NBA Playoffs 2018: Way-Too-Early Round-by-Round Predictions

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 28, 2018

NBA Playoffs 2018: Way-Too-Early Round-by-Round Predictions

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    Will Kawhi Leonard be on the floor for the San Antonio Spurs? When will Stephen Curry return for the Golden State Warriors? Which of the Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans, Spurs, Utah Jazz or Minnesota Timberwolves will earn the West's No. 4 seed?

    Those are only some of the intriguing questions the NBA playoffs present.

    In the Eastern Conference, we get to wonder about the Cleveland Cavaliers' ability to flip the proverbial switch, the Toronto Raptors' next attempt at staving off postseason declines and the ahead-of-schedule nature of the Philadelphia 76ers.

    This postseason is set up to be an exciting endeavor, and we're going to answer all the questions before they even pop up. We're setting the stage with predicted seeds in each conference and then going through in round-by-round fashion until we determine the projected NBA champion.

    Surprises surely await.

Eastern Conference Opening Round

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    1) Toronto Raptors vs. 8) Milwaukee Bucks

    While the Toronto Raptors continue to cruise toward the best record in the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks face a middle-of-the-road schedule for the remainder of the campaign and are still searching for an identity. Since the All-Star break, the deer haven't given too many reasons to be feared, finding themselves on the wrong end of a minus-0.2 net rating.

    Those trends aren't reversing themselves.

    Toronto has too much star power in the starting five, and the bench continues to function as a wrecking ball. Giannis Antetokounmpo might be able to go off and steal one game from the comfort of his Brewtown arena, but the talent deficit is too significant for Milwaukee to think about an upset. This is the first series in which the Raptors will prove their new-look offense and depth of usable bodies will leave previous postseason perils planted in the past.

    Prediction: Toronto in five

            

    2) Boston Celtics vs. 7) Miami Heat

    The Boston Celtics have to love the cushion they built up with their scorching start to the season as hurdles present themselves in the form of injuries.

    Marcus Smart is trying to return for the playoffs after thumb surgery, but that's far from guaranteed. Kyrie Irving is going under the knife to fix a knee issue, and he's not a lock to feature in the opening-round lineup. Daniel Theis is done for the year. Gordon Hayward remains out with no return predicted in the foreseeable future.

    Fortunately for the C's, the Miami Heat are the opponent they should most want to see. With Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside as the marquee figures, they have the least upside of any bottom-half playoff squad in the East. Even if the aforementioned key presences are still sidelined, Boston could sneak by with a starting five comprised of Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Al Horford.

    Oh, and that Brad Stevens guy is still pacing the sidelines, ready to milk talent out of whichever Boston players populate the parquet floors.

    Prediction: Boston in six

            

    3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. 6) Washington Wizards

    The Washington Wizards feel like a veritable lock for the No. 6 seed, especially after a disappointing loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday. Regardless of the timing with John Wall's return, they're not going to chase down the Indiana Pacers or any of the other top squads, and the Heat and Bucks don't have the momentum or ease of schedule necessary to close the gap.

    Predicting the youthful Philadelphia 76ers at No. 3 is far bolder, but Joel Embiid's goal of a 50-win season remains a legitimate possibility. The Sixers are No. 4 in net rating since the All-Star break (7.9), and they boast the league's easiest remaining schedule. Just a game behind the up-and-down Cleveland Cavaliers at the time of these predictions, they're already that far ahead of schedule.

    When these two squads match up against one another, Philly's superiority will be on full display. Washington doesn't have anyone who can corral Embiid and Ben Simmons, especially as Dario Saric, JJ Redick and Robert Covington drag defenders out to the perimeter.

    Here's your key stat, though: Washington's net rating, per PBPStats.com, stands at an impressive 9.9 when Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. share the floor. Philly, however, is at 16.0 when Embiid, Simmons and Redick are playing.

    Prediction: Philadelphia in six

             

    4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 5) Indiana Pacers

    Led by Victor Oladipo during a go-round that should result in a Most Improved Player accolade, the Pacers have enjoyed a magical season. They're a legitimately dangerous squad that deserved to remain in contention for home-court advantage all year.

    But the Cavaliers are starting to flip that switch.

    "Ignore the Cavs' chances to run right back to the Finals at your peril. Cleveland is averaging a cool 124.3 points per game since Kevin Love's return last Monday," David Aldridge wrote for NBA.com while bumping the northeast Ohio representatives to No. 4 in his latest power rankings. Since that return, the Cavs are undefeated with victories at the expense of the Bucks, Raptors, Phoenix Suns and Brooklyn Nets.

    Michael Jordan lost in the opening round three times. LeBron James never has.

    That isn't changing.

    Prediction: Cleveland in five

Western Conference Opening Round

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    1) Houston Rockets vs. 8) Minnesota Timberwolves

    Even if Jimmy Butler is back on the floor for the Minnesota Timberwolves, they won't be capable of stopping the Houston Rockets. It's a terrible matchup for head coach Tom Thibodeau's squad, especially as he continues to rely on his starters for exorbitant minute totals and potentially wears them out in pursuit of the playoff berth that's eluded them for the last 13 seasons.

    Fortunately for the 'Wolves, they have enough of an advantage over the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers that they should be able to sneak into the field. Only the 76ers have an easier remaining schedule, after all.

    But then they'll become first-round punching bags. Sorry, but the league's No. 24 defense isn't going to slow down the top-ranked offense that's scoring at historic levels and led by the NBA's premier backcourt combination.

    Prediction: Houston in four

               

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

    "We're perfectly capable of beating anybody—regular season or playoffs, we can beat anybody without Steph," Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr told reporters after ruling out his star point guard for the first round of the playoffs. But Stephen Curry is still a massive loss who fundamentally changes the identity of this dangerous bunch.

    Without the talented floor general, the Dubs have produced a team-worst 4.3 net rating. Even with Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson likely in the fold, that could make for a difficult series against any team coached by Gregg Popovich.

    The San Antonio Spurs refuse to go away, maximizing the production of LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyle Anderson and the rest of the relatively unheralded roster. Dejounte Murray is playing fantastic defense at the point. Anderson is a bona fide stopper. Patty Mills keeps making triples. Above all else, the Spurs keep winning games.

    If Kawhi Leonard is able to play and Curry isn't, this series could become a coin toss. But smart money is still on the team with three remaining All-Stars, no matter how much the absence of the world's best shooter will hurt.

    Prediction: Golden State in seven

             

    3) Portland Trail Blazers vs. 6) Oklahoma City Thunder

    The Spurs could get Kawhi Leonard back. Jimmy Butler could be back in the fold for the Timberwolves. But Andre Roberson, who's lost for the season after a patellar rupture, isn't walking through that door to save the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Since the defensive ace last suited up in a Jan. 27 contest against the Detroit Pistons, OKC has gone 15-11 with a 1.2 net rating. It's beaten just five playoff teams: the 76ers (without JJ Redick), the Warriors, the Leonard-less Spurs, the lackluster Heat and the Raptors. On the season as a whole, the Thunder have outscored their opponents by just 0.1 points per 100 possessions when Roberson isn't logging minutes.

    Slowing down Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will prove an impossible task. Scoring against the Portland Trail Blazers, who have—against all odds, it seems—become better on defense than offense, should be even more difficult still. Rip City has gotten red-hot, and a Thunder squad not at full strength isn't changing that.

    Prediction: Portland in five

             

    4) Utah Jazz vs. 5) New Orleans Pelicans

    The Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans have comparable remaining schedules, but they're also two teams headed in different directions. While the former has used the return of Rudy Gobert as jet propulsion in an ascent up the Western Conference standings (one that will continue until it barely earns home-court advantage), the latter has remembered it's not supposed to be better without DeMarcus Cousins.

    Consider this: Over its last 10 outings, Utah has the league's best net rating, outscoring opponents by a staggering 12.7 points per 100 possessions. During that same stretch, it's produced a minuscule 95.2 defensive rating, which would rather easily be the supreme season-long mark.

    New Orleans, on the other hand, has been outscored by 0.6 points per 100 possessions.

    Anthony Davis can only do so much heavy lifting, and Gobert might literally be the last person he'd like to see in the first round.

    Prediction: Utah in five

Eastern Conference Semifinals

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    1) Toronto Raptors vs. 4) Cleveland Cavaliers

    This is the matchup we're all anticipating, even it comes a round before the Eastern Conference Finals.

    The Cavaliers still aren't fully healthy. We're waiting to see what they can do with Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr., Cedi Osman and everyone else ready to go. Head coach Tyronn Lue is a question mark as well. But even at full strength, this team probably won't be as good as the Raptors.

    If that seems like a hot take, you need to pay more attention to what Toronto has done. The Canadian franchise has the league's No. 3 net rating this season (8.0), and it's almost double the mark of the fourth-place Celtics (4.1). Basketball Reference's simple rating system, which is based solely on margin of victory and strength of schedule, bumps the Raptors up to No. 2, behind only the Rockets. The numbers all check out, and they also pass the vaunted eye test.

    Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are legitimate All-Stars who should be able to put their past playoff experiences behind them. This team shares the ball more than ever, no longer relying on isolation sets to generate offense—isolation frequency is down from 8.5 percent in 2016-17 (No. 6) to 5.7 percent this year (No. 22). It trusts every member of the roster, and it's the rare squad that should be able to continue using deadly bench lineups during a time of year in which rotations are supposed to contract.

    Stopping LeBron James will be tough, and Toronto will be forced to throw OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam into the fire. But Cleveland and its No. 28 defense (No. 21 since the start of March) will have even more trouble slowing down the league's No. 3 offense, which can attack in a wide variety of manners as offense comes from everywhere within the half-court set.

    Prediction: Toronto in six

            

    2) Boston Celtics vs. 3) Philadelphia 76ers

    The Sixers, unbelievable as this may sound, are ready.

    Their brand of tough-nosed, switch-happy defense is exactly the style of basketball that gets glorified during the playoff experience. They have a legitimate go-to scorer in Joel Embiid who can get buckets in myriad manners. Ben Simmons has arrived as a bona fide star, currently sitting at No. 15 in NBA Math's total points added and No. 20 in ESPN.com's RPM Wins. Perhaps most importantly, they feature one of the league's most imposing quintets.

    This prediction doesn't require Markelle Fultz to build upon Monday night's encouraging re-debut against the Nuggets. Nor does it rely on some role player such as T.J. McConnell or Richaun Holmes to have an out-of-body experience.

    Philly's five-man unit comprised of Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Embiid is one of just eight groups to log over 500 minutes together, and it's blowing the rest out of the water. Outscoring opponents by a whopping 21.1 points per 100 possessions, it's nearly seven points ahead of the next-best candidate over that same average stretch. In fact, only three of the 43 lineups with at least 200 minutes have topped their efficacy, and none belong to the C's.

    If Boston somehow gets fully healthy, this could go either way. But the Celtics haven't demonstrated the consistent scoring prowess necessary to get by this stifling Philadelphia defense, and shrinking rotations will only help Brett Brown's troops feature more offensive firepower. Plus, Embiid won't have to worry about any back-to-backs during the playoffs.

    Prediction: Philadelphia in seven

Western Conference Semifinals

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    1) Houston Rockets vs. 4) Utah Jazz

    The Jazz might be "en fuego" in recent outings, but the Rockets have been leaving a trail of scorched earth throughout the entire 2017-18 campaign.

    Impressive as the second-half run in Salt Lake City may be, the Rockets are now 41-4 when both Chris Paul and James Harden set foot on the hardwood. With the two guards together, PBPStats.com shows they're torching their adversaries to the tune of a 13.7 net rating. That's before we factor in the ever-growing excellence of Clint Capela, the three-and-D prowess of Trevor Ariza and the usefulness of an improved bench.

    Houston is a wholly complete team, capable of emerging victoriously even when its best players are experiencing off nights.

    Could the Rudy Gobert-led defense potentially slow down the Rockets' historic offensive machine? "Potentially" is the operative word, but it's a legitimate possibility. Even if they do, they'll need to generate points against a unit ranked No. 7 in defensive rating. Houston isn't a one-way juggernaut.

    Donovan Mitchell has served as an impressive scorer all year, but the Jazz don't have the attacking pieces necessary to keep up with even a tempered version of Houston's high-powered assault.

    Prediction: Houston in five

            

    2) Golden State Warriors vs. 3) Portland Trail Blazers

    Let's assume Stephen Curry is healthy by the time the Warriors are ready to take on the Trail Blazers in the second round. Majority owner Joe Lacob is already "hopeful" the star point guard can return by the end of the first, but he noted the Dubs will be conservative with his timetable because of his importance to the franchise, per 95.7 The Game.

    If that's the case, the Blazers are in trouble.

    Golden State hasn't had the same air of invincibility this year, sleepwalking through more contests and often refusing to exert the necessary effort on the defensive end. But we know what this squad can do when it emerges from its somnambulatory state in full working order, and it's already outscoring opponents by a dozen points per 100 possessions when Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant are all on the floor, per PBPStats.com.

    Damian Lillard is a deserving secondary MVP candidate this year and should be able to steal a game from the No. 2 seed. But Golden State boasts significantly more talent from top to bottom, especially when it's motivated to defend its title and isn't staving off boredom during an uninspired regular season.

    Prediction: Golden State in five

Eastern Conference Finals

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    1) Toronto Raptors vs. 3) Philadelphia 76ers

    Talented and dangerous as the 76ers may be, they're going to run into the same problem that first stopped the Cavaliers in these predictions: The Raptors are just...better.

    So much of the analysis of the No. 1 seed centers on the team's depth. Fred VanVleet has been excellent off the pine. Ditto for Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and virtually everyone under head coach Dwane Casey's purview who happens to begin games on the bench. Toronto's 9.5 net rating from its second-string players easily outpaces the mark earned by the No. 2 Houston Rockets (7.9). The Sixers, meanwhile, are down at No. 18 (minus-2.7).

    But as illuminating as that focus can be, it also prevents the starting lineup from receiving due credit.

    If you're worried that the Raptors will have to shrink their rotation in the postseason, as so many teams often do, don't be. Not only should they be able to keep relying on a bench that's taken down plenty of opposing outfits comprised solely of starters, but their opening bunch has been deadly in its own right. Take a gander at the top net ratings for starting lineups in the Eastern Conference this season:

    1. Philadelphia 76ers, 7.8
    2. Toronto Raptors, 6.8
    3. Boston Celtics, 6.6
    4. Indiana Pacers, 3.9
    5. Milwaukee Bucks, 3.4

    No, it's not a coincidence that the two top marks belong to our representatives in this penultimate round of the playoffs.

    But Toronto has a number of advantages that allow it to make up for the deficit. Given its playoff experience, the fact its top players have gone through a full professional season before, the high-powered bench and the ability to win games on either end of the floor, it should put an end to the upstart Sixers' deep run.

    Prediction: Toronto in six

Western Conference Finals

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    1) Houston Rockets vs. 2) Golden State Warriors

    In February, ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton went through a detailed statistical analysis of the Rockets, attempting to determine whether they'd become the biggest threat to the Warriors' longstanding dominance. Here's the key takeaway:

    "While the Warriors should probably still be favored in a playoff matchup because of their potential to tighten up their rotation and play harder when necessary, the gap between them and the Rockets no longer looks nearly as large as we expected before the season. By virtue of their success at full strength, the Rockets have played their way into serious championship contention."

    The gap has closed since Pelton posted that article Feb. 27. While the Warriors have suffered numerous key injuries and continued to hemorrhage points on the defensive end, the Rockets have kept rolling toward the NBA's best record. Since Feb. 28, Houston's 9.6 net rating literally triples Golden State's 3.2.

    Could that change when the Dubs are once again at full strength? Sure. Will it matter that they can "tighten up their rotation and play harder" during the Western Conference Finals? Of course.

    But the Rockets can rely on their starters for more production, too. They'll also have the luxury of continuity while Golden State attempts to rejigger the offense upon Stephen Curry's return to the lineup. Perhaps most importantly, they'll get to play the decisive Game 7 in front of their hometown faithful at the Toyota Center, where they're 30-6 with a 9.0 net rating.

    This is Houston's season. The 2017-18 campaign presents a chance for James Harden to shatter the narrative that his performances decline in the postseason, and he's never before played better basketball. Chris Paul finally gets to go both to and beyond the Western Conference Finals.

    Though it's worth noting you can easily pull a surplus of statistics that support either of these squads, a feeling can sometimes supersede everything else. And this year, Houston has inspired a lot of positive feelings.

    Prediction: Houston in seven

NBA Finals

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    1) Toronto Raptors vs. 1) Houston Rockets

    Somehow, it seems like an upset to have both top seeds in the NBA Finals this year.

    The Rockets have to stave off their dynastic foes in the Warriors, while the Raptors likely won't be favored in Las Vegas during any matchup with LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Their previous playoff flops still leave a bitter taste in many mouths, even if this squad is light-years better and, despite boasting similar personnel, barely resembles those disappointing outfits.

    But in our predictions, they're each here on the biggest stage. And we've established both squads as dominant bunches that have obliterated teams with their work on both ends of the floor; Toronto, Houston and Golden State are the only three squads to rank in the top seven for defensive and offensive rating alike.

    This becomes about matchups, and that's bad news for the Raptors. How are they going to slow down a historic offense when its biggest strength coincides with the Toronto defense's largest weakness?

    Led by James Harden and his remarkable penchant for forcing contact and earning trips to the stripe, the Rockets embark upon veritable parades to the free-throw line. They earn a league-best 0.236 free throws per field-goal attempt—their only No. 1 placement in the offensive Four Factors.

    Meanwhile, the vaunted Toronto defense successfully depresses shooting percentages, forces a solid number of turnovers and is barely above average on the glass. But it fouls early and often. Only the Memphis Grizzlies, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns fare worse in opponent free throws per field-goal attempt, which spells trouble for the Eastern Conference challengers. Harden will have a field day attacking DeMar DeRozan and the rest of the backcourt defenders tasked with slowing him down.

    Toronto has the ability to slow down any pick-and-roll attacks that feature Clint Capela dashing to the hoop (No. 2 in roll man defense), but the fouling alone is an exploitable weakness. When you're trying to quell an all-time offense, you can't have any of those.

    Prediction: Houston in six

              

    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 heading into games on March 27. Remaining strength of schedule determined by Tankathon.

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