NBA Playoffs 2017: Way-Too-Early Round-by-Round Predictions

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 8, 2017

NBA Playoffs 2017: Way-Too-Early Round-by-Round Predictions

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    Yes, these round-by-round playoff predictions are too early. It says so right in the title.

    At this stage, what we can't forecast over the season's final six weeks or so—health, hot streaks, cold spells—outweighs what we can.

    Still, we've got 60-plus games of data for all 30 teams and enough head-to-head precedent to get a decent sense of how potential matchups could shake out. That's enough information to make some educated guesses, wouldn't you say?

    Even if it's not, there's enough certainty attached to all but the final playoff spots in each conference to justify looking ahead. And predicting how every round in the upcoming playoffs will shake out is a lot more interesting than dissecting the particulars of the "Get Crushed by the No. 1 Seed" sweepstakes.

West First Round: (1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Denver Nuggets

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    Prediction: Warriors in 4

    The real intrigue here is picking the occupant for the No. 8 spot—or, at least it's intriguing relative to how little uncertainty there is about the winner of this series.

    The Golden State Warriors are going to perform unholy acts against the team that winds up taking the last position in the Western Conference. Having seen the negative effects of prolonged pre-Finals playoff series last year, the Dubs should be motivated to end the proceedings quickly in the early stages of the postseason.

    Also: The occupant of this spot is going to be a sub-.500 team. In light of that, predicting anything other than a sweep seems silly.

    The Denver Nuggets will finish as the eighth-seeded sacrifice for a few reasons.

    Their lead on the other three teams (yes, we're down to three; the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans have disqualified themselves from consideration by being terrible) isn't dwindling. And the Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves have their own issues to address down the stretch. There's a nonzero chance one of them makes a run to take this spot, but it's not like it would change the outlook.

    The Warriors are 2-1 against the Nuggets this season, with the lone loss attributable to an emotional letdown following a spirited road win against the Oklahoma City Thunder. As impressive as the Denver offense has been, please don't try to tell me the league's No. 30 defense has a prayer of stopping Stephen Curry and Co.

West First Round: (4) Utah Jazz vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers

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    Prediction: Clippers in 7

    It's a cliche, but first-time playoff entrants have been known to suffer from happy-to-be-here syndrome. So while the Utah Jazz get kudos for reaching the dance (with home-court advantage in the first round, no less), this feels like a series they aren't quite ready to win.

    It's not as if the Los Angeles Clippers are some unstoppable postseason force, but they tend to sputter in the second round.

    Their experience and Chris Paul's status as one of the sport's preeminent game controllers give the Clips an advantage against a Jazz team whose offense may not hold up against the added scouting scrutiny of a seven-game series. Ranked 13th this year, the Utah scoring attack is prone to cold spells and tends to spin its wheels in the early portion of the shot clock.

    Strong defense and comfort with a slow pace should suit the Jazz to the playoff environment, but it's tough to trust in so little experience from their key pieces. Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson and George Hill have been there before, but Rudy Gobert and Rodney Hood will be newbies, while Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors have only experienced getting swept in four games.

    And say what you want about Paul not getting out of the second round, but he's at least made it there in four of his eight postseason trips.

    In two meetings this season, the Clips are 2-0, and the Jazz have averaged a paltry 73.5 points per game.

West First Round: (3) Houston Rockets vs. (6) Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Prediction: Rockets in 7

    The first noteworthy item in this matchup is the fact the Thunder will overtake the Memphis Grizzlies to get here.

    The Grizz currently occupy the No. 6 slot, but they're sliding. And it's not hard to envision Russell Westbrook putting together an epic closing run as he pushes for the MVP award and better postseason seeding.

    This pairing figures to be a great one, as Westbrook and James Harden duke it out in a series that will feature some obscene stat lines. Better still, thanks to the NBA's decision to announce the MVP and other awards at a June 26 postseason showcase, neither will know if the other secured that coveted hardware.

    That could make this series a one-on-one proving ground—not one that would factor into the voting, but one both players would view as a personal challenge.

    Matchups between these two teams have been close, with the Houston Rockets holding a 2-1 advantage in three regular-season games each decided by three points or fewer.

    It'll be close, but I see the Thunder failing to score consistently enough to survive a wildly entertaining first-round clash.

West First Round: (2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies

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    Prediction: Spurs in 5

    The Grizzlies actually dodged a bullet by missing Harden and the Rockets here, as Marc Gasol and Co. aren't equipped to chase around a pace-and-space, three-point addicted basketball science experiment for seven games.

    Memphis allows opponents to attempt 35.6 percent of their shots from long range, the third-highest figure in the league. That wouldn't have augured well for a series against trey-happy Houston.

    Slipping to No. 7 and getting the indomitable San Antonio Spurs in the first round, however, is of small consolation.

    While it might seem bold to predict even one win by the Grizzlies, keep in mind Memphis beat San Antonio (sans Kawhi Leonard) in an 89-74 slugfest Feb. 6.

    "When everybody is connected defensively ... communicating, being consistent and solid and being unselfish defensively, that puts us at a different level," Gasol told reporters after that one.

    That's the only meeting to date between these two teams, and we'll learn a lot more about the potential matchup when they face each other three more times during the season's final month.

East First Round: (1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (8) Miami Heat

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    Prediction: Cavs in 4

    The Miami Heat are getting in, and they'll do it at the expense of the Chicago Bulls.

    There are loads of angles to cover here, not the least of which is the Heat's recent two-game winning streak against the Cleveland Cavaliers—highlighted by Dion Waiters shouting into the heavens after triumphantly hero-balling his way to 29 points against the team that drafted him.

    You've got LeBron James playing against his former team, Waiters feuding with JR Smith, Pat Riley surely taking veiled shots at the King and the potential for Goran Dragic and Kyrie Irving to cook each other on offense.

    All that said, the Cavs are going to smash the Heat in a sweep—mostly because they're so much deeper and more talented, and partly because they'll be motivated to erase the memory of Miami's regular-season success.

    None of this will change the Heat's status as one of the best storylines of the year, but every fairy tale has to end sometime.

East First Round: (4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks

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    Prediction: Hawks in 6

    I'm worried about Kyle Lowry. And no, I don't care the Toronto Raptors have gone 4-2 since he went out with a wrist injury.

    On the year, Toronto's net rating is plus-8.1 with its starting point guard on the floor and minus-2.9 without him. That's a compelling difference, and it's one that will still matter even if Lowry is back for the first round. Because surgery on the right wrist of a right-handed player has to have an effect on his shooting stroke.

    A diminished Lowry would put a lot of pressure on DeMar DeRozan, whose playoff performance last season was a major disappointment. Considering his iso-heavy style, it's not all that surprising DeRozan has struggled to sustain his regular-season success in the more dialed-in, extensively game-planned environment of the postseason.

    To be clear, in a vacuum, I don't think the Atlanta Hawks are an objectively good or dangerous team. But the Raptors have had their share of playoff collapses, Lowry's health looms large, and it's difficult to trust the Toronto offense against the connected, proven Atlanta defense.

    Let's call this a minor upset.

East First Round: (3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Indiana Pacers

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    Prediction: Celtics in 4

    The Indiana Pacers may win more games than they lose this year, but it's just impossible to take them seriously as a postseason threat.

    Paul George put up 36 points, 10 rebounds and five assists (the first time a Pacer has done that since 2008) against the Charlotte Hornets on Monday, and Indiana still lost by a dozen. That has to demoralize a guy who spent time before the trade deadline effectively advertising his intent to seek employment elsewhere if no title-seeking help was forthcoming.

    The Boston Celtics have bodies to throw at George—Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley in a pinch—and the Pacers don't have enough supporting talent to pick up the slack.

    The Celtics have their issues on defense, but that won't matter against a club that has spent three-quarters of the season scoring inconsistently.

East First Round: (2) Washington Wizards vs. (7) Detroit Pistons

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    Prediction: Wizards in 5

    The Washington Wizards have been the Eastern Conference's best team by a considerable margin since Jan. 1, posting the most wins and highest net rating.

    That's why I like them to overtake the Celtics for the No. 2 seed and face the Detroit Pistons.

    Detroit gets a game against Washington because Reggie Jackson has recently shown signs of life, and because it beat the Wizards on a buzzer-beating tip-in by Marcus Morris on Jan. 21. So we know it's at least possible.

    If Jackson can make John Wall work (and possibly even get him into foul trouble), the Pistons could avoid a first-round sweep.

    But in a macro sense, Detroit's consistently superior performance with both Jackson and Andre Drummond off the court doesn't bode well. Stars and starters win playoff series, and if the Pistons haven't been able to rely on their two highest-profile players all year, what's to suggest they can do it then? And if Jackson and Drummond don't produce, are we really supposed to believe Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is good enough to impact a series by himself?

    No. No we are not.

Western Conference Semifinals: (1) Warriors vs. (5) Clippers

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    Prediction: Warriors in 5

    Picking the Clips to win a game against Golden State might be the most ridiculous prediction in this entire writeup.

    Los Angeles is 1-11 against the Warriors since the 2014 playoffs, and its 0-4 record this season was highlighted (lowlighted?) by a 46-point annihilation Jan. 28. It's not a stretch to say the Dubs are in the Clippers' heads.

    Here's what Los Angeles coach Doc Rivers told reporters after that massive blowout:

    At halftime, I asked our guys, 'What do you think is hurting us?' They said, 'The three.' And I said, 'You gotta be kidding me. We're even.' We were 8-for-13, and they were 8-for-13. It's amazing the mental thing when they make a three. Curry can make a half-court shot to tie us in three-pointers. But they had 46 points in the paint. The paint is what killed us tonight. Their drives, their cuts, their layups—and our guys are still thinking about the three-point shots. That didn't hurt us. It did later, but in the first half it was all the layups.

    Maybe it's pity, or maybe it's a gut feeling that Golden State, prone to relaxing when not threatened, might ease up and allow the Clippers to salvage one win.

    But the nail rarely beats the hammer in a rivalry, and we should also remember Los Angeles isn't allowed to play in the conference finals.

Western Conference Semifinals: (2) Spurs vs. (3) Rockets

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    Prediction: Spurs in 7

    There are reasons to believe the Rockets can beat the Spurs.

    Tactically, San Antonio's strategy against the pick-and-roll tends to play into Houston's hands.

    "This looks like when the Suns swept San Antonio away in the 2010 playoffs," SB Nation's Mike Prada tweeted early during the Rockets-Spurs game Monday. "Spurs dropping, and Rockets' PNR game is way too good for that."

    San Antonio went on to win anyway because Kawhi Leonard put together a closing stretch of 15 points in the final five minutes to swing the game, but as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich noted, it might not be a great idea to see that as a sign of his team's clear superiority.

    "Both teams are hungry," he told reporters. "Both teams are very competitive, very physical. It was anybody's ballgame. It's not like we kicked anybody's butt."

    In the end, this is still partly about Leonard, though. He gives San Antonio a superstar who can win games on either end. As great as Harden is, he doesn't do that for Houston.

    The Rockets were 1-3 against the Spurs in the regular season, but throw that record out. Three contests were decided by two points, and the other was a six-point affair.

    This one is destined to go seven.

Eastern Conference Semifinals: (1) Cavaliers vs. (5) Hawks

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    Prediction: Cavs in 4

    Let's review the facts.

    The Cavs have James.

    The Cavs set an NBA postseason record by making 25 threes in one game against the Hawks last year.

    The Cavs set an NBA regular-season record by making 25 threes in one game against the Hawks this year.

    The Cavs have double agent Kyle Korver. All of the Hawks' secrets are known.

    The Hawks have been outscored this season.

    The Hawks offense ranks 25th in the NBA.

    Again: The Cavs have James.

    The recent history between these two teams is one of total dominance by the Cavs. So while it's nice the Hawks will advance this far, we know how this story has to end.

Eastern Conference Semifinals: (2) Wizards vs. (3) Celtics

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    Prediction: Wizards in 7

    Postseason rotations have a tendency to shrink, which means clubs plagued by depth issues during the year can sometimes feel more comfortable (and play more effectively) in the tightened-up playoff setting.

    That's good news for the Wizards, whose starting lineup is an NBA-best plus-298 in over 1,000 minutes together this season. No other five-man unit has amassed a higher net total.

    If Bojan Bogdanovic and Kelly Oubre Jr. offer anything at all in reserve, Washington will be in fine shape.

    Boston, meanwhile, won't have the advantage of leveraging its superior depth. Add to that the impossibility of Isaiah Thomas limiting either Wall, Bradley Beal or whomever the Celtics try to hide him on, and you've got a recipe for the Wizards to advance.

    Washington has been better than Boston for several months now, and it owns a 2-1 mark and 117.4 offensive rating against the Celtics so far this season. Though Boston is a quality team with great coaching and a dangerous offense, that won't be enough.

    The Wizards are too good. They take this one in a seven-game epic.

Western Conference Finals: (1) Warriors vs. (2) Spurs

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    Prediction: Warriors in 7

    The scheduling gods have done us no favors, as we haven't seen the Warriors and Spurs square off since the season opener in which San Antonio pounced on a Golden State team that had clearly not yet adjusted to life with Kevin Durant.

    We'll get a second look Saturday, but KD won't participate in that one.

    All we can do here is price in the possibility that Durant won't be fully healthy for the conference finals while also acknowledging the Spurs' superior record (12-2 vs. 11-4) since Feb. 1.

    Home-court advantage is critical, and we're predicting it proves decisive for the Warriors. In that sense, this is a bet on Golden State holding strong down the stretch and keeping its top seed.

    Maybe, as usual, we're not giving proper deference to San Antonio's perpetual dominance. But we should note that the Warriors without Durant had the Spurs thoroughly solved by the end of last season. And though Golden State's roster turnover—not to mention San Antonio's handing the keys to Leonard—changes the dynamic a bit, it's still true the Spurs have players the Warriors can exploit.

    Tony Parker is a liability against Curry, and there's nowhere to hide him without Harrison Barnes around. Pau Gasol may be unplayable in key situations because of his immobility.

    All that said, this is a series that could go either way—especially if the Splash Brothers bring their slumps to the playoffs.

Eastern Conference Finals: (1) Cavaliers vs. (2) Wizards

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    Prediction: Cavaliers in 6

    A Raptors team playing nowhere near as well as the Wizards are now pushed the Cavs to six games in last year's conference finals, so that's one piece of the logic that gets Washington to Game 6 here.

    The tricky part for the Wizards is that this version of the Cavs is probably better than the 2015-16 edition—assuming reasonable health in mid- to late May.

    Cleveland is so deep, so loaded with shooting and so much better equipped to deal with injuries that it's probably generous to forecast Washington making a series of this.

    But Wall is going to punish Irving, and unless the Cavs ruthlessly capitalize on Wall's suspect outside stroke by cheating off him, the point guard matchup should favor the Wizards. Putting Irving on Beal might be even more dangerous, as Beal's off-ball movement could wear out Cleveland's second-best player.

    James is still the most important figure in this (or any) series, and Washington doesn't have great options to deploy against him.

    Having expended little energy to reach this point, James and the Cavs will prove too fresh, skilled and offensively potent for a very good Wizards team.

NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

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    Prediction: Warriors in 7

    This has to happen, doesn't it?

    A rubber match to settle things. A seven-game referendum on this era of NBA basketball.

    Are the Warriors the greatest team of their time, a squad whose historic statistical achievements will include beating James in two Finals?

    Or will James add another brick to the towering monument of his legacy by again besting an all-time foe on the ultimate stage?

    Health played a major role in the last two Finals meetings between these teams, and with Durant, Smith and Kevin Love all currently ailing, it figures to be a factor again.

    Picking the Warriors is a bet on their pride. It's a wager they'll be uniquely motivated to make up for the embarrassment of last year's infamous 3-1 collapse.

    Golden State may be able to play Korver and Channing Frye off the floor, which could limit Cleveland's three-point potency. But if the Dubs don't finally get back to a pick-and-roll heavy attack led by a healthy Curry, it may not matter.

    There's not a lot of new analysis to put forth here. Yes, a healthy Durant would change the calculus a bit and should give Golden State an edge. But his fitness following an MCL sprain is so up in the air that it renders this matchup a near coin flip.

    Either team could win, but we're picking the Warriors. The only surprising result would be a resolution in fewer than seven games.


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    Stats courtesy of and unless otherwise indicated and accurate through games played Tuesday.


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