NBA Playoff Bracket Round-by-Round Predictions
Do you smell it? Not the flow of pollen from flower children filing out to California's desert to Coachella. Not the sweet scents of spring holiday confections. And certainly not the stench of NBA teams tanking their way to more lottery combinations.
No, the most pungent odor this time of year is the blood, sweat and tears of playoff basketball. There will be plenty of all three as the Cleveland Cavaliers flip the switch in defense of their title, the Golden State Warriors kick their juggernaut into high gear and the league's long list of MVP candidates state their cases again after the votes have already been tallied.
With the start of the Association's second season comes another opportunity for predictions, some of which are bound to blow up in the faces of those putting them forward. That danger didn't deter us from picking winners round by round. Nor will it stop the basketball gods from laughing in our faces if (or when) reality bites back on our selections.
East Quarterfinals: No. 1 Boston Celtics vs. No. 8 Chicago Bulls
You would probably have to go back to the early 2000s to find a No. 1 seed weaker than these Boston Celtics. In 2002, the then-New Jersey Nets snagged the top spot in the East with 52 wins. The following year, the Detroit Pistons needed just 50 to scale the conference standings.
But those Pistons went on to win the title the next year, behind a bruising bunch that battled on the boards and played stifling defense. These C's don't do much of either. They finished outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency and landed among the bottom four in defensive rebounding percentage.
The Chicago Bulls are well equipped to take advantage of those deficiencies. They wound up fourth in offensive rebounding percentage, thanks in no small part to Robin Lopez's three offensive boards per game.
Boston doesn't have anyone who can truly counteract his size. Al Horford and Amir Johnson aren't exactly dynamos on the glass. Neither are Tyler Zeller and Jonas Jerebko.
The C's biggest headaches figure to come courtesy of Jimmy Butler. He may be the best player in this series and could have plenty of help on the perimeter from a resurgent Rajon Rondo and a recovered Dwyane Wade.
Boston, though, has a plethora of pesky wing defenders to throw at Butler and his cohort, from Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder to Marcus Smart and rookie Jaylen Brown. If those guys can keep Jimmy Buckets in check well enough to give Isaiah Thomas an opportunity to bring them home down the stretch, the Celtics should have just enough to send the Bulls back to the Windy City at the end of a hard-fought series.
Prediction: Celtics in 7
East Quarterfinals: No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 7 Indiana Pacers
Much has changed for LeBron James and Paul George since they last met in the conference finals three years ago. The former has extended his streak of Finals appearances to six, with an epic title run for the Cleveland Cavaliers tacked on last year. The latter broke his leg and missed most of the 2014-15 campaign before bouncing back individually over the last two campaigns while watching the Indiana Pacers rejigger the roster around him.
Without Roy Hibbert and David West, Indy no longer has the size inside to deter James. What the Pacers do have, though, is Lance Stephenson back in the fold, presumably to pester Northeast Ohio's favorite son.
George, of course, is the bigger threat to Cleveland. As he showed during last year's first-round series against the Toronto Raptors (and during an overtime loss to the Cavs in early April), he's fully capable of taking over big games by himself.
Against a motivated Cleveland team, that might be good enough to get Indy one game. James getting out of the first round is as close to a sure thing as there is in the NBA; he's always advanced when he's been in the postseason. That doesn't figure to change this year, as much as the Cavaliers' slide into mid-April might indicate otherwise.
The games matter for the defending champions now, which should be enough to kick them into high gear after an extended sleepwalk.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 5
East Quarterfinals: No. 3 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks
The Toronto Raptors have (almost) every reason to believe they'll bypass the Milwaukee Bucks.
They've been a superior squad on both ends—top 10 on offense and defense for Toronto versus middle of the pack in each category for Milwaukee—and proved to be so by taking three out of four from the Bucks during their season series.
The Raptors were more battle-tested before adding Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker to a group already led by Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas, but they are now overwhelmingly so compared to Milwaukee's young Bucks.
But Wisconsin's team could have the best player in this series in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 22-year-old All-Star has the physical tools, hoops skills and evolving knowhow to change (if not dominate) the game on both ends of the court.
If you think Toronto's sheer volume of talented veterans is enough to wipe out the Greek Freak and his young teammates, look back at last year's first-round tiff between the Raptors and Indiana Pacers. Paul George came within some sideline flubs from then-Pacers coach Frank Vogel of leading Indy to a Game 7 win in Toronto.
Antetokounmpo isn't quite as seasoned as PG-13, but he might be even more of a menace. Throw in Khris Middleton's sweet stroke from the wing, Matthew Dellavedova's deep postseason experience from his days with the Cavaliers and Greg Monroe's inside scoring off the bench, and the Bucks could give the Raptors a run for their money.
Prediction: Raptors in 7
East Quarterfinals: No. 4 Washington Wizards vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks
Few teams have been hotter since the calendar turned to 2017 than the Washington Wizards. John Wall and Bradley Beal, both healthy throughout a season together for the first time in their careers, have transformed what was once a middling offense under Randy Wittman into one of the NBA's elite scoring machines for head coach Scott Brooks.
The Atlanta Hawks, on the other hand, were a Jekyll-and-Hyde outfit from tip to buzzer during the regular season. One game they'd look like a defensive dynamo, with Dennis Schroder pestering point guards, Dwight Howard dominating the paint and Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha patrolling the wings. The next, they might forget how to score en route to a seven-game skid—of which they had two in 2016-17.
This postseason will be a first of sorts for both squads: for the Hawks, without Al Horford in the middle, and for the Wizards, with Brooks stalking the sidelines.
In a guard-driven game, having Wall and Beal, the two best perimeter players in the series, on one side should tilt the board heavily in D.C.'s favor. Beal, in particular, has shown a propensity for postseason brilliance in years past. So has Otto Porter Jr., one of the league's leading candidates for Most Improved Player.
Both teams ranked in the middle of the pack in rebounding percentage, but Atlanta's top-five defense was far stingier than Washington's 20th-ranked outfit on that end. The Hawks' only hope is to have their perimeter stoppers shut down Wall and Beal and hope the Wizards' shooters don't catch fire.
Good luck doing that four times in seven games.
Prediction: Wizards in 6
West Quarterfinals: No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 Portland Trail Blazers
It's easy to forget, what with how the 2016 Finals turned out, but the Golden State Warriors got a bit of a scare from the Portland Trail Blazers in Round 2 last spring. Stephen Curry's return from a knee injury after missing the first three contests didn't stop the Blazers from finishing within three scores of the Warriors in Games 4 and 5.
This time around, Curry looks to be worry-free. Kevin Durant has yet to get completely untracked since coming back from his own leg woes, but a series against Portland's poor defense (21st in defensive efficiency) could be chicken soup for his scoring soul.
With Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on their side, the Blazers can hold their own in just about any shootout. To do more than lose competitively, Portland will need a third contributor to hurt Golden State where it's weakest: up front.
All eyes, then, will be on Jusuf Nurkic's right leg. He's been out since the end of March with a fractured fibula and might not be ready for the start of the playoffs.
Prior to that injury, the Bosnian big man had been a revelation for the Blazers. After arriving in Rip City by way of a deadline trade with the Denver Nuggets, Nurkic averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals while boosting his new squad to the head of the West's eighth-seed pursuit.
His size and skill would make him uniquely suited to punish Golden State's frontcourt players, who are either too old (Zaza Pachulia, David West) or too small (Draymond Green, Durant) to shut down the 7-foot, 280-pounder.
The Blazers' home-court edge at the Moda Center should make this matchup interesting, too. But nothing compares to the roar of Oracle Arena, and without Nurkic ready for the start of the series in Oakland, the Dubs' massive advantages in talent, experience and execution could leave the Blazers gasping for air from the get-go.
Prediction: Warriors in 4
West Quarterfinals: No. 2 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies
Forget the San Antonio Spurs' first-round sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies from last spring—or any of the three other postseason meetings between these two teams, for that matter. Tim Duncan, who played a pivotal part in each of those series, has since retired. The Grizzlies, for the most part, have gotten all their top players back, after wheezing into the 2016 postseason with what few healthy bodies they could find.
David Fizdale, Memphis' first-year head coach, was nowhere near the team's top job for any of them. His Grizzlies still grit and grind (top 10 in defensive rating and defensive rebound percentage, bottom three in pace), but also beat you from behind the three-point line. While far from elite in that regard, Memphis' move toward the middle in long-range attempts, makes and percentage counts as significant progress from a club that was perennially allergic to those looks.
Matchup-wise, all eyes will be on the sibling rivalry between Marc Gasol, now with the Grizzlies, and Pau Gasol, who once starred in Memphis but has lately taken refuge in San Antonio's second unit. Both brothers have stretched their shots out to three-point range, with Marc emerging as a volume chucker (38.7 percent on 3.6 attempts per game) and Pau picking his spots perfectly (53.9 percent on 1.6 attempts).
But the key here, as with all things Spurs these days, is Kawhi Leonard. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP remains one of the league's elite perimeter pests, but he now has an offensive game that can churn out upwards of 26 points a night, as it did during the 2016-17 season.
In an alternate timeline, the Grizzlies might've had a legitimate perimeter scoring threat in Chandler Parsons to occupy Leonard's attention. Parsons, though, has struggled more mightily with injuries in Memphis than he did even in Dallas—he's out for the season. Vince Carter (40) won't do much to change that, while Memphis announced Thursday that Tony Allen is out indefinitely.
Instead, the Klaw will be free to feast on Mike Conley defensively and send the Spurs into the second round without much more of a fight than last year.
Prediction: Spurs in 5
West Quarterfinals: No. 3 Houston Rockets vs. No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder
By the time the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder come to blows, the media will have already cast their MVP ballots...not that a playoff matchup between the award's top two contenders will necessarily change anything.
Russell Westbrook's historic season, in terms of triple-doubles and usage, has held together a supporting cast in OKC that, while replete with helpful role players, lacks a clear second scoring option. The same could technically be said for James Harden in Houston, though that pertains more to how many other scorers the Rockets have—between Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Lou Williams and Trevor Ariza—than to how few Westbrook has beneath his wings.
Space City also happens to be home to Brodie's kryptonite: Patrick Beverley. Four years ago, Beverley's aggressive (to say the least) play precipitated a knee injury that knocked Westbrook out of that postseason and much of the 2013-14 season that followed. You can bet, then, that there will be some sparks between these old foes.
Beyond theatrics, Beverley's ability to lock up his opposite number could tilt this tiff decisively in Houston's favor. Even if Westbrook is as unstoppable in the playoffs as he was during the regular season, basic math still favors the Rockets heavily. They set new NBA records for three-point makes and attempts this season, while the Thunder finished among the bottom half in both.
OKC's only hope is to have Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Taj Gibson and rookie Domantas Sabonis dominate the offensive glass while sticking Andre Roberson on the Beard defensively. The slower and sloppier the games get, the better off the Thunder will be. But if the Rockets catch fire from three, there's not much OKC can do to keep pace with Mike D'Antoni's dream team.
Prediction: Rockets in 7
West Quarterfinals: No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz
Both teams were banged up at different points and to different extents during their season series, which L.A. claimed 3-1. The Clippers are mostly healthy now that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are back in the flow. But those two superstars are always at risk for further injury, and Austin Rivers' bad hamstring could hamper their bench if he's not ready to play.
The Jazz, on the other hand, have hardly had a full squad at any point this season. They're just about whole now that Derrick Favors is back, and if he goes down again, they can always turn to Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson—the saltiest veterans in Salt Lake City—to fill in the gaps.
Then again, none of those options may be sufficient to slow down the Clippers.
This figures to be another series in which tempo will be the best barometer of control. Utah, which plays at the league's slowest pace, prefers to grind it out on defense and methodically generate good looks on offense. L.A. isn't one of the Association's faster squads overall, but Doc Rivers' squad is at its best when Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are flying up the floor off missed shots and opponent miscues.
If Utah can maintain that dichotomy, stay healthy and take advantage of its raucous home crowd at Vivint Smart Home Arena, it will have an excellent chance of advancing for the first time in seven years. The Clippers, though, may be too talented and too experienced as a group for a Jazz squad that's new to the postseason.
Prediction: Clippers in 5
East Semifinals: Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards
The basketball world needs—nay, deserves—a bloodbath between these two bitter rivals. With any luck, that's just what we'll get.
The Boston Celtics will leave behind one perimeter-oriented foe in Chicago for another in D.C. There will be no place for Thomas to hide on defense against the Washington Wizards, not with the threat Porter has become. Nor can a deep Boston team count on taking advantage of Washington's second unit now that Brandon Jennings and Bojan Bogdanovic have settled in as legitimate threats off the bench.
If this series devolves into the high-scoring showdown that these team's nearly identical offensive efficiency marks suggests, the C's could have a tough time keeping up with the Wizards' wealth of firepower.
That is, unless Crowder and Bradley can catch fire like Beal, Porter and Bogdanovic seem to do regularly.
The Wizards have long had the talent to go deep into the postseason. Under Brooks, they look like they have finally put it all together, at least on the offensive end.
Boston, meanwhile, started off the IT3 era with back-to-back first-round ousters. A trip to the second round, with a team still lacking the proper support for its diminutive star, might be the ceiling for these C's.
Prediction: Wizards in 6
East Semifinals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Toronto Raptors
For the second year running, the Cleveland Cavaliers are slated for a rematch of the previous season's conference finals. As was the case against the Atlanta Hawks, the Cavs could be in for an identical outcome.
That's not the worst news for the Toronto Raptors. Unlike the Hawks, they managed to take two games from Cleveland, both at the Air Canada Centre. The deadline additions of Ibaka and Tucker should up Toronto's overall quotient of defensive toughness just enough to throw off the Cavaliers' offensive machine, if not gum it up to some extent.
The Raptors won't go any further, though, if they can't get better play out of Lowry and DeRozan on the road. In last year's series, they got just one individual 20-point outing between them (DeRozan's 22 in Game 2) in three trips to Quicken Loans Arena.
The Cavs don't figure to miss much on their end. They're as long on offensive weapons as they've ever been, with Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and Derrick Williams forming yet another tier of scorers and shooters around James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
The key for Toronto will be same as any for Cleveland's Eastern Conference competition: Defend the three-point line and you might have a shot.
Easier said than done when everyone in a Cavs jersey not named Tristan Thompson is a legitimate long-range threat.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 6
West Semifinals: Golden State Warriors vs Los Angeles Clippers
To some degree, the Los Angeles Clippers may be responsible for the Golden State Warriors' historic run. They were the last team to beat the Dubs in a Western Conference series—when L.A. survived a seven-game, first-round slugfest in 2014—and may have contributed to then-head coach Mark Jackson's demise.
Tales of Ty Lue, then a Clippers assistant, taunting Golden State in the Staples Center hallway have been intertwined through the lore of what turned the Warriors into the juggernaut they have become.
It's no wonder, then, that Golden State has lost just once in 12 meetings with L.A. since then. The Warriors have clearly commanded the mental edge in this once-budding rivalry and now find themselves on the winning end of a sizeable talent gap with Durant joining Curry, Klay Thompson, Green, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston in the East Bay.
So how can the Clippers hope to compete after losing by an average of 21.5 points per game this season?
For one, L.A. was never fully healthy during those four contests. The closest the Clippers came to throwing a full squad at the Dubs was in early December, just before Griffin's knee went under the knife. He wound up playing in all four, but Paul missed the last three while recovering from a hand injury.
Their health is always pivotal to L.A.'s fortunes, but especially against Golden State. The Clippers need Paul to put Curry through paces on both ends, and Griffin and Jordan to punish the Warriors for their lack of size inside.
Trouble is, the Clippers, like the Warriors, are at their best when they play with pace. But while L.A. can squeeze the occasional pull-up three out of J.J. Redick while Griffin and Jordan run to the rack, Golden State has the horses to turn missed shots and turnovers into quick triples just about every time down.
Do that enough times, and you'll find the Clippers in too many deep holes to dig themselves any closer to the franchise's first conference finals appearance.
Prediction: Warriors in 6
West Semifinals: San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets
A series between the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets has the makings of a nip-and-tuck affair. Their four regular-season meetings were decided by a total of 12 points, including three by a single bucket.
The Spurs prevailed in three of the four, thanks in no small part to Leonard. He averaged 28.5 points per game against Houston and had one of the sequences of the season when he hit a go-ahead three on one end and blocked Harden on the other.
In the aggregate, Harden has done exemplary work at San Antonio's expense this season, to the tune of 29.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 11.8 assists. Tallying stats like that against the Klaw and Danny Green come playoff time may be a far tougher task.
Even if the Beard blows up, San Antonio's defense should be one of the few with the chops to cut down Houston's three-point barrage. The Spurs wound up among the top five in the league in opponent three-point makes, attempts and percentage.
That didn't stop the Rockets from hitting 38.3 percent of their threes against San Antonio during the regular season. Then again, neither did that accuracy prevent the Spurs from emerging with the head-to-head edge.
For all that Harden and Leonard must do to carry their respective offenses, San Antonio's rolls of reliable shotmakers with postseason credentials runs much deeper, from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to Green, LaMarcus Aldridge and Gasol.
This series should be a doozy, but don't be surprised to see the Spurs survive what would be the second of Houston's consecutive MVP-focused playoff tiffs.
Prediction: Spurs in 7
Eastern Conference Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Washington Wizards
Of all the teams in the East, the Washington Wizards might be the only one that could go shot for shot with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They did that once during an overtime loss to the Cavs in February and again during a double-digit win in Cleveland in late March.
Irving can't rest on Wall or Beal. James can't take it easy with Porter ready to burn all comers from the perimeter. Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris aren't exactly juggernauts inside, but they won't shy away from playing a physical game with Love and Tristan Thompson.
Translation: The first team to play consistent defense for any stretch will probably come out on top. The Cavs have done anything but since the All-Star break but have shown a past propensity for flipping the switch come playoff time.
Doing so against the youthful Wall, Beal and Porter may be a different story. Then again, there's no guarantee that Washington's most prized players escape injury between now and then—not if their track record is any indication.
Bad luck aside, can the Wizards keep up with a Cleveland team that finished among the top three in three-point makes, attempts and percentage? Maybe for a handful of games, but not enough to keep the Cavs from cruising to their third straight Eastern Conference crown.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 6
Western Conference Finals: Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs
It's difficult to deduce much about a Warriors-Spurs matchup from their regular-season series. San Antonio took two out of three, but each result came with a serious caveat.
Their first meeting, a 129-100 Spurs wipeout in Oakland, was also the first game of the season and, thus, Golden State's first meaningful outing with Durant on its side.
Their second, a 107-85 Spurs blowout in San Antonio, saw both squads sit their All-Stars. The latest, a 110-98 Warriors win, had no Durant, who was still out with a leg injury, but did feature a 21-point Golden State comeback.
Thus, the conference finals will be the first time the world gets an honest look at what the West's best look like against one another.
Defense figures to be the order of the day between these two. San Antonio led the league in defensive efficiency this season, just ahead of second-ranked Golden State.
The Spurs are no slouches offensively (No. 7 in offensive efficiency) but would be hard-pressed to keep pace with the Warriors' historic scoring machine. Where San Antonio has one reliable go-to guy, in Leonard, and may be able to squeeze a big game here and there out from studs of playoffs past like Aldridge, Parker, Pau Gasol and Ginobili, Golden State sports three explosive, prime-aged stars (Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson) and one glue guy (Green) who can control the game every which way.
The Spurs' best bet is to play at a deliberate pace and try to pound the Warriors inside with their superior size. Even that might not be enough to overcome Golden State's younger legs, longer limbs and overwhelming offensive potency.
Prediction: Warriors in 6
NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
How would the 2016 Finals have turned out had Durant been on the Warriors? Would cold streaks from Curry and Klay Thompson down the stretch of Game 7 have cost them the title with another shotmaker, in Durant, on the court? Would the series have even gone that long had KD been around to cover for Green's absence in Game 5?
We'll never know for sure, but a Finals three-peat—the first in NBA history—between Golden State and Cleveland could offer some hints.
Durant is no stranger to James in the Finals. In 2012, KD's Thunder beat LBJ's Miami Heat in Game 1 of the championship series before dropping four straight.
While Durant gives Golden State another devastating two-way weapon it didn't have a year ago, James' Cavaliers won't exactly be short on reinforcements, either. Since sneaking past the Warriors by way of James' block, Irving's shot and Love's defense on Curry, Cleveland has added Korver, Deron Williams and Derrick Williams to its stockpile of gifted contributors.
The Cavs have the firepower to stay within arm's reach of the Warriors' offensive juggernaut. But outgunning Golden State over the course of seven games is an almost impossible proposition—even more so after Cleveland piled minutes on to James' plate during the regular season. Where the Cavaliers can ill-afford to sit him without collapsing, the Warriors have four All-Stars around whom they can fashion effective lineups.
Cleveland's only hope is to make the Dubs play a grinding style at a snail's pace while exploiting Golden State's lack of size inside. That strategy could keep the series competitive, but at some point, the numbers game figures to tilt too far in the Warriors' favor for the Cavs to overcome.
Prediction: Warriors in 7