Power Ranking the First Round of the Playoffs

by Justin Cherot

See, I knew there was a reason I liked Mark Cuban that transcended him being the owner of my favorite team in the NBA. Based upon the above link, it seems as though we both agree that the NBA Playoffs trump the NCAA Tournament in terms of quality of basketball.

I’ve had this discussion way too many times for me to count. Yes, the NBA regular season is too long. Yes, there are nights in the regular season where guys mail it in. Yes, the effort of the college kids 100% of the time is something to be commended.

But with each game magnified and legacies living and dying with each possession in postseason basketball, give me the best hoopers in the world giving it their all over grueling possession-by-possession basketball where some accounting major is trying to get the best of some dude who will be playing second-tier hoops in Euorpe for 10 years.

And that previous sentence wasn’t meant as a slight to accountants (you can breathe now that tax season has passed) and guys who make a lot of tax-free money playing overseas. I’m just making the point that at playoff time, you get higher-level play from players with far superior skill sets.

But, just like anything else, I have varying levels of excitement about the different series. Let’s count them down.

8. No. 3 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks
Bulls won season series, 3-1

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I think the Bucks might be on the verge of being really good. Giannis Antetokounmpo is just scratching the surface of how good he can be, and I think Michael Carter-Williams is the point guard coach Jason Kidd wants running the show.

But I think this could be the only sweep in Round 1. Too much talent and too much focus on the Bulls’ side for this to be much of a series. Maybe if Chicago gets caught looking ahead to a looming series with Cleveland, Milwaukee could steal one. But on the really real, the more rest the Bulls can muster for Derrick Rose, the better.

Prediction: Bulls in four

8. No. 1 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 8 Brooklyn Nets
Hawks won season series, 4-0

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Ugh. I wanted this to be the Pacers. Paul George willing his team back into the playoffs almost happened, and if not for a calf strain against the Grizzlies last night, who knows how crunch time would have played out?

I guess on paper this series has the potential to not be completely one-sided. Maybe Paul Pierce did Deron Williams and Joe Johnson a favor by questioning their intensity. Maybe Brook Lopez can give Al Horford problems. Maybe the Hawks well-roundedness will be a detrimant in the playoffs.

Actually, na. Scrap all of that. I’ll give Williams the benefit of the doubt and give him one throwback game where he wills the Nets to victory. Of course, that’ll probably be in Game 4 after the Nets are down 3-0.

Yeah, Deron. I’m still bitter. #shouldachosedallas

Prediction: Hawks in five

6. No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 7 Boston Celtics
Tied season series 2-2

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I chose this pic strategically. Just like Marcus Smart doesn’t neccessarily belong in the same sentence with LeBron James, conventional wisdom would say there’s nothing to suggest the Celtics will be able to compete with the talent-laden Cavaliers.

Yet, somehow this Boston team beat Cleveland twice in the regular season.

Granted, it’s the regular season and it has probably doesn’t have any bearing on the outcome of this series. But the Celts’ roster is full of young, chippy gamers who probably think they’re better than they are… but in a healthy way… not like Dion Waiters. Could they possibly stir the pot against playoff virgins Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love? How will the Cavs respond in a very realistic Game 4 situation where they hold a 2-1 lead, but Isaiah Thomas nails his third consecutive heat check three-pointer to give Boston a five-point lead at home?

Make no mistake: Cleveland is winning this series, but it won’t be as easy as the general public thinks.

Prediction: Cleveland in six

5. No. 1 Golden St. Warriors vs. No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans
Warriors won season series, 3-1

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Yes, I know I wrote on Tuesday why James Harden deserved the MVP, but maybe I tried to be overly fair and mention how Stephen Curry‘s presence alone carries this series maybe three spots higher than it should be. It’s not just me who thinks that: is it any coincidence that, despite being a west coast team, the NBA wants to open the playoffs with the Dubs hosting the Pelicans at 3:30?

Anthony Davis may very well cause enough havoc by himself to make this a series, and Tyreke Evans may do enough to remind us that once upon a time Curry vs. Evans was an actual debate, but let’s be real: this Warriors team won’t get beat in the first round… if at all.

Prediction: Warriors in four

4. No. 4 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards
Raptors won season series, 3-0

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First off, on paper both of these teams could potentially beat Atlanta in the next round, which in a lot of years would make this series higher up on the list.

But, for one, neither team has exactly lit the world on fire in the second half of the season. Also, for what it’s worth, the Raps pretty much owned the Wizards in the regular season (even if the previous two games were hotly-contested, and Washington played without Bradley Beal in the first contest).

I think the series comes down to the simple fact that 1) Toronto has home court, and 2) offensively, they are more diverse. Yes, John Wall can be amazing at times, but he’ll need to be super-human to will the Wiz past the face of the North.
Prediction: Raptors in six.

3. No. 4 Portland Trailblazers vs. No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies
Grizzlies won season series, 4-0

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Funny how our last two match-ups ended in season sweeps despite the teams that attained sweepage not being that much better in this not-so-humble writer’s opinion. In this case, I’d even go out on the limb and say that the Blazers have the two best players in this series: Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, both of whom have been known to come up big when the chips are down.

Plus, even though the Grizz own home-advantage in this one and stealing one or two in “The Grindhouse” is a tough proposition, Memphis has been very human in the second half.

Prediction: Blazers in 7

2. No. 2 Houston Rockets vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks
Rockets won season series, 3-1

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I feel like Biggie in “Ten Crack Commandments”: No. 2, really No. 1 for me. But I must be fair for the general public.

What does it say about the Rockets that, despite the Dallas essentially being a shade over .500 in the second half and quite shaky since the Rajon Rondo trade, ESPN only has them as 54% favorites?

First, it says a lot about Rick Carlisle, one of the two best coaches in all of basketball. He almost willed an extremely flawed 2013-14 seven seed into a first round upset over the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. And you don’t think he’ll be able to figure out a way to stifle what has essentially been a season-long one-man band in Houston? You don’t think he’ll be able to out-coach Kevin McHale!?

Maybe with Patrick Beverley, I would be more compelled to say Houston should be a clear favorite. But I think when crunch-time hits, you look at Houston’s options: Harden, Harden, or pray that Dwight Howard shows us why he used to be considered an unstoppable force.

Dallas’ crunch-time options? Monta Ellis penetrating and creating for others; Rondo executing the PnR; high-post iso for some guy named Dirk Nowitzki; hell, I’d even trust Chandler Parsons or J.J. Barea in iso sitches.

And I’m not even being a “Stan” here with the following italics.

Prediction: Mavericks in 6

1. No. 3 LA Clippers vs. No. 6 San Antonio Spurs
Tied season series, 2-2

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There are a myriad of reasons why this ranks as the universal No. 1 most anticipated series. For one, had the seeding broke out differently, this conceivably could have been your Western Conference Finals. Another reason I love it is because it will add fuel to the fire for one of two trains of thought: true team basketball (Spurs) vs. undeniable individual talent (Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan).
Personally, I was SHOCKED that the Spurs, basically nothing short of sizzling to end the season, lost a must-win game in terms of home-court and seeding against the inferior Pelicans in their finale.

Is that a harbinger of things to come?

Meh. It’s tough to say. Vegas is heavy on the Spurs to take this series despite not having home court. And for two good reasons:

1) The Spurs are the Spurs. We know this. They thrive during this time of year.

2) Why doesn’t anyone talk about Paul’s playoff failures? We completely destroy Carmelo Anthony. Before he won a title in 2011, everybody crushed Dirk. Back in the day, Tracy McGrady got destroyed for never being able to get out of the first round.

You know how many times Paul has been out of Round 1? Precisely twice. And he’s out of excuses. Yes, he has to play the Spurs, but not only does he get home court, truth be told he has the weapons on both sides of the ball to justify winning this series.

I’m going slightly contrarian on this one.

Prediction: Clippers in 7

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