A preview of the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs.
No. 1 seed Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 seed Detroit Pistons
If the Cavaliers can stay healthy throughout the postseason, they’ll likely meet the Warriors in the NBA Finals for the second year in a row. James will do everything in his power to win a title for his hometown team, but the x-factor for the Cavaliers is floor-spacing power forward Kevin Love, who has been sporadic at best this season. After the All-Star break, Love shot the ball much better from deep. However, in order for the Cavs to defeat the champions of the Western Conference, if Cleveland makes it that far, Love needs to show the All-Star form he displayed as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Detroit is in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, but their reintroduction to the postseason won’t be easy. Despite defeating Cleveland 3-1 in the regular season series, the Pistons will have a daunting task in round one of the postseason against LeBron James and company.
Detroit has an abundant amount of young talent on its roster. Former Oklahoma City Thunder facilitator Reggie Jackson has become one of the best all-around point guards in the league. Jackson averaged 18.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game this season. Shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has blossomed into an elite one-on-one defender. Furthermore, recent acquisition from Orlando, Tobias Harris, adds a much-needed wing scorer to a young Pistons team. Detroit probably won’t win the series, but they’re more than capable of winning a game or two.
Prediction: Cavaliers win series 4-2
No. 2 seed Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 seed Indiana Pacers
The Raptors could be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, but they’ll need a spectacular performance from their backcourt to get past Paul George and the experienced Pacers. Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan arguably form the second-best backcourt in the league. To slow down a talented Raptors offense, effectively defending the pick-and-roll will be critical for Indiana.
The x-factor for the Pacers in their series with Toronto is 20-year-old Myles Turner. Indiana may have found one of the more versatile power forwards in the league in Turner, who the Pacers selected No. 11 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. Turner can score inside and rebound, while his shooting ability extends to near the three-point line. He may not start in the playoffs, but if the Pacers pull off the first round upset, it’ll be because Turner played a prominent role off the bench.
Prediction: Raptors win series 4-3
No. 3 seed Miami Heat vs. No. 6 seed Charlotte Hornets
Miami probably has the best chance of beating the Cavaliers in the playoffs. The emergence of Hasan Whiteside, who has quickly become an outstanding rim protector (3.7 blocks per game), and Josh Richardson allowed the Heat to overachieve in the regular season. Veteran acquisitions Joe Johnson and Goran Dragic have drastically improved Miami’s offensive efficiency. At 34 years old, Dwyane Wade continues to perform at an elite level. The Heat are one of the favorites to reach the Eastern Conference finals.
Charlotte has quickly transformed an atrocious team into a franchise that will likely be in the postseason for years to come. Point guard Kemba Walker and center Al Jefferson led Charlotte to a 48-34 record this season. Acquiring former Trail Blazers small forward Nicolas Batum has allowed the Hornets to accelerate the rebuilding process. Charlotte has the talent to beat most teams in the East, but their first round opponent happens to have plenty of playoff experience. Veteran leadership will likely lead Miami to a matchup with Cleveland in the conference finals.
Prediction: Heat win series 4-1
No. 4 seed Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 5 seed Boston Celtics
Because the team enjoyed so much success last year, Atlanta’s surprisingly effective 2015-16 regular season went widely unnoticed. Point guard Jeff Teague and All-Star power forward Paul Millsap led the way for the Hawks (48-34) this year. Atlanta’s starting five reflects the image of a legitimate title contender, but Dennis Schröder is the only consistent scorer off the bench. Unless the Hawks can draft or acquire talented players to enhance their second unit, they’ll probably never become a title contender.
Celtics general manager Danny Ainge has done an outstanding job bringing young talent to Boston, completely rebuilding a historically successful team. Second-year guard Marcus Smart has blossomed into an effective scorer and passer. Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas has improved drastically throughout his career and his game has reached its pinnacle this season. Thomas was selected to participate in his first All-Star game this season and averaged more than 22 points and six assists per game in the regular season. The Celtics will go as far as Thomas takes them. Regardless of what Boston does in the postseason, the future of the franchise is extremely bright.
Prediction: Celtics win series 4-2
No. 1 seed Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 seed Houston Rockets
Golden State Warriors
If you’re a fan of the NBA, you could be a fan of the Warriors; unless you’re from Cleveland or San Antonio. Golden State finished the regular season with an NBA record 73 wins, while Stephen Curry knocked down more than 400 threes, a record that will likely stand the test of time. Despite the heroics of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and the soon to be 2016 MVP (Curry), it’s the Warriors bench that propelled the team to history in the regular season. Andre Iguodala, Marreese Speights and Festus Ezeli could give the Warriors’ starting five the extra lift it needs to make a second straight NBA Finals appearance. Meanwhile, Curry and Thompson should continue to “splash” Golden State to the promise land.
The fact that Houston made the 2016 NBA Playoffs is somewhat of a miracle. Aside MVP candidate James Harden, the Rockets are an absolute mess. Dwight Howard has shown flashes of the interior force he can be when he gives 100 percent effort, but the former All-Star center lacks a consistent motor. When Howard demands the ball in the post, he can easily drop 30 points and 10 boards. However, Howard’s inefficient play has forced Harden to carry the discombobulated Rockets on his back throughout the regular season. Houston has yet to acquire its point guard of the future as current member of the Indiana Pacers, Ty Lawson, proved extremely ineffective in Houston after having prior success in Denver. Harden will have to average 45-50 points in the series in order for Houston to have a chance. Unfortunately, even if he does, the Warriors will likely advance anyway.
Prediction: Warriors win series 4-0
No. 2 seed San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 7 seed Memphis Grizzlies
San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio continues to defy Father Time. Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker lead the experienced Spurs into the postseason (again) under head coach Gregg Popovich. Despite the dramatic decrease in Tim Duncan’s and Manu Ginobili’s roles, San Antonio continues to perform at an elite level season after season. The Spurs’ ball movement and Leonard’s ability to play lockdown defense make them almost impossible to beat in a seven game series.
If not for a myriad of detrimental injuries, Memphis would probably be one of the top four seeds in the West and Zach Randolph is left as the only proven scorer in the Grizzlies lineup. With Mike Conley out because of an Achilles injury, other Grizzlies players have played prominent roles in Memphis’ playoff push. Unfortunately, Lance Stephenson is probably the most talented guard available on Memphis’ roster. Stephenson has been the definition of inconsistency throughout his entire career, and that didn’t change this season. Given San Antonio’s desire for a rematch with Golden State, the Grizzlies probably won’t win a game in the series.
Prediction: Spurs win series 4-0
No. 3 seed Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 6 seed Dallas Mavericks
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder seem to be in a similar position in terms of their ability to advance in the playoffs. Oklahoma City has the talent to reach the conference finals, but have yet to enter title contender conversation since James Harden’s departure to Houston. Enes Kanter’s acquisition from Utah drastically improved the Thunder’s interior scoring. The sky’s the limit for the Thunder if Oklahoma City’s supporting cast can prove that it can be trusted to consistently score.
Dallas has reached the playoffs in 15 of the last 16 seasons, but failed to make noise in the postseason since winning it all in 2011. The Mavericks’ recent postseason troubles have stemmed from an inability to acquire their point guard of the future. Deron Williams is slowly declining and Devin Harris is far from an All-Star. Despite the murky point guard play, Dirk Nowitzki has established a high standard for Dallas basketball, but the Mavericks haven’t surrounded him with the necessary talent to contend for a title. Given the Mavericks’ tough first round matchup against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, don’t expect Dallas to challenge the Thunder.
Predication: Thunder win series 4-1
No. 4 seed Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers
Los Angeles Clippers
With an abundance of big game experience, Chris Paul and a newly healed Blake Griffin lead Los Angeles into the postseason. Former Duke shooting guard, J.J. Redick is the x-factor for the Clippers’ playoff run. The Clippers have plenty of depth and firepower, especially with Jamal Crawford coming off the bench, but Deandre Jordan’s terrible free throw percentage could prove detrimental for the Clippers late in games. Los Angeles could bench Jordan late in critical fourth quarters, which could open lanes to the rim for the dynamic duo in Portland’s backcourt without Jordan’s shot-blocking presence. Still, with a cast of solid reserves, the Clippers are clearly the more talented team. Bench scoring and big game experience should favor Los Angeles in the series. The Clippers may not make a run to the conference finals, but they should advance past the first round.
Portland Trail Blazers
After LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure to San Antonio, the Trail Blazers weren’t expected to be a playoff team in the Western Conference this season. Halfway through their regular season schedule, the Blazers certainly didn’t look like a playoff contender. Fortunately for Portland, their talented backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum drastically increased their level of play in the final 41 games of the season. Portland’s lack of front court talent and depth is a major concern in the series as the size of Jordan and Griffin could pose serious matchup problems in the paint. The Trail Blazers back court could win a couple of games, but probably not the series.
Prediction: Clippers win series 4-2