The first round during the NBA playoffs is often a formality. Not this year.
With the possible exception of series involving last year’s NBA Finals participants, the defending-champion Cavaliers and Warriors, the first round appears to have competitive matchups.
The showdown between Russell Westbrook’s Thunder and James Harden’s Rockets should be extremely entertaining. The Bucks and Hawks both have legitimate opportunities to knock off higher seeds. The Gasol brothers square off as the Spurs tangle with the Grizzlies in a matchup that, contrary to most series, is centered around the frontcourt.
I don’t sense a lot of short series. So let’s take a look at what appears to be a competitive first round.
BULLS (8) vs. CELTICS (1)
Bulls: Guard Dwyane Wade must have relished the fact that the Bulls beat out his old team, the Heat, in the tiebreaker to earn the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are led by the versatile Jimmy Butler (23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.9 steals). Wade contributes 18.3 points per game. The Bulls also have a decent inside tandem, with Robin Lopez (10.4 points, 6.4 rebounds) and Nikola Mirotic (10.6 points, 5.5 rebounds). Former Celtic Rajon Rondo (7.8 points, 6.7 assists) may be fired up to face his former team. Former Sixers first-round pick and rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams (6.6 points) plays a supporting role.
Celtics: The Celtics jumped up and nabbed the No. 1 seed from the defending-champion Cavaliers. One reason is Isaiah Thomas, who was third in the NBA in scoring (28.9 points per game). The guard-centered attack includes Avery Bradley (16.3 points) and Marcus Smart (10-6). But the Celtics keep teams honest on defense with center Al Horford (14 points, 6.8 rebounds) and Jae Crowder (13.9 points, 5.8 rebounds). President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has done a terrific job of assembling the pieces, and head coach Brad Stevens has done a wonderful job of putting the pieces together.
Analysis: With the talented Butler and Wade, a playoff-tested veteran, an upset is a possibility. Lopez and Mirotic could earn a stalemate with Horford and Crowder. Furthermore, the Bulls and Celtics split their season series, 2-2. But the Celtics finished 53-29 and the Bulls finished at .500 for a reason. The Bulls may challenge the Celtics, but they won’t beat them. Celtics in 6
PACERS (7) vs. CAVALIERS (2)
Pacers: Paul George (23.7 points, 6.6 rebounds) gives the Pacers a shot against anyone. With guard Jeff Teague (14.5 points, 7.8 assists) and center Myles Turner (14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds), the Pacers also have good balance. Former Sixers forward Thaddeus Young (11 points, 6.1 rebounds) provides experience and solid defense. The Pacers may miss center Al Jefferson (8.1 points), who hasn’t played since injuring his ankle against the Sixers last month.
Cavaliers: The defending champions are a bit of a mystery. They seem to have been sleepwalking through parts of the season, including the final 10 games, when they went 4-6 and were overtaken for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference by the Celtics. The Cavaliers are still led by LeBron James (26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.7 assists) and Kyrie Irving (25.2 points, 5.8 assists). Kevin Love finished the regular season averaging 19 points and 11.1 rebounds, but there are question about whether he can be the same player he was before his mid-February arthroscopic knee surgery. Former Sixer Kyle Korver (10.1 points) has provided the shooting the Cavaliers have want from him, but he doesn’t help their defensive deficiencies. Center Tristan Thompson (8.1 points, 9.2 rebounds) and forward Channing Frye (9.1 points, 4.9 rebounds) need to be more assertive, particularly at the defensive end. Guard Deron Williams (11 points) can score, but how does he fit into the rotation. Forward Richard Jefferson (5.7 points) is one of the few constants on this up-and-down team.
Analysis: This series is about the Cavaliers more than the Pacers. If the Cavaliers are able to flip the switch and regain their championship form, the Pacers won’t be able to do anything about it. But if the Cavaliers play the lackadaisical style that left them with a 51-31 record that doesn’t match their talent, the Pacers could steal a couple games. Cavaliers in 5
BUCKS (6) vs. RAPTORS (3)
Bucks: The Bucks are one of the more intriguing teams in the playoffs. Their 42-40 record isn’t impressive, but they have some talent that shows flashes of melding into a really good team. Giannis Antetokounmpo (22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 steals) is a versatile player who is difficult to defend. The “Greek freak” receives support from swingman Khris Middleton (14.7 points), whose return from a severe hamstring injury in February coincided nicely with Jabari Parker’s second season-ending ACL injury. Former Piston Greg Monroe (11.7 points, 6.6 rebounds) provides the Bucks with an inside presence, as does center/forward John Henson (6.8 points). Swingman Tony Snell (8.5 points) and guard Matthew Dellavedova (7.6 points, 4.7 assists) fill important roles at both ends of the floor. The Bucks have received a huge boost from guard Malcolm Brogdon (10.2 points, 4.2 assists), a rookie of the year candidate. But Brogdon returned recently from a back injury that sidelined him for a stretch of games. Henson has been hindered by a thumb injury.
Raptors: The Raptors, as always, are somewhat of an enigma. They could challenge for the championship or exit in the first round. It should help that guard Kyle Lowry (22.7 points, 7 assists, 4.8 rebounds) returned in time for the playoffs. Lowry and DeMar DeRozan (27.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists) form one of the NBA’s elite backcourts. In the frontcourt the Raptors have center Jonas Valanciunas (12 points, 9.5 rebounds) and Serge Ibaka (14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds). DeMarre Carroll (8.9 points) provides excellent defense. One problem for the Raptors is they don’t receive much of a spark from their bench.
Analysis: The Raptors are certainly susceptible to an upset, and the Bucks are certainly a team capable of pulling off a first-round upset. Carroll’s defense will be particularly important in this series. The Bucks come close, but the Raptors, who went 8-2 over their final 10 games, will survive. Raptors in 7
HAWKS (5) vs. WIZARDS (4)
Hawks: The Hawks finished six games behind the first-place Wizards in the Southeast Division, but they might be built to give the Wizards a world of trouble. Center Dwight Howard (13.5 points, 12.7 rebounds) and Paul Millsap (18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds) might cause a lot of problems for Wizards center Marcin Gortat. Former Sixer Ersan Ilyasova can also create matchup problems by stretching the floor with his outside shot. Guards Dennis Schroder (17.9 points, 6.3 assists), Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.5 points) and Thabo Sefolosha (7.2 points) won’t match the Wizards’ guards in scoring, but they will force them to work at the defensive end. Sefolosha is a terrific defender, who may slow down Beal. Swingman Kent Bazemore (11 points) may also play an important role.
Wizards: Guards John Wall and Bradley Beal both average 23.1 points per game. Wall also averages 10.7 assists. The Wizards receive supplementary scoring from forwards Markieff Morris (14 points, 6.5 rebounds) and Otto Porter Jr. (13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds) and guard Bojan Boganovic (13.7 points). Center Marcin Gortat (10.8 points, 10.4 rebounds) is a solid presence in the middle. Brandon Jennings (7.1 points, 4.9 rebounds) provides a veteran presence, but there’s a significant dropoff from the starters to Jennings.
Analysis: The Wizards have the superior backcourt, but the Hawks’ guards aren’t bad. The Hawks seem to have an advantage on the forward line. If they can play a controlled style, putting an emphasis on halfcourt basketball, the Hawks could pull off the upset. Hawks in 6.
TRAIL BLAZERS (8) vs. WARRIORS (1)
Trail Blazers: The Trail Blazers eked out a playoff spot, edging the Nuggets by one game in the battle to find out who would face the Warriors in the first round. The Trail Blazers’ strength is their backcourt of Damian Lillard (27 points, 5.9 assists, 4.9 rebounds) and C.J. McCollum (23 points). There is a double-digit falloff in scoring to guard Allen Crabbe (10.7 points) and center Jusuf Nurkic (10.2 points, 7.2 rebounds). Ex-Sixers Maurice Harkless (10 points) and Evan Turner (9 points) contribute for the Trail Blazers.
Warriors: The Warriors are led by the trio of Stephen Curry (left) (25.3 points, 6.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds), Kevin Durant (25.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists) and Klay Thompson (22.3 points). That’s a scary group to face in a playoff series. Forward/center Draymond Green (10.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7 assists) is a perfect complement to the tremendous trio. Green isn’t the only player who nicely fills a role. Forward Matt Barnes (7.1 assists) fits in perfectly with the rest of the high-scoring lineup. Former Sixer Andre Iguodala (7.6 points) embraces his defensive role. Guards Ian Clark (6.8 points) and Shaun Livingston (5.1 points) provide help off the bench, allowing Curry and Thompson to get some rest. Forward David West and centers JaVale McGee and Zaza Pachulia have filled in gaps in the Warriors’ roster.
Analysis: Lillard and McCollum aren’t often the second-best backcourt on the floor, but that will be the case in this series. And the Trail Blazers don’t have anyone like Durant. The Warriors live up to their record (67-15). Warriors in 4
GRIZZLIES (7) vs. SPURS (2)
Grizzlies: The Grizzlies’ core seemingly never changes. Center Marc Gasol (19.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists), power forward Zach Randolph (14.1 points, 8.2 rebounds) and point guard Mike Conley (20.5 points, 6.3 assists) are the perennial power trio for the Grizzlies. Swingman Tony Allen (9.1 points, 5.5 rebounds) and ageless swingman Vince Carter (8 points) complement the franchise anchors, as do forward JaMychal Green (8.9 points) and guard Troy Daniels (8.2 points).
Spurs: In contrast to the Grizzlies, the Spurs are transitioning away from their awesome trio. Tim Duncan retired after last season, and guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are playing reduced roles. The featured players for the Spurs are forwards Kawhi Leonard (25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds) and LaMarcus Aldridge (17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds). Center Pau Gasol (12.4 points, 7.8 rebounds) fills out a formidable forward line. Forward/center David Lee (7.3 points, 5.6 rebounds) provides help off the bench. What the Spurs don’t have is much scoring from their guards. Parker (10.1 points) and Patty Mills (9.5) are the top scorers in the backcourt, with Ginobili (7.5) and swingman Danny Green (7.3) contributing to the modest scoring.
Analysis: This might be a bad style matchup for the Spurs. The Grizzlies can match the Spurs’ inside game. The competition between the Gasol brothers is an interesting storyline, although the power battle between Aldridge and Randolph might hold the key to the series. Leonard might be the piece that pushes the Spurs into the second round. Spurs in 6
THUNDER (6) vs. ROCKETS (3)
Thunder: The Thunder will go as Russell Westbrook goes. Westbrook led the NBA in scoring (31.6 points) while averaging a triple double (10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists). The complementary pieces include guard Victor Oladipo (15.9 points), centers Enes Kanter (14.3 points, 6.7 rebounds) and Steven Adams (11.3 points, 7.7 rebounds) and forwards Taj Gibson (10.8 points, 6.2 rebounds) and Doug McDermott (9 points). Former Sixers forward Jerami Grant averages 5.5 points in a limited role.
Rockets: James Harden is second to Westbrook in scoring (29.1 points), but led the NBA in assists (11.2) and pulled down 8.1 rebounds per game. Guard Eric Gordon contributes 16.2 points per game, and former Sixer Lou Williams (17.5 points) provides a major spark off the bench. Forwards Ryan Anderson (13.6 points) and Trevor Ariza (11.7 points) and center Clint Capela (12.6 points, 8.1 rebounds) pick up the scraps in the Rockets’ guard-centric offense.
Analysis: This may be the most entertaining first-round series. The ball will be in the hands of Westbrook and Harden most of the time. Harden may still feel he has something to prove to his former team. Westbrook is trying to prove he doesn’t need Durant. Rockets in 7
JAZZ (5) vs. CLIPPERS (4)
Jazz: Injury has been the nemesis for the Jazz this season. Forward Derrick Favors (9.5 points, 6.1 rebounds) has been battling knee injuries, leading scorer Gordon Hayward (21.9 points is returning from a quadriceps injury), guards George Hill (16.9 points) and Rodney Hood (12.7 points) have been limited to 49 and 59 games, respectively. The constant for the Jazz has been center Rudy Gobert (14 points, 12.8 rebounds and NBA-leading 2.6 blocked shots). Swingman Joe Johnson (9.2 points) and forward Joe Ingles (7.1 points) have been consistent contributors, but there haven’t been many others who have been available for nearly every game.
Clippers: Point guard Chris Paul (18.1 points, 9.2 assists, 5 rebounds) is the straw that stirs’ the Clippers’ drink. He appears recovered from a midseason thumb injury. Both Paul and Blake Griffin (21.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists) missed 21 games with injuries. Unlike the Jazz, however, these injuries weren’t recent. Guards J.J. Reddick (15 points) and Jamal Crawford (12.3 points) and Austin Rivers (12 points) can pour in points. Center DeAndre Jordan (12.7 points, 13.8 rebounds) is a perfect fit for the Clippers. Former Sixers forwards Marreese Speights and Luc Mbah A Moute average 8.7 and 6.1 points, respectively.
Analysis: Both teams finished the regular season with 51-31 records, but the Clippers earned homecourt advantage on a tiebreaker. If healthy, the Jazz could match up well with the Clippers. But with Favors and Hayward likely at less than full strength, the Jazz might not be able to match the Clippers’ firepower. Clippers in 6
Celtics over Hawks
Cavaliers over Raptors
Cavaliers over Celtics
Warriors over Clippers
Spurs over Rockets
Warriors over Spurs
Warriors over Cavaliers