The NBA playoffs begin tomorrow, and this is one of the more wide-open fields we’ve had in recent memory—particularly in the West, with seven teams figuring to have a legitimate chance to make the conference finals. Let’s get right to predictions.
1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. 8 Detroit Pistons
The Bucks are banged up and finished the last month and a half of the season on a 13-9 stretch after they were 47-13 from October through February, but the NBA’s top team during the regular season shouldn’t have much trouble against the Pistons. Blake Griffin is dealing with a knee injury for Detroit and might not be ready for Game 1; the Pistons would need Griffin and Andre Drummond to dominate down low to have any chance of pulling off the upset. Look for Giannis Antetokounmpo and company to take care of business before facing a stiffer challenge in the second round.
Prediction: Bucks in five
2 Toronto Raptors vs. 7 Orlando Magic
The Magic have actually been playing very well for more than a short time, including the second-best record in the Eastern Conference since the All-Star break (I quadruple-checked this, but it’s actually true). So, this could go longer than people anticipate. Orlando and Toronto split the season series, 2-2, but the Raptors took the most recent contest with ease on April 1. Overall, it’s tough to see a team led by Kawhi Leonard, who might really turn it on in the postseason, getting knocked out in the first round.
Prediction: Raptors in five
3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. 6 Brooklyn Nets
While they were essentially locked into their playoff position as the No. 3 seed for a bit now (it would’ve taken pretty big collapse not to get it), and stars Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler missed games because of injuries, the Sixers have had a very sluggish end to the regular season. Embiid apparently might not be ready for the start of the playoffs, in which case D’Angelo Russell and the Nets would have an opening to do some damage, but Philadelphia is too talented not to advance past the first round.
Prediction: Sixers in six
4 Boston Celtics vs. 5 Indiana Pacers
Homecourt advantage in this 4-5 series was one of the intriguing storylines in East toward the end of the regular season, and it would’ve been huge for an under-manned Pacers team if they were able to get the No. 4 seed. Indiana is 19-22 on the road this season, so they’ll have an uphill climb as they look to take one at TD Garden. For the Celtics, Kyrie Irving and his impending free agency cannot affect the team, and getting off to a fast start with a sweep would obviously be ideal. This series would be a lot of fun if Pacers superstar Victor Oladipo wasn’t out for the season, but the effort Indiana will give isn’t likely to be enough to eliminate a Boston team loaded with talent and playoff experience.
Prediction: Celtics in five
1 Golden State Warriors vs. 8 Los Angeles Clippers
It looked like the Clippers were on the verge of tanking after they traded Tobias Harris to the Sixers, but it was admittedly an error to assume that was the case—if anything it was to help set up a run at free agents (or Anthony Davis) in the offseason. Anyway, the best run team in LA was an NBA-best 13-2 in March, but they slid down to the No. 8 seed after a 1-3 April, so now they face a near-impossible task of facing the Warriors. The Clippers would do well to make this an entertaining series, but expect the Dubs to get out of it in four or five games.
Prediction: Warriors in five
2 Denver Nuggets vs. 7 San Antonio Spurs
The two bottom seeds in the West enter the postseason as two of the hottest teams in basketball. The schedule hasn’t been incredibly imposing, but the Spurs are 15-5 in their last 20 games, and they own a 32-9 record at home this season. As usual, San Antonio is an efficient team, leading the NBA in field goal percentage by a large margin (49.1%), three-point percentage (39.2%), and free throw percentage (81.9%). The Nuggets are awesome, but I expect the Spurs will be a trendy upset pick given Denver’s lack of experience. I’m not going there, but it should be a close series.
Prediction: Nuggets in seven
3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder
Since the All-Star break, the Thunder are below .500, but they are starting to heat up just in time for the postseason, going 5-0 in April including a win over a hot Rockets team—and OKC is probably the squad the Blazers did not want to face in the first round. The Thunder were 4-0 against the Blazers during the regular season, and Paul George was dominant in the season series, putting up 38.0 points per game, with at least 32 points in each of those games. Unfortunately, Portland is without Jusuf Nurkic after his gruesome compound leg fracture, so they should arguably be the underdogs despite the higher seed. A more experienced Oklahoma City team should advance to the second round.
Prediction: Thunder in six
4 Houston Rockets vs. 5 Utah Jazz
Aside from the Bucks-Pistons series in the East, this is the playoff series without a matchup since March, as the Rockets and Jazz last played on February 2 (a blowout victory for Houston). Defense in the NBA obviously is a bit of a lost art, but Rockets-Jazz delivers the best offense versus defense showdown of the first down. Houston ranks second in the league offensively, while Utah ranks second in the league defensively. The Rockets are healthy and a real force when they’re clicking on offense, but they cannot look ahead to a potential second-round matchup with the Warriors, or they probably won’t even get past the Jazz. Still, James Harden and Chris Paul should get their guys ready, and it’ll take a heroic effort from Donovan Mitchell (which is certainly a possibility) to eliminate Houston.
Prediction: Rockets in six
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And at the start of the playoffs, I’ll give my conference finals and NBA Finals predictions. You can go through the scenarios yourselfand create your own NBA playoff bracket here, but for me, the second round matchups in particular were very tough.
Eastern Conference Finals: Bucks over Sixers
Toronto or Philadelphia was an extremely tough decision, but the strength of the Sixers starting lineup is what would give them the edge in getting to the Eastern Conference Finals in my opinion. Boston certainly has the talent to topple Milwaukee in Round 2, but the Bucks appear to be more together at this point—and they are probably closer than this Sixers team that was kind of clumped together before the trade deadline, too. Hopefully it’ll be very exciting, but I think the Bucks will win and advance to the Finals.
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Nuggets
Aside from the Warriors as the obvious favorites because they are immensely talented, the Western Conference playoffs look to be entirely up in the air, and all the possibilities for the second round are interesting. If the Nuggets get past the Spurs, I think the bracket sets up well for them to face either Portland (3-1 against them this season) or OKC (4-0 against them this season). But they might not be quite ready to topple the back-to-back defending champion Warriors.
NBA Finals: Bucks over Warriors
Despite Milwaukee having the best record in the league this season, this would undoubtedly be classified as a major upset. This prediction is with the assumption that Malcolm Brogdon (foot) is ready to go and gets back into a rhythm by the Eastern Conference Finals. It won’t be easy, but the Bucks have a starting lineup that matches up well with the Warriors, and they are among the most versatile teams on both ends of the court—four of their starters are very quick, yet they led the NBA in rebounding at 49.7 per game—and they have some players that can get hot off the bench.
The Finals are a long way away, but who knows what type of rumors and storylines could be out there at that time? It might just be noise, but the talk of the Warriors potentially breaking up could get to the team if they face controversy against an Eastern foe most people will think they should handle. We’ll circle back, but Bucks in seven is the pick for now.