I’m not a big fan of writing big playoff preview columns, because one, it’s a good way to look like an idiot when the inevitable happens and you get an improbable first-round playoff upset, and two, it ultimately doesn’t matter because the NBA has a disturbing habit of, by the time the second-round series hit the road, regressing to the obvious Finals narratives we all saw coming in October.
There are five teams with a legitimate shot at the Finals. They are Golden State, Houston, Milwaukee, Toronto, and Boston. Every other team has big holes or matchup problems.
One thing that always bugs me about other guys’ previews this time of year does bear special mention:
When betting on series lengths, don’t take the higher seed in 6 or the lower seed in 5 or 7. Yes, objectively, on a neutral site the team you’re backing might win four games out of whatever. But teams have to win closeout games on the road for the higher team in 6 or the lower team in 5 or 7 and history tells us that’s a low-percentage play.
Bet smart. Don’t give odds when they’re against you.
Anyway, on to the predictions.
East First Round:
Milwaukee 4-0 Detroit
Toronto 4-0 Orlando
Philadelphia 4-1 Brooklyn
Boston 4-0 Indiana
This is going to be chalk the way the White Cliffs of Dover are chalk. Yeah, with Joel Embiid out, Brooklyn looks frisky, but come on. Nobody from the 6 seed in the East on down looks anything like a real playoff team, while the Sixers won 50 games and even without Joel Embiid, I don’t think this is the year Jarrett Allen shows up in the playoffs and adds an extra zero to his contract after his rookie deal.
It’s intriguing, but the Nets will win Game 3 at home and that’s it.
Likewise, the Pacers showed during the butt end of the regular season what chance they have against Boston in the playoffs. The answer is “none”. The only thing that kept the Celtics from sweeping the season series was Victor Oladipo, and he’s not here. The Pacers were 4-9 in their last 13 games, 3-9 if you throw out that Mad Ants G-League showcase against Atlanta on the last day of the regular season.
Gordon Hayward is playing his best basketball since his injury, the C’s ensemble has Eastern Conference Finals playoff experience, and there is no way the Pacers are even making this interesting—at best, they win Game 3 and stretch it to five games, but I’m not even counting on that.
As for Detroit and Orlando, please. They’d be the LeBron-less Lakers if they played out West.
West First Round:
Golden State 4-0 Clippers
Denver 4-3 San Antonio
Oklahoma City 4-2 Portland
Houston 4-1 Utah
Dubs-Clips should be obvious. The Clippers are a frisky, fun ensemble that massively overachieved and should have Doc Rivers in the Coach of the Year conversation this season. They’re basically the 2018 Pacers Western style.
San Antonio is going to give the Nuggets and their lack of playoff experience all they can handle, but the blunt fact is that a team that can’t hit three-pointers in volume in 2019 is not a team that’s going anywhere in the playoffs. I wouldn’t be shocked by Spurs in six, but I just don’t think they’re winning a game in Denver. The Nuggets were lethal at home this season, going 34-7, best in the NBA. The Spurs were 16-25 on the road. You do the math.
As much as I love “No Nurk? Call the Turk!”, there’s a big difference between Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter and it’s called “Steven Adams will score 20 points a game in this series because Kanter’s an inept post defender and Adams is Kiwi Dennis Rodman after he gets an offensive board.
Nobody scores on putbacks like the Thunder, and that’s going to swing enough points in close games to swing the series.
And finally, the Rockets are the worst-case scenario matchup wise for a Jazz team that just doesn’t have the perimeter defense to stop Houston’s offense. Who’s guarding James Harden in that one? Harden might score 200 points in five games.
Utah is good, and if the Rockets had done their job and grabbed the 2 or 3 seed, we might be talking about Utah upsetting the Blazers and giving the Warriors a good series in round two.
East Second Round
Boston 4-2 Milwaukee
Toronto 4-1 Philadelphia
The Celtics are going to grab the “peaking at the right time” narrative, pushed like crazy first by Paul Pierce on ESPN and then by the rest of the commentariat across NBA media. They won’t have Marcus Smart for the first two rounds, but if you think Marcus Smart is singlehandedly the key to a Finals run, you probably spend too much time on Weird Celtics Twitter.
The Bucks are Giannis Antetokounmpo and four below-league-average shooters. They remind me a little too much of the George Karl-coached Sonics from the ’90s, the kind of team that’s built to win a lot of regular-season games but which gets dismantled when a good enemy coach gets seven games to figure them out in the playoffs.
Brad Stevens is going to eat Mike Budenholzer’s lunch—hell, we’ve already seen how this game ends when Coach Bud was in Atlanta. Coach of the Year is a regular-season award, which is why Bud grabbed my vote, but his stuff doesn’t work in May.
Meanwhile, everything that makes Philly the chic pick to get upset in the first round (there’s a real groundswell on NBA Twitter calling for that Nets upset) is going to be the reason they get smoked in five by Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and the rest of Toronto’s band of merry poutine-munchers.
Out West, meanwhile…
West Second Round
Golden State 4-3 Houston
Oklahoma City 4-2 Denver
This is where the Nuggets’ lack of playoff experience ends their first major playoff run. The Thunder have guys who have been to conference finals or NBA Finals. Russell Westbrook and Paul George were born to do this. Adams will neutralize Nikola Jokic on the boards and the Nuggets’ shooters just won’t be consistent enough to win four games.
As for Dubs-Rockets, I am still miffed that Portland grabbed the three seed and forced the best series of the whole playoffs into the second round. The “real Finals” shouldn’t shoot its wad in May.
And for a prediction of how the series goes? Go back and watch last year’s West finals and expect a replay. Houston’s going to shoot themselves out of a game, Steph and KD are going to win the other three by themselves, and Bob’s your uncle.
Boston 4-2 Toronto
Nick Nurse is not Brad Stevens. The Celtics will have Smart back and Lowry will shoot about 30 percent in the series. Hayward will anchor the bench unit and show that having a $31 million sixth man is a heck of a thing to have in the playoffs.
And Boston will silence all the “let Stevens go” and “Kyrie Irving and the rest of the Celtics hate each other” talk.
This team, without Irving or Hayward, made the conference finals and nearly dethroned LeBron James.
This year, they finish the job…sort of, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Golden State 4-0 Oklahoma City
As Kevin Durant gets booed and booed by the Thunder faithful as he rips their hearts out at Chesapeake Energy Arena. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” right?
This is the part where everyone starts talking about how the last obstacle to a Warriors title was gone in the second round.
Golden State 4-0 Boston
As this goes to press, there’s about four hours to tip-off. Coming later this weekend, I look back at my preseason predictions and see how I did this year…and oh by the way, the Breakfast Special now has a weekend edition for the playoffs, so stay tuned and thanks for reading!