The NBA playoffs begin this weekend. After 82 games of regular season action, 16 NBA teams have to up their standards once again for the intensity of postseason basketball.
It’ll require some late night watching for British fans, but we’re used to that. The first round matchups are brilliant this season, with the potential for upsets across the board.
Some of these clashes are too close to call. Of course, that hasn’t stopped us trying to predict it all…
San Antonio Spurs (7) vs Golden State Warriors (2)
The rematch of last seasons Western Conference Finals is as much about the players missing as it is the ones participating. Kawhi Leonard and Steph Curry are both ruled out for the entire series.
The Spurs had a turbulent second half of the season but remain a threat in the postseason under the guidance of Gregg Popovich. Steve Kerr‘s Warriors have had issues with motivation this term, though they remain strong favourites.
Tom: Spurs 2-4 Warriors
Stephen: Spurs 3-4 Warriors
Joe: Spurs 0-4 Warriors
Sam: Spurs 1-4 Warriors
Jahin: Spurs 2-4 Warriors
New Orleans Pelicans (6) vs Portland Trail Blazers (3)
New Orleans, like so many teams in the West, were faced with uncertainty heading into the last week of the season. The Pelicans secured their playoff berth with time to spare, managing to avoid Houston and Golden State in the process.
The Blazers were red hot as they pulled into the third seed during the early months of 2018. Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum were superb, with some suggesting Lillard as an MVP contender. All of that will drift into irrelevance if they don’t make the second round at least.
Tom: Pelicans 4-3 Trail Blazers
Stephen: Pelicans 3-4 Trail Blazers
Joe: Pelicans 2-4 Trail Blazers
Sam: Pelicans 3-4 Trail Blazers
Jahin: Pelicans 2-4 Trail Blazers
Utah Jazz (5) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (4)
Utah might be the biggest overachievers of the season. A stunning run early in the calendar year has set Donovan Mitchell up for Rookie of the Year contention and could have easily landed the Jazz in the third spot in the West. Unfortunately, they’ve had to settle for the fifth seed and a matchup with the Thunder.
Oklahoma City are the greatest challengers outside of the top two. This disappointing season could become a great one if Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook pull it together in the playoffs. This one is still tough to call, mind.
Tom: Jazz 1-4 Thunder
Stephen: Jazz 2-4 Thunder
Joe: Jazz 4-3 Thunder
Sam: Jazz 2-4 Thunder
Jahin: Jazz 2-4 Thunder
Minnesota Timberwolves (8) vs Houston Rockets (1)
Minnesota pulled off a dramatic, overtime victory in their play-in game against Denver on Wednesday. The return of Jimmy Butler pulled the T-Wolves through, after inconsistency – that has riddled the team all year – saw them fall off the pace after the All-Star break.
Bookies still make the Rockets second favourite to win the West, and the title. James Harden and Chris Paul are key, of course, but maintaining their high standards defensively is equally significant. How they guard Karl-Anthony Towns could determine if this is a cakewalk or hard-fought series.
Tom: Timberwolves 0-4 Rockets
Stephen: Timberwolves 0-4 Rockets
Joe: Timberwolves 1-4 Rockets
Sam: Timberwolves 2-4 Rockets
Jahin: Timberwolves 0-4 Rockets
Washington Wizards (8) vs Toronto Raptors (1)
Few expected Washington to land in the eighth spot when the season began. A combination of injuries and dysfunction saw the Wizards struggle for much of the season, and has left them in a first round meeting with Toronto. Not the worst matchup possible, but far from ideal for a Washington team who will have been eyeing a run to the Conference Finals.
Toronto, in stark contrast, took the East by storm. The Raptors, despite being a force for several seasons, opted to reinvent themselves for 2017/18. It has worked wonders, and might see Dwane Casey named Coach of the Year.
Tom: Wizards 1-4 Raptors
Stephen: Wizards 1-4 Raptors
Joe: Wizards 3-4 Raptors
Sam: Wizards 2-4 Raptors
Jahin: Wizards 2-4 Raptors
Miami Heat (6) vs Philadelphia 76ers (3)
The Philadelphia 76ers head into the playoffs having won 16 straight games to end the regular season. The final few games of the streak were even without centre Joel Embiid, who is expected to return at some point during the first round. Philadelphia’s Process has been shunted forward a year or so; they are now realistic contenders in the East.
Miami have had a steady season, but head into this matchup as underdogs. Guarding Ben Simmons and Embiid is problematic for any team, it might be as good as impossible for this Heat roster.
Tom: Heat 2-4 Sixers
Stephen: Heat 2-4 Sixers
Joe: Heat 0-4 Sixers
Sam: Heat 1-4 Sixers
Jahin: Heat 1-4 Sixers
Indiana Pacers (5) vs Cleveland Cavaliers (4)
Cleveland’s loss to Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago saw them fall to fourth. That is an irrelevance for a team with LeBron James, it seems, but the Cavaliers face a tough test against an overachieving Indiana. The Pacers looked set for a retool having traded Paul George, but hustled their way into fifth.
Victor Oladipo had a breakout year after being sent to Indiana in the George trade. The burden on Oladipo against LeBron’s Cavs will likely be too great, particularly with Kevin Love back at full fitness.
Tom: Pacers 2-4 Cavaliers
Stephen: Pacers 0-4 Cavaliers
Joe: Pacers 1-4 Cavaliers
Sam: Pacers 2-4 Cavaliers
Jahin: Pacers 0-4 Cavaliers
Milwaukee Bucks (7) vs Boston Celtics (2)
Boston are considered the most vulnerable of the top seeds. Injuries to Marcus Smart and, most importantly, Kyrie Irving will give Milwaukee hope. Irving was the heart of the Celtics’ offence when healthy. Without him, there is understandable concern about Boston’s scoring with a lot of responsibility falling on the inexperienced pair of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
The Bucks might have a healthy roster for the first time this season. This season hasn’t exactly gone to plan, but landing a depleted Boston in the first round is about as good as it could have gone for Milwaukee. Expect this series to be far closer than the seeds suggest.
Tom: Bucks 3-4 Celtics
Stephen: Bucks 2-4 Celtics
Joe: Bucks 4-3 Celtics
Sam: Bucks 3-4 Celtics
Jahin: Bucks 2-4 Celtics