For as chaotic as the last two nights of the regular season was, we certainly didn’t get rewarded with a fantastic crop of first round series. There’s one good one in each conference, and that may be stretching it. But, the second round, thanks to Houston’s fall to the fourth seed and the East being top-heavy, proves to be a dandy. First, we just have to get there.
No.1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No.8 Detroit Pistons
With their heavily injured roster, any other matchup would have made things a little interesting for the Bucks. Orlando’s ball movement would have possibly kept them around in a game or two; the Nets are plain awesome and would play anyone hard, and the Pacers have the same gritty trait as Brooklyn.
The Bucks have been absolutely dominate this season. I wrote before the season that Mike Budenholzer was worth a massive step forward for the team and for Giannis Antentokoumpo, and both came true. Giannis is in the thick of a fantastic MVP debate and the Bucks won five more games than I projected them to. The offense is incredibly efficient, and the defense completely revitalized thanks to rim protection from Giannis and Brook Lopez and steps being taken forward by guys like DJ Wilson and Eric Bledsoe.
The Pistons are a tad better than we expected them to be. Blake Griffin has adapted his game, taking on a Nikola Jokic-like facilitator role (5.4 assists per game!) while also expanding his range to the three point line (a much needed addition. Griffin shot 36.2 percent on seven per game this season). Aside from Griffin, nothing really stands out about the Pistons. They simply stumbled their way into the eighth seed because everyone else was just a tad worse than them. Sure, Luke Kennard’s breakout (Is that what this is?) and the switch-a-roo of Reggie Bullock for Wayne Ellington has paid off well. Detroit’s offensive rating plummets 10 points with Kennard off the court (That is, since Valentines Day), and Ellington has shot 36.8 percent from three since joining Detroit on 7.7 attempts per game. But that’s not really what got Detroit here. They really just kept doing their thing and let everything else fall into place.
This series presents serious problems for the Pistons, as the Bucks do for most teams. But the mismatches the Pistons are tasked with conquering may not give them a chance.
First, the spacing and efficiency the Bucks play with offensively cripples Detroit. In the Bucks five-out offensive system, they run Giannis straight to the rim and let him score (Which has been pretty easy for him this season) or kick it out to three point shooters, which are practically always on the court for Milwaukee. The Bucks are league average from three, but take the second most in the league behind the Rockets. With driving lanes figured to be open for Giannis, a much improved, more efficient Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and others (It’s hard to envision Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith and Kennard getting stops), the threes may not have to be heavily relied on. Plus, as Detroit usually has both Drummond and Griffin out there at the same time, playing five-out means stretching both of those to the perimeter. That’s a disaster for the Pistons. It makes possibly their two best players both close to unplayable, as Drummond’s offensive game won’t be enough and the plays ran around Griffin take too long to develop (Detroit plays at the third slowest pace in the league).
Literally no one in the league does, but Detroit has no one equipped to even contain Giannis, the best player in the series and the first or second best player in the league this season. He could legitimately score 40 in every game. Blake and Drummond aren’t athletic enough; all the guards are too small. Wayne Ellington is just too undersized, and he’s the only viable option besides rookie Bruce Brown, who’s played big minutes and has turned into an above average defender. But Brown’s inexperience and lack of size still makes him a tough matchup.
I legitimately have zero idea how the Pistons win a game in this series, let alone keep any game close. The Bucks aren’t really a team that loses effort throughout games. They keep it up and pound you till the end. Detroit’s big-ball could expose some of the small-ball aspects to the Bucks, but they really play “tall” rather than “big” or “small”. Griffin and even Drummond can dominate Lopez, Ilyasova, and certainly Pau Gasol. That’s not real firepower though, and that, firepower, is practically all the Bucks have.
Prediction: Bucks in 4
No.2 Toronto Raptors vs. No.7 Orlando Magic
The Magic enter the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league. They’ve incredibly won 42 games this season, and are top five in net rating since Valentines Day, with offensive and defensive ratings marks in the top six of the league. The engine behind it has been Nikola Vucevic, who has the whole Magic offense run through him. He’s putting up 20.8 points and 12 boards a game, while dishing 3.8 assists per game. Vucevic was someone we wanted the Magic to trade away until we realized they were too good to do that.
Orlando gets crafty with Vucevic. They can run guys around him like how the Pistons do with Griffin or the Nuggets with Jokic, but also are okay with moving the ball around and getting good shots. Evan Fournier’s driving ability forces defenders inside; he draws a lot more attention than someone like DJ Augustin, a smaller, less threatening attacker. His passing ability has been utilized at 5.3 assists per game though; he’s been the point guard the Magic have coveted for years, and one suited for today’s game as his off-ball capabilities have shined. Augustin’s shooting 42 percent from three on 3.8 attempts per game.
Given their spacing and big man overload issues, the Magic are a modern team. They have multiple looks and systems they can run: A five-out, ball moving, drive-and-kick system, a Vucevic-centered scheme, and a slower, post-up heavy scheme that out-muscles and out-bodies everyone. They’re kind of like the Raptors. The only problem is that they’re a lot less talented.
Orlando’s built decently well to counter Toronto’s big, athletic dudes. Jonathan Issac has the frame to hang with Pascal Siakam, and Fournier is the same type of player as Kawhi Leonard, though a little more skilled as a passer. But Aaron Gordon and Vucevic aren’t playable together in this series; the Raptors are too athletic to have both of those guys on the court at the same time. Taking that away leaves the Magic with a huge void offensively.
Fournier would be there to make up for that, but it’s assumed Toronto slaps Kawhi on him to put play-making responsibilities more on Augustin or Michael Carter-Williams (Wait, this Orlando Magic team is in the playoffs?). That makes Orlando much less threatening offensively. Fournier’s driving ability and crafty passing makes Orlando tougher to guard. Not that Toronto will have issues guarding them, but a slight lack of effort could make things interesting in a game or two. We’ve seen the Raptors tail off a bit in games late in this season; it’s basically the anti-Bucks move.
It’s hard to see Orlando hanging with Toronto. The Magic might have the same model of a team, but talent wins in the playoffs. Despite the point guard position not fitting the tall, athletic mold of either team, Lowry faces a fantastic matchup in Augustin or MCW. Orlando could force the Raptors into a poor shooting, poor effort game if the defense is tight both ways. At the same time, the Raptors have Kawhi, one of the game’s top crunch-time offensive weapons. The Magic have… Terrence Ross??
I think Orlando steals a game. Toronto gets caught shooting poorly or not trying hard enough, and Orlando’s funky offensive schemes run it up. I’m hesitant to project more than a five game series. Orlando’s going to struggle to score enough even when they play well. Like the Pistons, the firepower, experience and talent just isn’t there.
Prediction: Toronto in 5
No.3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No.6 Brooklyn Nets
The best series of the first round got a lot more interesting Wednesday night, when concern about whether Joel Embiid’s knee is healthy enough for him to play in Game 1 Saturday morning popped up. Now, on Friday afternoon, we still don’t know what Embiid’s status is.
I think Embiid missing 1-2 games takes this series from one level to the next.
The Nets are fun. Really fun. They run a lot of two and three guard lineups, always have shooting on the court, and have one of the best rim protectors in the league in Jarrett Allen. They’re deep, too. Spencer Dinwiddie and Ed Davis have been extremely productive bench guys, and Rodney Kurucs has emerged as an athletic wing as well.
The Sixers are loaded from a talent perspective. Their five man crunch-time lineup is terrifying, and bringing someone like Boban Marjanovic in off the bench in place of Embiid is just unfair. But all season there’s been a sort of malaise in our confidence in this team. No one really thinks they can make the big leap. No one really thinks they’ll win in the second round.
These concerns make sense. Ben Simmons completely fell apart in last season’s playoffs, and Jimmy Butler represents a chemistry issue that’s been in flux all year. The ball stops when it touches his hands, and it makes the Sixers a lot less potent.
Now Embiid’s health can be added to the list of concerns.
The Nets, in general, are a small team, which should give the Sixers the advantage. Their long perimeter defenders should swallow up the likes D’Angelo Russell and Dinwiddie. Shutting down Russell would be detrimental to the Nets. Caris Levert’s a dangerous, play-making forward, but is tasting the playoffs for the first time and will have either Butler, Tobias Harris or Ben Simmons switched on him at some point.
Russell’s someone who is terrifying to bet against though. His craftiness and ability to create his own shot (and shots for others) makes his size disadvantage not really matter. His heat-check potential, and the fact that the Sixers don’t have a small, defensive-minded guard on their roster makes Russell a mismatch, if he gets going. Sure, D-Lo could easily shoot the Nets out of a game, but he’s probably their best option no matter what. LeVert should be minimized, and Dinwiddie doesn’t have the same skills D-Lo does to break through Philly’s D.
But without Embiid, the Sixers are a lot less hard to break. Boban isn’t nearly the defender Embiid is, in terms of being able to guard guys out on the perimeter and cover large areas of the floor helping. The Nets don’t have to go small to play five out; Allen’s athleticism allows him not necessarily to stretch the floor with shooting, but with simple positioning. With no one to protect the rim, it should be easier for Brooklyn to get there. They can have their guards and LeVert drive, or run motion get easy looks. The best way to break good defenses is to catch them off guard and make them really have to try, especially early in games. Getting ahead against Philly is key, because we have no evidence that they know how to get a bucket when it really matters. They’ll spend time fighting over who gets the shot rather than if it goes in, and if all else fails, it’ll just be another JJ Redick dribble-handoff for a three.
The Sixers should be able to figure it out. The talent on top of Brooklyn’s bad defense from its top lineups the second half of this season is too overwhelming. And if Embiid is back, Brooklyn’s offense is heavily relied upon bad shots coming from D-Lo and DeMarre Carroll, who Philly should be smart enough to leave open when on the court.
That being said, the Nets are really frisky. The Sixers don’t have a prototype to stop someone like Russell, and Brooklyn plays smart and fun basketball. The Sixers really don’t; the Simmons-Butler dynamic leaves their offense with two ball-dominant players out there at the same time. Stalls give way to Nets three point barrages or D-Lo takeovers.
Brooklyn won’t get this to a Game 7, but two wins, especially if Embiid misses a game or two, is a certain possibility, and will leave the Sixers a tad haunted heading into the next round.
Prediction: 76ers in 6
No.4 Boston Celtics vs. No.5 Indiana Pacers
Like Philly, the Celtics were dealt with an injury blow as well, and while the length of it is much more extended, the impact is a tad less.
I haven’t really understood the momentum behind the Pacers in this series. Sure, they’ve maintained their ground after losing Victor Oladipo, but they also haven’t really beat anyone impressive. The Pacers beat teams they should and lose to ones they should as well. The Pacers are… fine.
Boston hasn’t exactly impressed either this year. They completely underachieved, thanks to chemistry and leadership issues, lack of defensive efforts in games, huge performances swings from Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward, and just a knack for shooting like absolute crap early in games before having Kyrie Irving bail them out late. The Celtics have been so up and down that even in this series, it’s hard to put any real confidence in them. I’m ready for anything to happen.
But this is the Pacers, whose ship is being ran by Darren Collinson and the heat-checking Bojan Bogdonovic. The offense has been brutal this year, ranking 18th in offensive efficiency overall and 21st since Valentines Day. They’ve stayed afloat by playing hard and at least competing defensively, though the numbers don’t like them too much (They rank 18th in defensive rating since Valentines Day).
The Celtics should torch them. Out of Indiana’s top four most played lineups since the All-Star break, none have a defensive rating better than 107.7. Sure, defensive ratings overall have sky-rocketed this season thanks to the league’s offensive explosion, but still, those numbers are not encouraging.
Indy’s fifth most played lineup of Thaddeus Young-Tyreke Evans-Cory Joseph-Doug McDermott-Domontas Sabonis is their best defensive lineup post All-Star, but it plummets offensively. As good as he’s been, Sabonis just isn’t enough to carry the load, and I can’t be sure someone like Evans should be on the floor with him. The whole “Run around Sabonis and get open” strategy isn’t one the ball-hog Evans likes to employ.
If the Pacers hang around at all, it won’t be because of their performance. It will be because of Boston’s.
Nothing schematically leans in favor of the Pacers. They don’t have a Kyrie Irving stopper, nor do they have the wing defenders needed to stop Jayson Tatum and a suddenly productive Gordon Hayward, who can fill the Smart void offensively. Plus, Myles Turner may be a good rim protector and defender, but look for Boston to use Al Horford a tad more in easy post-up situations. The Celtics should be able to take advantage of Turner’s inexperience and one-on-one post D. The only thing the Pacers have going for them is their grit, which, in the event that Boston doesn’t have that, could lead to a win or too.
Boston’s lackluster urgency in games this year is concerning. They shoot poorly to start, and just don’t care on the defensive end until they really have to. Communication seems shot between this team, which goes hand-in-hand with the chemistry issues.
Boston could be able to get away with that this series. Again, this Pacers team possesses literally no threat besides the fact that they play hard for 48 minutes. A bad Boston performance probably gets the job done four times in five games. And that’s assuming there’s no switch.
If there was a switch, you would have thought it would have been activated a month ago, so that its effectiveness would have gotten this underachieving team up to at least a top three seed (Then again, a series with the Nets feels like a disaster for Boston right now). Nothing with this team indicates there is one. A great win is followed by just a horrible loss with no explanation besides it looking like this team just doesn’t care.
That trait we can worry about in the second round. For now, the lack of care will only bite them once.
Prediction: Celtics in 5
No.1 Golden State Warriors vs. No.8 Los Angeles Clippers
Speaking of a switch, the Warriors have had possibly their most on/off season ever of the past five years. Golden State found itself winning only 57 games this season, its lowest since Steve Kerr took over. But unlike Boston, we don’t have the concern with Golden State. No one is really doubting this team; the consensus is that they’re probably going to win the Finals (Hint: They probably are!). Part of it’s because the West isn’t as good; the Bucks and Raptors both feel like Finals teams; only the Rockets pose a real threat to Golden State. Part of it is because everyone picked Boston to really break out this season and it didn’t happen. And part of it is because we have been accustom to the Warriors not trying throughout the regular season and even the playoffs over the past years.
That probably comes to light in this series as well. Like Indiana, the Clippers play hard. But they’re a lot more than that. Los Angeles has crazy lineup combinations that work, and have a top ten offense since Valentines Day. The creativity, ball movement and spacing makes them sneakily dangerous, even against the best team in the league.
Their issue in the series is on the defensive end. The Clips are below average since mid-February, and don’t have anyone to handle 3/5s of Golden State starting lineup. The athleticism of Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins is too much. The best KD option is probably Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who doubles as offensive option No.1 when Lou Williams isn’t hot. Danillo Gallinari has posted brutal defensive numbers against Golden State this season; so has practically every other Clippers big man (The lowest defensive rating by a Clips big against the Dubs this year is Ivica Zubac’s 110.6. He’s good for a -2.6 net rating against them this season). Essentially, Los Angeles is screwed defending their front-court, and with Boogie looking like an absolute monster lately, any hope is washed away.
The Clippers aren’t getting stops in this series. The Warriors may not either. It’s going to depend on when they decide to start getting them.
LA’s offense has been incredibly fun to watch. Gallo’s stayed healthy; his ability to actually move himself into spots all over the court has made him a decent scoring threat; same with Zubac, who could be an absolute beast if his rim running could turn into defensive lateral quickness. Landry Shamet is still shooting the lights out of the ball, and Patrick Beverley is still running everything at the top. The wings are underwhelming; Garrett Temple, JaMychal Green and Wilson Chandler aren’t exactly the definition of firepower. Throughout their time on the Clippers, Green has somehow been the best three point shooter at 41.3 percent.
When nothing is working, there’s always Lou Williams, who is a bit of a tough guard for the Warriors. When Lou is hot, there’s nothing you can do. There isn’t even anything Klay Thompson can do.
The Clippers win the series if Lou Will literally has the best playoff series ever. When Golden State gives a crap defensively, he has to bail out LA. Golden State’s too skilled when they care; the switches can leave Klay on SGA and KD and Draymond on the already problematic wings. Lou Will gets Curry or Boogie depending on the switch, but even that mismatch won’t be sustainable over more than two games. The Clips just don’t have enough.
It’s the first round, which means Golden State’s effort will be low. LA could squeeze two games out of this; one in a Lou Will performance, the other where they catch Golden State going cold and eventually giving up on the other end. No matter what happens, the Warriors will be fine. Lets not overreact to it.
Prediction: Warriors in 6
No.2 Denver Nuggets vs. No.7 San Antonio Spurs
As much fun as the Nuggets have been this season, this series just doesn’t get me too excited.
It’s a very slow, old-fashioned series. Neither team takes a lot of threes. Both teams run constant motion and off-ball movement to get good shots, but don’t kick the tempo of that movement up. Both teams are centered around big, slow post players who each have one good, reliable guard to help create as well.
The difference is that for Denver, all their deficiencies haven’t mattered. They’ve made it work. Nikola Jokic has a lot more athleticism and versatility than he’s given credit for. While he’s only shooting 30.7 percent from beyond the arc this year, the threat of him on the perimeter is dangerous. It feels like they go down more than the numbers say they do. His newfound stretchiness allows the Nuggets to play Mason Plumlee at the same time, who has also looked like a completely different player, running the floor, being active around the rim on both ends and fitting in perfectly with the system.
Jokic has been completely unstoppable in whatever he has been asked to do this season. Run the offense? He’s averaging 7.3 assists this season. Score in crunch-time? How many centers can do this? He’s also taken massive strides defensively, though the pick and roll still gives him immense trouble. Thankfully for Denver, the Spurs are average in their use of that. San Antonio instead has the highest post up percentage in the league, per NBA.com.
LaMarcus Aldridge still isn’t a great matchup for Jokic. Jokic ranks in the 65.1 percentile of post-up defense in the league this season, per NBA.com. Feeding LMA is San Antonio’s best hope. With the Spurs own defensive struggles, guarding the menace that is Jokic, plus everything else he brings to the table will be an immense challenge. The only guard who makes the Spurs defense better by defensive rating is Derrick White, who gives the Spurs a defensive rating of 106.4 when he’s on the court compared to a rating of 110.2 when he’s off it. There’s your Jamal Murray stopper.
Denver loves their three guard sets with the two big men. Malik Beasley, Monte Morris and Will Barton have all been extremely productive this season, and Paul Millsap is not an easy assignment for whoever of LMA/Jakob Poeltl the Spurs decide to not put on Jokic. The athleticism of Denver’s bigs wins every time, and that’s without the guards, specifically Murray, getting hot.
The Spurs getting stops, then trying to keep up, seems like too much to deal with. Even though Denver is a very similarly structured team, their modern tendencies outweigh what the Spurs will be able to accomplish. San Antonio could get two games; there are times when LMA is just unstoppable no matter who is guarding him, and DeMar DeRozan is a crafty scorer who can probably get by anyone but Gary Harris on the Nuggets roster. But in a game where offense is king, the Spurs just fall short. Offensive rating had Denver ranked sixth and San Antonio seventh this season. That’s very indicative.
Prediction: Nuggets in 5
No.3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No.6 Oklahoma City Thunder
Portland’s loss to New Orleans in last season’s playoffs was probably one of the most shocking series we have seen in awhile. The Pelicans went in with Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo and shut the powerful backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum down, en route to a 4-0 sweep, the complete opposite of what I projected.
What New Orleans did was give us a blueprint for how to stop the Trail Blazers, and that’s neutralize CJ and Dame. They’re practically the whole team, and with Jursurf Nurkic now out, they need even more from them combined on the offensive end.
Oklahoma City has a similar formula. The backcourt duo of Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder felt like a disaster heading into the season, but OKC has made it work. Russ has been a tad more passive this season, thanks not necessarily to Schroder’s presence but to Paul George’s step forward and top five in MVP voting season. The two have played well together. They share a +4.4 net rating when on the court, and have complied a ridiculously low defensive rating of 103.8.
I think that’s enough. CJ and Dame hadn’t ever looked this good playing together until this season. Those two literally carried Portland to where they are now, even though McCollum’s knee injury left him out 10 games (Portland miraculously got this high in the standings not due to themselves but mostly thanks to the Rockets). McCollum did get back into action since the injury, but it was only two games, and the shooting numbers were rough. Throwing him back into the fire, the high intensity, playoff fire is a little worrisome, especially against the tenacious Russ and Schroeder. If McCollum isn’t 100 percent, which is tough to expect, Portland is in trouble.
The biggest key in the playoffs is firepower though, and no matter how good Russ and Schroeder have been together this season, it still doesn’t quite match what Dame and CJ could do. Problem is, Dame and CJ could get shut down, and Portland has no third option. The Thunder have many others besides Russ and Schroeder.
The Trail Blazers defense is anchored on their wings rather than the guards and bigs. Al-Faruoq Aminu, Mo Harkless and Jake Layman use their length to lockdown the perimeter. But that’s only gotten Portland to 16th in defensive rating, and Paul George has been on another level this season. Harkless has been really important defensively, but that’s in comparison to other Trail Blazers rather than it being adjusted for the opponent. In George, we’re looking at a top three MVP candidate if we weren’t in the middle of a historic race for the top spot.
The Blazers have a lot on their hands with the Thunder, and that’s not even accounting for Steven Adams, who is in very favorable territory now that Nurkic is out. Since the Nurkic injury, the Blazers have been rolling with Enes Kanter as their big guy. Zach Collins has also been featured, but his thin frame is no match for the burly Adams. Kanter is a black hole defensively, and doesn’t have the stretch-capability to help Portland counter the OKC firepower.
For Portland to have a chance, they’re going to need Dame and McCollum to be 110 percent. From Dame, that should be expected. He’s a 2nd team All-NBA guy this season and has bailed Portland out whenever they’ve needed it. If what happened last year happens again, the questions about whether the backcourt needs to split up will reemerge, and a team in Southern California will most definitely be interested.
Prediction: Thunder in 6
No.4 Houston Rockets vs. No.5 Utah Jazz
My first thought with this series was an absolute blowout, but Utah’s stingy defense might take them a little farther than I originally imagined.
The Jazz got off to a slow start this season. Donavan Mitchell was slumping, and it felt like a team that was suffering the consequences of doing literally nothing over the summer.
But then Mitchell turned back into himself, and Utah ended up here, at the five seed, where we all kind of expected them to.
Houston followed a similar path. They started terribly, and then James Harden, who yes is my MVP of this season (No disrespect to Giannis whatsoever. What an incredible race it was), went bonkers and scored what felt like 50 every night. Now, Houston feels like an unstoppable machine that poses a serious threat to Golden State. If they can beat Golden State, shouldn’t they kill Utah?
The Rockets play slow and methodical. They don’t move the ball a lot besides the infamous Harden-Clint Capela pick and roll. That play is troubling for Utah, but it’s really the only way Utah’s defense can lose this series.
The Jazz are switchy enough to be able to minimize the amount of times Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are mismatched on Harden. Keeping one of Ricky Rubio, Mitchell or Joe Ingles on him at all times won’t stop Harden, but could slow him down just a bit. He’s still going to score and make shots, but his rhythm could be disrupted, leading to more passiveness and passing rather than attacking.
The Jazz aren’t well-equipped to guard heavy ball movement offenses. They have more one-on-one, gritty on-ball defenders rather than athletic wings with length. They’re nasty, and play up in your face. That’s the type of defense you need to play to slow down isolation.
Even if Utah gives it their best defensive effort though, it may not matter. The Rockets are still going to jack shots, and they’re going to go in at a high enough rate. That high enough rate is going to beat the Jazz. Utah made 12.1 threes a game this year, an impressively high number for a team that doesn’t feel like it has shooting. Houston made four more a game at 16.1, leading the league by practically 2.5.
Mitchell could be there to make up for some of the missing firepower. Harden certainly won’t be guarding him, and Chris Paul is older. The Rockets have options besides the guards; PJ Tucker is the best defender on the team and can easily be switched on to stop a scoring streak. Mitchell torched OKC in last year’s playoffs, but that felt more closely related to the incredible season he had rather than his overall talent. This year we’ve seen the flaws with Mitchell; he’s too possessive of the ball and loves bad shots. Any possession that has those is more points to Houston.
When you play the way Houston does, you’re bound to have bad games. The shots just don’t go in and you’re screwed. Utah has a guy that on a good night can turn into an unstoppable force. For the Jazz to win a game in this series, he’s going to have to do that. And get a little luck from the rims.
Prediction: Houston in 5