NBA Playoff Bracket 2019: Round-by-Round Predictions

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 11, 2019

NBA Playoff Bracket 2019: Round-by-Round Predictions

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    All 30 NBA teams crossed the finish line of the 2018-19 82-game marathon.

    Now, 16 advance to the second season for a grueling four-round fight for championship bliss.

    The postseason is a test of mental toughness, physical stamina, execution, coaching and no shortage of good fortune.

    It's also fairly predictable, at least in the opening rounds. Last year, 10 of the 15 series were won by higher seeds, and three of the "upsets" were authored by either LeBron James or the Golden State Warriors. In 2017, it was 13 out of 15.

    This is not March Madness. If your projected playoff bracket calls for a slew of upsets, you're probably doing it wrong. Our picks aren't straight chalk, but we are more interested in likelihood than boldness.

Eastern Conference First Round

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    No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Detroit Pistons

    This might be even more lopsided than the seeding suggests, as the Pistons entered the playoffs with their backup alarm blaring. A full-strength Detroit squad would be overmatched here, but with Blake Griffin playing on one leg while he recovers from a knee injury, the NBA might consider adopting a mercy rule for this series.

    Prediction: Bucks in four

                

    No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers

    We've waited all season for the Celtics to be who we thought they were, and they still haven't flipped the switch. At this point, maybe it's foolish to keep waiting, although Gordon Hayward's encouraging finish (14.7 points on 60.0/36.4/79.2 shooting over his final 14 games) at least gives more of a reason to believe beyond the on-paper talent.

    We also waited for the Pacers to feel the sting of Victor Oladipo's absence, and it became much more noticeable in the second half. Indy went just 10-14 with a minus-1.1 net rating after the All-Star break.

    Boston's inconsistency can be maddening, and it might get worse with Marcus Smart on the shelf. But the Celtics have enough to escape this series.

    Prediction: Celtics in six

                          

    No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets

    Round of applause for the Nets returning to the postseason, and another round of cheers for D'Angelo Russell quieting his critics with his All-Star emergence. General manager Sean Marks quietly assembled an intriguing roster, and coach Kenny Atkinson made it go by forming a three-heavy attack around multiple shot-creators.

    Brooklyn can make Philly sweat, and the Nets feel destined to get a win either by catching fire from deep or seeing the Sixers go ice-cold. This hinges on the health of Joel Embiid, who may not be ready for the opener due to knee soreness. Assuming he's back sooner than later, though, expect him to be a difference-maker; he pounded Brooklyn for 30.0 points and 14.3 rebounds across four regular-season matchups.

    Prediction: 76ers in six

               

    No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Orlando Magic

    If you pooled these two rosters together, how many Raptors are taken before the first Magic player comes off the board? It has to be at least three, right?

    Nikola Vucevic's All-Star breakout was fun. Contract-year Terrence Ross had some electric moments, too, and he seems destined to tilt the scales one night by dropping a 30-piece on his former team. But Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam are too much for the Magic to handle.

    Prediction: Raptors in five

Western Conference First Round

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    No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Clippers

    The Clippers don't have a star. When DeMarcus Cousins is rolling and Draymond Green is flying around the hardwood, the Warriors have five. L.A. may have had the most surprisingly successful season in the league, but it stops here.

    Prediction: Warriors in four

                      

    No. 4 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz

    Just like last season, the Jazz shifted to overdrive once the calendar flipped. No one played better defense in 2019, and only two teams had higher net ratings.

    But the basketball gods didn't shine on Salt Lake City when setting this matchup. The Jazz struggle finding consistent scoring around Donovan Mitchell, and it's too much to ask the sophomore to go toe-to-toe with back-to-back scoring champ James Harden. Utah has looked like a second-round squad for the past four months, but the seed scrambling on the final night took that off the table.

    Prediction: Rockets in five

                      

    No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder

    Shout-out to the Blazers, who seemed primed for regression from last season but played their way back into the West's No. 3 seed. The Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt produces binge-worthy highlight reels, and Enes Kanter's offensive weapons are razor-sharp.

    Portland didn't collect a prize for its regular-season work, though. OKC is a brutal draw. The Thunder swept the season series 4-0—the only other team with a 4-0 knockout of its first-round opponent was Milwaukee—and have the length and athleticism to pester Portland on the perimeter. Russell Westbrook and Paul George are statistical prodigies, and Steven Adams could be the difference-maker with Jusuf Nurkic out.

    Prediction: Thunder in six

                     

    No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs

    This could be a popular upset pick: The Nuggets have the postseason's youngest roster, and the Spurs have Gregg Popovich. San Antonio also has a defense that can be dominant and offensive stars in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge.

    But Denver has Nikola Jokic, a nightly triple-double threat and the best player in this series. It also has Jamal Murray, an ignitable scorer and shot-creator who can make the Nuggets nearly unbeatable when he's hitting. The Nuggets play better on both ends and boast superior depth. That should be enough to work around their lack of experience.

    Prediction: Nuggets in six

Eastern Conference Semifinals

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    Bucks vs. Celtics

    A side-by-side roster comparison might lead you to believe this series would be a coin flip, if not one favoring the Shamrocks. But conventional wisdom goes out the window with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the glitch in any defensive system.

    Brad Stevens has steered Boston to top-10 defensive efficiency ranks in three of the last four seasons—including No. 1 in 2017-18—but even he can't figure out how to attack Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee's superstar averaged 31.0 points and 10.7 rebounds in three matchups against Boston this season, and those numbers were actually down from last year (33.5 and 10.8).

    "When Giannis is going downhill with a head of steam, there is nothing you can do individually to stop him," Stevens said, per Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe. "We've got a bunch of big, strong guys. Some of the best athletes in the world and still, when it is one-on-one in that situation, he gets such a head of steam and he is such a freight train coming downhill."

    The Celtics will try to avoid those one-on-one battles and force the rest of the Bucks to beat them. Boston is also elite when it comes to catch-and-shoot triples (tied for second in makes, seventh in percentage), which could prove problematic for a Milwaukee defense that yields more open threes than anyone.

    But the Bucks have the best player in this series, and they've done the superior job of making the whole greater than the parts. If you focus more on the numbers than the names, it's hard to find ways for Milwaukee to lose. 

    Prediction: Bucks in six

               

    Raptors vs. 76ers

    The Sixers made not one, but two super-high-stakes gambles this season, sacrificing depth and security by trading for unrestricted-free-agents-to-be Jimmy Butler (player option) and Tobias Harris. The rationale was as obvious as the risk.

    "We want to make sure at a minimum to advance deeper in the playoffs than we did last year," 76ers owner Josh Harris told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan.

    That might have happened with the right matchup, but Toronto is a brutal draw.

    Philly's playoff fate rests with Joel Embiid, and the Sixers have three different ways of attacking him: strength (Marc Gasol), length (Serge Ibaka) or speed (Pascal Siakam). And all three Toronto bigs are sharp enough shooters to pull Embiid away from the basket. The Raptors also have a fleet of long-limbed wing stoppers—led by Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and OG Anunoby—to blanket Butler and Harris.

    The Raptors will need the best version of Kyle Lowry, and their bigs will be challenged to consistently create and convert offensive chances. But if they pass those tests and Leonard looks like himself, Toronto should survive with better balance and depth.

    Prediction: Raptors in six

Western Conference Semifinals

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    Warriors vs. Rockets

    The best on-paper series of the postseason is...slated for the conference semifinals? Blame Paul George, who started Houston's slide to the No. 4 seed with his game-winning triple Tuesday night.

    But the Rockets knew their season would run through the Warriors—they admit to obsessing over this series—so maybe it doesn't make a difference when it happens.

    Houston took the season series 3-1, and it might have the league's only offensive weapon capable of answering Golden State's typical game-breaking runs. James Harden cooked up an unprecedented combination of offensive volume and efficiency, and in early January, he had 44 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds, 10 triples and one how-did-he-hit-that contested game-winner from deep against the Warriors.

    "We're seeing the very best of James Harden doing what he does," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said earlier this season, per Logan Murdock of Bay Area News Group. "Shooting his step-back three, getting fouled ... it's been amazing."

    But as dominant as Harden has been, he's outmanned in this series. Houston's summer sacrifices of long-limbed defenders Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute might hurt most in this matchup—the Rockets slipped from seventh to 18th in defensive efficiency—and Chris Paul hasn't been himself all season.

    Houston doesn't have a comfortable option for defending Kevin Durant. Stephen Curry has owned his matchup with Paul for a while now. If Klay Thompson's legs get taxed defending Harden, the Dubs can replace some of his scoring with DeMarcus Cousins'.

    Last season's Rockets came as close to dethroning the Dubs as any Western Conference club has, but this team isn't that one.

    Prediction: Warriors in six

                     

    Nuggets vs. Thunder

    In the regular season, the Nuggets swept the Thunder 4-0 with a 9.25-point average margin of victory. Tack on the question marks with Paul George's shoulder, and Denver seems like the obvious pick.

    So, why are we leaning a different direction?

    It's partly because this young Nuggets core has yet to take the playoff lumps that often come with developing into a contender. This is Denver's first postseason trip since 2013. No current Nuggets were a part of that team; most weren't even in the league yet.

    OKC might not have a ton of shared playoff experience, but its key players are all seasoned. Russell Westbrook has played in four conference finals and a championship round. George and Steven Adams have traveled three rounds deep twice. Dennis Schroder already has 34 playoff games under his belt, and Jerami Grant has 11 of his own.

    Experience isn't the only thing that matters, but it can separate two similar squads. And despite what the seeds might suggest, there wasn't much difference between OKC and Denver this season. The Nuggets and Thunder finished eighth and ninth, respectively, in net rating, with only 0.6 points per 100 possessions between them.

    Adams can at least make Nikola Jokic uncomfortable, Westbrook has too much athleticism for Jamal Murray, and George might run circles around Denver's wings. Between the top-level talent and increased urgency, OKC has just enough leaning its direction to survive this series.

    Prediction: Thunder in seven

Eastern Conference Finals

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    Bucks vs. Raptors

    Does anyone have a coin we can borrow?

    The Bucks led the NBA with 60 wins. The Raptors were right behind at 58. Milwaukee was one of two teams to finish in the top five leaguewide on both offense and defense. Toronto was the other.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo was the East's highest-rated player by ESPN's real plus-minus. Danny Green and Kyle Lowry were the conference's highest-ranked teammates in RPM (add on Pascal Siakam, and you have the highest-rated trio). Antetokounmpo led the MVP race, in our eyes at least. Kawhi Leonard averaged more points, rebounds and assists than he did in 2015-16, when he was runner-up to then-unanimous MVP Stephen Curry.

    In the post-LeBron James East, this is as good as it gets.

    The Bucks' having home-court advantage could be big, since they went a blistering 33-8 at Fiserv Forum this season. But our crystal ball gives a tiny edge to the Raptors.

    Toronto has infamously struggled in the postseason, but this core has grown more experienced in the process. The nucleus has morphed, too, as newcomers like Leonard, Green and Marc Gasol are all playoff regulars.

    Milwaukee, meanwhile, hasn't moved beyond the opening round since 2001, when George Karl was head coach and Ray Allen shared lead scoring duties with Glenn Robinson. The Bucks need more seasoning before they're ready for this stage.

    Toronto is capable of bothering Antetokounmpo as much as any club can with Siakam, Leonard, Green, Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby all likely to handle the assignment at some point. If the Raptors can make this a matchup of the supporting casts, they have more consistent, experienced weaponry on their side.

    Prediction: Raptors in seven

Western Conference Finals

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    Warriors vs. Thunder

    At different points this season, OKC looked like Golden State's biggest threat in the West—if not the entire league.

    The Thunder defense squeezed the life out of opponents, with Paul George's play at that end pushing him into the Defensive Player of the Year race. The offense let him spread his wings, which moved him into MVP talks, while also finding enough touches for Russell Westbrook to average another triple-double and Dennis Schroder to score like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

    As SI.com's Michael Shapiro wrote in February, OKC had the recipe for challenging the champs:

    "Oklahoma City has a potential pathway to competitiveness with Golden State. The Thunder are long, athletic and furious on the glass, made in the same vein of the 2015-16 squad that blew a 3–1 lead before Kevin Durant left town. George evolving into a scoring threat akin to Durant is paramount to the Thunder’s success. Oklahoma City would need multiple 40-point efforts to even consider toppling the reigning champs. Beating Golden State may be a pipe dream. Testing the champs is within reach."

    But even when OKC was rolling, the prospect of eliminating Golden State was still a pipe dream. Plus, the Thunder haven't done much rolling of late. They went 12-13 with a minus-0.6 net rating after the All-Star break. Their defense has grown problematically generous, and this offense has always had issues with shooting (22nd in three-point percentage) and Westbrook's giveaways (second in turnovers).

    The math just doesn't work for an upset. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are a souped-up version of Westbrook and George, a full-strength DeMarcus Cousins trumps a full-strength Steven Adams and OKC has no matches for Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. It's too much Warriors, as per usual.

    Prediction: Warriors in five

NBA Finals

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    Warriors vs. Raptors

    It's long been said Golden State is its own biggest threat, and that may be true now more than ever.

    LeBron James isn't awaiting the Warriors in June, but a potentially catastrophic free-agency period is in July. The DeMarcus Cousins acclimation project is ongoing, which could mean Boogie isn't making it off the bench for any big moments. Stephen Curry just hurt his ankle again. Draymond Green has never been less threatening as a scorer or shooter during the Dubs' championship runs.

    Those are the internal concerns. The external ones for this series could be severe, too.

    If there's a defensive combination capable of slowing the Curry-Durant-Thompson trio, it probably looks a lot like Kyle Lowry, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, with OG Anunoby and Norman Powell sprinkled in for extra pressure. Marc Gasol could eliminate any secret-weapon potential with Cousins. Deploying Pascal Siakam as a small-ball 5 could perhaps be key in finally solving the Dubs' Death Lineup.

    "They're not an up-and-coming team," Durant said after Toronto completed its sweep of Golden State in December, per Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle. "They're here."

    The Raptors can give the Warriors problems. But toppling Golden State four times in seven games? That just doesn't happen.

    Star power proves to be the insurmountable edge for the Warriors, who can negate their depth concerns by trimming their bench to Steve Kerr's compact circle of trust. The Raptors check most of the boxes needed for the upset, but they fall short when it comes to scoring support for Leonard. 

    Prediction: Warriors in six

                      

    Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.