With the conclusion of the 2017-2018 NBA regular season, the time has come for the playoffs. The matchups have finalized and the stage is set. Here is my analysis of the matchups, and how I believe the postseason will unfold:
(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Washington Wizards
After being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers last year in the second round of the playoffs, the Raptors proved themselves in the regular season. They sit atop the throne of the Eastern Conference. The question is: will this Raptors squad advance farther than last year’s team, and the previous iterations that have come through the last few years? The Raptors are known to choke, but I do not foresee them choking versus Wizards in the first round. Washington, on the other hand, is a stacked team. They have enough talent to compete with anyone in the East. They dropped in the standings after an injury sidelined star point guard John Wall for the last few weeks of the season. With Wall healthy again alongside Bradley Beal, this team should be able to compete. Just don’t expect them to beat a Toronto Raptors team with something to prove.
Prediction: 4-2 Raptors
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks
The Boston Celtics should be in a completely different position right now. They too, like the Wizards, have suffered from injuries. All-star point guard Kyrie Irving will be out for the playoffs, and Gordon Hayward is still expected to miss the rest of the season. In their absence, the Celtics will be led by a combination of forces including Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, and Jason Tatum. With Brad Stevens at the helm, even a depleted Celtics roster is still competitive with anyone. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks continue to be the team that always disappoints. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the youngest and most talented players in the league, at the helm, I have come to expect more. So far, nothing has come to fruition. Don’t expect Giannis and the Bucks to be able to overcome Brad Stevens’ coaching.
Prediction: 4-2 Celtics
(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Miami Heat
The Philadelphia 76ers are the hottest team in the NBA right now. With 16 straight wins, it appears “the process” is finally paying off. This has been in large part due to the fantastic play of rookie Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. With the Boston Celtics suffering from injuries, the Raptors yet to prove themselves in the postseason, and the Cavaliers faltering with the absence of Kyrie Irving, the 76ers are in a prime position to make a deeper-than-expected postseason push towards the finals. On the other side is Miami. The Heat is led by first-time all-star Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. Miami has overachieved this season, but don’t expect them to surprise the 76ers. Although the Heat has the experience, I expect the 76ers and their youth to prevail.
Prediction: 4-1 76ers
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Indiana Pacers
Cleveland is a much different team than they were last year at this time. The most obvious difference is the lack of Kyrie Irving. In the trade that sent Irving to the Celtics, the Cavs came away with Isaiah Thomas and the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick this year. Isaiah Thomas did not last long in a Cavaliers jersey once management realized he was not the same player he was last season, and he was quickly traded away to the Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance. The Cavaliers were also able to acquire Rodney Hood and George Hill at the trade deadline. But make no mistake; this is still clearly LeBron’s team. The Pacers are a team that few, if any, thought would be in this position. Many judged their trade with Oklahoma City for Paul George as one-sided and unfair. However, after acquiring Victor Oladipo, the fifth-year pro has blossomed. He made his first all-star game and has led Indiana to a surprisingly successful season. I like Oladipo and Indiana’s story, but going up against LeBron in the first round is never ideal.
Prediction: 4-1 Cavs
(1) Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
After acquiring Chris Paul, the Rockets have propelled themselves to the upper echelon of the NBA. They claimed the Western conference throne from the Warriors and have established themselves as the best team in the league. Led by James Harden, who should be this season’s MVP, the Rockets have proven themselves in the regular season. The remaining question is whether head coach Mike D’Antoni, Paul and Harden can finally overcome their postseason woes. The Timberwolves are a much better team than their seeding suggests. Due to Jimmy Butler’s injury, the team tumbled in the standings. They barely squeaked in after beating the Denver Nuggets in their last regular season game to qualify. In addition to Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Jeff Teague are all key components of this team. However, a match-up against Houston is not what they had desired.
Prediction: 4-1 Houston
(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs
The Golden State Warriors, last year’s NBA champions, slipped to second in the Western Conference this year. That is not necessarily due to a worse season but rather an increase in competition and unlucky injuries. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green have all suffered from the injury bug this season. Curry and Patrick McCaw are still recovering from injuries and will likely miss the first round. This has made the NBA’s most dangerous team fall back to Earth for once. San Antonio also has suffered the same injury bug, which has plagued Kawhi Leonard all season. Leonard is expected to miss the entire postseason with a quadriceps injury. Without Leonard, this Spurs team won’t be able to compete with Golden State, even if Curry is on the bench.
Prediction: 4-1 Golden State
(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (6) New Orleans Pelicans
The Portland Trail Blazers are this year’s overachievers in the NBA. Many, including myself, thought it would be a good season for the Blazers if they were able to merely clinch a playoff berth. More than just clinch a postseason appearance, the Blazers were able to win their division—competing against Oklahoma City, Utah, Minnesota, and Denver—and clinch the third seed. Most of this success is due to the leadership of all-star Damian Lillard. In addition to Lillard, role players Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic, and Ed Davis among others have made this Blazers team capable of winning a playoff series against any team they face. New Orleans has had a promising season as well. Unfortunately, DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his left Achilles causing him to miss the rest of the season, so Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday will have their hands full trying to compete with a surprisingly hot Blazers team.
Prediction: 4-2 Blazers
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz
After acquiring Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, many had lofty expectations for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook, reigning MVP and triple-double machine, and his team did not disappoint. Although Anthony has seemed to regress, George stepped up to his new role in Billy Donovan’s offense. For the Jazz, similar to the Blazers, many did not imagine them being in this position. After losing Gordon Hayward in free agency to the Celtics, many assumed they would head to the cellar of the West. In reality, Rudy Gobert and rookie-of-the-year candidate Donovan Mitchell have elevated the play of the Jazz. This battle between Northwest division foes should be the most interesting of the first round series. I expect Utah to pull off an upset.
Prediction: 4-2 Jazz
The rest of my predictions are as follows:
Eastern Conference Semifinals:
(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (4) Cleveland Cavaliers (4-2 Cavs)
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (3) Philadelphia 76ers (4-1 76ers)
Western Conference Semifinals:
(1) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Utah Jazz (4-1 Rockets)
(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (3) Portland Trail Blazers (4-2 Warriors)
Eastern Conference Finals:
(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (4) Cleveland Cavaliers (4-2 76ers)
Western Conference Finals:
(1) Houston Rockets vs. (2) Golden State Warriors (4-2 Warriors)
(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (3) Philadelphia 76ers (4-0 Warriors)