Unlike the Minnesota Timberwolves, a majority of NBA teams have a postseason to play. What follows is my thumbnail take on the eight first round series, which figure to be mostly blowouts in the Eastern Conference and, for the most part, highly competitive and entertaining jousts in the West.
Atlanta Hawks (1) vs. Brooklyn Nets (8)
The Hawks will be hurt during the postseason by the loss of wing stopper Thabo Sefolosha, but not so much in this series, where there is a whopping 22-win differential between the teams. Atlanta is simply the better team at both ends and hope to end this quickly so the shoulder of Paul Millsap has more time to heal. The Nets best hope for an upset involves a barrage of three-pointers from Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Bojan Bogdanovic and Thad Young against a Hawks defense that has been suspect on the perimeter.
Keys: The Al Horford—Brook Lopez matchup and who wins the three-point battle.
The pick: Hawks in 5
Cleveland Cavs (2) vs. Boston Celtics (7)
This has the potential to be very entertaining. Both teams turned it on during the second half of the season and the Celtics can play without pressure as a heavy underdog happy to be here. They can take away Kyrie Irving but have no answer for Lebron James. This will be the first-ever playoff games for both Irving and Kevin Love. An early loss would ratchet up the scrutiny, so the first two games are crucial.
Keys: Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart bothering Irving, Cleveland’s mental resilience.
The pick: Cavs in 4
Chicago Bulls (3) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (6)
It’s weird to consider the Bulls going into a playoff matchup as the inferior defensive team, but the Bucks’ length and athleticism on the wing has given it fearsome pick and roll coverage. Unfortunately, Milwaukee’s offense is horrible, the team is young, and it has no counter for the slew of talented bigs Chicago rolls out in Noah, Gasol, Gibson and Mirotic.
Keys: The disruptive prowess of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams for Milwaukee; the ever-precarious health of Derrick Rose for the Bulls.
The pick: Bulls in 4
Toronto Raptors (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)
The point-guard matchup between Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and Washington’s John Wall is appointment television, a fabulous clash of styles. The Raptors have better depth, especially in the backcourt, but can’t stop anybody on defense. Toronto was upset by Brooklyn in last year’s playoffs, while Washington had a spirited run into the second round and have added Paul Pierce, who lives for playoff heroics.
Keys: whomever wins the Wall-Lowry tussle; the outside shooting of Washington’s Bradley Beal; and the effectiveness of Toronto’s bench.
The pick: Wizards in 6
Golden State Warriors (1) vs. New Orleans Pelicans (8)
It is simplistic but accurate to treat this series as the best team in basketball versus the game’s best young player in Anthony Davis of New Orleans. If the Pelicans are to steal a game, the do-it-all budding superstar will have to showcase his entire gamut of skills. Of course, in MVP favorite Steph Curry and volume scorer Klay Thompson, the Warriors are hardly lacking in star power.
Keys: avoiding injuries for Golden State; getting Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans back in rhythm for the Pelicans.
The pick: Warriors in 3 (ok, 4)
Houston Rockets (2) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7)
So many superb matchups here: Tyson Chandler vs. Dwight Howard at center; playoff overachiever Rajon Rondo guarding MVP candidate James Harden; and Trevor Ariza vs. ex-Rocket Chandler Parsons out on the wing. Factor in the brilliance of Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, the enmity between Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Rockets GM Daryl Morey, and the geographical proximity and you’ve got a potential classic.
Keys: all of the above matchups, with Ariza, who often comes up big in the postseason, an especially intriguing x-factor.
The pick: Mavs in 7
Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. San Antonio Spurs (6)
The Clippers rival Golden State for the best starting five in the NBA. San Antonio has the league’s most effective and influential team culture. The Clippers are salty in their attitude and have a dearth of talent on the bench. The Spurs are deep, relatively dispassionate, and proudly systematic. Anything can happen here.
Keys: How do Tim Duncan and Blake Griffin match up? Can the NBA’s best point guard, Chris Paul, shake the NBA’s best perimeter defender, Kawhi Leonard? And how about that Gregg Popovich-Doc Rivers coaching joust?
The pick: Spurs in 6
Portland Trailblazers (4) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5)
A marvelous study in contrasts: Portland loves to spread the floor and fire away from distance, while the Grizzlies grind it into the paint for their points. The matchup of Zach Randolph and LeMarcus Aldridge epitomizes the difference. Both sides are dinged, especially Mike Conley and Tony Allen of the Grizzlies, although the biggest hurt is the absence of gritty wingman Wes Matthews, out for the season with an injury.
Keys: Both point guards Damon Lillard and Conley are crunchtime studs. Memphis home court advantage is huge. How will Grizzlies deploy the smothering defense of Allen?
The pick: Pure tossup. I’ll say Grizzlies 7.
As for the rest of the playoffs, here are my telescoped picks, with the caveat that this will look sillier and sillier as time progresses.
Second round, East
Cavs over Bulls in 7
Hawks over Wizards in 6
Second round, West
Warriors over Grizzlies in 5
Spurs over Mavs in 6
Eastern Conference Finals
Cavs over Hawks in 5
Western Conference Finals
Warriors over Spurs in 6
Warriors over Cavs in 5