtics in the teams’ last meeting, and the C’s haven’t beaten Atlanta since November.
Yet Brad Stevens’ bunch has had the odds stacked against it all season, using a perceived lack of respect as motivation during a successful campaign. If the Celtics can channel that motivation into fast-paced play and tenacious defense while getting big production from Isaiah Thomas, they can beat the odds once again.
Golden State Warriors (No. 1) vs. Houston Rockets (No. 8)
Prediction: Warriors in four
The Warriors are the best team on the planet and somehow have improved from last season’s title campaign.
That postseason saw Golden State dispatch a significantly better Houston team in five games, and after sweeping this season’s series, the Warriors have lost to the Rockets just once in their previous eight meetings. Curry and Co. will take care of business and rest up for the second round.
San Antonio Spurs (No. 2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (No. 7)
Prediction: Spurs in four
This one might have a larger margin of victory than Warriors-Rockets. The Grizzlies limped into the playoffs after falling from as high as the No. 5 seed and will be without their two best players, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.
The veteran Spurs have their eyes set on a Western Conference Finals showdown with Golden State, and Memphis shouldn’t provide any resistance in that quest.
Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 3) vs. Dallas Mavericks (No. 6)
Prediction: Thunder in five
Unlike the East’s third and sixth seeds, there’s a significant gap between the Thunder and Mavericks. OKC stumbled a bit down the stretch, but the most important thing is that Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are healthy and ready to wreak havoc in the postseason.
Dallas closed its season with wins in seven of nine games, and the Thunder are prone to an occasional dud, so we’ll give the Mavs one game. But this series shouldn’t be close.
Los Angeles Clippers (No. 4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (No. 5)
Prediction: Clippers in six
Clippers-Blazers easily is the West’s most intriguing first-round series. The Clippers are loaded with talent but enter the postseason with question marks surrounding Blake Griffin’s production level and L.A.’s underwhelming playoff track record.
The Blazers, meanwhile, are on the upswing, and Damian Lillard is up there with the league’s most dangerous scorers. Yet Lillard faces a stiff adversary in perennial All-Star Chris Paul, who should help lift the talented Clippers out of the first round. But don’t expect Portland to go down without a fight.
Thumbnail photo via Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports Images
Thumbnail photo via Boston Celtics guard Evan Turner (11) drives against Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) in the fourth quarter of their game at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 118-107.
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