After a regular season to remember in the NBA, the playoffs finally begin. We at The Zone took a look at each of the eight first round playoff matchups and gave our predictions.
No. 1 Toronto Raptors vs No. 8 Washington Wizards
| The Raptors had their best season in franchise history this year, finishing with 59 wins and at the top of the conference for the first time ever. Toronto changed the style of play from previous seasons in hopes of being more competitive in the playoffs.
| Washington was one of the NBA’s more disappointing teams this season, partly because star guard John Wall missed half the season due to a knee surgery. They’ve got more talent than the average No. 8 seed but have been unable to put everything together.
| Toronto has struggled in the playoffs previously, as the Raptors have notoriously lost nine consecutive series opening games. It wouldn’t come as a shock if that trend continued, and the Wizards have a punchers chance in this series, but I think it’s one that ultimately goes the Raptors way in six games.
| Raptors in five | Zach Heilprin
| Raptors in six – Joe Miller, Nelson Raisbeck
| Raptors in seven – Ebo Thoreson
No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs No. 6 Miami Heat
| The 76ers are the youngest group in the playoffs, with most of their key players lacking playoff experience of any sort. Joel Embiid is going to be out for the beginning of the series due to facial surgery to repair a fracture suffered late in the season. Ben Simmons is in his first year on the court, and first overall draft pick Markelle Fultz missed most of the season due to injury. With all that being said, the Sixers enter the playoffs as winners of 16 straight games and are arguably the second-best team in the Eastern Conference at the moment.
| Miami has no star power. The Heat run a great system offensively and play terrific defense. Erik Spolestra is a great coach in this league and is a big reason as to why the Heat are in the position they’re currently in. Miami is going to be able to dirty this series up and make things difficult for the Sixers. Things typically slow down in the playoffs and that’s what Miami is going to try and do.
| Miami is probably the scariest first round matchup for Philadelphia because of how well they play defense. With Embiid’s status unknown, the Heat have a puncher’s chance in this series, and it helps Miami’s cause that the Sixers have little postseason experience. I think the Heat make this really interesting but not enough. Sixers in seven.
| Philadelphia in four – Thorseon
| Philadelphia in five | Heilprin
| Philadelphia in six –Raisbeck, Miller
No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs No. 5 Indiana Pacers
| The Cleveland Cavaliers enter the playoffs with the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, but make no mistake, they’re the favorites to reach the Finals for the fourth consecutive season. LeBron James is playing at one of the highest levels of his career, and the Cavs enter the playoffs having won 10 of their last 12, with the last loss being a throwaway game to the Knicks on the regular season’s final day.
| The Indiana Pacers were expected to be on the outside looking in of the playoffs this season after this summer’s trade of Paul George for Victor Oladipo. Instead of that being the case, Oladipo turned into a player that deserves to be named to an All-NBA team this season and the Pacers find themselves as the No. 5 seed. Indiana had a terrific season and overachieved everyone’s expectations.
| Typically, the matchup between the fourth and fifth place teams is the one regarded as a toss-up. That’s not the case here. The Cavs are playing their best basketball of the season right now, and James hasn’t lost a single first round game since 2012. While that streak may very well end, James also has never been on a team that lost in the first round of the playoffs. This version of the Cavaliers won’t be the first. Cleveland in five.
| Cavs in four – Thoreson
| Cavs in five | Heilprin
| Cleveland in six – Raisbeck
| Cavs in seven – Miller
No. 1 Houston Rockets vs No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves
| Houston wasn’t a hot pick to finish with the best record in the NBA at the beginning of the season as the Golden State Warriors were coming off their second championship in three seasons. But the Rockets came out on fire this season, overtook the Warriors for the best record on the final night before the all-star break, and never looked back.
| On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Minnesota Timberwolves needed to win a game on the final night of the regular season over the Denver Nuggets to earn the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Minnesota was sitting comfortably in playoff position for much of the year, however star guard Jimmy Butler needed knee surgery and missed 17 games.
| The key thing to watch in this series is the disparity between 3-point shooting by these two teams. Minnesota is dead last in the NBA in number of 3s made during the regular season and Houston is first in the league with 1,256 made 3s. The Wolves made 658 this year. You can do whatever math you want, but that adds up the Rockets winning this series in four games.
| Rockets in five – Miller, Thoreson, Heilprin
| Rockets in four – Raisbeck
No. 2 Golden State Warriors vs No. 7 San Antonio Spurs
| For the second consecutive year the NBA will be giving us a series between the Warriors and Spurs, and for the second straight year it almost promises to be a disappointment. This year the Warriors have been one of the best teams in the NBA, but nowhere near reaching full-potential (what an insane sentence to type, but it’s undeniably true). Stars Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green have all missed time due to injury. But the latter three will all be healthy enough to participate in this series, giving the Warriors the clear talent edge.
| The Spurs have now made the playoffs for 21 consecutive seasons, which is remarkable to think about. This year was one of the more impressive runs because all-star forward Kawhi Leonard has only played in nine games this year due to a quad injury and an all-around weird situation. Gregg Popovich reaffirmed that he’s the best coach in the league with what he was able to accomplish with this team this season, but this is a tough draw for them.
| The Warriors just have too much talent. The Spurs will be able to grab a game, maybe two, but an upset here would be an all-timer. Golden State in five.
| Warriors in five – Thoreson, Miller, Heilprin
| Warriors in six – Raisbeck
No. 3 Portland vs No. 6 New Orleans
| Portland got a great year from MVP candidate Damian Lillard, an emerging star in CJ McCollum, and a late season run that solidified them as a playoff team towards the end of the season. The Blazers didn’t close the season as strong as they would’ve liked, but they finished in third place regardless.
| New Orleans is a great story to be able to find a way to reach the playoffs after a devastating injury to center DeMarcus Cousins in late January that ended his season. The Pelicans changed the style they played, ramping up their pace over the last two and a half months of the season to finish first in that category in the NBA. Oh, yeah, and they have the best player in this series in Anthony Davis. He’s relatively unstoppable on both ends, and has come into his own and an undeniable top five talent in the NBA. Guard Jrue Holiday is also one of the more underrated in the NBA.
| The best method I use to try and predict series winners is judging which team has two of the three best players in the series. Portland has Lillard and McCollum, both of whom are better than Holiday of the Pelicans. With that being said, Davis is undoubtedly the best, and Holiday the fourth best. I think Davis has a monster series here. New Orleans in seven.
| Pelicans in six – Thoreson, Miller
| Pelicans in seven – Raisbeck
| Trailblazers in seven | Heilprin
No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs No. 5 Utah Jazz
| The Thunder have the edge in talent here, but the fit hasn’t always been great between Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony. Oklahoma City is an excellent team when Anthony is treated as a third, or even fourth best player behind Steven Adams. Things go sour when Anthony reverts back to playing a similar iso-heavy style to what propelled the Knicks for so many years.
| The Jazz are a team that wasn’t expected to be a playoff competitor, and early on it looked like they weren’t going to be one. The Jazz were propelled by Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell and Defensive Player of the Year favorite Rudy Gobert. Utah finished the season on a 29-6 tear to reach the playoffs after starting 18-29. Mitchell is the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring since Anthony back in 2003-04 with the Denver Nuggets.
| Mitchell has been great as a rookie, but I think that the playoff atmosphere may be a bit too much for him. The Thunder have the talent, including the two best players in the series. I think it’s closer than it should be on paper, but the Thunder win in six.
| Thunder in six – Thoreson, Heilprin
| Thunder in seven – Miller
| Jazz in seven – Raisbeck
No. 2 Boston Celtics vs No. 7 Milwaukee Bucks
| The Celtics enter the postseason in a bit of an odd situation. While Boston owns the No. 2 seed, they’re not the typical championship threat that is usually the owner of such a seeding. Boston lost all-star guard Kyrie Irving for the season with a knee injury on March 11 and has been relying on rookie forward Jayson Tatum as the primary scoring threat since. The best way to say this is Boston is vulnerable in the first round, far more vulnerable than any No. 2 seed in recent memory. The last No. 2 seed to lose in the first round of the playoffs was Dallas in 2010. It hasn’t happened in the Eastern Conference since 1998.
| The Milwaukee Bucks, like the Washington Wizards, have been one of the more frustrating teams to watch in the NBA this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the 10 best players in the NBA, and Milwaukee does have talented pieces in Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and Jabari Parker, but the Bucks have struggled to piece it all together and reach full potential.
| For being the No. 7 seed, Milwaukee couldn’t ask for a better situation to try and advance past the first round for the first time since 2001. I think it happens. Bucks in six, for the culture. More on this in Sunday’s series preview.
| Bucks in six – Thoreson, Miller, Heilprin
| Celtics in five – Raisbeck