Saturday, April 14, 2018

NBA Playoff Predictions

For the first time ever, the NBA playoffs are...up in the air?  What is usually the most predictable bracket of all now actually carries quite a bit of uncertainty this season.  A fourth straight Cleveland vs. Golden State Finals would be an upset at this point, and you can make a solid case in 6.5 of the 8 first-round matchups that the lower seed will win.  Could be one of the few (only?) times in NBA history that we'll see a bunch of crazy upsets, and a truly unexpected Finals?

* Raptors over Wizards in seven
It would take this kind of wacky season to give the Raptors a legitimate shot at winning the Eastern Conference, though as good as they've been all season, there are two strong reasons for doubt.  One is a basketball reason: Toronto's bench depth won't matter as much in a short series where the teams have plenty of rest, thus leaving matters largely in the hands of the Raps' starting five.  One is a narrative reason: are the Raptors really going to make the NBA Finals?  Really?  It's hard to get too bold about a team that has its two best players perform inconsistently (to be kind) every postseason, and all the bench depth in the world won't overcome another vanishing act from DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry.  While I fully expect the Raptors to make this series harder than it needs to be on themselves, their problems may not quite be as dire as Washington's twin issues of a) John Wall not being 100% and b) the Wiz playing better when Wall is out of action entirely since his teammates may or may not all hate him.

* Cavaliers over Pacers in seven
LeBron James has carried garbage Cavs teams to the Finals before (2007, 2015) but this would be his greatest carry job yet, given the potential strength of the rest of the East.  The Cavaliers have LeBron, Kevin Love and... *tumbleweed GIF*  They cannot play defense whatsoever, and thus if every game is going to devolve into a shootout, the Cavs are simply going to eventually be outgunned by teams who have more than three good players (LeBron counts as two guys).  Indiana, however, is not one of those teams, as they basically have Victor Oladipo's outta-nowhere superstar season and little else.  It'll go seven games since these two teams really aren't too different from each other, and with LBJ ultimately being the difference-maker since he'll be damned if he goes out in the first round. 

* Bucks over Celtics in seven
a.k.a. Giannis Antetokounmpo's coming-out party.  It is very possible that Brad Stevens can coach rings around the actual mannequin Milwaukee has on its sideline and lead his depleted team into the second round, though part of me feels that the Bucks won out by facing a Boston club at its lowest ebb.  This is the series that Giannis cements himself as a top-10 player in the league.
* 76ers over Heat in six
The Sixers' transformation from doormat into Finals contender in just one season has been stunning, and I probably don't need to remind you that we've already seen one Philadelphia team go from mediocre to champion in this very year.  Miami is a well-coached, veteran team that will definitely give the Philly youngbloods some wakeup calls, but I think the 76ers simply have too much talent.

* Rockets over Timberwolves in five
There really isn't much difference between the Rockets and Raptors in a narrative sense, with the exception being that Houston was just so dominant in the regular season that people have made them the prohibitive favourite despite some bad karma.  Forget about DeRozan and Lowry....James Harden, Chris Paul, and Mike D'Antoni have a long history of postseason failures on their resume.  It won't hurt them in the first round since Minnesota is clearly overmatched, except I can see the Rockets losing one game in goofy fashion to let the whispers continue into round 2.  Frankly, the "will they choke?" narrative will only go away if they beat the Warriors and/or win the title.

* Thunder over Jazz in seven
Man, I'm picking a lot of these series to go the limit.  Here's another close one, based solely on the fact that the great Donovan Mitchell may still be a bit young to carry a team by himself.  There's too much veteran talent on the other side between Paul George and Mr. Triple-Double.
* Warriors over Spurs in six
Wait, "and/or"?  Is there really a chance the long-assumed Golden State/Houston West finals doesn't happen?  It'd still be surprising if it didn't, but the Warriors looked way better going into the last three postseasons than they do here.  Steph Curry is out until the second round, and even then, may not be 100 percent when he does return.  Draymond Green has looked a step off all season.  Golden State's bench depth is non-existent, so if another injury hits, they could be screwed.  These are all some legitimate question marks for a team that has been treating the regular season like a dress rehearsal, and it's rare to just completely flip the switch in such a fashion for the playoffs.  I'm giving San Antonio two games here out of sheer respect for Gregg Popovich, even though the Spurs are still very much the inferior roster.  This has been a rough year for us Kawhi Leonard fans, as Kawhi seems to have taken his "Phantom" nickname seriously.  I have to believe that Leonard won't be a Spur for much longer given the apparent gulf between he and the franchise, so it truly becomes a shame that we'll never see a proper full-strength Spurs vs. full-strength Warriors playoff matchup during Golden State's dynasty era.

* Pelicans over Trail Blazers in seven
After playing up how unpredictable these playoffs could be, I've only picked one upset so far, and Bucks-over-Celtics isn't really an upset given Boston's sudden lack of Kyrie Irving.  So I'll break the chalk and predict another playoff coming-out party, this time for Anthony Davis.  The Pelicans responded to the loss of Boogie Cousins in two fashions.  Firstly, they just kept an incredible pace to their offense and tried to simply run other teams into the ground, which is probably what just about any undermanned team should do.  Secondly, Davis went supernova and single-handedly kept this team afloat.  After years as a bit of a forgotten man in New Orleans, you have to wonder if Davis is a little annoyed at all the hype given to other "next LeBron" stars and is eager to not let this rare playoff appearance go to waste.  This series is a coin flip, but sorry Portland.

* Cavaliers over Raptors in six
* 76ers over Bucks in six
* Rockets over Thunder in seven
* Warriors over Pelicans in six

* 76ers over Cavaliers in seven
* Warriors over Rockets in seven

NBA Finals: Psych!  Golden State wins it again, beating the upstart Sixers in (appropriately) six games.

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