NBA Playoffs 2017: A Comprehensive First Round Preview
By Kelly Iko
After an NBA playoffs preview, Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) hugs Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) after the Rockets defeated the City Thunder at Toyota Center, Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
The NBA playoffs are finally upon us–and it only took 169 days to get here. This season’s first round has the makings to be one of the best in history.
Before the NBA playoffs, think of the regular season as a long ass high school prom. I know, strange. But stay with me here.
There’s a bunch of hype leading up to the event and everyone gets all dressed up. But then you get there and there’s one too many chaperones, the music kind of sucks, the girls are huddled in the corner, and the guys are all up against the wall.
Sure, you see your friends and have a pretty good time, but there’s something missing.
That something is the NBA playoffs, or as I like to call it, the after-prom. That’s where the REAL fun begins. There are no rules at the after-prom, just as anything goes in the playoffs.
Today, on April 15th, 16 teams will begin the postseason with championship aspirations. Don’t be fooled by the coaches and GMs who say getting to the playoffs is their season goal. Every team wants to lift the trophy come June.
That’s why the game is played.
Because of many circumstances, this is about as exciting of a first round as I’ve seen in a long time. It’s Playoff SZN, everybody–LET’S GET TO IT.
First up, the Eastern Conference. Previously known as the “wake me up in an hour” conference. The “does anybody want me to pick up their shift?” conference–sponsored by NBA TV.
Next: 1. BOSTON CELTICS vs. 8. CHICAGO BULLS
Feb 16, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls forward J Butler (21) drives on Boston Celtics center A Horford (42) during the second half at the United Center, Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
1. BOSTON CELTICS (53-29) vs. 8. CHICAGO BULLS (41-41)
Season series tied 2-2
The 2016-17 Boston Celtics, led by the feisty Isaiah Thomas and his 28.9 points per game, kept pace in the race for the No. 1 seed with Cleveland all year. The Cavs suffered a late season collapse, and the Celts were consequently able to secure home court throughout the Eastern playoffs. Boston finished the season 8th in Offensive Rating and 13th in Defensive Rating, which rightly puts them at contender status.
For a season that endured more ups and downs than a Drake album, a 41-41 record seems just about right for where Chicago ended up. The Bulls used a late season push, winning nine of their last 13 to secure the final spot in the East. Jimmy Butler is firing on all cylinders now and Rajon Rondo is finally resembling a serviceable point guard. We all know Dwyane Wade turns back into 27-year-old Flash this time of year. Maybe the whole Instagram debacle was good after all…
This series is not the typical 1-8 that you’re used to. For all their well-documented offensive struggles, people tend to forget that Chicago actually had a top-10 defense, finishing 6th in DefRtg. Coach Fred Hoiberg will use different schemes to get the ball out of Isaiah Thomas’s hands and force someone else to beat them. IT leads the league in fourth quarter scoring, so look for Jimmy Butler to get that assignment late.
These two teams produced one of the most entertaining seven-game series in NBA history back in 2009, with Boston sealing the deal. Call me crazy, but this time around, I’m riding with Windy City. They have both the second and third best players in this series and upper hand in veteran experience. Things slow down in the playoffs and Chicago has the defense and the rebounding.
Also, the last guy to bet against Dwayne Wade was the purple shirt guy in Charlotte during game six of last year’s playoffs. We all know how that turned out.
Space City Kelly’s Pick: Bulls in 7
Next: 2. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS vs. 7. INDIANA PACERS
Cleveland Cavaliers forward L James (23) is guarded by Indiana Pacers forward George (13) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse during a Cavs win, Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
2. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (51-31) vs. 7. INDIANA PACERS (42-40)
Cavs won season series 3-1
How did we get here? If the defending champs go 12-15 after the All-Star break, a lot of people begin to doubt the title credentials. As of today, ESPN has the Cavaliers at a 3% chance of winning the title in June. That is craaaaazy. Rumors of locker room problems, rotations out of whack, Tristan Thompson getting the Kardashian curse–these are all reasons why LeBron James and the Cavs could be in trouble. However, all this going on shouldn’t take away from the fact that Bron just had arguably his second greatest season ever. No player in history has averaged 25-8-8 while shooting 54% from the field.
And in the other corner we have the Pacers. They are literally an average team, 15th in OffRtg and 16th in DefRtg. That’s enough to get to the playoffs but as far as making noise, they’ll need a bit more than that. Paul George has been on absolute fire lately, putting up 33-7-5 since the beginning of March. He literally dragged Indiana by the heels into the postseason.
Will Cleveland’s defensive issues rear their ugly head? They give up 111 points per game, and teams that usually do that over the course of a season find themselves in the lottery. LeBron and the front office have built this team to outscore their opponents, but they don’t have the defensive grit of years past (which is odd givenTyron Lue’s background). Who raises their game when Bron is in foul trouble or rests? The Cavs are outscored by 8.5 points per game when he’s not on the floor. What happens when Indiana’s bench comes in? Their net rating of -4.6 is the worst of any team in the playoffs.
LeBron and Paul George have had some serious battles in their day. If what we saw late in the season is any indication of the entertainment level of this series, sign me up. Oh, and Lance “Born Ready” Stevenson is back with the Pacers. This should be goooood.
SCK’s Pick: Cavs in 6
Next: 3. TORONTO RAPTORS vs. 6. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Milwaukee Bucks forward G Antetokounmpo (34) dribbles the ball against Toronto Raptors guard D DeRozan (10) during the first quarter at Air Canada Centre, Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports
3. TORONTO RAPTORS (51-31) vs. 6. MILWAUKEE BUCKS (42-40)
Raptors won season series 3-1
Another year, another 50-win season for Dwayne Casey and his crew. DeMar DeRozan is coming off of a career year, and their additions at the deadline (Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker) strengthened an already strong squad that’s very capable of winning the East.
Kyle Lowry missed about 20 games with a wrist injury after the All-Star break, but looks to have put that behind him with his play leading up to the postseason. They are 6th in OffRtg and are on the cusp of being a top-10 defensive team. Those are serious stats not to be taken lightly.
By all means, Milwaukee should rest on its laurels and be happy they even made the playoffs. The Bucks were not supposed to be here–yet. But thanks to the outstanding season of Giannis Antetokounmpo, they have a puncher’s chance. Giannis finished the year with an achievement that nobody else has ever accomplished: he ranked in the top 20 in virtually every stat category–points, assists, rebounds, blocks, steals.
Losing Jabari Parker hurt, but sharpshooter Khris Middleton‘s timely return made it not so bad after all. They went 17-6 since he rejoined the lineup, outscoring their opponents by about six points with him on the floor.
On paper, the Bucks look like a troublesome team. They’re 26th in pace, and are excellent in defending the fast break. The length that Milwaukee possesses will also give Toronto a bit of trouble. In fact, against the Bucks, opponents take 18% of their shots in the last six seconds of the shot clock, tops in the league. But the Raptors have the depth, talent, and playoff experience to get past the Bucks. Giannis’s brilliance is enough to get them a game, but that should be about it.
SCK’s Pick: Raptors in 5
Next: 4. WASHINGTON WIZARDS vs. 5. ATLANTA HAWKS
Washington Wizards guard J Wall (2) reacts after a basket against the Atlanta Hawks during the second half at Verizon Center, Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
4. WASHINGTON WIZARDS (49-33) vs. 5. ATLANTA HAWKS (43-39)
Wizards won season series 3-1
The Wizards got off to a rocky 2-8 start this season and doubt started to creep in. Did they make a mistake giving Bradley Beal that monster contract? Having failed to get a meeting with KD, would John Wall eventually up and leave in a couple years given their lack of ambition? Eventually, the electric backcourt of Wall and Beal stepped up their game and carried the Wizards to a game away from 50 wins and their first division title in almost 40 years.
The Hawks have had kind of a wacky season. Losing Al Horford hurt the team, and at one point after trading Kyle Korver to the Cavailers, it seemed that Atlanta was headed for a rebuild. But, knowing their 10th consecutive postseason appearance was on the line, they decided to beat the top two teams in the East twice within the last couple weeks. Atlanta has the 4th best defense and 4th worst offense in the league, which shows you how weird getting a read on this team is.
This should be an oddly entertaining series. The Wizards have one of the best backcourts in the league, scoring 46.1 points per contest. They will look to put the Hawks away early with their frequent first quarter explosions. In the regular season, Washington outscored opponents by 14.4 points per100 possessions during the first six minutes of the game, best in the business.
The X-factor in this series for the Hawks will be the play of Tim Hardaway Jr. After a disappointing start in New York, he’s found a home in Atlanta, where the game is tailor-made to his style. His swagger and confidence has him emerging as their closer, where the Hawks draw up plays to get him open looks or give him the ball and let him go to work.
Mike Muscala with the clutch 3 late in OT…https://t.co/IxtCfmlLRE #nba
— Ball Highlights (@bb_Highlights) April 9, 2017
Will Atlanta’s offensive struggles be their downfall in this series? Their stingy defense will be enough to get them a game or two, but that should be about it.
SCK’s Pick: Wizards in 6
And now, the Western Conference. The “please leave a message after the tone” conference. The “sorry boss I’m sick” conference–sponsored by TNT, ESPN, and ABC.
Next: 1. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS vs. 8. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Portland Trail Blazers guard C McCollum (3) shoots the basketball against Golden State Warriors guard Curry (30) during the second quarter at Oracle Arena, Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
1. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (67-15) vs. 8. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (41-41)
Warriors won season series 4-0
When the team that won 73 games the previous year adds a player of Kevin Durant‘s quality, that’s scary. Yeah, they lost “depth,” which amounted to about six games’ difference. Big whoop. This team is good. I mean good as in the Kevin Durant goes down but Steph Curry regains his swagger and they actually play better type of good. The best offense and second best defense in the league type of good. And guess what, KD’s back now. Hide your kids, hide your wife.
Portland is riding the coattails of Damian Lillard, as per usual. The last two meetings with Golden State have been fairly close, actually, and one was without Dame and the other without Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers will use that for motivation. Just how healthy Nurkic is will be the real question. He missed the last eight games of the regular season due to a fractured left leg, but the Blazers expect him to feature in this series. They are 17-6 since he joined the squad, adding a different dimension to their already prolific offense.
Since the All-Star break, Golden State is allowing 100 points a game. That’s a Scrooge McDuck level of stingy. They assisted on 70.5% of their buckets, tops in the league. They like to do their damage in transition and particularly in the third quarter. 18.5% of their possessions are in transition, and during the third quarter they outscore opponents by a ridiculous 22.4 points per 100 possessions.
Where the Blazers could do damage is on the defensive glass, where the Warriors only get 74.9% of rebounding opportunities, worst of any current playoff team. Since the All-Star break, Portland has been a completely rejuvenated team. They are second in the league since then from behind the arc at 41% and don’t give up much in the paint, where teams are shooting just 56.4%.
Last year, these two squads provided a very hotly contested series, with Golden State prevailing in five. This time around, Dame and C.J. McCollum should be good enough to steal a game. If Nurkic is healthy, I believe more and more in that possibility. A good friend of mine thinks it’ll be a clean sweep, though. Actually, I just changed my mind. Golden State is just too good, and they’re on a redemption tour.
SCK’s Pick: Warriors in 4
Next: 2. SAN ANTONIO SPURS vs. 7. MEMPHIS GRIZZLES
Memphis Grizzlies point guard M Conley (11) drives to the basket during the second half at AT&T Center, Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
2. SAN ANTONIO SPURS (61-21) vs. 7. MEMPHIS GRIZZLES (43-39)
Season series tied 2-2
Three things in life are certain. Death, taxes, and the Spurs winning 50+ games. The Spurs look fresh and ready for another title run, finishing 9th in OffRtg while boasting the best defense in the league. It also seems like they play Memphis all the time in the playoffs, meeting them for the fourth time in the past seven seasons. Last season, they absolutely destroyed the Grizzlies in the playoffs, winning all four games by at least 22 points.
The Grindhouse will be without Tony Allen once tipoff begins, as he looks to heal a strained right calf. Part of the reason Memphis split the season series was because of Allen’s tall task of defending Kawhi Leonard. With Allen’s absence, it could be a quick ending for Memphis in the first round. They will lean heavily on the production of star guard Mike Conley, being outscored by 13.3 points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break.
The Spurs lead the Association from behind the arc, shooting 39.1%. They also have the best rated bench for the second year in a row. Coupled with the MVP campaign of Kawhi Leonard and Popovich’s steady hand, this should be a fairly easy series for the boys in silver and black. Look for the Spurs to make quick work of Memphis and set their sights on the second round and beyond.
SCK’s Pick: Spurs in 5
Next: 3. HOUSTON ROCKETS vs. 6. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Westbrook (0) and Houston Rockets guard Pat Beverley (2) during a Rockets win at Toyota Center, Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
3. HOUSTON ROCKETS (55-27) vs. 6. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (47-35)
Rockets won season series 3-1
Because we heard Russell Westbrook or James Harden for MVP all season long, I think it’s fitting that these two meet up in the first round. Russ is coming off arguably the best individual season in NBA history–31-10-10 is something we should all applaud and celebrate. Harden, no scrub himself, had a 29-11-8 year, leading the NBA in assists and putting a historic number of points on the board.
The Rockets finished the year with the 2nd best offense at 115.6 points per game, and though their defense is around league average, look for Houston to try and shoot opponents out of the gym. Houston shoots 40 threes a game! It sounds crazy at first glance, and it is unheard of. But with Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, and Harden, the Rockets have the necessary firepower to go toe to toe with any team.
The Thunder rallied around Russ all year and he repaid them for it. OKC is 33-9 when he records a triple-double and when he’s on his game (which he usually is), he’s damn near impossible to stop. He has taken his game to an all-time high clutch level, which has us just as shocked as when KD decided to take his talents to GSW.
But don’t sleep on Harden’s ability to lift Clutch City down the stretch.
This series has the storylines and hype to make it one of the most exciting series in the entire NBA playoffs. Houston has too much offense for the Thunder, but don’t be surprised if Russ gets them a game or two.
SCK’s Pick: Rockets in 6.
Next: 4. LA CLIPPERS vs. 5. UTAH JAZZ
Utah Jazz forward Hayward (20) shoots the ball over LA Clippers guard Rivers (25) during the fourth quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena, Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
4. LA CLIPPERS (51-31) vs. 5. UTAH JAZZ (51-31)
Clippers won season series 3-1
Out with the old, in with the new?
This is an underrated matchup you should pay more attention to. It’s the only one that boasts a top five offense going up against a top five defense. That, combined with the fact that this may be the last run for the Clippers constructed as they are, ensures that this should be a very interesting series.
For all the glitz and glamor the Clippers show throughout the regular season, they consistently fall way short of expectations in the postseason. They can never seem to get over the hump, never seen more clearly than in their 2015 second round collapse against the Houston Rockets. Chris Paul, the steady hand that drives this team, will be called on once again to provide heroics. The Clips outscore their opponents by 14.9 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor versus being outscored by 5.3 points when he sits.
The Utah Jazz are having a great year despite all the injuries that ravaged the team. George Hill, Rodney Hood, and even Gordon Hayward have missed time. Rudy Gobert, the Steiffel Tower, has been the anchor of the 3rd best defense in the league, defending an NBA-high 10.2 shots a game. He has added another fold to his game, and trails only DeAndre Jordan in points per possession on pick and roll attempts at 1.38.
The Jazz will go as far as All-Star Gordon Hayward takes them. Utah has enough vets in George Hill, Slow-Mo Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw to make this a good one. But with the chips down and the future murky, I’m going with Doc and the Clippers.
SCK’s PICK: Clippers in 6
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Whew, that about does it for my first round predictions for the NBA playoffs this year. To conclude, let’s go over the biggest questions for each conference.
First of all in the East, will the Cavs make it to the Finals again? Will the Greek Freak find yet another level of greatness? Do the Bulls have enough playoff experience to tip things their way?
Next, the West has its own set of uncertainties. First of all, who will win the battle of the MVP candidates, the Brodie or the Beard? Will the Warriors be able to readjust to Kevin Durant’s return? Finally, will the Clippers finally be able to escape the second round?
Starting today, great basketball will be played on a nightly basis for the rest of the month, and that’s just the beginning. In addition to the great storylines for every matchup, it’s uncertain which team will come out on top in the majority of the series. There’s more parity among the teams these days, and therefore anything can happen.
Next: James Harden Had the Best Offensive Season Ever
Finally, the NBA playoffs are here. This first round will potentially be the most exciting one in a long time, and we’re here for it.
All stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com, and ESPN.com.