NBA playoff predictions

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.

Enjoy!

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

Playoff scenarios for the Milwaukee Bucks

With just one game remaining in the season, the Milwaukee Bucks have already clinched a place in the NBA Playoffs that are set to begin on Saturday. While that aspect is settled, the seed the Bucks will claim, and the opponent Milwaukee will face is still undecided.

Milwaukee can find itself in either sixth, seventh, or eighth place in the Eastern Conference when the season ends Wednesday night.

Here are the possibilities for the Bucks in terms of seeding and playoff opponents:

No. 6 seed

The Bucks can finish in sixth place simply by winning the final game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night. This is the simplest scenario to explain. Beat the Sixers and claim the No. 6 seed.

That’s not the only way that Milwaukee can finish in sixth, however. If the Miami Heat lose against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night AND the Washington Wizards lose their final game of the season to the Orlando Magic,  then the Bucks finish in sixth regardless of the result against Philadelphia.

As for the opponent there are a couple of possibilities. If the Bucks beat Philadelphia and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeat the New York Knicks on Wednesday it would set up a first round series between Milwaukee and Cleveland. If the Cavaliers were to lose that game, Philadelphia would clinch the No. 3 seed and the Bucks would open up the playoffs against the Sixers.

Cleveland and Philadelphia are the only two possible teams that can finish in third place.

No. 7 seed/No. 8 seed

Things start to get confusing here, but it begins with a Milwaukee loss and a Miami win over the Raptors. Miami and Milwaukee would finish the regular season tied, with the Heat holding the tiebreaker.

This is also dependent on the result Washington’s final two games as well. The Wizards need to finish 1-1 or 0-2 in the remaining two games for the Bucks to finish in seventh place. If all three teams finish tied with the same record (44-38) then the Bucks would be the No. 8 seed.

This is also dependent on what Washington does it its final game on Wednesday night. The Wizards defeated the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night to move into a tie with the Miami Heat for seventh, one game behind the Bucks. In order for the Bucks to finish with the No. 7 seed, the Heat and Wizards need to have the opposite result on Wednesday, paired with a Milwaukee loss to Philadelphia. If the Bucks lose and both Miami and Washington WIN, Milwaukee will finish as the No. 8 seed. If the Bucks lose and both Miami and Washington LOSE, Milwaukee will finish as the No. 6 seed.

The opponents in this case are easy to figure out. The Toronto Raptors have clinched the best record in the conference, making them the No. 1 seed and will face the No. 8 seed. Boston has clinched the No. 2 seed and will face the No. 7 seed.

Draft pick

The one caveat to this entire situation is the fact that the Bucks potentially will lose their 2018 first-round draft pick.

For that to happen the Bucks would need to lose the game against Philadelphia on Wednesday night. If Milwaukee finishes as the No. 6 seed, then the pick will be 17th overall and stay in Milwaukee.

This is part of the trade that was made with the Phoenix Suns to acquire Eric Bledsoe earlier this season. The pick is protected if it falls between 1-10 and 17-30 in the 2018 NBA Draft. If it falls between 11-16 it will be sent to Phoenix.

Winning the game against Philadelphia would be the easiest solution for Milwaukee. A loss to the Sixers puts things in chance as far as the pick goes. If Milwaukee finishes tied with Miami, Washington, or both, then there will be a drawing held on Friday, April 13, to determine the draft order of those three teams. If Milwaukee “wins” that draw and picks 15th (or 16th), the pick is gone. Lastly, if the Bucks “lose” the draw and pick 17th then the pick stays, but it’s something that is entirely out of their control.

What happens if the pick stays in Milwaukee this year?

If the pick lands at 17th and the Bucks keep it, then there’s a chance it is conveyed to Phoenix next year. The 2019 first round pick is protected 1-3 and 17-30, making it unlikely – barring more regression from Milwaukee – that it would be sent to Phoenix then. The Bucks would have to finish in a similar positon next year as this season. It’s something that’s certainly possible but would be another disappointment of a season.

The likeliest scenario – and the one Milwaukee planned on occurring when the trade was made – is that the pick is sent to Phoenix in 2020. In 2020 the pick is protected only if it falls inside of the top seven picks, other than that it will be sent to the Suns.