The NBA Playoffs are about to start on Sunday (IST) with the Cleveland Cavaliers taking on the Indiana Pacers in Game One at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Following a record-breaking regular season which saw Russell Westbrook etch his name in history while players like Isaiah Thomas, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden all had astounding numbers, teams gear up for the gruelling four round-long task to determine the next NBA Champion.
Will the Golden State Warriors look for redemption after blowing a 3-1 lead in last year’s Finals? Will Cleveland repeat or will Boston finally be the team to overthrow the Cavs from their throne in the East? In this article, we examine the first round of the NBA Playoffs in the East and predict who goes to the Conference semi-finals.
Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trailblazers
Where do I even begin? Let’s start with Damian Lillard and his ridiculously optimistic prediction that the Trailblazers would take down the Warriors in six games. Dame, brother, you good but you ain’t that good. It’s a harsh reality to accept but it’s true. Couple that with the fact that you guys had to rely on Oklahoma City beating Denver to even enter the playoffs as the eighth seed, things aren’t looking good. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are a talented backcourt but the Trailblazers simply lack the firepower to beat the Warriors.
As for Golden State, they are primed for a third straight Finals appearance. Having added Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City this past summer, the Dubs are the best team in the NBA and it will be a hard ask for any team to beat them. That being said, it is not impossible. However, to see the Trailblazers overcome the Warriors in one game, let alone four, is a thing best left to imagination.
Prediction: Golden State Warriors 4-0 Portland Trailblazers.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies
I am not sure how San Antonio feels about playing the Grizzlies in the first round. On paper, it looks like the second seeded Spurs should easily win the tie but the Grizzlies are a tough, defensive team who will come to battle every night. They have two stars in point guard Mike Conley and centre Marc Gasol and proven playoff veterans in Vince Carter, Tony Allen and Zach Randolph. They are sure to give a fight to the Spurs and we may even see some interesting matchups like Tony Allen (a First Team All-Defense shooting guard) guarding the Spurs’ biggest offensive threat- Kawhi Leonard.
The San Antonio Spurs are not short on talent- with players like Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol in their ranks. They have the offensive firepower to take on a Grizzlies team that they should be able to outscore without much trouble. However, their main problem will be in deciding who guards Conley and Gasol. Marc Gasol is strong, has a good shooting range and can physically overpower both his brother Pau and Aldridge in the post. But over a full playoff series, it is hard to imagine the Spurs being beaten consistently. Tony Parker is not his former self- age is catching up with him- but he is still a very good floor leader.
Prediction: San Antonio Spurs 4-1 Memphis Grizzlies
Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
This is the series with the biggest storyline and sensationalism attached to it. In any other year, James Harden’s season would merit the MVP award outright. This year though, it has been the Russell Westbrook show. The two former Oklahoma City teammates now prepare to face each other for the first time as playoff opponents and as franchise players for their respective clubs. This series will be a tooth and nail battle between a high-powered Houston offence and a more defensively-minded OKC.
Mike D’Antoni will continue to have his run and gun offence against Oklahoma. The focus from Billy Donovan on the other side will be to stop James Harden and bolster the perimeter defence of Andre Roberson and Victor Oladipo against sharpshooters like Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Ryan Anderson and co. OKC will rely on disrupting Harden’s rhythm. When Harden, at point guard, is out of rhythm then the whole team has it’s rhythm disrupted- as was evident from most of Houston’s losses this year. Houston, for it’s part will try to stop Russell Westbrook. The question is how. Will they trust his teammates to miss more than they make and focus on preventing Westbrook from getting big numbers? Or will they go a little easy on Westbrook but take out his options for a pass when he needs it? It’s a gamble either way but it’ll be interesting to see what Houston does. OKC will, like during the regular season, rely almost entirely on Westbrook and they will hope he gets as many triple-doubles as he can. The key deciding factors in this series will be how the Houston defence is able to handle Westbrook, how the OKC defence is able to handle Houston’s shooting and how the OKC bench performs against the Houston bench.
Prediction: Houston Rockets 3-4 Oklahoma City Thunder
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Utah Jazz
Here’s another series that will be too close to call purely on paper. The LA Clippers, on their day, are unstoppable, especially the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin combo. However, they are going up against a team that is solid defensively and has a very legitimate offensive threat- especially through first time All-Star Gordon Hayward. The strength for the Clippers will be the fact that inside, they have DeAndre Jordan neutralising the threat of Rudy Gobert on both ends of the floor. This should allow Chris Paul to use Blake Griffin more and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more plays drawn up for the two of them.
Utah is returning to the playoffs after quite some time and the intensity will take some getting used to. That is not mentioning that they will be up against one of the most seasoned playoff veterans and intelligent players in Chris Paul. While he is getting old, he still reads the game better than any point guard playing and will be a threat both offensively and defensively for the Jazz. The Jazz will mainly look towards Rudy Gobert, the lynchpin around whom their entire defence is built and Gordon Hayward for their scoring.
Prediction: Los Angeles Clippers 4-3 Utah Jazz