NBA Playoffs: Intriguing Matchups Should Lead To Exciting Finishes

One of the many exciting first-round matchups this NBA postseason is superstar LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers versus the up-and-coming Indiana Pacers. (Courtesy of the NBA)

The NBA playoffs are in full swing, and most of the first-round matchups have been exciting as advertised. Competition was unusually evenly matched in both conferences this season, with nearly all of the seedings — and one of the playoff spots — determined on the final day of the regular season. But now, with one week of the playoffs gone by, let’s talk about what we know and predict the outcome of each series.

Western Conference

No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves

I had hoped the Timberwolves, back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, would put up more of a fight. Yes, they kept it close in game one, but lost by 20 in game two despite presumptive MVP James Harden shooting 2-of-11.

Karl-Anthony Towns has been a non-factor through two games with 13 points total; unless he turns it around, Houston fans can bust out the brooms for a sweep.

Rockets in four.

No. 2 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs

The Warriors’ streak of good luck in facing undermanned opponents in the playoffs continued this postseason; the Spurs are probably the weakest team they could have drawn. Without Kawhi Leonard — who also missed most of last year’s series between these two teams — the aging Spurs clearly don’t stand a chance.

LaMarcus Aldridge, enjoying a career year, has averaged 22 points and eight rebounds in the first three games for the Spurs, who have also gotten help from Rudy Gay and Patty Mills, but their ancient offense — they were third in the league in mid-range shots attempted this season — just can’t keep up with the efficient Warriors juggernaut, which focuses more on threes, layups, and dunks.

The Spurs have built a reputation for stout defense over the years, but without Leonard, they have no answer for Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson.

Warriors in four.

No. 3 Portland Trailblazers vs. No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans

Shockingly, the Pelicans have seized a commanding 3-0 lead over the Blazers, thanks to All-Star-caliber offense and lockdown defense from Jrue Holiday. When Anthony Davis is still playing like a star but is suddenly the second-best player on your team, you know things are going well.

Holiday is averaging 23.3 points in the series, and more importantly, limiting Portland’s guard duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to an average of just 39.3 points combined. Lillard is a putrid 18-of-55 from the field through three games, and scored just seven points on 2-of-18 shooting when guarded by Holiday through the first two games.

Pelicans in four.

No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz

The Thunder and Jazz won an equal number of games in the regular season, but the Thunder, led by dynamic point guard Russell Westbrook and bolstered by the additions of star forward Paul George and used-to-be star forward Carmelo Anthony, had much greater expectations.

Despite their high ceiling, the Thunder have been wildly inconsistent — their “big three” combined for just two points and were 0-of-14 from the field in the fourth quarter of game two, as Utah made its comeback. And Thunder center Steven Adams may have met his match in defensive anchor Rudy Gobert, who is listed at 7-foot-1 but must be at least nine feet tall.

The Jazz have potent offensive weapons as well, in crafty point guard Ricky Rubio, sharpshooter Joe Ingles, and dazzling rookie Donovan Mitchell, who is averaging 27.5 points and eight rebound so far.

Still, the Thunder’s star power and home court advantage should eventually propel them to victory, assuming they can get their act together.

Thunder in seven.

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 8 Washington Wizards

Two teams plagued by heartbreaking playoff defeats meet in the first round, but the Raptors have made improvements, while the Wizards have regressed.

DeMar DeRozan’s and Kyle Lowry’s postseason woes are well-documented, and neither particularly impressed in game one, but the difference this time is that Toronto has enough depth that a poor game from one or both of its two All-Stars won’t doom them like in the past.

Serge Ibaka led the Raptors with 23 points last Sunday, and Jonas Valanciunas had 19 in game two. Plus, DeRozan scored 37 points in game two, so maybe he’s shaken his playoff issues.

When the Wizards inevitably bow out of the playoffs, it might be time for Washington’s front office to do some serious thinking. The Wizards without John Wall moved the ball more and seemed happier. There’s no denying Wall’s ability — he’s averaging 26 points and 12 assists this series — but if he, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter can’t get it done, something needs to change.

Raptors in five.

No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 7 Milwaukee Bucks

One of the best games of the first round so far came Sunday in Boston, when the scrappy Bucks nearly stole one from the injury-plagued Celtics, eventually falling in overtime. Khris Middleton’s last-second three was exhilarating, and the Bucks clamped down on defense in the fourth quarter, but their late heroics can’t mask the fact that Milwaukee just isn’t on the same level as Boston.

Without Kyrie Irving, the Bucks have the best player on the floor in Giannis Antetokounmpo and a quality support cast in Middleton, Jabari Parker, Eric Bledsoe, and Malcolm Brogdon. But the Celtics are deep too: Al Horford, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Greg Monroe are all quality role-players. Plus, Marcus Smart says he could be available for a potential game seven.

I don’t think that will be necessary, though. The Celtics took care of business 120-106 in game two and seem in-control.

Celtics in five.

No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 6 Miami Heat

No team has been as exciting to watch lately as the Sixers, who have gone from NBA laughingstock and lottery mainstay to potent playoff team. Without big man Joel Embiid and his dominant interior presence, Philadelphia struggled to contain Miami and its cast of wily veterans, but Ben Simmons is playing like a star, and Embiid provided 23 points and seven rebounds in his game three return. Plus, Embiid’s big man counterpart, Hassan Whiteside, has been nearly invisible for the Heat.

Yes, Dwyane Wade can still knock down jumpers and drive to the basket when called upon — he had 28 points in game two and held off a Philadelphia comeback — but the 76ers have a better team. Aside from Simmons and Embiid, who could return later in the series, Robert Covington is a great defender, Dario Saric is a reliable scorer, and JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli are three-point threats.

Philadelphia in six.

No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers

If I were writing this before the playoffs began, I would have predicted a sweep for LeBron James, who had won 21 straight first-round games before Sunday. Yes, the Cavs have been  inconsistent offensively and dismal defensively this year, but they “flipped the switch” last playoffs why not again?

Instead, the Pacers obliterated the Cavaliers 98-80 in game one, thanks to 32 points from the season’s breakout star, Victor Oladipo, and solid defense from Lance Stephenson, James’ kryptonite.

In game two, it took a ridiculous 46 points from LeBron and foul trouble for Oladipo for the Cavs to eke out a 100-97 win. Still, it’s LeBron James. You really think he’s going to lose in the first round? Come on.

Cavs in seven.

Graphic by Hank Snowdon