NBA Playoff Bracket 2018: Round-by-Round Predictions

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistApril 12, 2018

NBA Playoff Bracket 2018: Round-by-Round Predictions

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    You can now breathe. 

    The end of the NBA's 2017-18 regular season featured one twist after another as myriad squads battled for playoff positioning in both conferences. We saw a de facto play-in game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets that wasn't necessarily just for the No. 8 seed because of the jam-packed nature of the standings. We witnessed the Philadelphia 76ers winning roughly 43 games in a row to steal away the East's No. 3 spot.

    So on and so forth. 

    But now the playoff field is set. After weeks of breathless speculation, we know all of the first-round matchups.

    Let's see what's going to happen next—not just in the opening round, but in every one that would follow. From the Houston Rockets' defense of the West's No. 1 seed against the dangerous Timberwolves to the conclusion of the NBA Finals, we've peered into the crystal ball and figured it all out. 

Eastern Conference Opening Round

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    1. Toronto Raptors vs. 8. Washington Wizards

    Though the Toronto Raptors cooled off at the end of the regular season, that's understandable. They had been operating in sole possession of the No. 1 seed for quite some time, and complacency was bound to set in for an outfit so universally focused on doing away with the unfortunate reputation it's earned over the last few postseasons.

    Why focus on meaningless regular-season contests when the playoffs are all that matters? 

    Toronto has struggled to gain momentum during prior opening rounds, but that won't be the case in 2018. This team is built for the playoffs, as it no longer relies as heavily on isolation proclivities. Instead, the Raptors share the ball and make the most of a wealth of secondary talents. While Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan remain the leading contributors, they haven't had the luxury of operating alongside a wide range of talented running mates quite like this. 

    Benches typically aren't as effective in the playoffs. The Washington Wizards, for example, will lean heavily on their starting five and attempt to minimize the minutes of any secondary contributors not named Tomas Satoransky or Kelly Oubre Jr. But reserves still matter, and Toronto's have been the best in the league (8.3 net rating).

    John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. make for a formidable triumvirate, but this first matchup should allow the No. 1 seed to begin exorcising its playoff demons without breaking too much of a sweat. 

    Prediction: Toronto in four.

             

    2. Boston Celtics vs. 7. Milwaukee Bucks

    This is the matchup the Boston Celtics should have wanted. 

    The Miami Heat would have been the toughest potential first-round opponent because head coach Erik Spoelstra would exploit weaknesses and maximize the advantages his troops possessed. When in full working order, the Wizards' starting five is dangerous, though the C's would still win through depth and sheer defensive talent. But give them the Milwaukee Bucks, and they can handle the one-man exploits of Giannis Antetokounmpo while taking advantage of a scattered system that doesn't often showcase palatable levels of control. 

    The Bucks were supposed to turn a corner after the midseason firing of head coach Jason Kidd, but they've remained an undisciplined and inconsistent bunch. Since the start of March, they've outscored opponents by just 0.1 points per 100 possessions, emerging as a strong offense but rarely strutting their stuff on defense. 

    Even with a depleted roster, Boston should advance.

    Marcus Smart isn't expected back until the scheduled date of Game 6, per Mark Dunphy of Boston.com. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward won't be playing at all, nor will lesser rotation member Daniel Theis. But that still leaves Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, among others. The C's should remain the favorites here, if only by a slim margin. 

    Prediction: Boston in six.

                        

    3. Philadelphia 76ers vs. 6. Miami Heat

    The Miami Heat enjoyed an impressive finish to the 2017-18 regular season, though they were unable to ascend to an even loftier seed and slot into an easier first-round matchup. But when Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Josh Richardson and Kelly Olynyk rotate to serve as the team's best player depending on the night, the Heat don't have the high-upside contributors necessary to topple one of the East's supreme regular-season outfits. 

    Spoelstra should scheme Miami into some competitive contests, but this is going to favor the up-and-coming squad.

    Even if Dragic continues playing like an All-Star, the Philadelphia 76ers will have the talent advantage. And that isn't just because of the level at which Ben Simmons is currently operating and the season-long production of Joel Embiid. The Sixers boast the services of JJ Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Saric in the starting five, and they have an increasingly deep bench stocked with useful pieces such as TJ McConnell, Markelle Fultz, Amir Johnson, Richaun Holmes, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. 

    Talent alone won't decide this first-round clash. But heading into the playoffs, no team is hotter than the Sixers, winners of a franchise-record 16 straight games.

    Since the start of March, the Sixers' 12.8 net rating trails only the Utah Jazz (13.2). They've posted the NBA's No. 3 offense and No. 2 defense over that span, despite being without Embiid for eight of those games.

    In that same stretch, Miami sits down at No. 8 with a 3.7 net rating—good, but nowhere near great. It ranks 14th and 10th on offense and defense, respectively.

    Don't be fooled by the youth of Philadelphia's most eye-catching contributors. This team is already a contender, while the Heat aren't. 

    Prediction: Philadelphia in five.

             

    4. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 5. Indiana Pacers

    No disrespect meant to the Indiana Pacers, who enjoyed a phenomenal season that left them just shy of earning home-court advantage in the opening round. Victor Oladipo should be a shoo-in for Most Improved Player, while Thaddeus Young, Darren Collison, Myles Turner and Bojan Bogdanovic have all played high-quality basketball. 

    In fact, by both net rating and Basketball Reference's simple rating system, which looks solely at margin of victory and strength of schedule, the Pacers have put together a better resume than the Cleveland Cavaliers. They deserve plenty of credit. 

    But they don't have LeBron James

    The four-time MVP has never lost a first-round playoff series throughout his Hall of Fame career. In fact, he's never even gone to Game 7 in the opening clash and has only needed a sixth contest twice—in 2006 and 2008. Moreover, he's led his team to five consecutive sweeps in this portion of the postseason, with the latest loss coming in 2012 against the New York Knicks before his Heat closed the series out one contest later. 

    While this is the weakest team James has helmed in quite some time, he isn't going down in the first round. That streak of unbeaten first-round outings will come to an end, but no series-long blemish is in the cards. 

    Prediction: Cleveland in six.

Western Conference Opening Round

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    1. Houston Rockets vs. 8. Minnesota Timberwolves

    The Houston Rockets have been the NBA's best team in 2017-18, and they should be almost impervious to any first-round matchups. Drawing the Minnesota Timberwolves is the least appealing option out of the candidates that existed during the season's final week, but James Harden and Co. still match up nicely against their opening foes. 

    Even with Jimmy Butler back on the court, the T-Wolves aren't a great defensive team. They allow 105.1 points per 100 possessions when he's logging minutes (the best mark of any rotation member), but that would still be just the No. 12 defensive rating in the season-long standings. Plus, Butler isn't going to play 48 minutes per game throughout an entire postseason series, despite Tom Thibodeau's enduring presence as Minnesota's head coach. 

    A team with defense as its primary weakness isn't going to topple the top-seeded juggernaut that's climbed to its perch on the shoulders of historic offensive efforts. Harden and Chris Paul are going to have a field day, easily overcoming the absence of Luc Mbah a Moute as he tries to recover from a dislocated shoulder in time for the second round.

    Prediction: Rockets in five.

              

    2. Golden State Warriors vs. 7. San Antonio Spurs

    Watching the Golden State Warriors over the last few weeks, you get the sense they're just biding their time and waiting to flip the proverbial switch at the most opportune moment. Injuries have decimated their rotation at times, but they still boast the services of three healthy All-Stars in Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Beyond that, their bench is filled with useful veterans who understand their roles, as well as some high-upside youngsters. 

    But the Dubs aren't the same without Stephen Curry, who isn't likely to be available for this first-round clash with the San Antonio Spurs. On the season, they've notched a 2.9 net rating sans their star point guard (easily the worst mark on the roster), and that dropped to minus-2.7 since his second-to-last injury on March 8. 

    This is concerning. The defending champions are vulnerable until their floor general returns, no matter how impressive Quinn Cook has been while capitalizing on this unforeseen opportunity.

    However, the Spurs aren't suited to pull off the upset. Head coach Gregg Popovich will milk as much production from his troops as humanly possible, but San Antonio is outclassed without Kawhi Leonard. It overachieved throughout the season with a roster filled of middling talents and downward-trending veterans, but it now has to deal with its leading offensive star (LaMarcus Aldridge) lining up against Golden State's premier individual stopper (Green).

    In 129 Curry-less minutes against San Antonio, the Warriors have a 5.1 net rating. Unless Leonard pulls a Willis Reed, the Spurs will test the Warriors before ultimately coming up short. 

    Prediction: Warriors in six.

                

    3. Portland Trail Blazers vs. 6. New Orleans Pelicans

    Don't make the mistake of thinking the New Orleans Pelicans are a one-man show. 

    Since DeMarcus Cousins went down for the season with a ruptured Achilles, Anthony Davis has dominated the headlines. He played at an MVP-caliber level and vaulted New Orleans into the playoff picture, nearly capturing home-court advantage in the process. Just don't give so much credit to Davis that you overlook the inspired play of Jrue Holiday. 

    As Micah Peters explained for The Ringer, Holiday's under-the-radar status is—partially, at least—due to the very nature of his game: 

    "This is because Holiday is, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, tough to get excited about. He's all the things that the casual fan doesn't necessarily find interesting: hardworking, prudent, and aesthetically unadventurous, though he can be fancy if and when he needs to be. He is likely not going to produce the moments that will be looped and GIF'd into oblivion; he's the person behind the person that produces those moments. Someone has to get the steal, start the break, toss the alley. He does the vital things you might not be able to recall with much clarity, say, a week after they happen. But they're vital nonetheless."

    Getting excited about his numbers is a bit easier. Since Cousins last suited up on Jan. 26, Holiday averaged 19.4 points, 7.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game while slashing 49.2/34.5/76.0 and playing praiseworthy defense.

    Holiday will be crucial against Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, as he'll need to wear Portland's star guards out with his offensive assaults while keeping them in check as best he can. That isn't easy against another fringe MVP candidate in Lillard, but it's worth noting the Weber State product has struggled with his three-point stroke and submitted a negative plus/minus in four games against New Orleans this season. 

    This is the toughest first-round matchup to pick in either conference, but let's take the team with the best player (Davis) and an underrated supporting cast that's coming into its own at the right time. 

    Prediction: Pelicans in seven.

                          

    4. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 5. Utah Jazz

    The Oklahoma City Thunder have Russell Westbrook, who remains a walking triple-double playing a brand of basketball that can translate well to postseason action. Steven Adams has been one of the NBA's most improved players, and he can anchor a solid defense. Paul George is still a superstar, capable of dominating a game offensively or defensively. 

    But the Thunder haven't morphed into an elite unit on either end of the floor, and they're still struggling to replace Andre Roberson on defense. They're solid both offensively and defensively, but they don't have that calling card you so often need in the playoffs. And against the Utah Jazz, they're going to struggle to score.

    To be fair, anyone would. 

    Since should-be Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert returned to action against the New York Knicks on Jan. 19, the Jazz have ceded a minuscule 95.9 points per 100 possessions—nearly four points fewer than any other organization. They're impenetrable with the shot-swatting center at the pivot, and the rest of the lineup offers few holes for the opposition to probe when operating in a half-court set. 

    Despite entering the playoffs as one of the NBA's hottest teams, the Jazz do have serious red flags that force hesitation before picking them to embark on a long playoff run. Their No. 1 scorer is a rookie who can sometimes struggle with his shooting efficiency. They also love using bigger lineups, which goes against the NBA grain, and they don't have many shot-creators if Donovan Mitchell is struggling. 

    But you need a top-tier offense to have a chance against the crescendoing Jazz, and the Thunder don't boast one. The scores in this series figure to be rather low, which plays right into Utah's hands. 

    Prediction: Jazz in five.

Eastern Conference Semifinals

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    1. Toronto Raptors vs. 4. Cleveland Cavaliers

    LeBron James is going to feast, but the Raptors have the youthful defenders necessary to keep him relatively contained without depleting the energy reserves of the entire roster. Foul trouble plaguing OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam would be disastrous in this series, but both players average fewer than four fouls per 36 minutes.

    But let's assume James still flat-out torches the Raptors. What then? 

    Most of his supporting cast is inexperienced during postseason action. Among this season's new acquisitions, only George Hill boasts significant former runs through a playoff field. And though they were brought aboard to improve the chances of getting production from players not named James, they haven't had that type of impact yet. 

    Since the beginning of March, the Cavs have outscored their adversaries by 2.9 points per 100 possessions, the ninth-best mark leaguewide. Though the Raptors have gone through a few rough patches, their net rating sits at a superior 5.5, featuring a vastly better defense and an offense that can give Cleveland's stopping unit fits. 

    No matter what lineup combinations head coach Tyronn Lue calls upon, the Cavs can't depress any opponent's point totals. Since March 1, they have the league's 22nd-ranked defensive rating and have gone through inexplicable periods without any semblance of discipline. Worst of all, the primary culprit behind their wide-ranging struggles is an inability to contain dribble penetration. 

    Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are already licking their chops, preparing to battle the demons of past playoff series and finally slay the boogeyman. 

    Prediction: Toronto in seven.

                          

    2. Boston Celtics vs. 3. Philadelphia 76ers

    Marcus Smart will almost certainly be back for this matchup, ready to come off the pine and provide physical, intense minutes. But which starting five would you rather have? 

    • Boston Celtics: Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Aron Baynes, Al Horford
    • Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid

    Here, we'll help you out.

    That starting quintet from Beantown has played together for only 115 minutes, but it's earned a staggering 16.2 net rating. Philly's bunch has shared the court for 600 minutes, and its net rating still stands at an even more impressive 21.4.

    That's in a different category than the mark earned by the next-best lineup with at least 500 minutes (14.2, by the Oklahoma City Thunder's old starting five with Andre Roberson). You need to go down to 261 to find a superior grouping (23.4, by Tyus Jones, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns). 

    But the starters aren't the only players who will take the court in these Eastern Conference semifinals, which also bodes well for the Sixers. 

    Since Kyrie Irving last played on March 11, the Boston bench has mustered a minus-4.4 net rating, just outside of a bottom-10 mark across the NBA. The Sixers' second unit, meanwhile, stands at 5.3 and trails only the Los Angeles Lakers' reserves. 

    Perhaps Celtics head coach Brad Stevens can pull off some magic, but this will be a distinctly uphill climb with a Sisyphean feel for the superior seed. 

    Prediction: Philadelphia in five.

Western Conference Semifinals

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    1. Houston Rockets vs. 5. Utah Jazz

    You beat the Jazz by forcing them to slow down. Utah averaged 95.1 points per game in its losses this season, compared to 110.6 in victories. That shouldn't be a problem for the Rockets, who are 14th in possessions used per 48 minutes this season. 

    Expect the Rockets to loft plenty of triples. Houston is first in three-point attempts per game and is tied for 13th in three-point percentage.

    The Rockets will also use small-ball lineups and mobile bigs who can drag Rudy Gobert out of the paint (hello, Ryan Anderson). 

    As long as Houston is healthy and not reeling from the defensive deficit created by a potentially lengthy absence for Mbah a Moute, it's the exact type of team built to give the Jazz trouble in the playoffs. Even on the most basic level, that's what its 4-0 record in head-to-head clashes this season indicates. Beyond that, the Rockets should be motivated to make quick work of their second-round opponent and gear up for a high-profile clash in the next stage.

    The Jazz have enjoyed a phenomenal second-half run and should inspire fear throughout the Association next season when all of their current pieces have the chance to undergo further development. But skipping steps in the competitive process is tough, especially when one of them comes against the Rockets, who are eager to send Chris Paul to the first Western Conference Finals of his Hall of Fame career.

    Prediction: Rockets in four. 

                       

    2. Golden State Warriors vs. 6. New Orleans Pelicans

    Assuming Stephen Curry is back in action at this point, the Warriors are too deep for the Pelicans. This might be a fairly balanced matchup when Anthony Davis is flat-out rolling (though the full-strength Warriors are dominant enough that they should still have an advantage in those situations), but New Orleans won't have any answers when its unibrowed big man is either struggling or sitting on the pine. 

    When Davis was off the floor, the Pelicans recorded a minus-5.1 net rating on the season. That includes the portion of the season in which DeMarcus Cousins was still in working order, ready to operate as a solo tower while Davis caught his breath. Since Boogie went down, New Orleans posted a minus-4.5 net rating sans Davis. 

    The Warriors have no such split concerns. These are their worst off-court net ratings among rotation members: 

    1. Stephen Curry, 2.9
    2. Klay Thompson, 5.1
    3. Kevin Durant, 6.8
    4. Draymond Green, 6.8
    5. Andre Iguodala, 6.8

    For further context, the Pelicans outscored their opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions since Cousins went down with his torn Achilles. The totality of their efforts still lags behind Golden State, regardless of which singular presence you remove from the Warriors' efforts. 

    New Orleans, which is already 1-3 against the Dubs (the lone victory came without Curry in the lineup), simply can't overcome that depth of talent. 

    Prediction: Warriors in five.

Eastern Conference Finals

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    1. Toronto Raptors vs. 3. Philadelphia 76ers

    Objectively, this series should belong to the Raptors. 

    They're a veteran-laden squad with plenty of star power leading the charge. They have experience working deep into the playoffs before. They've been the class of the Eastern Conference throughout the 2017-18 campaign, and their season-long net rating of 7.6 trails only the marks boasted by the Houston Rockets (8.5) and Golden State Warriors (8.0). 

    But the 76ers provided a magical feeling with their inspired play down the stretch of the regular season. Sure, they largely battled against a lackluster slate of opponents. But you can only play the hand you're dealt, and they trounced one foe after another even while operating without Embiid for eight games.

    Covington, Saric and Redick are as good of a supporting triumvirate as you'll find in the East. The Sixers have plenty of high-quality veterans on their bench, and Fultz appears to be rounding into form as a shot-creating guard and pesky defender off the pine. Simmons is playing the best basketball of his rookie campaign, and he looks every bit the part of a top-20 player leaguewide. 

    Oh, and let's circle back to net rating. 

    On the campaign as a whole, Philly's mark of 5.4 sits fourth throughout the Association, well behind the Raptors' own efforts. But that's largely due to a rough opening salvo. The Sixers have the superior score dating back to December 16—a mark so impressive (8.3) that not a single squad matched or exceeded it. They've trusted the Process, and it's worked wonders. 

    Heading into their 2017-18 efforts, the Sixers couldn't have dreamed they'd be playing for a chance to represent the East in the NBA Finals. They're that far ahead of schedule. 

    Prediction: Philadelphia in seven.

Western Conference Finals

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    1. Houston Rockets vs. 2. Golden State Warriors

    Wasn't it always going to come down to this? Despite the topsy-turvy nature of the Western Conference and the drama engulfing the rest of the playoff contenders during the final week of the regular season, the Rockets and Warriors have seemed fated to meet one another in the penultimate round. 

    Once they arrive, so much will depend on health.

    Is Curry in peak form after recovering from a stretch run plagued with maladies? Is Mbah a Moute's shoulder in working order? Has either side suffered any unfortunate blows during the first two rounds? For the sake of our analysis, let's assume all relevant pieces are at 100 percent, making this a true clash between the NBA's two best squads.

    In that situation, this should be Houston's battle to lose.

    The Rockets have the advantage of continuity, since none of their stars missed significant portions of the post-All-Star-break calendar. If necessary, they'll also get to play Game 7 at the Toyota Center, where they've thrilled their hometown fans with a 34-7 record and a 9.3 net rating. But perhaps most importantly, they seem to be a team of destiny this season.

    No wrong answers exist in any debate about these two outfits. You can pull numbers that support either point of view, and the series could very well come down to a few lucky bounces on shots that seemed to have no business dropping through nylon.

    But this is Houston's year.

    It's time for James Harden to validate his MVP candidacy by shelving concerns about his playoff performances—not that such an accomplishment matters to the award-earning process itself. This is Paul's best-ever chance to notch that ever-elusive Finals berth. It's time for those who don't follow every regular-season contest to learn about the greatness of Clint Capela and the efficacy of super-subs such as Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker.

    The Rockets aren't going to be denied in their pursuit of an appearance on the sport's biggest stage. 

    Prediction: Rockets in seven.

NBA Finals

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    1. Houston Rockets vs. 3. Philadelphia 76ers

    Boiling a playoff series down to a single stat is reductive.

    Let's do it anyway. 

    During the second half of the season, when they no longer faced a murderers' row, the 76ers emerged as one of the league's best defensive teams. No squad was better at depressing its foes' shooting percentages, and Philly also forces a fair number of turnovers while cleaning the glass to avoid allowing too many second-chance opportunities. 

    But the Sixers do have a major weakness that plays right into Houston's hands: fouls. 

    Only the Memphis Grizzlies (0.333) allow more free throws per field-goal attempt than Philadelphia (0.293), which spells trouble against a team that makes a living at the charity stripe. Led by Harden's endless parade, the Rockets rank third leaguewide in the offensive version of the same statistic. And they're going to exploit that advantage, which could only be magnified if Philly's youngsters get slightly shaken by playing on the Finals stage.

    Even if they don't, that's bad news for a foul-prone centerpiece such as Joel Embiid. Despite improving substantially upon his rookie efforts, the big man is still averaging 3.9 whistles per 36 minutes.

    We're projecting this as the first opportunity for Simmons and Embiid to hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy, but it won't be their last. And when they inevitably return to this final battle for the NBA's ultimate reward, they'll get to grow from this initial experience. 

    But they aren't there quite yet.

    Even during a season in which the Eastern Conference features the better-than-ever Raptors and the James-led Cavaliers, it remains the weaker half of the league. The Rockets, on the other hand, are the toast of the Association.

    They'll prove it when Harden and Paul finally get those pesky playoff monkeys off their backs. 

    Prediction: Rockets in five.

                    

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com and are current through the end of the regular season.