Round-by-Round NBA Playoff Predictions

Josh Cohen@@arealjoshcohenCorrespondent IIMarch 2, 2014

Round-by-Round NBA Playoff Predictions

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    Will LeBron James and Kevin Durant square off in the finals again?
    Will LeBron James and Kevin Durant square off in the finals again?Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    There are still a few weeks left in the regular season, but the NBA playoff picture is coming into focus.

    From the very first games of the season, the Eastern Conference clearly sported the lesser crop of teams. Save for the top two squads and only real title contenders out East—the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers—the rest of the conference is still inferior to its Western counterparts, though more potential postseason qualifiers are limping their way back toward .500.

    Out West, seven squads are currently .600 or better on the year. The expected juggernauts aren't the only ones with talent; on any given night, any Western Conference playoff team has the ability to beat anyone in the league.

    If the playoffs started today, the first-round matchups would look like this:

    Eastern Conference

    • No. 1 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 8 Atlanta Hawks
    • No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats
    • No. 3 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets
    • No. 4 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards

    Western Conference

    • No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 8 Phoenix Suns
    • No. 2 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks
    • No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors
    • No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Houston Rockets

    But with more than 20 games left in the regular season, it's unlikely the standings will remain exactly the same when the postseason begins.

Seeding the East

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    Paul George
    Paul GeorgeBrian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    The Indiana Pacers have held a slight edge on the Miami Heat the whole season, and that margin will hold through mid-April.

    Home-court advantage in the conference finals is imperative to Indy, while the Heat will focus more on rest and recovery down the stretch to ensure they're at full strength for a playoff run. Besides, they're so far ahead of the rest of the field that they have no need to worry about losing the second seed.

    After embattled starts and a number of trades, the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards have established themselves as pesky mid-tier teams with established formulas for winning games.

    Tom Thibodeau's defense is suffocating opponents as usual, but DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry will power Drake's squad (the Raptors) to the third spot, while John Wall and the Wiz will click down the stretch to steal the fourth seed away from Chicago.

    Despite their big names, the Brooklyn Nets won't be consistent enough to jump higher than sixth, but they'll be able to hold off Al Jefferson's Charlotte Bobcats, who will remain a spot behind.

    That leaves the eighth spot, which the free-falling Atlanta Hawks will not retain. The challengers for that last berth are hovering at or below .400, but behind Spencer Hawes, Luol Deng and, of course, Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers will save face and sneak into the playoffs.

Seeding the West

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    Russell Westbrook (left) and Kevin Durant
    Russell Westbrook (left) and Kevin DurantMark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Call Kevin Durant by whatever nickname you'd like—his Oklahoma City Thunder are going to win the West this regular season. Sure, they have stumbled a bit in the process of re-integrating Russell Westbrook following his arthroscopic knee surgery, but OKC has too much firepower and length to fall from first.

    But without Tony Parker and in desperate need to keep an old roster fresh, the San Antonio Spurs won't hold on to the second seed. Rather, the Los Angeles Clippers will make the leap from fourth behind Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, a star duo that is playing its best basketball together.

    That will drop the Spurs to third, where they'll finish a spot ahead of the Houston Rockets. With Dwight Howard in the middle and a high-octane offense, Houston will slip past the Portland Trail Blazers, who are dynamic offensively but struggle to keep points off the board.

    Despite some puzzling offensive inefficiency this season, the Golden State Warriors will ride Stephen Curry and company to the sixth seed, staving off challenges from the Dallas Mavericks and the Phoenix Suns.

    Rick Carlisle has the Mavs playing their best basketball since their 2011 championship, but once Jeff Hornacek's finely tuned team gets Eric Bledsoe back from injury, he and Goran Dragic are going to run the Suns past Dallas to get the seventh seed, while the Mavs withstand the Memphis Grizzlies' challenge to lock down eighth.

Round 1 in the East

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    Kyle Lowry
    Kyle LowryChris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    No. 1 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 8 Cleveland Cavaliers

    Prediction: Pacers in 4

    Though the Cavs are in win-at-least-a-little-bit-now mode, their talent influx still does not make them a match for Indy.

    As explosive as Kyrie Irving is, even he can't take over and steal a game from the unforgiving Pacers defense. George Hill will bottle him up, Paul George will go off, and Cleveland's hard-fought playoff appearance will end in a breezy sweep.

    No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats

    Prediction: Heat in 4

    Do the Heat have a defensive answer for Al Jefferson on the block? Not really, but the Bobcats don't have answers for anything Miami will throw at them.

    Jefferson can put up 25 points and 10 boards a night, but LeBron James and company won't break a sweat in dismantling the rest of Charlotte's game plan. Expect the Heat starters to get plenty of downtime in advance of tougher opponents to come.

    No. 3 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets

    Prediction: Raptors in 6

    Brooklyn brought in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for the physical pressure-cooker scenarios of playoff basketball, and experience will win out a couple times for the Nets.

    That said, no one on Brooklyn has any answer for Toronto's athletic backcourt.

    Kyle Lowry will run circles around the fading Deron Williams, while DeMar DeRozan will draw Joe Johnson and exhaust the leading Nets scorer with frequent slashes to the basket.

    The Raptor frontcourt is also built stoutly enough to weather Garnett's bullying and to dish some out in return, particularly when the Nets go small. Toronto has the edge in talent and coaching here, but it'll still take a real effort to oust Brooklyn.

    No. 4 Washington Wizards vs. No. 5 Chicago Bulls

    Prediction: Bulls in 6

    Tom Thibodeau doesn't care that Washington has a star point guard and a fully stocked depth chart. He'll just play Mike Dunleavy outrageous minutes, make Taj Gibson an offensive focal point and beat down whomever stands in Chicago's way.

    Though the Wiz have multiple scoring options to work with, they can be beat fairly easily when John Wall and Bradley Beal are jacking up shots inefficiently. Jimmy Butler will make Beal's life miserable, while the presence of Joakim Noah and Gibson inside will force Wall into too many unwanted pull-up jumpers.

    Every Bulls win feels like a struggle, so getting four in six games will certainly be a war of attrition. Washington has the edge in terms of both energy and depth, but Thibodeau has such a strategic advantage that Chicago will emerge regardless.

Round 1 in the West

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    Stephen Curry
    Stephen CurryKelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 8 Phoenix Suns

    Prediction: Thunder in 4

    Russell Westbrook will have a troublesome game or two shooting from the field, but his and the Thunder's speed and ranginess on defense are exactly the right answer to Goran Dragic and the Phoenix offense.

    OKC has the athletes to run with the Suns in transition, while Kevin Durant, Westbrook and company will have no problem exploiting the Suns in the half court. The run-heavy matchup might tax the Thunder more than they'd like for the first round, but they'll get by without difficulty.

    No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks

    Prediction: Clippers in 5

    Positioning the sweet-shooting Jose Calderon and the havoc-inducing Monta Ellis around Dirk Nowitzki's legendary offensive game can make the Mavs borderline unfair when everything comes together.

    That's still only good enough to take one game from the Clips.

    After all, Dallas is atrocious defensively, especially when it comes to containing guards. Give Chris Paul an inch and he'll kill you, so just imagine what he's going to do with all the space he finds in the porous Mavs.

    No. 3 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors

    Prediction: Warriors in 7

    A healthy Parker will take one game from Golden State on his own, and Gregg Popovich's coaching will take two more. But the Warriors have too many weapons for San Antonio to stop.

    As quick as Parker is, he's not a solid defender and will lose track of Stephen Curry far more often than is acceptable. Depending on the look San Antonio offers, either David Lee can go to work inside or Harrison Barnes can spread the floor even further from the power forward position, giving Curry, Klay Thompson and friends even more room to fire from deep.

    The Spurs will find room to drive, and they'll pound the ball inside whenever Andrew Bogut leaves the floor. On the other hand, the Dubs have the legs to keep up with San Antonio's offensive movement, and Andre Iguodala can lock down the hot shooter at any given moment.

    It's going to be a battle, but as long as Pop doesn't outright dismantle the Warriors, they'll take down the classic Western power.

    No. 4 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers

    Prediction: Rockets in 5

    The Blazers are a dangerous group, but they're not built to beat Houston, and they're not built for the long haul.

    LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard can both pour in baskets at will, but they give up a good chunk on the other end of the floor. Portland's rim protection disintegrates when Robin Lopez sits, and he'll have a major challenge guarding Dwight Howard anyway; relying on him to help defensively would be asking a ton.

    Patrick Beverley will do an admirable job hounding Lillard, and Howard will be able to shy away from Lopez and toward Aldridge. Meanwhile James Harden will overwhelm Wesley Matthews or Nicolas Batum, depending on the player Portland throws at him.

    Houston has the better balance and the stronger second unit, so though these two teams are about equal in terms of talent, the Blazers will struggle.

Round 2 in the East

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    LeBron James
    LeBron JamesJerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    No. 1 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 5 Chicago Bulls

    Prediction: Pacers in 5

    Chicago is going to lock up George in one game—likely a game in Indianapolis, much to the shock of everyone watching the series—before the Pacers promptly dominate the Bulls the rest of the way.

    With Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah, both teams are superb at locking down the middle while allowing their guards to close out on three-point shooters, making the offense resort to long twos in order to get anything resembling an open shot.

    George, Lance Stephenson and the Pacers will succeed much more as shot-makers than the Bulls will. Then factor in how tired Chicago will be after months of playing within Thibodeau's unforgiving rotation, and the Bulls don't have a prayer of surviving this series.

    No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 3 Toronto Raptors

    Prediction: Heat in 5

    Kyle Lowry has already made himself a lot of money with his play this season, and he'll keep upping his next contract against Miami.

    Mario Chalmers is a nice defender at point guard, but he's not quick enough to stay with Lowry, who has arguably been the best at the position in the East. Lowry will be able to penetrate at will against Miami; without a true center in the middle for the Heat, he'll get to the rim and finish constantly, which will open up opportunities for DeRozan and company as Miami collapses the lane.

    On the other hand, Toronto doesn't have anyone to throw at LeBron, let alone Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. The team is completely unprepared to stop Miami's top three scoring options, let alone maintain the integrity of the defense necessary to scramble back to the Chalmerses and Shane Battiers spotting up.

    Against Miami, the Raptors will prove themselves as a truly capable team and not just a fluke of a poor conference, but that'll only earn them one extra game.

Round 2 in the West

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    Blake Griffin (left) and Chris Paul
    Blake Griffin (left) and Chris PaulKelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 4 Houston Rockets

    Prediction: Thunder in 6

    This is going to be a bitter, electrifying matchup—and not just because of what happened between Beverley and Westbrook last postseason.

    Put Durant and Westbrook on the same court with Harden and Howard, and you're liable to get a highlight-caliber play every time down the floor.

    Serge Ibaka will be key to OKC's success in this series; if he can get Houston to respect the 15-foot jumper, guys like Westbrook and Reggie Jackson will be able to break down the defense and get shots inside that much more easily.

    As hard as it is to get Howard and Omer Asik out of the paint, it's not so difficult to get past the Houston perimeter defense. The Rockets will run with OKC for as long as they can, but the Thunder have the better backcourt D, and that will make the difference.

    No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors

    Prediction: Clippers in 7

    These teams don't have the painful history OKC and Houston have; the Clippers and Warriors just have a reputation of playing some of the most exciting basketball imaginable.

    The up-and-down nature of this series will amplify the amazing play of Lob City and the Splash Brothers. Between Blake soaring through the air, Paul confounding the Dub defense and Steph shooting off balance with limitless range, the biggest names in this series will dominate the action and the airwaves.

    Much like the Thunder-Rockets series, this battle of unstoppable offenses will come down to who can muster the most defense.

    Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut will see to it that Golden State wins defensively a couple times, while Curry and Thompson will take one game on their own, but Paul, Griffin and the Clips can play both ends consistently and excellently without depending on just one or two guys to carry a given unit.

    Stop Curry—which Paul can do himself on the right day—and Golden State's offense becomes a shell of itself. Limit Iguodala's defensive impact, and the Warriors have plenty of holes on the perimeter. L.A. is a complete enough team to do those things, and that will result in a conference finals appearance.

Conference Finals

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    Paul George (left) and Roy Hibbert
    Paul George (left) and Roy HibbertBrian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers

    Prediction: Thunder in 6

    Four of the 10 best players in the NBA will take part in this series, but the guy in line to earn the 2014 MVP will swing it for the Thunder.

    At his best, Kevin Durant has been uncontainable offensively, capable of getting whatever shot he wants and swishing whatever shot he gets. He's 6'11" with a killer handle and the silkiest shooting form around; it doesn't just take a fundamentally sound wing defender to check Durant, but a fellow freak of nature with technique to boot.

    Los Angeles stockpiled three-and-D guys over the summer, but none of them has what it takes to play with KD.

    J.J. Redick is only 6'4", Jared Dudley has been a disappointment, and the newly acquired Danny Granger has no chance to stay in front of Durant with his injury-ravaged knees. Matt Barnes is probably the best bet, but he's still four inches too short and a step slow, and he has the least complete offensive game of the wing bunch.

    Paul and Westbrook will have a fantastic matchup, and Griffin versus Ibaka will be interesting, but Durant is such a severe mismatch for L.A. that the rest is more or less moot. The Clippers are too stacked for OKC to just walk over them, but it won't be the toughest six games for the Thunder.

    No. 1 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 2 Miami Heat

    Prediction: Pacers in 7

    This year's Pacers are better in nearly every way than the group that pushed Miami to the brink in the 2013 Eastern finals.

    Then again, Roy Hibbert hasn't changed a bit, but he's still the Heat's worst nightmare.

    Miami lives and dies by its offensive spacing, with the intention of giving James, Wade and Bosh room to maneuver their way to the basket. So when Indy can park a 7'2" behemoth in the middle, knowing he is disciplined enough to go straight up without fouling, the Heat have a big problem.

    Last season, LeBron was able to feast enough in the mid-range to offset the impediment at the rim, and Miami limited a Pacers squad featuring a shaky offense and a nearly useless second unit.

    Indy's bench is greatly improved with Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Evan Turner, while George and Stephenson have both made significant strides this season. A shallow upstart last year now has real and dangerous depth—a potent addition for a hard-nosed bunch like the Pacers.

    James is still the best player in the league and his Heat won't go down without a legendary fight, but these Indianapolis Pacersfrom superstar George and immovable Hibbert on down through the rosterare built to come out of the East, and they will.

NBA Finals

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    DurantMark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    No. 1 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder

    Prediction: Thunder in 6

    Here's the inevitable downside to Indy brawling with the Heat to the bitter end: The Pacers will be exhausted when they meet the Thunder in the NBA Finals.

    After sticking to LeBron throughout of the conference finals, George will have to do the same with Durant. Not only does the Thunder superstar's size make him a tougher draw for George, but the 6'5" Stephenson can't spell his teammate on Durant the way he can on James. Ge

    orge will have to guard Durant basically every minute of the finals.

    To make matters worse, Durant is a better long-range shooter than James is, which means Hibbert's impact will not be as significant in this series. That's not to say OKC can win without attacking the rim, but inside scoring isn't as vital to the Thunder offense as it is to the Heat.

    On the other side of the ball, the Thunder are the only team in the Association that can match Indiana's length on defense, only it will give the Pacers even more trouble when it comes to scoring.

    George and Stephenson will be shooting with hands in their faces no matter where they are on the court, while David West will have to rely on strength over post savvy to get anything done against Ibaka. And while Indy's second unit can keep the offense going but lacks the toughness of the starters, OKC backs up length with more length, making this issue wholly unavoidable.

    This just isn't the matchup the Pacers prepared for—and that's taking into account that George Hill is an irksome opponent for Westbrook—and the Thunder will be the fresher team.

    Between those factors and Durant's unbelievable year, that's going to win OKC the championship, at least based on how things look right now.