At long last, after an 82-game marathon, the NBA playoffs are here. The chase for a championship is about to begin. Now that the playoff bracket is set, here is a look at the matchups and how each series could go.
(1) Bucks vs (8) Pistons: After missing the playoffs the previous two seasons, the Pistons are back, but likely for a short visit. Milwaukee is deep, long, and athletic, and they have an MVP candidate in Giannis. As scrappy as the Pistons may be, the Bucks show why they have the best record in the league, taking the series in four games.
(2) Toronto Raptors vs (7) Orlando Magic: Congratulations to the Orlando Magic for snapping a six-year playoff drought. Their prize? The Kawhi Leonard–led Raptors. People believe Kawhi will bolt Toronto for L.A. this offseason, so this is an all-in postseason for Toronto. The Magic might not be satisfied with just making the playoffs, but the Raptors are too talented to let them advance. Unless an injury occurs, Toronto will take the series in five games. Another positive for the Raptors this postseason: No LeBron.
(3) 76ers vs (6) Nets: The Bucks, Sixers, and Raptors are all superior to their first-round opponents, and it would take something dramatic for any of the three not to advance. After the disastrous trade with Boston in 2013, the Nets, led by D’Angelo Russell, finally appear to be heading in the right direction. In the playoffs, however, as spirited as Brooklyn is, Philadelphia will prove to be too much. The 76ers will take the series in five games.
(4) Celtics vs (5) Pacers: This series will be the most interesting to see. The Celtics have been up and down this year, and no one knows which Boston team they’re going to get. The Pacers, on the other hand, despite losing Victor Oladipo to a season-ending knee injury in January, have fought their way into the top five in the East. This series really could go either way, and I expect a full seven games. While Boston is a bit banged up heading into the playoffs, their stars are healthy. This series is a coin flip, but a healthy Kyrie will push the Celtics past Indiana in seven games.
(1) Warriors vs (8) Clippers: As scrappy as the Clippers are, they are not even close to being as talented as the Warriors. There are times when the Warriors take a nap at the wheel, which is why the Clippers could snatch a game in the series. Golden State in five.
(2) Nuggets vs (7) Spurs: Denver had a great season, but they are young and inexperienced. While coach Mike Malone has done a phenomenal job turning Denver around, the Spurs have the better coach in Popovich. Sure, the Spurs are different, roster-wise, from years past; and yes, they are the seventh seed; but it won’t be enough to overcome San Antonio. Winning in the altitude of Denver can be tough, but the Spurs will nudge Denver in six.
(4) Portland vs (6) Oklahoma City: The Blazers did themselves no favors when they beat Sacramento in their season finale. Rather than get a matchup with the Jazz, whom Portland would have a fighting chance against, they get a Thunder team that the Blazers really have no shot against. Oklahoma City’s size, defense, length, and athleticism are challenging enough. Add in Russell Westbrook matching up against Damian Lillard, and Paul George against CJ McCollum, and this series becomes an even bigger mismatch. I like Lillard, but for a third consecutive season, the Blazers will go home early. Oklahoma City will win in five games.
(4) Houston vs (5) Utah: The Rockets got the better end of the stick, matchup-wise. Sure, they’ll get the Warriors in the second round (assuming both advance), but they’ll avoid potentially brutal matchups against the Thunder or Spurs. Instead they get to face pretty much the same Jazz team they dispatched in five games in last year’s semifinals. The Rockets have had their rebounding issues this year, which is something to watch for this series, but I see Houston on a mission to get another matchup with the Warriors. Houston takes this series in six.
Everyone, including myself, has the Warriors hoisting their third consecutive championship trophy. But with the shape of this year’s bracket, they will have to fight for it. This April is not just the beginning of the playoffs, but also the release of Avengers: Endgame. The Warriors are the Thanos of the NBA. The question is: Are there any Avengers in the playoff field who can stop them?
Here is the full first-round broadcast schedule, courtesy of ESPN.