Predicting the 2018 NBA Playoffs and answering the most important question every NBA playoff team are facing heading into the playoffs.
Will James Harden, Chris Paul and Mike D’Antoni choke yet again?
The Houston Rockets have clearly been the best regular season team in the NBA this season. What looked like a definite Western Conference winner in Golden State is now a doubt. Not only because they have struggled to motivate themselves and are without Curry, but also because D’Antoni’s Rockets have been dominating the league whenever Chris Paul and James Harden have played together.
But what James Harden, Chris Paul and Mike D’Antoni know all too well, is that regular season success doesn’t always translate to the post-season. D’Antoni has never reached the NBA Finals and has failed to get out of the Conference Semi-Finals since 05/06. Chris Paul’s best post-season moment of taking down reigning Champions San Antonio Spurs was quickly forgotten once he lost in the next round thanks to Corey Brewer and Josh Smith. James Harden was on the bench when that Rockets team came back to win that series against the Clippers, and has shrunk every time the Rockets have needed him to win an important series.
The MVP to be had his worst playoff performance yet when he crashed out against the Kawhi-less Spurs last season and I’m not so sure the road to the Conference Finals is as easy as people make it out to be. Getting past the Minnesota Timberwolves should be a breeze, but if the Rockets take them lightly and lose a game, Harden’s past failures might make his confidence fade away again. In the next round, against either the Utah Jazz or OKC, more trouble will be brewing and I’ll go out on a limb and say the Rockets won’t survive. Like two years ago with Spurs vs Warriors or last season with Rockets and Warriors, we won’t get the Western Conference Finals we anticipate.
Prediction: Loss to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Semi-Finals
What will they do to stop LeBron James?
Make no mistake about it, the Toronto Raptors are the 2nd best team in the East. Who is #1 you ask? Well, it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers and if the Raptors want to make the NBA Finals, they will have to go through them.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, they face the Cavaliers already in the Conference Semi-Finals and they will have to stop LeBron James to get past them. That will be tough, both figuratively and literally. For all the star power and depth the Raptors have, they don’t have any players who can defend LeBron. Rookie OG Anunoby might be their best option, and while he might have the combination of size and speed to combat LeBron, he only averaged 20 MPG during the regular season. It’s just his rookie season, and rookies usually get torched on the defensive end, especially against a prime vet like LeBron.
It’s just too much to ask from a rookie. OG will be a terrific defender in time and will turn out to be a bonafide draft steal. It’s just too early to bother LeBron.
So.. who else? Lowry is way too small, Ibaka is way too slow, CJ Miles is way too small and slow. The answer might be the unheralded player and best defender you don’t know about, Pascal Siakam.
The 6’9, 230 lbs Cameroonian was drafted because of his defense and energy and has worked on his strength to become better equipped to defend the elite NBA talent in his sophomore season. LeBron still has the size to bully him, but Siakam will put up a fight and make it more tempting for LeBron to hoist jumpers than bang down low. The Raptors will need to bring a lot of help, but Siakam has shown that he can bother LeBron already.
Will it be enough? I don’t think so, but here’s hoping the Raptors’ promising, young defenders at least makes it a bit interesting.
Prediction: Loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals
Golden State Warriors:
Can the Golden State Warriors turn it around and reach another NBA Finals?
Yes. Get back to me once the playoffs are over.
Prediction: NBA Championship Winners
Can their league leading defense get them out of the 1st Round?
In the recent push to make Brad Stevens the coach of the year, a lot has been made out of the Boston Celtics lacking their two best players this post-season. While Kyrie Irving will be a big miss for the playoffs and we all wish we could see him match up against LeBron, the lack of Gordon Hayward is nothing new for the Boston Celtics.
God knows how good the Celtics would be with last summer’s big free agent addition, but we do know they have been incredibly good without him. That is mostly down to the league leading defense they have, anchored by Al Horford, but flanked with a plethora of defensive talents. Even with the playoff availability of Marcus Smart in question, the Celtics can still trot out guys like Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Aron Baynes, Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum. If the pesky Smart returns, the Celtics will be a force on defense yet again.
Neither Gordon Hayward nor Kyrie Irving were the reason the Celtics led the league in defensive efficiency, but without them, the Celtics will need to find another source of offense. Apart from fantastic play-sets from Stevens and possibly irrational confidence from Terry Rozier, a lot of the burden will be on rookie Jayson Tatum.
I have been on the Tatum bandwagon since before last year’s draft, pegging him to be a scorer in the Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony mold. His 3 point shooting and defense is even better than I expected and might make him exceed even the lofty expectations I had for him. He is however, still just a rookie and sometimes gets a little deer in the headlights-y on big occasions.
The Celtics can go further than people think, but it will most definitely stop at Cleveland if they manage to get there.
Prediction: Loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals
Will they have playoff success right away, or will it be a process?
While I was a believer in “The Process” when they were the worst team in the league and I predicted that the 76ers would be the story of the 2nd half of this season, I’m not as confident in them having much playoff success.. yet.
It’s not just the fact that Joel Embiid’s status is uncertain and we know he will be out for at least game 1, but it will be very hard for such a young team to succeed in the NBA playoffs. They are unlucky to face a team with one of the best coaches in the NBA, Erik Spoelstra, and while the Heat have a slightly lackluster roster, they have more than enough bodies to throw at 76ers star Ben Simmons.
The biggest sub-plot of this series will be how Ben Simmons will fare. Playoff defenses tend to be stingier, the games run at a slower pace and non-shooters like Simmons are dared to shoot and suffer for it. How will he respond when fast break opportunities are taken away, the lanes are more clogged and Hassan Whiteside waits for him in the paint? Whiteside has been on and off the court for Miami this season, but is back healthy now and will be a difficult foe for Joel Embiid as well, should he come back.
With Embiid out to start however, the 76ers might struggle. Sure, they won 8 straight without him to end the season, but their best opponents were the Cavaliers focused on the playoffs and a playoff seed tanking Milwaukee Bucks. Miami Heat and Erik Spoelstra will be ready for them and I think they will do enough to stop them. I’m predicting an upset.
Prediction: Loss to the Miami Heat in the 1st Round
Can the Cleveland Cavaliers turn it around and reach another NBA Finals?
Prediction: Loss in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors
Portland Trail Blazers:
Do they have the firepower to keep up with the Warriors and Rockets?
The Blazers have gone toe to toe with the two Western Conference favorites all season, with MVP candidate Damian Lillard and perfect 2nd banana CJ McCollum matching the opposing backcourts in terms of 3PT shooting. The Blazers are one of the few teams that can score with the best of them and we all know Lillard Time lasts all the way through the NBA playoffs.
I think Lillard and McCollum can keep up, and they will be enough to overcome the Pelicans in the 1st round, but I think it stops once they face the playoff Warriors. The Blazers defense, despite their improvement, just won’t be enough to limit the Western Conference favorites.
Prediction: Loss to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semi-Finals
Oklahoma City Thunder:
Have they done enough to convince Paul George to stay?
Behind the distraction around the talk of Russell Westbrook’s triple doubles and his hunt for rebounds, a worrying question still looms over OKC’s season; will Paul George re-sign this summer?
Their contending future depends on it, as being left with only Russell Westbrook and the washed Carmelo Anthony would be the beginning of the end for the Thunder run that has lasted since they first made the NBA playoffs in 09/10. The Thunder bet on convincing PG13 to stay, in a trade that looked a whole lot better back when it was made.
It was still a good bet, and it resulted in Westbrook extending his contract through the 2022/23 season, but even good bets sometimes end up just short. If Paul George ends up leaving, OKC’s future will be murky and suggestions of trading Westbrook and rebuilding will pop up.
So.. have they done enough to convince him to stay? Well, it’s hard to know by now, because if the Thunder finally realize their potential and make a deep run in the playoffs, possibly knocking out the Rockets in the conference semis, George could opt to stay.
In my estimation, that won’t happen. They got possibly the worst possible match-up for them in round one against the Utah Jazz. Not only are the Jazz on fire, winning 17 of their last 21 matches, but Westbrook will run straight into presumptive defensive player of the year, Rudy Gobert. Joe Ingles can defend George and the Jazz are deeper and better defensively than OKC sans Roberson. It’s gonna be close, OKC are just too talented, but getting enough playoff success to keep George will be tough either way.
Ironically, OKC’s playoff success hinges on George getting back into form. His 3PT shot has disappeared down the stretch and his defense hasn’t quite been the defensive player of the year level he had with Roberson in the lineup. Perhaps PG’s mind is elsewhere as well? If he and OKC go out in the 1st round, expect him to end up with the Lakers in the summer.
Prediction: Loss to the Utah Jazz in the 1st Round
How well will playoff virgins Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio do?
When it comes to the Jazz, the biggest deciding factor for their playoff fate lies with their backcourt. Both Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio have been successful additions to the squad that lost their star Gordon Hayward in the summer and they have helped the Jazz reach the NBA playoffs yet again.
Just like last year, the Jazz end up as the 5th seed, and once again, I expect them to win in the 1st round against a favored 4th seed. If they want to do that, then Mitchell must shake off any playoff jitters he might have, while Rubio must be able to shoot a respectable percentage, or find other ways to impact the game.
Rubio has been called the worst shooter in modern NBA history and it has always been the only thing holding him back. Just like last season, Rubio has had a bit of a shooting renaissance to end the season, shooting 40% from 3PT land after the All-Star break. Unlike someone like Ben Simmons, I don’t think Rubio’s shooting will be a big issue in the playoffs. When shots are being made at Rubio Resort, everyone staying there will have a good time, and the Jazz have certainly benefited from Rubio’s uptick in efficiency. Rubio has a net rating of 16.1 post All-Star break and is a major reason they have turned their season around offensively.
While having Rudy Gobert back certainly helped shore up the Utah Jazz defense, the other main reason the offense has been effective for the Utah Jazz, is rookie Donovan Mitchell. Everyone is on the Mitchell bandwagon now and the kid has the skills, attitude and balls to continue to impress in the playoffs. No deer in the headlights here.
Not only do I think the Jazz get past the Thunder, I’m betting on them shocking the world and defeating the Houston Rockets in round two. With Gobert in place, the Jazz have the best defense in the league and if Rubio and Mitchell fire on all cylinders, they can hang with anyone. I can’t wait to see it.
Prediction: Loss to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals
Can the Pacers shock the world and knock out the Cavaliers?
A lot has changed with the Indiana Pacers since a year ago, but somehow they will end up with the same fate as last year. Getting swept in the 1st round by the Cavaliers.
The Pacers actually made it interesting last season and could have stolen a game from the King if CJ Miles had made his game winning shot at the end of game 1. Paul George was upset he didn’t get to take it and forced a trade in the summer. The Pacers were heading in the wrong direction.
The other way came Victor Oladipo (and Domantas Sabonis) and the former Indiana Hoosier changed his body, worked his ass off and has been the Most Improved Player this season and deserving of an All-NBA team spot. While Oladipo breathed new life into the Pacers and actually made the trade a win for the Pacers, they are less equipped to beat LeBron this year. The thing Paul George has over Oladipo is size, which means that compared to PG13, Oladipo will feel as as light as a feather for LeBron James. He won’t be able to stop him, hardly anyone can.
Prediction: Loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1st Round
New Orleans Pelicans:
What the hell will “Playoffs Brow” look like?
Man am I excited to see what Anthony Davis can do in the playoffs this season. As my runner-up MVP behind Harden, Davis has been a force on both ends and done it all for the Pelicans. If they wanna get past the Trail Blazers in the first round, he will have to do even more.
Jrue Holiday and playoff Rondo will do a good job of defending Lillard and McCollum, but “The Brow” will need to do the majority of the work on offense. I’m expecting a line like this:
42 MPG, 33 PPG, 12 REB, 3 AST, 4,5 STOCKS (Steals and Blocks) on 55% shooting
Monstrous numbers for a monster of a player. Anthony Davis took a huge step this season and he’s only going to get better. Watch out. Still, I think the Blazers will have too much firepower for the Pelicans to overcome.
Prediction: Loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1st Round
San Antonio Spurs:
Is there any hope that Kawhi Leonard will feature?
This series is such a let-down and will probably resemble what we saw once Kawhi was taken down by Zaza Pacheapshot towards the end of game 1. With Kawhi in the lineup, I’d actually give the Spurs a chance, even against my clear Championship favorite Warriors, but without him, they don’t stand much of a chance.
The Spurs might sneak in a W against a still bored Warriors team, but that’s about it. I wonder what this means for Kawhi and the Spurs’ future.
Prediction: Loss to the Golden State Warriors in the 1st Round
Have they already won their one and only playoff game?
Even a Timberwolves fan like me has to face the facts; they are not beating the Houston Rockets in the 1st round. This match-up has been a nightmare for the Wolves in the regular season, losing all 4 matches by an average margin of 15,75 points. Pick & Roll defense has been an issue for the Timberwolves all year and that’s not easily hidden against James Harden and CP3.
The Timberwolves got their playoff moment when they qualified for it, beating the Denver Nuggets in a nerve-wracking overtime affair. That means the 13 season playoff drought was brought to an end and Minnesota got a huge win to celebrate. Their season goal is a success and the pressure is off against the favored Rockets. If they want to win a game or two, they will need more plays like this:
Don’t disparage Wiggins’ defense as a lost cause yet, but don’t expect him to keep stopping James Harden like this.
Prediction: Loss to the Houston Rockets in the 1st Round
Can good coaching overcome a lack of talent?
Erik Spoelstra is one of the best coaches in the league, no question. He almost dragged last season’s rag-tag Heat team to the playoffs, but fell just short. This time, the Heat have overperformed again and will provide at the very least a tough out for the Philadelphia 76ers.
If you read the bit about the 76ers, I think the Heat manage to beat the partly Embiid-less Sixers. Even if Embiid returns, his Twitter-fiend Hassan Whiteside will make him earn his first playoff wins. Goran Dragic continues to fly under the radar and with Winslow, Richardson and James Johnson, they have bodies to throw at Ben Simmons.
Spo will game plan against Simmons, a player type he knows well after coaching LeBron and the playoff experience the Heat have over the 76ers will come into play. They might not have the star power of Embiid and Simmons, but they have a bunch of decent players, including the returning and now fit Dwyane Wade who can cause an upset. With Spoelstra coaching, anything is possible.
Prediction: Loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals
Is Giannis Antetokounmpo enough to overcome the rest of the Bucks’ deficiencies?
The Bucks have been one of this season’s disappointments, even after a fantastic start when “The Greek Freak” looked like the MVP. Coach Jason Kidd was fired and instead of getting a new coach, they simply promoted assistant Joe Prunty, who I had to google to find the name of. Their season never took off and it ended on a sour note with a 130-95 drubbing courtesy of the 76ers. At least last year’s Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon returned and is fit to play now.
I wouldn’t read too much in the final result either, because I think the Bucks were tanking to face the Celtics rather than the same 76ers in the 1st round. A depleted Celtics team looks more beatable on paper than the surging 76ers, but I’m not sure it’s the same in practice. Playing against Brad Stevens’ team with a superstar who can’t shoot might be problematic. Guys like Bledsoe, Middleton, Jabari and Brogdon will have to step up for the Bucks to have a chance and I think it will end up being pretty close.
Giannis will be the best player in the series by a mile and can send a message about who your MVP favorite for next year should be.
Prediction: Loss to Boston Celtics in the 1st Round
After all the “team” turmoil, is it time to blow it up?
It’s hard not to like the Wizards roster and they have been fairly successful in the playoffs not too long ago, but the team is just not jibing like it’s supposed to. The relationship between their stars John Wall and Bradley Beal has been iffy for a while now. When John Wall got injured, the Wizards played it’s best ball and led to more bad chemistry rising to the surface with this tweet:
Unbelievable win tonight ! Great "team" victory!
— Marcin Gortat🇵🇱 (@MGortat) February 2, 2018
If John Wall has issues with the rest of the team, that is bad news for the future of Washington basketball. John Wall can sign an extension next season, and is a free agent in the summer of 2019. He will command a max deal on a contract that will last until he is the wrong side of 30. For a guy dominating because of his athleticism, that is always a worrying situation for a team to be in.
Bradley Beal might be just as important for the Wizards, so if they go out of the first round and the tension doesn’t subside, I am firmly in the “trade John Wall” camp. Seeing as I have them losing to the Raptors in the first round, I think that is the route they will and should go.
Get some assets from trading Wall, and build around Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre and Tomáš Satoranský. The latter proved more than capable of running the point in Wall’s absence, meaning that they don’t necessarily need a point guard back for Wall either. Time to blow it up Washington!
Prediction: Loss to the Toronto Raptors in the 1st Round
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