As the first round in the NBA playoffs wraps up, its time to make our (almost certainly wrong) predictions for the conference semifinals.
#1 Celtics vs #4 Wizards
Joe Karaki: Though it appears to be a tight matchup, with both round one series going to six games and the regular season series split evenly, I think the Wizards have the distinct advantage here. Strong rebounding presents difficulties for the Celtics and the Morris/Gortat combo did not back down from Atlanta’s imposing frontline. There is absolutely no place to hide Isaiah Thomas on defense while John Wall (who should most definitely be in MVP conversation) and Bradley Beal are absolutely cooking, making a name as perhaps the second best backcourt in the NBA. Both teams have stellar defensive wings (Crowder/ Bradley and Porter/Oubre) but the way John Wall is playing, the softness of the Celtics’ frontcourt and any matchup with Thomas basically guarantees him another series averaging 30 and 10, Wiz in 6.
Matt Huo: Isaiah won’t and shouldn’t be guarding Wall or Beal, which means they may hide him on Porter or Oubre, who both had solid regular seasons. Boston has the deeper team, but their rebounding is subpar and their small lineup will not match up well with Washington. In the case that the C’s do go small and push the tempo, Washington has the shooting and athletic advantage. Wiz in 6.
Douglas Andre: Both of these teams struggled in the first round against dysfunctional opposition, which should make for an interesting second round series. After attending his sister’s funeral in Washington, Isaiah Thomas may be able to clear his head and get back on track for the second round. Even if Thomas returns to his old form, I personally believe Washington still has the best player on the court in John Wall. Wall went off against the Hawks, willing the Wizards into the second round with big performance after big performance. The one troubling concern is the fact that Wall, known as a strong defender, allowed young guard Dennis Schroeder to have an extremely effective postseason, and IT is vastly superior to Dennis, at least on the offensive end. In the end, I believe the Celtics will be able to slow down Wall just enough through the defensive play of Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart in order to squeak out a win in the series, despite having the disadvantage in the paint. Celtics in 7.
#2 Cavaliers vs #3 Raptors
Joe: The Cavaliers rolled the Pacers in round one while the Raptors fended off the upstart Bucks in six. The Cavs looked lackadaisical at times, while the Raptors scored 12 points in a quarter of a playoff game. The frontcourt may be key in this series as Kevin Love will struggle with Serge Ibaka’s physicality but Jonas Valanciunas may be unplayable again as he struggles to defend the pick and roll while Tristan Thompson does so quite well. Cleveland’s ceiling is the main differentiator here, as they showcased their talent by storming back from a 26 point deficit (largest ever) and for four straight games executing down the stretch. The Raptors seem hard pressed to finish off games and too many times did their stars not show up to play. Round one showed us that even with Cleveland coasting and their opponents at their best, the Cavaliers are still in control. The East still has no answer for Lebron James, folks, Cavs in 5.
Matt: Unlike Joe, though the Cavs got the broomsticks out and swept the Pacers, it was a historically close sweep – had they played a less dysfunctional team or one whose defend was acceptable, I think Cleveland would have won in 5. That said, the Raptors didn’t look too sharp against the Bucks, as Giannis’ length and the Bucks ability to switch on defense really made the Raptors run more iso sets than they already do. I’m with Joe: East has no answer to LeBron (yet – I’m looking at you Giannis). Cavs in 6.
Douglas: The Toronto Raptors were seriously tested in the first round against the upcoming Milwaukee Bucks, and the LeBron led Cleveland Cavaliers are on a completely different level. Although the series against the Pacers ended in a sweep, the games were much closer than one would think. But, as has been the case since LeBron entered the league, he has the capability of carrying his team to victory. The Raptors retooled their roster this season specifically for this matchup, but DeMarre Carroll and PJ Tucker are not enough to contain LeBron James. Unless Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan ditch their “Trash Bros” label this series, the Cavs should come out on top. Cavs in 6.
#1 Warriors vs #4/5 Clippers/Jazz
Joe: Warriors erased a hot Blazers team down four key personnel. An upset in this series is stealing a game. Warriors in 4.
Matt: Warriors in 4 games with a 4 word explanation: Steph, Klay, Durantula, Draymond. Alternate 4-word explanation: No Kerr No Problem.
Douglas: The Warriors coasted in round one, while the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers are mugging each other for the honor of getting swept by the Warriors. Both teams fully healthy could have potentially stolen a game from GSW, but at this point, it seems virtually impossible. Warriors in 4.
#2 Spurs vs #3 Rockets
Joe: The Rockets dispatched the OKC Westbrook’s with relative ease even though Harden wasn’t at his best. The Spurs quietly struggled with the ferocious Grizzlies’ frontcourt (they missed Dedmon badly) and Conley’s timely All-Star level performances. The Spurs play the complete opposite this round as the Rockets will unload from deep with Lou Williams, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, and of course James Harden, daring the Spurs to match them shot for shot. Dedmon’s health may very well be the key here, as Danny Green, Patty Mills, and Kawhi Leonard can put in the defensive effort on Harden, but on switches Harden will torch Pau Gasol or David Lee. Switching the fleet footed Dedmon onto Harden for faster closeouts would slow down the D’Antoni offensive machine and swing the series in the Spurs favor. However, the Rockets played at much lower than their potential and Kawhi submitted multiple MVP performances, but Rockets beat a higher seed in fewer games and showed they still can get better, Rockets in 6.
Matt: The way I see this series, the Rockets have a higher ceiling/”if-they-play-their-best” scenario than the Spurs do. Kawhi is great, but unlike Harden, who should get his buckets and assists this series, he’ll have to be heroic on both ends (not that he is incapable), while the rest of his supporting cast has been rather inconsistent – Aldridge, Gasol, Green, Mills, are all guys who you would rather have had 3 years ago. Sure, rotations shorten in the playoffs, but I foresee Houston’s supporting cast giving Harden enough help to push them San Antonio. Rockets in 6.
Douglas: The Houston Rockets had no trouble dismantling the underwhelming Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, largely due to the stellar play of their supporting cast. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, played a hotly contested six game series with the Memphis Grizzlies, who rode strong performances from Marc Gasol and Mike Conley to steal two games. It took individual heroics from Kawhi Leonard, a rare sighting in Gregg Popovich’s system, in order for the Spurs to close out their series. The Spurs are one of the few teams in the NBA with enough defensively minded perimeter players to discomfort the Rockets three point barrage. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green will likely split time on James Harden, and players such as Jonathan Simmons can have a large defensive impact as well. While Harden will likely put up great raw stats, I predict they will come at an inefficient rate, just like they did against the Thunder. The Spurs are a much more talented team than the Thunder, and I believe they will be able to stymied the Rockets supporting cast more effectively. Plus, the Spurs have Leonard (my personal MVP pick), who is a hound on both sides of the ball. Spurs in 7.