By: Kento Kato
NBA Playoff 1st Round Predictions
Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trailblazers
The Golden State Warriors did not win 73 games this year but they may very well be coming into the playoffs on a hotter streak than last year. They are playing some of their best basketball right now and they did most of that without Kevin Durant. The biggest question mark for the Warriors, and maybe the only one is Steph Curry and how he can keep playing the way he has recently. That isn’t to say that he was playing bad when Durant was playing, or that I expect him to have any problems. But given Curry’s unselfish nature, he was the one that gave up the most offensively at the beginning of the season. Klay Thompson claimed before the season even began that he was not going to sacrifice anything, and getting Durant acclimated was the team’s number 1 objective early on. Steph got so used to playing this way that when Durant first went out, he struggled more than we had ever seen him struggle as of late. But Warriors fans, and the rest of the NBA were quickly reminded of his greatness as he played like his old self. And this was not just with his numbers. He was playing with that swagger and care-free confidence that we were so use to seeing from him. With him now being himself again, and Durant being back, it will be interesting what the dynamic of the offense will be like.
Portland will attempt to keep it close and their backcourt, at least scoring-wise, may be the best equipped in the league to attempt to do so. But the Warriors just have so much more talent, on both sides of the ball, and will take this in 4. You know Damian Lillard will show up as he has put up some huge stat lines against his hometown team and he tends to play his best basketball when the stage is the biggest. On top of that, he, yet again, went on a scoring rampage after being left off of another all-star team. And we like the confidence of him saying that he thinks the Blazers will take it in 6, but he just does not have enough help.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies
The Spurs won 60 games again. That is not that surprising considering Gregg Popovich has led his team to do so too many times for us to count. That being said, many, including myself, did not think that they would do it this year. With Tim Duncan retiring, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili being a year older, and Pau Gasol missing a decent amount of time, the Spurs faced their share of changes this year. Which is why Kawhi Leonard, despite Russell Westbrook and James Harden’s historic seasons, was in the conversation for the MVP award. He increased his scoring against this year, just like every other year in his career, and he continues to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Pop still has not been able to get LaMarcus Aldridge to be as effective as he was in Portland, but he is still capable of chipping in 20 and 10 while Patty Mills and Tony Parker combined to give them around 20 points combined. Pop also got Pau Gasol to accept a bench role and has utilized newcomer, Dewayne Dedmon, who has fit in very nicely by playing very solid defense and giving them some much needed athleticism down low. The key for the Spurs playoff run will be Leonard’s ability, or lack thereof, to score efficiently, and the play of Manu Ginobili. For almost all of the Spurs successful playoff runs, Ginobili played very well, and luckily for Spurs fans, he has looked pretty good recently, despite considering retirement last year.
The Memphis Grizzlies did not have the injuries that they had last year but like in years past, continued to be a very gritty, team-oriented group. Led by Mike Conley and a Marc Gasol who has started shooting the 3 ball, this Grizzlies team will not be an easy out. I see the Spurs winning in 6, but none of the games will be easy. they still lack consistent offense some times but against a team like the Spurs, that does not really have anyone that will go off besides Leonard, the Grizzlies may be able to keep it close. But we still have to keep in mind that the Grizzlies are the 7th seed. Despite playing well against the Spurs during the regular season, they did struggle in the second half of the season after a great start and I think the Spurs are just too efficient and good in their execution that they difference level in talent and depth will turn the tide.
Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
In what will be the most anticipated playoff matchup, the two favorites to win the MVP award will face off head-to-head. We all know the story behind these two teams as the makeup of the two teams, and their strengths and weaknesses has been dissected, along with the MVP case for both candidates.
The Rockets are coached by coach of the year candidate, Mike D’Antoni, who pegged James Harden as the point guard of the team. This has led to a highly efficient attack, much like D’Antoni’s past Suns teams with Steve Nash, except this team has a even greener light to shoot from 3 and James Harden is a way more aggressive scorer than Steve Nash. This team shot and made more 3s than any other team in the league and will look to continue to shoot their way through the playoffs. Defense is not a strength of theirs but they can and prefer to get in a shootout with the opposition. But this team is not just Harden doing everything. He does do a lot, and gets his teammates very good shots, but he is surrounded by scorers Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Lou Williams. Patrick Beverley has improved as a scorer, and Clint Capela also took some huge steps this year. And you still have to account for Trever Ariza and Nene.
The Thunder do not have the team that the Rockets do. It is a lot more about Russell Westbrook and what he can do to will his team to victory. Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are very solid overall, but each are really good on only one side of the ball. Victor Oladipo is very solid but he is inconsistent and somewhat injury prone. Other than that, they have a bunch of guys who are and should be NBA rotational players, but they are nothing to be in awe of and they probably should not all be one team getting this many minutes. Sabonis is a nice rookie, but he is still young and inconsistent. Semaj Christon will probably be one of the worse backup point guards in the playoffs, if not the worst. Andre Roberson is a great defender but his shooting percentages on jump shots and free throws are horrendous. Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson were really good additions midway through the season, but neither of them has really been a revelation. And part of that also has to do with the Thunder’s and Westbrook’s offensive game plan, which is just give it to Russ. The series will be kind of like the Thunder vs. Warriors games during the regular season in that there will be a lot of headlines and the storyline is great, but the games probably will not be that close. Because of the difference in the supporting cast, I expect this one to be over pretty quickly. The Thunder only managed 1 win against the Rockets in the regular season, and I think it will be the same in the playoffs. Rockets in 5.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Utah Jazz
This will probably be the best series of the 1st round. You have a Clippers team that continues to believe in its core and looks for a year in which it can stay healthy and breakthrough. And you also have a Utah Jazz team that is finally back in the playoffs after a drought and they look to do damage and surprise some with a young, but very tough, organized, and well-coached group.
The Clippers started out the season on top of the league with the best record after a couple weeks, but after injuries to both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, they came back down to earth. They still do not have a great starting small forward, and their bench remains inconsistent, but in the absence of Chris Paul, Austin Rivers had a very solid few weeks. That should help in the playoffs as it could take some of the pressure off of Paul. This team still seems to lack the maturity and mental toughness as they still get thrown off by bad calls and allow teams to go on droughts sometimes. Their defense is very good when they are on top of their games, but also very vulnerable at times as well. That, along with how aggressive Blake Griffin is, will be the key of this team. Griffin has recently starting shooting more 3s and is converting them at a decent clip but there will be times when his shot is off or when the team needs him to be an enforcer down low. Will he be able to? Clippers fans sure hope so as this could be the last run with this core as the future of Paul and Griffin are up in the air.
The Jazz also are not 100% sure that they will retain their star, Gordon Hayward, but the first-time all-star has finally become the go-to guy that many have been waiting for him to get to. They have surrounded Hayward with a solid scorer in Rodney Hood. And George Hill, along with fellow veterans, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw provide consistency and leadership there. And after tearing his ACL and working his way back, Dante Exum has shown flashes of his athleticism and potential recently which gives them a different look and dimension as well But this team hangs its hat on defense. And they are led on that end of the floor by Rudy Gobert, one of the most improved players this year. He is and has always been a great rim protector, but he has become a better offensive player and the matchup between him and DeAndre Jordan should be a fun one to watch. I have the Clippers winning this in 7 with home court advantage and the experience just getting them over the edge.