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

Milwaukee Bucks defeat New York Knicks 115-102

The Milwaukee Bucks were without all-star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo on Saturday night in New York, but it didn’t matter as the Bucks came away victorious with a 115-102 win.

Guard Eric Bledsoe and forward Khris Middleton each had a team-high 22 points in the win. The Bucks trailed at half, but were able to use a strong fourth quarter from Bledsoe and guard Brandon Jennings to earn the victory.

Antetokounmpo missed the game with right ankle soreness. The Bucks also listed guard Malcolm Brogdon as probable as he waits to return from a torn quad muscle suffered earlier this season. Brogdon is expected to play on Monday night against the Magic.

The Bucks remain in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with the win. Milwaukee and Miami are tied in the standings, but the Heat hold the tiebreaker. The Washington Wizards are a game back of the Bucks in the standings.

Twitter reacts to Wisconsin’s impact on the Super Bowl

The Philadelphia Eagles won Super Bowl LII by beating the New England Patriots 41-33 on Sunday night. But the Wisconsin football program was also a big winner thanks to the performances of several former players.

A year after scoring three touchdowns in a Super Bowl win over the Atlanta Falcons, running back James White was back in the end zone for the Patriots. He led New England with 46 yards on the ground, including an impressive 26-yard touchdown in the second quarter. It was his eighth playoff touchdown in eight playoff games.

But he was overshadowed by a guy he shared a backfield with at Wisconsin — Eagles running back Corey Clement. The undrafted rookie free agent had four catches for 100 yards and a touchdown. It meant him and White make up two of the three running backs in Super Bowl history to have at least 100 yards receiving.

As you can imagine, the success of the two Wisconsin backs didn’t go unnoticed on social media. Here’s a sampling of what was being said.

Former Wisconsin DL Beau Allen’s trash talk hits the mark

Beau Allen’s trash talk is on point.

The former Wisconsin defensive lineman is in his fourth year with the Philadelphia Eagles, who will take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII this Sunday in Minneapolis. A Minnesota native, it’s a homecoming for Allen, who spurned his home state Gophers to play for the Badgers. It was obviously a sound choice, as Wisconsin never lost to Minnesota during Allen’s time in Madison. In fact, it’s been 14 years since the Gophers beat the Badgers.

So when it was suggested that Allen bring the rivalry trophy the winning team  gets to keep — Paul Bunyan’s Axe — to Super Bowl media day on Monday, his response probably left Wisconsin fans with big smiles on their faces.

Man in custody after incident at Lambeau Field

Police say they have one man in custody after an early afternoon incident at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

According to chief Andrew Smith, the 20-year-old suspect — upset after being fired from his food service vendor job earlier this month for an incident with a co-worker — rammed that co-worker’s vehicle with his own vehicle Friday afternoon in the stadium’s parking lot. The victim took off on foot, running back to the stadium via the loading dock ramp. The suspect pursued him but crashed moments later and was taken into custody.

During the incident, the suspect damaged five vehicles, but no one was injured.

Police were initially called to the stadium for a report of an active shooter, but no guns or any other weapons were found in the suspect’s possession. The county’s bomb squad was on scene to look over the suspect’s vehicle but only as a precaution.

Bucks drop to Celtics 96-89: Last shots

MILWAUKEE | The Milwaukee Bucks turned back the clock in the ‘Return to the MECCA’ game on Thursday night. Their 96-89 loss to the Boston Celtics was played at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, right across the street from their usual home, The BMO Harris Bradley Center.

Milwaukee struggled to find consistency throughout the evening, trailing by as many as 12, and holding a lead as high as seven. The loss drops the Bucks to 3-2 on the young season. Boston moves to 3-2 as well with the win.

Here are 16 last shots for the 16 playoff appearances the Bucks enjoyed while calling the MECCA home from 1968-1988.

1. Milwaukee is a young team that struggled to find a consistent flow throughout the night offensively. There are going to be plenty more nights like this one as the season rolls on. Boston did a good job of containing Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first half, limiting him to only 11 points, three rebounds, and four assists. Celtics’ forward Al Horford was able to force Antetokounmpo into some tough shots, disrupting the entire rhythm of the offense.

2. Milwaukee’s offense is at its best when it’s out in transition. There are times when the Bucks over dribble in the half court, and head coach Jason Kidd said that he thought Thursday was one of those nights. “We had some good looks, I just thought we over-dribbled,” Kidd explained. “I thought the ball just didn’t move tonight as it has in the first couple of games.”

3. Guard Malcom Brogdon agreed with what Kidd had to say about the ball movement after the game. “Just be unselfish. Just move the ball,” Brogdon answered when asked how the team can improve the ball movement. “We have to be conscious of that as the game goes on and shots stop to fall. We get stagnant. We have to know to move the ball and trust each other.”

4. After being pretty much contained in the first half, Antetokounmpo played better after the break.  He totaled 17 points, seven rebounds, and three assists in the second half. It was there that he looked like the same player fans saw in the first four games.

5. Antetokounmpo’s final stat line for the night was 28 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists. He’s had a double-double in all five games so far on the season. He’s also been Milwaukee’s leading scorer in each contest. Antetokounmpo also had three steals and a block on the night.

6. Brogdon returned to action after missing the team’s win over Charlotte on Monday night. He didn’t look bothered at all by his ankle injury that kept him out of that game. Brogdon finished with 15 points, six rebounds, and five assists. He played nearly 36 minutes, second to only Antetokounmpo, who was on the court for 41 minutes Thursday evening.

7. Forward Khris Middleton also had 15 points for Milwaukee, however he was rather inefficient, needing 16 shots to reach that mark. Middleton was 7 of 16 from the floor and only 1 of 3 from behind the arc. He needs to become more consistent shooting the basketball if the Bucks are going to be successful on the offensive end, especially when they struggle to break out into transition.

8. While it can be easy to pick on Middleton’s inconsistent shooting, Milwaukee did have a good night from the outside. The Bucks finished 11-25 from deep, which is a mark that they need to be around more often. If this team can knock down those shots, it gives Antetokounmpo much more room to operate near the basket.

9. A big reason that Boston was able to pull out the win over Milwaukee was the play of Horford. He was outstanding on the offensive end, and did a solid job defending Antetokounmpo. “Horford can move his feet,” Kidd said. “You’ve got to give him credit. They packed the paint and made it extremely tough on Giannis [Antetokounmpo].”

10. Offensively, Horford finished with a team-high 27 points to go along with nine rebounds and four assists. He shot 11 of 14 from the floor, including 4 of 5 from behind the arc. Horford knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers in the third quarter that seemed to be the turning point in the game.

11. “Yeah, I really have to give all the credit to [Boston guard] Marcus Smart on that,” Horford said about his 3-pointers. “He just sees the game in ways that a lot of times we don’t even see it. He recognized that my guy was kind of falling asleep on the weak side. [Smart] got me open there for back-to-back threes and I felt like that was a big turning point in the game.”

12. The second biggest reason that Boston was able to win was the play of guard Kyrie Irving. He finished with 24 points on 10 of 18 shooting, including some incredible maneuvers to the hoop and finishes. Irving is without question one of the best ball-handlers in the NBA, and likely the best below-the-rim finisher in the league today, if not ever. He also had a team-high seven assists.

13. Irving did make news earlier in the day at shoot-around when he made it seem as if he thought the game being played at the MECCA was being played on the original floor from back in the 1970s and 1980s. He caught plenty of grief for that on social media, and deservedly so. While Irving was warming up with about 45 minutes until game time, fans could be heard yelling his way, asking if he was alright out there on the court.

14. Even though he was worried about it beforehand, he did have good things to say following the game. “It was great to see the intimacy of those seats out there as well as the fans kind of being right on top of us,” Irving said. “I enjoy environments like that. It was definitely great to be out there on that floor.”

15. The two teams have already met twice in the first five games of the season, each winning on the road. Obviously, matchups in October shouldn’t be overly looked into, seeing as how much can change between now and the start of the playoffs in April. That being said, a 7-game series between these two teams would be fun for everybody involved.

16. The Bucks will be in action next on Sunday in Atlanta taking on the Hawks (1-4). They return to the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Halloween to face reigning NBA MVP Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Jonathan Taylor Takes Home Big Ten Honor

For the second week in a row, the Wisconsin Badgers have a player honored as one of the Big Ten’s finest. This week, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week and Freshman of the Week has been awarded to freshman running back Jonathan Taylor for his performance against Nebraska in week six. Last week, Natrell Jamerson took home the conference’s Defensive Player of the Week award.

Taylor rushed for a career-high 249 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries en route to a Wisconsin 38-17 win in Lincoln.

One of the game’s biggest moments came shortly after Nebraka’s Stanley Morgan, Jr. scored on an 80-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Tanner Lee. After the ensuing kick off was a touchback, the Badgers lined up at their own 25-yard-line. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook took a shot gun snap and handed the ball off to Taylor who then raced around the right side all the way into the end zone for a 75-yard score to give the Badgers a 17-7 lead.

Taylor’s effort Saturday night made him the second true freshman in Wisconsin history to total over 200 yards on the ground in multiple games, joining Ron Dayne who did it in 1996.

This is the second time this season Taylor has been awarded both honors, the first was week two against Florida Atlantic University where he totaled 223 yards on 26 carries, reaching the end zone a career-high three times.

This is the third Offensive Player of the Week honor for Wisconsin this year, quarterback Alex Hornibrook took home the award for his performance in week three against BYU.

Jonathan Taylor Shines in his Biggest Spot

The University of Wisconsin has a long tradition of great running backs. That’s no secret. To put Jonathan Taylor up with the likes of Ron Dayne, Montee Ball, and Melvin Gordon after five games would be irresponsible. That being said, he’s certainly on track to reach that level of greatness.

Taylor is already the best freshman back in the Big Ten, and may only trail Saquon Barkley of Penn State as the league’s best back. Barkley is a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender, and deservedly so. Taylor, while not quite in the forefront of the Heisman discussion, could very well find himself in New York for the trophy presentation in December if he keeps at his current pace.

He helped that cause in Wisconsin’s 38-17 victory against Nebraska in Lincoln in week six. Taylor rushed for 249 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in his first taste of a Big Ten road game. Nebraska isn’t the easiest place to play at night, especially for a freshman. Taylor thrived in that difficult environment.

When Wisconsin needed a big play, Taylor was the one to step up. Nebraska cut Wisconsin’s lead to three points on a Tanner Lee 80-yard touchdown strike to Stanley Morgan, Jr. with 1:20 remaining in the first half. The Badgers needed a response to weather the storm in a hostile road environment.

On Wisconsin’s first offensive snap after the Morgan, Jr. touchdown, quarterback Alex Hornibrook took a shotgun snap from his own 25-yard-line and handed the ball to Taylor on an inside zone play.

11 seconds later Wisconsin was winning 17-7.

Few athletes in the country have the ability to change the game the way Taylor did against Nebraska. Even fewer freshman have that ability. Another that comes to mind in the Big Ten is Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins. Dobbins is a very talented freshman for the Buckeyes who burst on the scene week one with a big game against Indiana. While he certainly has a similar talent level to that of Taylor, Dobbins has lacked the consistency that Taylor has shown during his brief career.

In the biggest test of his young career, at home against Oklahoma, Dobbins was held in check with only 72 yards and a score. When the lights shined brightest, Taylor stepped up to the plate and delivered when his team needed him most.

This doesn’t mean that things cannot change, because they certainly may.  Right now Taylor is the best freshman in the Big Ten, and he’s not very far behind Barkley for the best back. The sky is the limit for the true freshman from Salem, NJ.

“The offensive line, tight ends, fullbacks, receivers did a heck of a job,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said following the win over Nebraska. “I thought [Taylor] was special tonight.”

He was special, and he has been for a majority of the season for the Badgers. If Wisconsin is going to potentially win the Big Ten and participate in the College Football Playoff Taylor is going to need to continue to be special.

“I think he’s continuing to get better.” Chryst said.

That’s a scary thought for not only the rest of the Big Ten, but the rest of the country as well.

Former Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave back in the NFL

Joel Stave has found a new team.

The former Wisconsin quarterback has been signed to the Washington Redskinspractice squad, the team announced Tuesday.

Stave went undrafted in 2016 after finishing his Wisconsin career with 7,365 yards, 48 touchdowns and the most wins (31) of any quarterback in program history. He spent time with the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs, including the 2017 preseason with the latter.

He was released by the Chiefs in September after completing 4 of 9 passes for 80 yards and one touchdown during the preseason.

The Redskins cut offensive lineman Jerry Ugokwe to make room for Stave.