The NBA Playoffs are finally upon us, the fruits of an especially long and laborious season that started two weeks sooner than we are accustomed to. We’ve weaseled out nearly half of the teams that don’t matter. For the next two months, we no longer have to worry about resting players and those dastardly tankers. Hallelujah.
Before the round-by-round breakdown, I want to say: this year’s playoffs have the potential to be an all-timer. The NBA is in a funny place. There were (very obviously) and handful of teams with zero intentions of trying to make the playoffs. But there were no teams that fell ass-backwards into the postseason. In the Western Conference, the third through eighth seeds were separated by a whopping two games. And 2018 will be the first year since the lockout shortened 2012 season where every team had a winning percentage greater than .500. A low seed is no longer a consolation prize for missing out on the Draft lottery.
Which begs the question: is there a possibility we see a massive upset in the first round? Since the We Believe Warriors in 2007, we’ve only had two major upsets in round one: (8) Memphis over (1) San Antonio in 2011, and (8) Philly over the Rose-less (1) Bulls in 2012. (We’ve also had (6) Dallas over (3) San Antonio in 2009; (7) San Antonio over (2) Dallas in 2010; (6) Golden State over (3) Denver in 2013; and (6) Brooklyn over (3) Toronto in 2014.)
Western Conference Round One
(8) Minnesota upsets (1) Houston in seven games
Boom! Haymaker right off the bell!
It would be very Minnesotan of the Wolves to make their first playoff trip in fourteen years nominal. But we’re in playoff basketball right now, and Tom Thibodeaux and his bastardized, blue-collar approach to overplay guys and run them into the ground is very un-Minnesotan. Instead, this series has all the makings of an upset. Houston’s been sitting idle for weeks. (Stocks in Houston strip clubs are at an all-time high.) Minnesota, meanwhile, is in prime playoff form, coming off an overtime play-in game where Thibs was in prime form, playing Karl Anthony-Towns 47 of 53 minutes, Jeff Teague 43, and Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins 42. Minnesota has both the athleticism to make Houston’s wings uncomfortable, and the size to punish an iffy frontcourt.
After the embarrassing first round exit, Houston trades Chris Paul to Cleveland for Kevin Love.
(2) Golden State whomps (7) San Antonio in five
Earl Watson thinks LaMarcus Aldridge is going to have his way with the Warriors en route to an upset. I don’t see it. Aside from DJ Quake, there’s just not enough firepower for on the Spurs roster to win this series. They’re too pedestrian of a road team to take advantage of a Steph-less Warriors team.
After the playoffs end, the Spurs and Cavaliers consummate a trade: Coach Pop for the Brooklyn pick.
(3) Portland shines against (6) New Orleans in six
Portland’s guards get off against New Orleans. Playoff Rondo is no longer a thing. Anthony Davis posts monster averages that only add fuel to the fire of those hot hot trade talks.
(4) Oklahoma City outlasts (5) Utah in seven
Utah takes early control in the series with stifling team defense, but with a big game from Melo, a big game from PG13, and Russ’s elevated playoff play, OKC finds momentum to win this series. Utah fades into the off-season, looking for another piece to help take them to the next level.
Eastern Conference Round One
(1) Toronto handles (8) Washington in four
Pundits keep bringing up the Raptors past playoff duds as evidence they are doomed to repeat themselves. Hogwash, I say. They had a top tier backcourt this season, have a commanding physical frontcourt, the best bench in the league, and the best home court record along with years of continuity. The stars are aligned for the Raptors.
Washington, meanwhile, gets swept and deals with that. Could John Wall be a surprise trade candidate, ala Blake Griffin?
(7) Milwaukee does it against (2) Boston in seven
Boston has every excuse to lose this series: they are injury-riddled and don’t have a go-to offensive guy. That will be their downfall in this series. Meanwhile, Milwaukee benefits from having a talented roster with favorable matchups. This series goes the distance because Boston is resiliant and well-coached, but Milwaukee gets to shine on a public stage.
As a consolation prize, the NBA rigs the Lottery and the Lakers pick moves up to pick three, which means it’s converted to Boston as part of last season’s Fultz/Tatum deal. What are the chances Boston cashes in on their assets to make a move for another superstar?
(6) Miami shuts down (3) Philadelphia in six
Miami has nine players who average double-digits in scoring. They have a well-balanced offensive attack. Philadelphia is a sexy team and a trendy pick to run through a chaotic and seemingly weak Eastern Conference, but this isn’t their moment, especially with an injured Joel Embiid. Time and time again, we’ve seen playoff basketball is different than regular season basketball, and the Sixers aren’t heady enough to make it happen this year.
(4) LeBron beats (5) Indiana in five
LeBron has won 21 straight first round playoff games, but the streak ends in this wonky Cleveland season that serves as foreshadowing.
Western Conference Semi-Finals
(4) OKC advances against (8) Minnesota in seven
Minnesota runs out of gas in round two. Melo is the story of the second round series, as he shows the world that he still has some juice left in the carton. Minnesota explores trades for Andrew Wiggins this off-season.
(2) Golden State slugs it out with (3) Portland in six
Steph comes back and shakes off the rust. Portland gives it the old college try and puts some pressure on Golden State, enough to make the Warriors break a sweat. Still, there’s just too much firepower on this Warriors team, and the playoffs are too long for a team this good to make enough mistakes to be ousted early.
Eastern Conference Semi-Finals
(1) Toronto dethrones (4) LeBron in six
Toronto is too deep to fall to this Cleveland team. LeBron, like 2010, is ousted in six games in the second round, which ramps up the rumors that he’s preparing to leave. Does he go full 2010 and quit on his team? Not quite. But the end of his Finals appearance streak is enough for him to call in the cavalry. I’ve already mentioned they’ll get Chris Paul and coach Popovich this off-season. There’s still one more to come.
(6) Miami makes minced meat out of (7) Milwaukee in six
The narrative of the Miami Miracle begins to take shape, but this Heat team isn’t really that special, just the beneficiary of good fortune. Meanwhile, Milwaukee has a tough decision to make: do they remove the interim tag from Joe Prunty, or do they bring in someone new, like David Fizdale?
Western Conference Finals
(2) Golden State takes care of business against (4) Oklahoma City in five
There will be no redemption story here. The narrative is clear: Westbrook versus Durant. And while Russell clearly basks in the story, the Warriors are focused on a much bigger picture. This is the type of series that gets a team ready for the championship. A decisive, dominant win.
After the season, Carmelo Anthony is traded to Cleveland. For what? George Hill, the perfect off-ball guard to complement Russell Westbrook.
Eastern Conference Finals
(1) Toronto makes history against (6) Miami in six
“The Six in six” is what the headlines will read. The first time in the modern era that a Canadian team has advanced to the NBA Finals. Coach Casey is vindicated. Kyle Lowry is vindicated. DeMar DeRozan is vindicated. Drake is vindicated. Toronto becomes the World’s Team, a global ambassador on the national stage.
Golden State repeats against Toronto in four
A boring series. Golden State gets the job done. We are looking at a truly unique team in the midst of a dynasty. Three titles in four seasons. How long can they keep it up? A three-peat is definitely a possibility, but the 2018 season made them look mortal.
Toronto is just happy to be here.