By Kelton Brooks
Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo makes his first playoff appearance as one of the league’s youngest and brightest stars, Kevin Durant chases his first NBA title with the Golden State Warriors and the top-two MVP candidates and former teammates in Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook and Houston Rockets’ James Harden go head-to-head as the playoffs begin Saturday and Sunday.
FIRST ROUND: EAST
(1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Chicago Bulls
The Cleveland Cavaliers opted to rest their starters in the final week of the season, virtually gifting the Boston Celtics its first No. 1 seed since 2008. The Celtics have a perennial all-star in Isaiah Thomas, who is capable of scoring at will, but when he goes to the bench, so does Boston’s scoring.
Boston has an offensive rating of 108.6 with Thomas on the court this year. When Thomas goes to the bench, the number drops to the mid 90s. The Bulls are 3-14 all-time versus the Celtics in playoffs (all three wins in OT in 2009 1st Round), their worst record versus any opponent, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
While the Bulls depth is questionable and Dwyane Wade has recently returned from a broken elbow, Wade’s playoff experience and Jimmy Butler’s uptick in production in the playoffs is too convincing to pass up.
Regardless of seeding, the Bulls will upset the Celtics: Bulls in 7
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Indiana Pacers
No, the Cavs have not looked anything close to a juggernaut this season, even with the best player in the world in LeBron James. The team hasn’t been able to gel as a cohesive unit as they battled through injuries, and they have one of the worst defenses in the league with a defensive rating of 108.0 (22nd).
The matchup against James and a fringe top-10 player in Paul George seems to bring out the best in each other. But for James, a player who has reached the Finals in six straight seasons, he won’t lose in the first round despite the late season struggles.
James and the Cavs are right where they want to be, back in the playoffs. And George, he wanted to play for his hometown Los Angeles Lakers yesterday.
Bring out the brooms. Cleveland has been playing possum. Cavs in 4.
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
A spade would beat two King of Diamonds in a game of Spades every single time if this series was a card game, but unfortunately, it’s not. At 22-years-old, Antetokounmpo is the first player in NBA history to finish in the top-20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He established career highs in points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), steals (1.6) and blocks (1.9).
But when the Greek Freak lost his running mate in Jabari Parker to a torn ACL, so did the Bucks’ legitimate chances to make some noise in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo will put his skills on display in front of a national audience, but he won’t be enough to knock off DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Raptors in 6.
(4) Washington Wizards vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
This is the most four and five-iest matchups of four and five-iest matchups. The Wizards have a top-10 point guard in John Wall and a should’ve-been All-Star in Bradley Beal. The Wizards can score amongst the best, but the problem is, they can’t stop people from scoring.
Washington is giving up 107.4 ppg versus scoring 109.2 a game.
Every season the Hawks find themselves hovering between the five and eight seed. This season is no different with a team with a solid, but non-threatening lineup of Dwight Howard, Paul Milsap and Dennis Schroder.
The Wizards are simply the better team. Washington in 6.
FIRST ROUND: WEST
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Portland Trailblazers
— CSN Northwest (@CSNNW) April 13, 2017
Warriors in 5.
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are the Western Conference version of the Hawks, a 2008 Honda Accord that’s good on gas to get you where you need to go, it won’t wow you with top performance.
The Grizzlies have had the same problem for years, no legit superstar on their team. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are great players, but why drive that Honda when you can have the Corvette that is the best two-way player in the game in Kawhi Leonard, and All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Spurs in 5.
(3) Houston Rockets vs. (6) Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s a miracle Russell Westbrook dragged this lowly cast of players this far, and it took becoming the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double to do it. Westbrook broke Oscar Robertson’s record of triple-doubles (41) with 42, capped off by a 36-foot buzzer beater to eliminate the Denver Nuggets from the playoffs.
Westbrook is a top-5 player and the best point guard in the NBA, but he’s bringing butter knives of Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter to a fight against James Harden, who had two 50-point triple-doubles (Westbrook had an NBA record three). Harden has Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza and Lou Williams. Any of those players would arguably be the second best player on the Thunder.
This is by far the best series in the first round of the playoffs, but Westbrook doesn’t have enough to disarm the Rockets.
Rockets in 6
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Utah Jazz
The Clippers should be having a farewell tour along with Paul Pierce. All throughout the offseason and during this season, the Clippers were rumored to break up its core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan if LA doesn’t make a deep run into the playoffs.
The breakup will happen soon against a Jazz team with a defensive rating 102.7, which is third-best in the league. Utah held its opponents to 96.8 ppg, which is first in the NBA. The Clippers can score, averaging 115 points per game to challenge the long and lengthy Utah team, but the Jazz will show the national audience how they jumped from a non-playoff team last season to a fifth seed this year behind Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward, and Rodney Hood.
Jazz in 7.