(1) BOSTON vs. (8) CHICAGO
With Cleveland’s late-season problems, the Celtics were able to grab the East’s number one seed. Chicago somehow managed to hold on to the 8 seed while dealing with injuries and drama. While the teams split the regular season, I just don’t see a scenario where Chicago can win this series. The Bulls are prone to long stretches of not scoring and a match-up against the defensive-minded Celtics will only magnify that. I expect an ugly, physical series with lots of missed shots, fouls and free throws. For the Bulls to have any chance, Jimmy Butler needs to be the best player on the court and Dwyane Wade needs to find the fountain of youth. I can see that happening for one game, maybe two, but not often enough to win the series.
(2) CLEVELAND vs. (7) INDIANA
Cleveland went 23-23 since January 8th. Not exactly flying high into the playoffs. But we’ve seen that before and they were dealing with a handful of key injuries that made their short bench even shorter. The Cavs still have holes in the frontcourt and a thin bench all the way around but now they have what all NBA teams need heading into the playoffs… motivation. It’s hard to repeat. It’s hard to do the same awesome thing over again. But now they are being questioned and there are doubts and that is exactly what NBA players need to perform at a high level consistently. I can see the Pacers winning one game this series but a Cleveland sweep would not surprise me at all.
(3) TORONTO vs. (6) MILWAUKEE
This has the potential to be the most exciting first round series. Obviously, everything hinges on Giannis Antetokounmpo. If he can stay on the court, Milwaukee has a chance to make this series interesting. While Toronto has good perimeter defenders, the Greek Freak presents a significant match-up problem for whoever is guarding him. If Jabari Parker wasn’t injured, I might have jumped on the Bucks bandwagon. Without him, I’m not sure they have enough to pull off the series upset. But with Giannis, Milwaukee will be a live dog against the spread the first two games in Toronto.
(4) WASHINGTON vs. (5) ATLANTA
Washington wants to play fast and score in transition. Atlanta… does not. John Wall and Bradley Beal are both top 20 scorers in transition and Washington ranks 2nd in deflections, 5th in loose balls recovered, 3rd in forced turnovers, 3rd in points off turnovers and 5th in fast-break points. All of those categories lead to scoring quick points. Meanwhile, Atlanta turns the ball over at the league’s third-highest rate. For Atlanta to stick around in this series, they’ll have to slow the game down and turn it into a half court, grind-out type game. I do think there will be some value in looking at the under as the total might be a little high. Atlanta hasn’t been able to score and they will be doing everything they can to slow the game down.
(1) GOLDEN STATE vs. (8) PORTLAND
I think Golden State has flaws that will be exposed in the playoffs. It just won’t be against Portland. The addition of Jusuf Nurkic immediately changed Portland’s dynamic for the better. He is the dominating inside presence that they have always needed. The problem is he does not match-up well at all against the Warriors. If he plays significant minutes, he will be able to put up big numbers but Portland won’t be able to score fast enough to keep up. If Portland goes small, they are just a worse version of Golden State. If Portland was playing Houston or the Clippers, that might have been interesting. But I think they will be lucky to win one game this series and even that will require some Damian Lillard heroics.
(2) SAN ANTONIO vs. (7) MEMPHIS
Once again, the Spurs quietly won a lot of games and the Grizzlies grinded their way into the playoffs. Losing Tony Allen will hurt Memphis as he is their 4th leading scorer and would have been tasked with guarding Kawhi Leonard. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley present match-up problems for the Spurs but the lack of depth and talent on the wings should ultimately be the Grizzlies downfall. I don’t see the Spurs having issues moving on to the next round but Memphis will be worth a look against the spread when the series moves to their home court.
(3) HOUSTON vs. (6) OKLAHOMA CITY
Obviously, all eyes will be on the Russell Westbrook/James Harden match-up. Arguably the top two players in the league, both guys will be looking to outshine the other during this series. It will be interesting to see how much (or how little) Westbrook sits. For OKC to have any chance, Russ will have to be on the court almost the entire game. The Rockets have the luxury of a very deep bench. When Harden sits and Eric Gordon is on the floor, the Rockets average 107.9 points per 100 possessions. When Westbrook sits, the Thunder offense is worse than the Brooklyn Nets. While it’s hard to go against Westbrook, OKC will have a hard time keeping up with Houston and ultimately run out of gas.
(4) LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS vs. (5) UTAH
The Clippers had to win the last game of the regular season to secure home court advantage in this series and they are lucky they did. I think Utah has the best chance of an upset in the first round. Utah is long, athletic and uses the deepest rotation in the league. The Clippers, already with a short bench, will not have Austin Rivers for at least part of the series. The longer this series goes, the more I like Utah’s chances for the upset. The Clippers have done a good job defending Gordon Hayward but if he can get going, I can see Utah winning in 6 games.