The last three NBA seasons have been a bit of a fait accompli with Golden State and Cleveland creating a Star Wars like trilogy. But with a rash of injuries, the return of a few key players, and roster upheavals, the road to the Larry O'Brien trophy is seemingly up for grabs.
The Warriors will be formidable, but Stephen Curry and his troublesome ankle will be the subject of questions in the next few weeks. LeBron James may have played his best basketball this season, but can he carry his younger and far less experienced Cavaliers team? The Boston Celtics began this season with a devastating leg injury to Gordon Hayward. But after a great regular season, they will now end it with another devastating injury to Kyrie Irving. San Antonio lost Kawii Leonard to a mysterious quad injury for most of the season that lead to questions about both Leonard and the Spurs commitment to one another. And as the Minnesota Timberwolves appeared to make strides, they lost Jimmy Butler to a knee injury that sidelined him for two months.
But with every valley came new peaks. Butler returned in the final week of the season to help lead the T-Wolves to their first postseason appearance in 13 years. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double season for the second consecutive year. And after going 75-253 in the last four seasons, the Philadelphia 76ers will enter the playoffs on a 16 game win streak.
The conferences have new top dogs. The Houston Rockets and probable league MVP James Harden have the league's best record. The Toronto Raptors are the most anonymous team in the playoffs, but play an exciting and upbeat style of basketball reminiscent of Golden State.
So, will it be Warriors-Cavaliers IV this June or will there be new blood?
1. Toronto Raptors vs. 8. Washington Wizards
Washington got John Wall back just in time for the playoffs and he and Bradley Beal make up one of the league's best backcourts, but they've been inconsistent all season. For Toronto to make the NBA Finals for the first time, they will face the three most talented teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs (Wizards, Cavaliers, 76ers.) The Wizards are a talented team and Beal and Wall are a nice matchup against the Raptors backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but which Washington team will show up? This doesn't have the feel of a typical #1 versus #8 matchup, but because of that ball movement offense, I like Toronto to beat Washington 4-2.
2. Boston Celtics vs. 7. Milwaukee Bucks
Both of these teams have had their share of challenges. For Boston, it's been injuries to Hayward, Irving, and defensive stalwart Marcus Smart. For Milwaukee, it's been the firing of head coach Jason Kidd and stories of infighting. Giannis Antetokounmpo makes the Bucks dangerous. They also have Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and a newly healthy Jabari Parker. The Celtics aren't as good a team after all their injuries, but Brad Stevens will have his team prepared. Still, I'm a little worried that it'll be up to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to handle the scoring load. This might be the closest series of the first round, but because of the injuries, I'm picking Milwaukee to beat a hobbling Boston team 4-3.
3. Philadelphia 76ers vs. 6. Miami Heat
Philadelphia sped through their process and have been the talk of the NBA all season. Probable Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have been better than advertised and now could be the favorites to reach the Eastern Conference finals. Miami has been solid all season and has a versatile and experienced roster. Erik Spoelstra will have to mix and match his lineup to counter the talented 76ers. Simmons' poor shooting will be a problem eventually, but not in this round. Philadelphia will beat Miami 4-2, but the Heat will give the young Sixers fits.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 5 Indiana Pacers
Lost amidst all the drama in Cleveland is how well LeBron James has played this season. He's averaged 27.6 points and posted career highs in assists (9.1) and rebounds (8.6). He has also recorded career-bests in triple-doubles (16) and double-doubles (46). After trading Paul George this offseason, the Pacers seemed destined for the lottery. Instead, they were the NBA’s biggest surprise. Victor Oladipo, who arrived in the George deal with Oklahoma City, blossomed into an MVP candidate and will be the key against the Cavaliers. Cleveland should handle Indiana 4-2, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Pacers pull a stunning upset.
1. Houston Rockets vs. 8. Minnesota Timberwolves
After winning the last game of the season against Denver in overtime, Minnesota secured the final playoff spot in the West. As a reward, they get to be the sacrificial lambs to the Houston Rockets. Jimmy Butler returned just in time to save a T-Wolves that limped along while he was out. I love Karl-Anthony Towns, but Minnesota is just a poor matchup against a Rockets team that attempted more three-point shots (3,470) than two-point shots (3,436). Houston sweeps Minnesota 4-0.
2. Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs
The Warriors ended their season with a 7-10 record, all without Stephen Curry in the lineup. San Antonio extended their consecutive playoff appearance streak to 21 despite Kawii Leonard having only played nine games all season. And while the perennial contending Spurs have always been a tough playoff opponent, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green should be more than enough for this round. Gregg Popovich will have to find a way to slow down the Warriors' run and gun offense. The Warriors will look for a short series and great news from their training staff. As tough as it would be to overlook the Spurs, I'm picking Golden State over San Antonio 4-1.
3. Portland Trail Blazers vs. 6. New Orleans Pelicans
There should be plenty of offense in this series. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum combined to average 48.3 points per game. After losing DeMarcus Cousins to a knee injury, Anthony Davis turned in an unbelievable final two months that will garner him MVP votes and make the Pelicans a very tough matchup. The keys for Portland fowards Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu who will be given the unenviable task of defending Davis. Jrue Holiday will have his hands full against what might be the best backcourt in the NBA. I know most people won't be watching, but this series should be a lot of fun. Portland over New Orleans 4-3.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 5. Utah Jazz
The Thunder's attempt at a super team didn't quite work out the way they hoped. Paul George and a very disappointing Carmelo Anthony struggled to find their roles on the offense and head coach Billy Donovan struggled to utilize them alongside Russell Westbrook. Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell had a remarkable season as he lead the Jazz in scoring, was second in assists, and third in steals. But Mitchell will be matched up against Westbrook, which would be a taxing job for anyone. Utah has a surprisingly deep roster and both teams play a similar style. But in the end, Oklahoma City's experience will beat a tough and game Utah team 4-2.
Do you agree? Who do you think would win these match-ups? Comment below.