Predictions were much easier to make when the Spurs, LeBron Miami, and then the peak Warriors ruled the roost. On the other hand, I love the wide-open Western Conference where four teams have very plausible cases to win the and a fifth (the Lakers) sort of as well. In the East, the 76ers and Celtics will have a war for the honor of playing Milwaukee. Before we get to that, here are the First Round predictions:
1. Bucks v. Heat: There is a prevailing thought that the well-coached Heat and Jimmy Butler can always catch fire and that might give Miami a puncher’s chance but the offense just isn’t strong enough to stop Milwaukee. Bucks win 4-1.
2. Celtics v. Hawks: I also don’t see a strong case for Atlanta. The team has worked better since the coaching change but went 0-3 against Boston with none of the games being particularly close. Celtics win 4-1.
3. 76ers v. Nets: This feels very similar to their 2019 playoffs match up. Then, we had the plucky undersized Nets against big Joel Embiid wherein Embiid bullied Jarrett Allen relentlessly. I expect a similar outcome between Embiid and Nic Claxton. 76ers win 4-0.
4. Cavaliers v. Knicks: The only interesting First Round matchup in the East. New York won the season series 3-1 but that was due, in part, to a red hot Julius Randle, who is coming off of an ankle injury. In addition, even when healthy, Randle’s manic energy has been easier to stop in the playoffs. The Cavs huge front line of Allen and Eric Mobley should wear Randle down enough to win a tough series. Cavaliers win 4-3.
1. Nuggets v. Timberwolves: A credible case could be made that Minnesota will give Denver some trouble. The teams split their games 2-2. The Rudy Gobert-Nikola Jokic is always fun but Gobert has never exactly shut down the Joker. Nuggets win 4-2.
2. Grizzlies v. Lakers: Credit the Lakers for fixing the roster imbalances and righting the ship (relatively speaking). Whether decent balance plus LeBron and Anthony Davis is sufficient to beat the Grizz is another question. Memphis has also had a weird season and they are clearly more vulnerable than your average two seed in the First Round. Still, the chances that a hobbled 38-year old LBJ can hold up for a long series without home court advantage seems unlikely. Grizzlies win 4-3.
3. Kings v. Warriors: How often are six seeds decisively favored in the First Round? As we looked at previously, the Kings’ extreme offensive style doesn’t usually translate to playoff success. On top of that, it’s also hard to pick against a healthy Steph Curry. The Kings are no pushovers, but I agree with the consensus that Golden State will be the winner. Warriors win 4-2.
4. Suns v. Clippers: If only Paul George was healthy now, this series would be incredible to watch. Without PG13, however, the Clippers are really light on shooters and it will be hard to hang with the high octane Suns, who are undefeated when Kevin Durant plays. Phoenix has vulnerabilities too. The have age and health related issues because they rely so heavily on KD (and Chris Paul). Even when healthy, they also lack of depth due to the giant haul sent to Brooklyn to get Durant in the first place. There is a chance that Kawhi Leonard carries this team but I expect another frustrating year for the Clipps. Suns win 4-2.
Bucks beat Cavaliers, 4-2
Celtics beat 76ers, 4-3
Suns beat Nuggets, 4-2
Warriors beat Grizzlies, 4-2
Bucks beat Celtics, 4-3
Suns beat Warriors, 4-3
Bucks beat Suns, 4-3