By E. Marcel Pourtout, Editor
The NBA Playoffs have arrived which means its time for series predictions that will be incorrect and be used to mock my prognostication skills for the rest of my sports media career. Not much can go wrong with these. I’ll throw in my postseason award winners throughout my picks as well.
Atlanta over Brooklyn in five: I’ve had a front-row view of the Hawks the entire season and they’re primed for a long postseason run. While many like to discuss the ball movement and sharp execution of the offense (which is true), my pick for Head Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer has developed Atlanta into a top-ten defensive unit in efficiency. Yes, the Hawks allow the most three-pointer attempts in the NBA but make up for it with solid interior defense and rebounding.
This matchup is difficult for Brooklyn because its three best players are inferior to Atlanta’s. Jeff Teague has developed into one of the top point guards in the league and has dominated his matchups against Deron Williams all season. Paul Millsap and Al Horford’s ability to play outside the paint on offense makes life hard for Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez on defense. Joe Johnson will score but will be neutralized by DeMarre Carroll.
Look for Atlanta’s bench unit led by Dennis Schroder (who should be in the top-five in the NBA for Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player), Mike Scott and Kent Bazemore to have productive efforts against a Nets’ unit that is lacking.
Toronto over Washington in six: Before the season, I had the Wizards projected as the third best team in the East behind Cleveland and Chicago. Washington has been inconsistent all season since Bradley Beal started the year injured. The Wizards haven’t been able to find the consistency necessary to do well in this postseason despite the strong play of John Wall.
Many playoff series come down to matchups and this is where the Raptors are superior. Kyle Lowry has the ability to neutralize Wall and even outplay him for a game or two. Beal will have a strong series but so will DeMar DeRozan for Toronto. I have little confidence that Paul Pierce can check him on the defensive end. Look for Lou Williams, my Sixth Man of the Year, to swing the series in Toronto’s way.
Chicago over Milwaukee in five: The Bulls were my preseason pick to win the East and I’m sticking with it even though Atlanta and Cleveland have solid cases as well. I would be more confident in my pick if we knew a healthy Joakim Noah would be available during the entire postseason. His ability to run the floor and play defense causes problems for every post player in the league.
The Bulls benefit from my Most Improved Player winner in Jimmy Butler, the revival of Pau Gasol and my second-place finished in Rookie of the Year in Nikola Mirotic. Derrick Rose is what he is at this stage of his career and serves best as a distributor. If he gets out of line, Aaron Brooks can step in and do a competent job at point guard.
The Bucks have been a nice story this season and Jason Kidd has proved to be a competent NBA head coach after a rough start in Brooklyn last season. The youthful Bucks are going to get valuable experience in this series and Giannis Antetokounmpo will thrill in one of the games. However, the Bulls size will prove to be too much in this series.
Cleveland over Boston in five: Brad Stevens is a tremendous young coach and I like seeing Isaiah Thomas light it up off the bench for the Celtics just as much as the next guy but this series has the potential to be a sweep for Cleveland. Sometimes it comes down to talent and the Cavs are simply better. The inefficiency of Kevin Love, the lack of postseason experience and potential fatigue of LeBron James are factors that may hurt Cleveland later in the playoffs but not now.
Eastern Conference finals: Chicago over Atlanta
Golden State over New Orleans in five: Stephen Curry is my MVP for this season in a very close race with James Harden.
It looks like I simply took the best player on the best team which isn’t the case. While the Warriors have superior talent to the Rockets which makes Harden’s case of being more “valuable” more tangible, Curry has driven the bus for them to have a historically dominant season. Curry has made the most three pointers in a season, sits in the top-ten in points, assists and steals per game. Furthermore, while neither Curry or Harden are defensive beasts and going to remind you of Gary Payton in his prime, I give Curry the edge in this category.
As for this series, its going to be the national platform for Anthony Davis to shine for the Pelicans. If you watch the NBA everyday like me, you already know that Davis is one of the top-five players in the NBA right now based on talent. My list is James, Kevin Durant, Davis, Curry and Harden in some order for those interested.
However, it takes a playoff series on the national stage like this one for the casual fan to see Davis the way I do. He’s Tim Duncan on offense with a better jumpshot and Kevin Garnett on defense with comparable foot movement and better shot blocking. The best post player I’ve ever seen defend a pick and roll with the ability to stick with the guard on a switch is Garnett in his prime. Davis already there and is only 22.
Golden State can try to control Davis with my Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green and that will be a fun matchup. However, Davis is faster and taller. We’re going to see a 20 point, 15 rebound, five block game from Davis in this series. The Warriors will still find a way to win out because of Curry, Klay Thompson and my potential breakout player for the entire postseason, Harrison Barnes.
Memphis over Portland in seven: Coin flip series with both squads dealing with injury issues. I’ll take the Grizzlies in a close one.
San Antonio Spurs over Los Angeles Clippers in six: Chris Paul should be in my top-five list of best players in the NBA. Best midrange shooter in the NBA (look it up), top-level defender and always among the leaders in assists. Blake Griffin has evolved his game beyond dunks. DeAndre Jordan has had a career-year and made a major case to be Defensive Player of the Year.
I’m still taking San Antonio. Out of all the teams I saw come to Atlanta this season, the Spurs were the most impressive in person. Tim Duncan and Thiago Splitter running an effective high-low post game. Tony Parker getting to the lane with ease. The most impressive display was the two-way play of Kawhi Leonard. Best defender on the court by a wide margin and able to score as well.
Over the past month of the regular season, he’s been one of the five best players in the league. The Clippers have no answer for him on either side of the court. Furthermore, Los Angeles struggles in the postseason often because they rely too much on Paul. The offense becomes pass the ball to Paul and get out of the way. That can work for stretches of the regular season but not in the playoffs. Also, the free throw shooting troubles of the Clippers will play a major part in at least two of the games in this series.
Houston over Dallas in seven: Harden was my MVP for 80% of the season. He’s the most efficient guard in the NBA and has gone from terrible on defense to average on a good day. It looks like he’s at least making an effort on that end of the court.
This series rides on Dwight Howard. He’s struggled with injuries the past three seasons and his hold on the best center in the NBA claim has been taken away. Howard has played the last 10 games returning from injury once again and looks OK. If he can find a way to be a 15/10/4 performer, that will help the Rockets’ cause.
Dallas’ experiment with Rajon Rondo has been mixed but he turns it on in the postseason and needs a big postseason on a contract year. Monta Ellis will cause problems for Houston as well. Dirk Nowitzki is also a veteran playoff performer and knows what to expect. Either team winning the series wouldn’t surprise me but it will be a lone one. I’ve giving the edge to homecourt and Harden willing his team to victory.
Western Conference Finals: Golden State over San Antonio
NBA Finals: Golden State over Chicago