Ladies and gentlemen, the NBA Playoffs are officially here … well, this Saturday. I actually started writing a piece detailing the best remaining games on the schedule, but that article hit the trash bin after Sunday’s games more or less determined the final playoff seeding.
RELATED: NBA Playoffs: Sleeper Teams to Watch
Now we get to the meat and potatoes: predictions, predictions and more predictions. The NBA Playoffs are typically easier to predict than, say, the NCAA Tournament since luck doesn’t play as big a factor. Sure, upsets happen — remember No. 8 seed Golden State trumping No. 1 seed Dallas in 2007? — but the better team typically prevails in a best of seven series.
That said, I’m ecstatic for this year’s race even though it appears we’re destined for Golden State vs Cleveland Part III, which is fine, I suppose, so long as the series boasts higher quality than The Karate Kid Part III.
A couple of quick notes before we begin: 1) This will be the first in a two-part series. I’m doing the Western Conference today and will hit the Eastern Conference tomorrow. 2) Since the regular season doesn’t technically end until Wednesday, the records listed below won’t reflect the final regular season record for each team. In any event, the Western Conference is locked into place, though the Jazz could potentially (not likely) reclaim the No. 4 seed from Los Angeles.
Any-who, let’s kick off some predictions!
WESTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS
1. Warriors (66-15)
2. Spurs (61-20)
3. Rockets (54-27)
4. Clippers (50-31)
5. Jazz (50-31)
6. Thunder (46-34)
7. Grizzlies (43-38)
8. Trail Blazers (41-40)
WARRIORS vs. TRAIL BLAZERS
As stated above, Golden State likely takes the West, but will face a fair amount of competition in doing so. Unfortunately, said competition won’t arrive until the later rounds. In the meantime, the Warriors get to jostle with the Trail Blazers in Round 1 — a series they should easily dominate.
No disrespect to Damian Lillard, who worked his arse off to get his team to the playoffs, but he alone isn’t enough to take down Steph Curry and Co., especially with a healthy Kevin Durant back in the mix.
In fact, I think this one ends in a sweep, because I don’t think the Warriors are screwing around this season. Plus, look at the season series: on Nov. 1 the Warriors won 127-104, on Dec. 17 they won 135-90, on Jan. 4 they won 125-117 and on Jan. 29 they won 113-111. I wouldn’t be surprised if the series follows suit with Portland closing the gap as the series wears on, but ultimately falling short in every game.
Need more stats? Portland enters the series boasting the No. 7 offense in the league (108.2 points per game), but just the No. 25 defense (108.7 points allowed), while Golden state boasts the league’s top scoring offense (116.2 points per game) and the No. 11 ranked defense (104.4). The Warriors are also tops in assists (30.5) and No. 9 in rebounds (44.3).
PREDICTION: WARRIORS in 4
SPURS vs. GRIZZLIES
Ah, destiny. It seems like these two teams meet every season with similar results. Get ready to hear media pundits proclaim how close this series could possibly get based on the obscure 2011 first round matchup that saw the No. 8 seed Grizzlies knock off the top seeded Spurs in six games. What they won’t tell you is that the Spurs have swept the other three playoff bouts between the two teams …
Yup. I said swept. 2016? Sweep. 2013? Sweep. 2004? Sweep. The Spurs also hold a 65-22 regular season advantage. So, yeah. This one might produce a couple of intriguing games, and I don't think it results in a sweep, but the outcome should mirror the past in that … drum roll please … the Spurs win the series.
However, Memphis fans can lean towards the regular season for hope. The Grizz beat the Spurs twice — both times at home — on Feb. 6 (89-74) and Mar. 18 (104-96). The other two games came down to the wire, including the most recent matchup on April 4 which went into overtime.
Also, keep in mind, the Grizzlies boast the No. 3 defense in the league, one that allows just 100.3 points per game, but ranks next to last in offense with just 100.6 points produced.
Not to be undone, the Spurs rank No. 2 in defense (98.1 points allowed) and No. 14 in offense (105.5 points per game) and No. 10 in rebounds (43.9).
Still, Memphis matches up well with Pop’s squad. They don’t have anyone capable of stopping or even slowing Kawhi Leonard, but LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee and Pau Gasol could struggle against Marc Gasol (Pau’s bro), Zach Randolph and Chandler Parsons.
I think the X-factor here, and the best chance for a Grizzlies upset, lies in the play of Mike Conley. If the thrifty PG contributes the way he did in the two wins over San Antonio, where he was 23 and 3 on the court, there’s a chance Memphis at least pushes this one to seven.
My guess? I think the Spurs are too smart, deep and talented to let this one go. It won’t always be easy, but I think Leonard and Pop find a way to prevail.
PREDICTION: SPURS in 6
ROCKETS vs. THUNDER
This one has all the makings of a classic. Three of the four regular season matchups were decided by three points or less with the Rockets taking the series crown 3-1. And while I ultimately like Houston to prevail, getting past a seriously pissed off Russell Westbrook (who may or may not harbor ill will towards former teammate James Harden) won’t be easy.
Would anyone be surprised if Westbrook’s skin melted to reveal a cyborg under all that sweat and muscle? I mean, just check out this snapshot from the team’s clubhouse over at ESPN. The guy leads the team in practically every statistical category:
Problem is, he’s the only one playing at a high level for the Thunder. The second-best scorer on the team is Victor Oladipo, who averages 16 points per contest, while Enes Kanter clocks in at No. 3 with 14.4 ppg.
OKC has the personnel to exploit Houston’s ho hum defense (109.3 points allowed), but Westbrook’s playing style doesn’t translate to success for those around him. Unlike, say, LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, who make the right plays at the right time whether it involves them or not, Westbrook is single-minded in the way he attacks, attacks and attacks some more, which is probably the reason Kevin Durant sought green pastures in Golden State.
Speaking of which, the dream matchup between Westbrook and his former teammate wouldn’t happen until the Western Conference Finals. OKC would have to trump Houston then either San Antonio/Memphis to set up a date with Golden State (assuming the Warriors beat Portland and LA Clippers/Jazz).
As for Houston, I’m not quite sure what to make of them. Harden played like a man possessed this season — 29.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 11.3 assists per game! — and the team certainly has enough weapons to make any series interesting.
But dat defense … despite what the media says about Harden upping his defensive game, this is still a prototypical Mike D’Antoni squad — heavy on offense, light on everything else. That sort of play leads to great regular season records and MVP awards, but typically fizzles out in the postseason.
Do you know what D’Antoni’s post-season record is? 26-33. Yeah, despite heading teams such as the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns, who went 62-20 during the regular season, D’Antoni has never done much in the playoffs. And I don’t think this year is the exception.
Also of note: the Rockets are 10-12 against Western Conference Playoff teams, including 1-3 against the Spurs and 1-3 against Golden State.
Still, I think Houston sneaks past OKC in perhaps the best first-round series of these playoffs.
PREDICTION: HOUSTON in 7
CLIPPERS vs. JAZZ
This is perhaps the trickiest series to predict. A lot of the outcome is predicated on Utah’s health. To date, the team’s starters — namely George Hill, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward — have played just 13 games together all season. Injuries have seriously hindered this team, yet, they remain in contention for the No. 4 spot in the West as of this writing.
If healthy, I truly believe the Jazz have what it takes to knock out the Clippers in the first round, home court advantage or not. Look, they boast the league’s top defense, one that allows just 96.7 points per game, perhaps the best defensive player outside of Draymond Green in Rudy Gobert; a solid combination of vets and youth, and plenty of size to match up with the best down low.
My only caveat: Utah’s offense, ranked No. 28 overall, occasionally stutters to stop. That’s okay against teams like the Bucks and Pistons, but against the elite your offense has to fire on all cylinders.
On the flip side, the Clippers are a strange bunch: a solid collection of talent — Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, Jamal Charles, JJ Riddick — led by a legendary coach that can’t seem to gel into an extraordinary team.
Since 2011-12, the team has made it to the conference finals and lost three times to the Rockets, Thunder and Spurs. Last season they lost to Portland in the opening round … a feat they’d just as well not repeat this season.
The season series between the Jazz and Clips resulted in a 3-1 series victory for LA, though, again, Utah didn’t feature all of its starters.
OK, so my best guess? If Utah is healthy, and I mean healthy — i.e., Derrick Favors is on the floor playing at least 80% — I think the Jazz take this one. A healthy Favors gives the Jazz a consistent scoring threat even when their jump shots aren’t falling. He’s the X-factor.
A healthy Favors = a Utah victory. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking?
PREDICTION: UTAH in 6