(Featured photo from NBA.com)
Time to get ready for the 2018 NBA Playoffs. To help you get ready for the first round matchups, I decided to give a short team summary for each team on what has gone down during their seasons, and how they are shaping up going into the playoffs. After that I give my predictions for each round including who I think will win the NBA Finals this year. Enjoy!
Team Previews – Western Conference
(1) Houston Rockets – 65-17
The Houston Rockets will be entering these playoffs with more expectations than they entered the season with. The general consensus entering the season was that the West was the Warriors’ conference to lose. That is no more, as the Rockets are legitimate favorites to come out of the West. The team boasts the best Net Rating in the league at 8.5, they make the most threes per game at 15.3, and they get to the line an average of 25.1 times a game which is good for 3rd in the league. Their team thrives on isolation/pick-and-roll play with James Harden and Chris Paul. The two, especially James Harden, suck the defense in which will lead to Harden/Paul getting to the line or dishing it out to their numerous deadly three point shooters like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Gerald Green, and Trevor Ariza. They might be the best built roster in the league aside from the Warriors, and it has shown in their 65-17 record for the season.
(2) Golden State Warriors – 58-24
Only the Golden State Warriors can be going through a “rough” season and still end up with a 58-24 record. They’ve had a bad case of the injury bug with their core players all missing games. Kevin Durant missed 14, Klay Thompson missed 9, and Draymond Green missed 12. That doesn’t include their role players like Andre Iguodola who has missed 18 games over the course of the season.
These are the Warriors though. They’re not playing for the regular season, they’re playing for the playoffs. But that’s why their biggest injury prone player this season, Steph Curry, presents them with a real problem heading into the postseason. He reportedly won’t be back for the playoffs until the second-round, and they’ll definitely be needing him. In the 31 games that Steph missed in the regular season, they’ve gone 17-14, which is far worse than their record with him on the court. They may still have a team full of All-Stars, but Curry might be the most important one. He will definitely be needed for the team to make a run for a 3rd championship in 4 years.
(3) Portland Trail Blazers – 49-33
Most NBA pundits screwed up in regards to predicting where the Portland Trail Blazers would land in the standings. ESPN, in this preseason article, predicted the Trail Blazers would finish the season 10th in the West. They blew that prediction out of the water obviously, finishing 3rd for the season. Led by Damian Lillard who will definitely get MVP votes, the Trail Blazers finished the season 49-33. They’ve played very well in the final stretch of the season going 16-3 from February 23rd-April 1st. The bad news is that they’ve played poorly in the final week and a half of the season, going 1-4 in their last 5 games. It’ll be interesting to watch Dame, as he may still be battling an ankle injury after missing April 5th’s game against the Rockets. They’ll need their star to be near 100%, along with CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic continuing to back him up. The team will also need to rely on getting solid contributions from players like Al-Farouq Aminu, who is second on the team in +/-. If those things don’t happen, don’t be surprised if they maybe get upset in first round by the New Orleans Pelicans.
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder – 48-34
Given what NBA experts were predicting about the Thunder, this season has been a bit of a disappointment. The team did however end up in the 4th seed when only a couple days ago they were slated to be the 7th, facing the Warriors in the first round. That wasn’t going to bode well for a team who was possibly expected to be a threat in a WCF. They will now face the Utah Jazz in the first round, in a more favorable matchup.
They may have had high expectations thrust on them in the preseason, but they weren’t unwarranted, as the team had a “big 3” consisting of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony. Although Westbrook has continued his NBA MVP-caliber ways, Carmelo has been disappointing. He has averaged career lows in Field Goal Percentage, Assists Per Game, and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), among other things. Paul George has also struggled since the All-Star break and may be battling a forearm injury. Those two players’ issues, paired with the continued absence of defensive specialist Andre Roberson due to injury, must have Thunder fans worried. George, Carmelo, and Steven Adams will all have to pitch in every single game to help Westbrook out if they want a chance at making a run at the WCF.
(5) Utah Jazz – 48-34
The Jazz are one of the better stories of the NBA this season. After losing their star in Gordon Hayward, there weren’t many high expectations for the team. The team still had Rudy Gobert, one of the best defensive players in league, but were going to plan on leaning heavily on players like Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors to pick up production. Turns out they also got a gem out of the 2017 NBA Draft, in Donovan Mitchell. The former Louisville player could potentially steal Rookie of the Year from Ben Simmons, averaging 20.5 PPG, 3.7 APG, and 1.5 steals per game.
Even with Mitchell’s impressive offensive repertoire, the team definitely relies on its superb defense led by the big Frenchman, Rudy Gobert. With Gobert on the court, the Jazz have a 97.7 DRTG, while they have a 105.0 DRTG with him off the court. His impact was easily seen in their record when he returned from injury, as the team ended their season 29-9 once he came back. They definitely have a chance against the Thunder, hell, they should probably be favored.
(6) New Orleans Pelicans – 48-34
There wasn’t much certainty when DeMarcus Cousins went down with his Achilles injury that the Pelicans would even make the playoffs. Anthony Davis said “hold my beer” and averaged 28.8 PPG and 12.5 RPG once his fellow All-Star big man went down. The team is definitely carried by the potential First Team All-NBA big man, but also gets great contribution from Jrue Holiday, who is averaging 18.9 PPG and 6.0 APG. The team will be able to expect production from Jrue, but the key to them advancing to the second round and any further will be mid-season trade acquisition, Nikola Mirotic. The Pelicans are currently on a 5 game winning streak, but before that they had lost four in a row. In the current winning streak, Mirotic is averaging 25.8 PPG while in the losing streak he was averaging 8.6 PPG. He will have to continue to try and replicate that production that Cousins provided if they want to advance.
(7) San Antonio Spurs – 47-35
Speaking of disappointing seasons, the Spurs definitely would have liked this season to go a little differently. They reached their 21st straight playoffs, but this year was more of a close call than past years. This was due to their star, Kawhi Leonard, being out for pretty much the whole season due to a quad injury. There has been much drama surrounding the issue, and the Spurs are still not sure whether or not Kawhi will come back for the playoffs. It has even got to the point that Kawhi’s future with the team is in question. It seems like he won’t return during the playoffs, so the Spurs will have to rely on LaMarcus Aldridge to help them advance in the competitive West. Aldridge has taken on a lot without Kawhi, averaging 23.1 PPG, 8.5 RPG, and 2.0 APG, all new highs in his short time with the Spurs. They will also try and rely on their stout defense which is 4th in the league in regards to Defensive Rating. It still might not be enough to continue their playoff successes if they don’t have Kawhi, especially since they have to face the Warriors in the first round (for the second straight year).
(8) Minnesota Timberwolves
As I’m writing this, the Timberwolves just beat the Denver Nuggets in a win-or-go-home game to get into the playoffs. Both teams looked tired towards the end, and that’s definitely not surprising for the Timberwolves. It’s been the story with them all season that head coach Tom Thibodeau might be overplaying his starters. His starters average 34.96 MPG while the bench player with the most MPG is Jamal Crawford with 20.7. In fact, Jimmy Butler, Karl Anthony-Towns, and Andrew Wiggins are all in the top 15 in the NBA in MPG. Many NBA experts are worried about how this will pan out once the playoffs come around, as most teams give more rest to their starters over the course of the season in anticipation of logging more minutes as they get deeper in the playoffs. With that being said, when Jimmy Butler and KAT are at their bests at the same time, they can beat anyone. They’ll need that to get out of the first round against the Houston Rockets.
Team Previews – Eastern Conference
(1) Toronto Raptors – 59-23
The Raptors will be in the playoffs for the 5th straight year this year, with this being the first time under Duane Casey that they will be the 1 seed. They have higher expectations this year given their record, but it remains to be seen whether or not they will meet them. The team has had great records these past few years, but have performed poorly in the playoffs. They lost in the first round in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, then in 2015-16 they made it to the ECF, but then fell back into disappointment by losing in the second round last year. They’ve improved heavily this season as a team, putting a focus in the off season on moving the ball and attempting more threes. They’ve gone from 24.3 3PA per game and 18.5 APG in 2016-17 to 33.0 3PA per game and 24.3 APG during this season as a result. These improvements have them being 3rd in the league in ORTG. They’re no slouch on defense either, resulting in them being the only team to be top 5 in ORTG and DRTG. However, they’ve struggled in their past few games, going 7-6 to end the season. That’s scary, given that the team has so much pressure to prove this regular season is no fluke by having some actual success in the playoffs. If they play as good as they played all regular season, they could easy make it to the NBA Finals. That’s a big “if” though, especially with the probable second round matchup against LeBron and the Cavs.
(2) Boston Celtics – 55-27
The Celtics have had quite the roller coaster of a season in regards to fan expectations. Coming into the season, expectations were very high due to newly acquired players Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Then on opening night as everyone saw, Hayward broke his ankle and the expectations went down a bit as Kyrie was going to be expected to lead the team by himself. No one was prepared for the emergence of Jayson Tatum though, as the rookie guard has looked like an NBA veteran all season. Tatum combined with Kyrie, Al Horford, and the other young players like Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, had the Celtics seeming poised to make a run to the NBA Finals. Then a week ago it was announced Kyrie needed surgery on his problematic knee and would miss the rest of the season. The Celtics as a result will go into the playoffs with an offense that will be heavily reliant on Tatum and the other young guards. They should still advance in the first round, but might have trouble after that. Although, with a favorable path to the Finals due to seeding and a still elite defense led by Horford, they could surprise everyone again and make it to the ECF. Either way, Celtics fans know they’ll be back next year to make a run for a championship.
(3) Philadelphia 76ers – 52-30
“Trust the process”, they said. All NBA experts were definitely trusting it for the 76ers future. Ben Simmons came in as of the NBA’s many young “unicorns” as a 6’10” point guard, and Joel Embiid had shown last year that he had the potential to be one of the best big men in the NBA. Everyone knew this team would be really good somewhere down the line. Not many people predicted it would happen this fast.
The 76ers will be coming into the playoffs with the 3 seed and a 52-30 record. It’s the first 50+ win season for the team since 2000-01 (when a certain Allen Iverson played), and Philly fans are definitely excited. The team is also heading into the playoffs with a 16 game winning streak, so they’re the hottest team in the NBA right now. Also, if they win in the first round, they’ll most likely have the Boston Celtics in the 2nd round who will be without their best player, Kyrie Irving. This surprise team could surprise us one more time by possibly making the ECF. Embiid however will miss at least part of the first round with a broken bone around his left eye that he suffered on a collision with Markelle Fultz on March 28th. He will come back with a face mask, and it’ll be interesting to see how well he performs. Another X-factor to watch for the team is Robert Covington, who is one of the better defenders in the league with the 5th highest DRTG of players who have played at least 55 games.
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers – 50-32
Isaiah Thomas. Dwayne Wade. Channing Frye. Jae Crowder. Derrick Rose. Iman Shumpert. All of those players started the season with the Cavaliers, but they won’t be entering the playoffs with the Cavs.
In one of the biggest team overhauls in NBA history, the Cavs traded away all those players in multiple deals to get younger, faster, and better defensively. Two of those worked after the trade, but the team is still lacking on defense. Even after the All-Star break when the newcomers like Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood, and George Hill had got a few games in Cavs uniforms, they team still sucked on defense. It shows in their 109.5 post-All-Star break Defensive Rating, which ranked second-to-last in the NBA. That doesn’t mean they can’t outscore opponents whenever they want though, as they also have the 5th highest Offensive Rating since the All-Star break. That’s what happens when you put a bunch of young shooters around LeBron James, you end up scoring some points. The Cavs will be entering the playoffs as a lower seed than they are used to with LeBron, but that doesn’t mean they still can’t make all the way to the Finals. That’s what happens when you have maybe the greatest player of all-time on your team. Would he be enough to defeat the Rockets or Warriors in the Finals? That’s uncertain.
(5) Indiana Pacers – 48-34
If you thought the Pacers would be the 5th seed in the East this season, you’re either lying or omniscient. The same applies for knowing Victor Oladipo would be a borderline First Team All-NBA player this season. He truly is the reason for the Pacers’ successes this season, coming over in the trade that brought him and great contributor Domantas Sabonis from the Oklahoma City Thunder for Paul George. Everyone thought the Pacers got fleeced. Well jokes on them because here they are. Oladipo ends the season tied for 9th in the league in PPG (George is 17th, by the way), and has actually raised the Pacers ORTG from 106.2 in 2016-17 to 107.2 this year. Other than Oladipo, the Pacers have a balanced attack with 5 other players who average in double figures for PPG. Bojan Bogdanovic (that’s a fun name) is one of them, coming in at 2nd on the team with 14.3 PPG. Bojan is a bonafide shooter, shooting 40.2% from 3 on 4.8 attempts per game.
No matter how many players are contributing, the Pacers will more than likely need Oladipo to outperform his season average of 23.1 PPG for them to even get out of the first round against the Cavs, let alone make a deep playoff run.
(6) Miami Heat – 44-38
The Pacers are a balanced team as I said, but not as balanced as the Miami Heat. They ended the season with 8 players averaging double figures in PPG. They’re “led” by Goran Dragic with 17.3 PPG as he continues his career of model consistency. Below him are a list of seldom-heard-of players including Wayne Ellington, Tyler Johnson, and James Johnson. The team has enjoyed success through their top level defense, as they give up the 4th least PPG. That defense is led by Josh Richardson who is 18th in the league in steals with 1.5 per game. Their team defense though is the only way they’ll be able to advance, as they are 7th in DRTG and 6th in blocks. Erik Spoelstra, one of the best coaches in the league, will have to get his players to play at an even higher level defensively to match up against the Heat. Also be sure to watch Hassan Whiteside, as he went on a RAMPAGE, complaining about his playing time and saying he might be better off somewhere else. It’ll be fun to see if Embiid comes back because the two have enjoyed a little rivalry between each other.
(7) Milwaukee Bucks – 44-38
For having one of the best players in the league, the Bucks are having a bit of a disappointing season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 27.1 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 4.8 APG, and 1.4 BPG, but no matter how good his stats are, that’s the last time I’m ever going to type his last name. The craziest part about those 27.1 points per game, is that Giannis does that with a below average jump shot. That means almost all of those points are inside the arch, and usually come with some contact at the rim. He’s amazing, but one top 5 player doesn’t always mean immense success. The team has gone through some rough sledding, firing Jason Kidd mid season and missing Jabari Parker for the whole first half of the season due to recovery from his ACL tear. The team is one of the longer and more athletic teams in the NBA, so you’d think they’d be stellar at defense. This isn’t the case, as the team ranks 17th in the league in DRTG. This won’t be their year, but they’ll be fun to watch either way with Giannis on the team. Hopefully they can figure out some things in the off season to build a contender around a probable future MVP.
(8) Washington Wizards – 43-39
The Wizards will be going into the playoffs as the most internally dysfunctional team. Head coach Scott Brooks recently said the Wizards are playing a selfish brand of basketball, and Marcin Gortat agrees. That’s interesting, as the Wizards have been criticized as playing too much isolation and not moving the ball around with John Wall on the court. The team even randomly adopted an “everybody eats” approach (as Bradley Beal called it) while Wall was injured. This brings us back to Gortat agreeing with Brooks’ comments, and how it comes back to Wall and his reputation of selfish basketball play. Before Wall went down to injury, him and Gortat were really getting into it. This might be another extension of it. Either way, that’s all the talk of the Wizards this season, as they didn’t meet their fan’s expectations at all. With that being said, the Raptors are going to have a rough first round matchup, because with Beal and Wall, anything is possible.
First Round Predictions
(1) Houston Rockets vs (8) Minnesota Timberwolves: Rockets 4-1
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs (5) Utah Jazz: Jazz 4-3
(2) Golden State Warriors vs (7) San Antonio Spurs: Warriors 4-1
(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs (6) New Orleans Pelicans: Trail Blazers 4-2
(1) Toronto Raptors vs (8) Washington Wizards: Toronto 4-2
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs (5) Indiana Pacers: Cavs 4-1
(2) Boston Celtics vs (7) Milwaukee Bucks: Celtics 4-1
(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs (6) Miami Heat: 76ers 4-3
Conference Semi-Finals Predictions
(1) Houston Rockets vs (5) Utah Jazz: Rockets 4-3
(2) Golden State Warriors vs (3) Portland Trail Blazers: Warriors 4-2
(1) Toronto Raptors vs (4) Cleveland Cavaliers: Cavs 4-3
(2) Boston Celtics vs (3) Philadelphia 76ers: 76ers 4-3
WCF, ECF, and NBA Finals Predictions
ECF: (3) Philadelphia 76ers vs (4) Cleveland Cavaliers: Cavs 4-2
WCF: (1) Houston Rockets vs (2) Golden State Warriors: Rockets 4-3
NBA Finals: Houston Rockets vs Cleveland Cavaliers: Rockets 4-2
Come back here after the playoffs to see how smart I am!