By James Caleb Saffo
The most wonderful time of the year is upon us. No, not that most wonderful time. The NBA playoffs have finally arrived as the last triumph of the American sports calendar before baseball engulfs everything until September.
There are certain things that can be assured in the playoffs; statements like, “Watch out for the Spurs” and, “Someone is going to try to fight Blake Griffin” are basically all but formalities by now. Other elements, however, are more unpredictable, but that’s what makes this time of year so fun.
Anything can happen, especially in the first round. Some things are just more likely than others. With that in mind, here are ten predictions for the first round of the NBA Playoffs, in descending order of likelihood:
Spurs-Clippers will be the most exciting series of the first round.
Ok, this is admittedly not so bold. The story lines for this series are fascinating. The defending champion Spurs (55-27) might be the most overqualified six-seed in the history of the playoffs.
San Antonio was 7-8 in the games Kawhi Leonard missed with a torn ligament in his hand; since his return they’ve gone 33-9 as Leonard has inserted his name into the forefront of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation despite missing 18 games.
Meanwhile, the Clippers clinched the third seed despite losing Blake Griffin for 15 games and one of the worst benches in the league (apologies to Jamal Crawford) thanks to dark-horse MVP candidate Chris Paul and the ascension of fellow DPOTY hopeful DeAndre Jordan, whose double-double stat line actually understates his value this year.
The bottom line is these are two of the top teams in the NBA — and one of them won’t make it out of the first round. Both teams have plenty on the line: this is likely the last dance for future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, widely considered the best coach in the league, might retire as well.
Meanwhile, in four years as a nucleus the trio of Paul, Griffin and Jordan haven’t reached the conference finals, and a first round exit in Jordan’s contract year might confirm suspicions that this core can’t get the job done.
Add in a little family drama, and it doesn’t get much better than this in the first round.
Hawks-Nets will be as deserving of banishment to NBA TV as everyone thinks it is.
This isn’t the Hawks’ fault. The Nets crashed a potentially great match-up with the Pacers. The story lines would’ve written themselves: The seeds of last year’s shockingly entertaining one-versus-eight seed series would’ve flipped, and fans would’ve been treated to the heartwarming return of Playoff Paul George.
Ah, well. At least the Nets are confident in themselves. Oh wait, no they aren’t. Never mind.
Lowry vs. Wall will be a great reason to watch Raptors-Wizards — and just about the only one.
This and this are about the only justifications for this and this. Prediction: more heartbreak for the North. Wiz in 7.
Steph Curry will win MVP, and James Harden will have a performance that validates his supporters.
Most reports and predictions give the edge in the most compelling MVP race in years to Curry, and if that holds true Harden will have one of the most decorated runner-up seasons ever.
It’s easy to understand the perspective of Harden supporters; Curry is the best player on the best team, but, especially with the loss of Dwight Howard for so much of the season, Houston very well might’ve been a lottery team without Harden, reliance on foul calls notwithstanding.
With that being said, Howard is almost 30 and still on minutes restrictions, Beverley is out, and a team that emphasizes efficiency is reliant on Josh Smith for offense.
In order to close out the Mavericks, Houston will need several great performances from their superstar — each of which will bring Harden apologists out of the wood works in droves.
Blazers-Grizzlies will be Raptors-Wizards of the West, only a lot more fun because it’s the West.
The parallels are there; both are four-versus-five seed series featuring teams whose regular seasons peaked before the All-Star break.
The Grizzlies’ fall was especially troubling, as they were the two-seed for most of the season only to see their inconsistency finally push them down the standings at the end of the season.
But the comparisons don’t hold much weight afterwards. The Western incarnation also features two 50-plus win teams with great point guards, but it also has a center who can do this.
The Mavericks will take the Rockets to at least six games, asNational TV Rondomakes his triumphant return.
The Mavs stumbled at the end of the regular season before bottoming out as one of the lower seeds and drawing a match-up with one of their in-state rivals. Sound familiar?
The Mavericks still have Dirk Nowitzki, they still have one of the best coaches in the league in Rick Carlisle, and, most importantly, they have no fear of their opponent.
The X-factor for this series, though? It’s got to be the point guard who nearly almost single-handedly dispatched of Miami’s Big Three, whose intensity seems to get a notable boost when the games matter more. You know, like the next four to seven games of his season will be.
The Warriors will win in five.
There’s really not much more that needs to be said about the Dubs, other than they’re really, really, really good. This team isn’t just a title contender. They have the chance to be one of the best teams in history.
Something else in this series is really good too, though.
Anthony Marshon Davis, Jr.
In retrospect he’s really the only reason New Orleans is in the playoffs. The Pelicans and Thunder both ended the season at 45-37, but that game winner, coincidentally against Oklahoma City, was the tiebreaker that vaulted New Orleans into the postseason.
The Warriors should have no issue dispatching of the Pelicans, but Davis on his own is good enough for one playoff game. The Pelicans will be gentlemen’s swept, but with a larger viewing audience, it would be no surprise to see The Brow go for at least one game that even makes Golden States’ collective jaws drop.
The Cavaliers will defeat the Celtics in six games.
There is a reason the Cavaliers opened as favorites to take home the title; it starts with having the (still) best player on the planet in LeBron James. The Cavaliers ended the season with a league best 34-9 record since Jan. 15, due in part to the stabilizing trades for Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith (go figure).
With that being said, past LeBron-led teams had a propensity for playing down to the level of their competition at times, and all of these teams had significantly more playoff experience than this team of relative playoff infants.
Their opponents, meanwhile, have been on an impressive streak of their own, as Boston has gone 16-9 since their trade deadline acquisition of Isaiah Thomas. This is good team with a brilliant head coach in Brad Stevens. The Cavs are likely to have playoff growing pains at some point, and the bet here is that they will come before they meet a serious contender.
The Bucks will defeat the Bulls in seven games.
This is where the bold comes in. There is more than a little turbulence in the Windy City, but this Chicago team is no slouch. This wager largely hinges on the efforts of one man. He has a 7’3 wingspan. He’s a social media fiend. And he can do this.
Oh, and the rest of the team is pretty good too. Better before the trade deadline, but still. Fear the Deer.
This year’s last round will rival last year’s, which, by the way, was one of the most exciting in recent memory.
This year’s regular season was one of the most compelling in recent memory. Why wouldn’t the amplified variant of the regular season be more of the same?