NBA Round One Preview: More Likely To Get Upset Cavaliers or Warriors?
Bigger Chance Of Losing In The First Round: Cleveland or Golden State?
The representative for each Conference in the NBA Finals the last three seasons, Cleveland and Golden State, both enter the postseason looking less than stellar. Golden State’s flurry of injuries this season caused their win total to dip by nine. Golden State enters the playoffs coming off a 40-point loss to the Utah Jazz, the largest loss in the Steph Curry-Steve Kerr era.
The health of the Golden State Warriors is a concern. Steph Curry is unlikely to play in the first round. With Curry out of the lineup, the Warriors struggle to space the floor. Without Curry, the Warriors were 17-14 this season (compared to 41-10 with Steph on the court). The Warriors play the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. The Warriors went 3-1 against the Spurs this season. Their one loss came without Curry, while their closest win (a 3-point victory in March) came in the game where Curry injured his ankle (and only played 2:23).
The Spurs also enter the postseason without their best player, Kawhi Leonard. The former Finals MVP played little this season, yet San Antonio continued their playoff streak, stretching it to 21 years (second longest in NBA history). While the Spurs are a well-coached and run a team in the NBA, without Kawhi, they stand little chance to upset the Warriors in the first round.
Last year, the Spurs and Warriors clashed in the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs went up 15-points in game one before an injury to Kawhi caused him to miss the remainder of the game and the Finals. The Warriors erased the 15-point deficit and eventually went on to sweep the Spurs. The Spurs should play better, against a Curry-less Warriors, but won’t win more than two games.
The second team to discuss is the Cleveland Cavaliers. Entering the playoffs with arguably his worst team since returning to Cleveland, LeBron James will once again be asked to put the team on his back and carry the Cavaliers throughout the playoffs.
Betting against LeBron James has been a fool’s errand the last seven years. LeBron (although with better players around him) has reached seven straight NBA Finals. Last year he blew through the Eastern Conference, going 12-1 before losing to the Warriors in five games. This year, the Cavaliers have a different feel to their team.
While the offence is as good as ever, Cleveland is one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA. Cleveland finished with the second-worst defensive rating in the NBA this season (and last at home). Cleveland compensates for their lack of defence with the fifth-ranked offensive rating in the NBA. However, in the playoffs when the games are more physical, and the starters play more, it will be tough to win 12 (let alone 16 games) playing their style of basketball.
The Pacers played the Cavaliers very well this season going 3-1. However, all four meetings came prior to the trade deadline. The Cavaliers current roster is very different from the team the Pacers played in the first half of the season. Although it does not look like a championship calibre team, it will give the Pacers defence more trouble in the series.
LeBron James has never lost in the first round of the playoffs. While the Pacers were surprisingly good this season, seeing them slow LeBron or match Cleveland’s offensive prowess enough to win a seven-game series is not very probable. Victor Oladipo and company will give the Cavaliers a challenge, but will most likely go home after six games.
Eastern Conference Preview
For the first time since the 2010-11 NBA season, four teams in the Eastern Conference won at least 50-games. Despite all the success at the top, the fourth place Cavaliers remain the favourites to represent the Conference in the NBA Finals. The series in the East expect to be more competitive than the West. Each series should last at least five games, and a few upsets are possible.
Toronto Raptors vs. Washington Wizards
For the first time in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors enter the playoff as the top-seed in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors will play the Washington Wizards in the first round, the second time in four years these two clubs matched up in the first round.
While some are giving the Wizards a chance to upset the Raptors, the Wizards sloppy end to the season and tumultuous team chemistry makes them a good first round opponent. Toronto split the season series against Washington. Washington enters the postseason 3-7 over their last ten and 0-5 on the road during that stretch. Their poor play caused them to slip down to eighth in the East.
Toronto holds the majority of advantages in this series. The Raptors defence ranks nine spots better than the Wizards in points allowed and 11 higher in opponent’s field goal percentage. Washington has a slight edge in three-point defence, but the margin is less than one percent.
The Raptors are notorious for losing the first game of a playoff series. They have lost nine straight game ones overall and have never won a game one at home in the playoffs. These streaks of futility eventually end and this year seems like a good team to bet it will. This Raptors’ team is the best in franchise history, owns a much better bench than Washington and its two superstars (Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry) actually like each other.
Bradley Beal and John Wall will win at least one game for Washington, but overall this team is just not nearly as good as Toronto. Additionally, everyone who criticizes the Raptors for failing to live up to expectations in the playoffs should consider that the Wizards have not made it to a Conference Finals since 1979. Bet Toronto to win the series in five games.
Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks
With one side plagued by injuries and the other mired with inconsistencies and a mid-season coaching change, the Milwaukee Bucks- Boston Celtics series is not nearly as exciting as it could have been. Still, with a chance at an upset and the opportunity to watch Giannis Antetokounmpo, there are still reasons to follow the series.
After the Boston Celtics lost All-Star Kyrie Irving for the season, their Finals odds took a severe hit and now sit just a tick above Milwaukee and Indiana (despite Boston having more wins and home-court through the first two rounds of the playoffs).
The two teams split their four meetings this season. One of the primary reasons the Boston Celtics won two games against the Bucks was Kyrie Irving. In the Celtics two wins, the point guard averaged 28.0 points per game and shot 50% from three. Irving did not play in the team’s last meeting, a four-point win by the Bucks.
The Bucks are fully healthy entering this series. Their entire roster returned on Wednesday. However, the results were disappointing. The Bucks were blown out of the water by the Philadelphia 76ers to end the season, losing by 35 points. The Bucks’ issues are broader than just health. They are coached poorly and struggle to find steady play outside out Giannis.
This is arguably the most challenging series to predict. The Celtics went 14-8 with Irving this season, but are overly reliant on young players. The Bucks have talent, but cannot formula a game plan to maximize their potential. Overall, what Brad Stevens did this season (winning 55 games despite all the injuries) is a smart enough reason to take the Celtics in the first round.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat
A great series headlines the three v. six matchups in the East. The red-hot Philadelphia 76ers (entering the postseason on a 16-game winning streak) play the Miami Heat, a well-coached veteran team that matches up well against the 76ers. The two teams split the season series 2-2, with Miami winning the most recent game 108-99 on March 8. Philly is 17-1 since their loss to Miami, a stretch that vaulted them to third in the Eastern Conference.
The 76ers torrid end to their regular season has made many believe they can win the Eastern Conference. The play and development of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (although Embiid’s health for the series is questionable) is turning the 76ers in a formidable foe, oozing with young talent. However, the 76ers are unproven and do not match up well against the Heat.
While Miami is not necessarily the most exciting team to watch, their physical style of play and excellent bench will cause problems for Philadelphia. The Heat have multiple players to guard Ben Simmons and, when Embiid returns, can defend him well with Hassan Whiteside.
Also, as impressive as the 76ers 16-game winning streak is, only three of those wins were against playoff teams. While “The Process” is finally paying dividends in Philadelphia, the Heat’s advantages in this series will force the 76ers to change their style, which a young team may struggle to adjust to over a seven-game series (i.e. making Ben Simmons a shooter over a playmaker).
Plus with Joel Embiid’s health questionable, the Heat win the size advantage while still matching up well when the 76ers play small ball. Bet the Miami Heat to pull off the upset.
Western Conference Preview
A little more top-heavy than the East, the Western Conference still offers a few exciting first-round playoff series. While most agree the Rockets and Warriors are destined for a Western Conference Finals showdown, there is still plenty to be excited about in the first round.
Houston Rockets vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
No team enters their first-round series as heavily favoured as the Houston Rockets are over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Houston had a record-setting offensive season, leading them to an NBA best 65 wins. Led by MVP frontrunner James Harden, the Rockets are much better than the Timberwolves, even with Jimmy Butler returning from injury.
Houston swept Minnesota this season, scoring at least 116 points in each of their four wins. Jimmy Butler played in three of the four games, all losses to Houston by 18 points. Even with Butler back, the Timberwolves cannot contain the Rockets offence.
Despite the Timberwolves (Tom Thibodeau) preaching defensive toughness, opponents had the second-highest field goal percentage against Minnesota this season. Minnesota wins the size advantage in this series, but that is not enough to even win one game over the Rockets.
Portland Trail Blazers vs. New Orleans Pelicans
Despite losing an All-NBA candidate in Demarcus Cousins, the New Orleans Pelicans returned to the playoffs for the first time in four years, drawing the feisty Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers have one of the best backcourts in the league and will need Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to play their best to advance to the second round.
The two franchises split their four meetings this season, each winning one game at home and one on the road. Portland avoided entering the playoffs on a six-game losing streak (which would be an NBA record), winning a big game over Utah to wrap up the three seed. New Orleans is riding high, going into the playoffs on a five-game winning streak, second longest behind the 76ers.
Talent wise, Portland has the edge in the series. While few would dispute Anthony Davis not being the best player in the series, the next best three players all belong to Portland. Portland also gets a boost from their home court crowd. The Blazers went 28-13 at home and 18-8 against the West.
Davis can win games singlehandedly but has yet to show he can win a playoff series on his own. The lack of talent surrounding Davis makes it challenging to bet the Pelicans. Even when Davis when off for 36 and 14 against Portland during the regular season, New Orleans still lost. Expect a good fight from the Pelicans, but for Portland’s backcourt to pull out the series in six.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Utah Jazz
Fans get a great four versus five series in the West as Russell Westbrook and company look to knock off the hottest team in the Western Conference. Despite going 1-3 against OKC (and losing the last three games), the Jazz are a stout defensive team no one should want to play in the playoffs.
The Jazz bring the second-ranked defence in the NBA into this series, finishing the year as one of just two teams to limit opponents to less than 100 points per game. Their defence against OKC has not been their problem this season it has been their offence. In their three losses, the Jazz averaged just 87.33 points or 16.84 points lower than their season average.
The two teams have not played since December. The Utah Jazz are 33-15 since their loss to the Thunder and average 105.89 points per game over their last 48. While their great closeout to the season has many believing the Jazz are a serious threat in the Western Conference, their offence outside of rookie Donovan Mitchell is thin.
Additionally, the Jazz have no answer for Russell Westbrook, who “shockingly” averaged a triple-double against the Jazz this season. The probability the Jazz shutdown Westbrook enough to win the series is unlikely. Overall, this series should go the distance with OKC’s stars overcoming the Jazz’s defence enough times to win in seven.
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