This Saturday the best 16 teams in the NBA (goodbye Knicks, goodbye Lakers) will battle it out for a chance to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. The Raptors tip things off at 12:30 EST against the Washington Wizards and if the first round is anything like last season’s—with six of the eight first-round series going to seven games—we’re in for a treat.
Here’s how the first round match-ups break down, plus our predictions on how each contest will end.
(1) Atlanta Hawks (60-22) vs. (8) Brooklyn Nets (38-44)
Regular Season Series: 4-0 Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks have been arguably the best story in the NBA this season. Coach Mike Budenholzer has built on last season’s surprise success using all of his coaching nous—much of it formed working alongside Gregg Popovich in San Antonio—to turn a group of solid-to-good players into a 60-win juggernaut. The whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts with the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks play a beautiful brand of free flowing, team-oriented basketball—players give up good shots for great shots and the ball never stops moving. With Al Horford as the big man pivot on the inside, the Hawks spread the floor with shooters galore—in Kyle Korver they may have the best shooter in the league not named Steph Curry, and in Jeff Teague they possess the league’s most underrated point guard.
If the Hawks are everyone’s second-favourite team, the Brooklyn Nets are the side everyone loves to hate. Paul Pierce’s recent interview with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan summed up most people’s thoughts on the Nets since their move to Brooklyn—they’re talented, but flaky; capable of moments of brilliance, but lacking a backbone. Players like Joe Johnson and Deron Williams flatter to deceive—at their best they’re game changers, but more often than not they go missing in action.
Prediction: Hawks in 5
The Hawks took their foot off the gas pedal as playoffs approached, while the Nets have been playing decent ball in recent weeks (especially Brook Lopez), but the chasm between the two teams remains enormous. If the Hawks move the ball like they can, they should have far too much for the up-and-down Nets.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29) vs. (7) Boston Celtics (40-42)
Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2
It seems like a lifetime ago now, but the Cleveland Cavaliers were in a mini-crisis at the turn of the year—LeBron James didn’t look healthy, Kyrie Irving wasn’t passing the ball and the team had no rim protector to speak of. It looked as though coach David Blatt was on the chopping block. But with the Cavaliers floundering at 19-20, general manager David Griffin made two massive trades that have turned their season around.
Since the turn of the year the team has looked borderline unbeatable. LeBron has rediscovered his mojo, Irving has two 50-point games and the new additions to the team have fit like a glove. While the defence remains an issue (although Timofey Mozgov has been a presence at the rim) the offence suddenly looks like a well-oiled machine. The Cavaliers have beaten the Spurs and Grizzlies on the road in 2015 and they look like the Eastern Conference team with the highest ceiling.
What the Boston Celtics lack in roster talent (seriously, not a single player on their roster would crack the starting five on a contending team) they make up for in hard work, grit and chemistry. In Brad Stevens the Celtics also possess one of the best young coaches in the league—general manager Danny Ainge traded away Stevens’ two best players this season and somehow the team got better, winning their final six games to storm into the post-season. Few coaches in the league are better at drawing plays out of timeouts than Stevens (just ask Raptors fans about that).
Prediction: Cavaliers in 5
The Celtics certainly have the edge in the coaching department and Isaiah Thomas might be able to steal his team a game, but the Cavaliers have the best players in this series—including the best player on the planet—and should have too much offensive firepower for Boston. The Celtics will scrap hard, but the Cavaliers should take the series.
(3) Chicago Bulls (50-32) vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks (41-41)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Bulls
The Chicago Bulls are the sleeping giant of the NBA. No team has had such a disparity between its highs and its lows this year. When Chicago’s been on form they’ve looked like the scariest team in the NBA—the team possesses the deepest big man rotation in the Association in Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah and Nikola Mirotic. In the backcourt, Jimmy Butler has morphed from a catch-and-shoot defensive specialist into a legitimate off-the-bounce threat. The zoned-in Chicago Bulls are the team that beat the Golden State Warriors on the road, one of only two teams to do so this season.
The zoned-out Chicago Bulls—the team that lost on the road to the lowly Lakers—have a much lower playoff ceiling. They look disinterested, lacking in energy and, uncharacteristic for a Tom Thibodeau-coached team, defensively frail. The Bulls have certainly been better at the offensive end this season, but defensively they’ve struggled at times. Gasol and Noah have worked well together offensively, but at the other end they haven’t quite meshed.
The Bulls, if they get it together, are a title contender. On the other hand, the Milwaukee Bucks (although they’d never admit as much) are just happy to be here. The Bucks were the worst team in the league last season, losing a franchise worst 67 games, but new coach Jason Kidd has done a wonderful job turning the ship around to mould a group of young, athletic players into a gritty defensive machine capable of being a mighty pain-in-the-ass to play against. The Bucks finished the season second in defensive efficiency and are one of the best teams in the league at generating turnovers, not surprising considering the length of players like Michael Carter-Williams and Giannnis Antetokounmpo.
Prediction: Bulls in 6
The Bucks are good enough defensively to make this series a grind for the Bulls—without pressure and expectations, the young Bucks should also be very loose. That said, Milwaukee will struggle to score and the Bulls are too big and too talented to lose this series. All eyes will be on Derrick Rose to see if he can make it through the series unscathed. The Bulls will need him for the later rounds.
(4) Toronto Raptors (49-33) vs. (5) Washington Wizards (46-36)
Regular Season Series: 3-0 Raptors
In a vacuum the 2014-15 season has been a big success for the Toronto Raptors. The team secured home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season and won a franchise record 49 games. However, after a blistering start to the season (the Raptors were 37-17 at one stage) things have been very bumpy.
2015 hasn’t been great for the Raptors—injuries have begun to catch up with a team that remained relatively healthy all of last season, and defensively the team has been sieve-like. The Raptors rank 23rd in defensive efficiency, worse than any other team in the playoffs. On the positive side, the Raptors have remained one of the hottest offensive teams in the league, even amidst their struggles—they get to the free-throw line a tonne and can get hot from three-point range. DeMar DeRozan has been excellent in recent weeks.
The Washington Wizards have had a very similar season to the Raptors—after a blistering start the team fell off alarmingly, with some in the fanbase calling for Randy Wittman’s firing. That sentiment is understandable. On paper the Wizards are ultra-talented—John Wall is one of the best point guards in the league and the team has the right mix of youth and veteran experience. But while Washington can be stifling defensively (the opposite of the Raptors) offensively they get bogged down with mid-range jump shots, failing to take advantage of their individual strengths.
Prediction: Raptors in 7
The Wizards are the more talented team—Paul Pierce is historically a Raptor-killer and John Wall is the best player in the series. The Raptors have had the Wizards’ number in recent games, however, and are the more dynamic offensive team, especially with DeRozan rounding nicely into form. If the Wizards insist on shooting long-twos, instead of attacking the rim, the Raptors’ defensive frailties won’t be as heavily exposed. This will be a close series, decided by a razor-thin margin, but home-court advantage should give the edge to the Raptors.
(1) Golden State Warriors (67-15) vs. (8) New Orleans Pelicans (45-37)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Warriors
The Golden State Warriors are the best team in the NBA—simple as that. The Warriors enter the playoffs coming off a historically great regular season. Like an amped-up version of the Hawks, the Warriors played an up-tempo run-and-gun offensive system—moving the ball, constantly cutting and shooting the lights out from downtown—combined with stifling defence. The Warriors are the deepest team in the NBA and have beaten their opponents—mostly good Western Conference teams—by an average margin of 10 points.
Under Mark Jackson the Warriors played far too much isolation-ball, but new coach Steve Kerr has injected an offensive scheme that make the most of the Warriors’ considerable talents. Those talents include Steph Curry, the favourite to win the MVP award and the best shooter in the league—possibly ever. His backcourt partner Klay Thompson has been borderline un-guardable too, at one stage going for 37 points in a quarter. Draymond Green, the favourite for Defensive Player of the Year, has also made a huge leap under Kerr’s stewardship.
In two years’ time, the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis might be the best player in the league. As of right now he’s pretty darn close. Davis has made a huge leap in his development this season; he can shoot from anywhere (remember that double-pump game winning three against the Thunder?), rebound, block shots and handle the ball like a point guard. He’s the reason that the Pelicans are in the post-season this season. Surrounding Davis is an interesting cast of characters—Tyreke Evans is talented, but frustrating, and Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday are just not on the court enough to make their impact felt. But this is a step in the right direction for the Pelicans and they’ll enjoy every minute of post-season action.
Prediction: Warriors in 5
Anthony Davis is more than capable of winning a playoff game on his own, but the Warriors have game changers all over the floor and if one of Curry or Thompson goes off at any point it’s goodnight New Orleans. There’s no answer to a player like Curry who hits off-the-dribble threes like they’re lay-ups. None whatsover.
(2) Houston Rockets (56-26) vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks (50-32)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Rockets
Take a good hard look at the Houston Rockets’ roster, from top to bottom. James Harden aside, the Rockets are a decent looking team, full of hard-working professionals who each bring a little something to a basketball court. Josh Smith, Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, Terrence Jones: these guys are all solid, but not great NBA players. James Harden is a great player and he’s the reason why the Rockets, as so-so as they appear on paper, won 56 games in a loaded Western Conference. Harden has simply been amazing.
Curry will likely win the MVP, but there’s an argument to be made that Harden means more to his team. He’s a shooting guard and point guard rolled into one; he hits threes, creates shots for others and gets to the rim more than any other player in the league. Dwight Howard, or whatever’s left of him physically at this point, is important and the Rockets will need his inside presence—but the team is going as far as Harden takes them this post-season.
For the Mavericks a 50-win season should be deemed as a success—50 wins in the West is nothing to turn your nose up at. But the Mavericks have underachieved this season. Chandler Parsons (Parsons jumped ship from the Rockets in the off-season) has underwhelmed, Dirk Nowitzki has faded down the stretch and new arrival Rajon Rondo has had problems fitting into Rick Carlisle’s system. That said, if the Mavericks can play up to their potential they could give any team a real go.
Prediction: Rockets in 6
Rick Carlisle is the big X-factor in this series; never underestimate one of the best coaches in the league. Carlisle almost engineered a monumental upset of the Spurs last season and the Mavericks certainly have the talent to cause another this time around. The Rockets, however, have the best player in the series, better overall chemistry and home-court advantage.
(3) Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs. (6) San Antonio Spurs (55-27)
Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2
They flop too much, they whine too much, they complain incessantly to the officials. The Los Angeles Clippers are nonetheless an extremely talented team that have the potential to make some noise this post-season. After a so-so start the Clippers finished the season on a tear, winning seven straight games. Chris Paul is having an MVP-calibre year, J.J. Redick is having the greatest season of his career and DeAndre Jordan has turned into a rebounding, shot-blocking machine (although not a defensive player of the year candidate. Sorry, Doc).
In fact, the Clippers have one of the most talented starting-5s in the NBA—their starters can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league. Where they fall short, however, is their bench. Doc Rivers—coach and general manager—has crafted a bench that would’ve been good in 2008, but is now old, slow and not very intimidating. The Clippers will be hoping that Jamal Crawford, banged-up all season, is good-to-go come playoff time. They’ll desperately need his scoring with the second unit.
The Clippers’ reward for winning 56 games and finishing third in the Western Conference: a date with the suddenly terrifying San Antonio Spurs. After a rocky start, mostly a result of injuries, the Spurs are rounding into form at the right time. Gregg Popovich’s team finished the season winning 21 out of their final 25 games. A big reason for that late-season surge has been the play of Kawhi Leonard. Leonard might be the best defender in the league at present, and the 2014 Finals MVP is back to his suffocating best after battling injuries in the early part of the year.
Prediction: Spurs in 7
There is isn’t a whole lot to choose between these teams as far as starting lineups go, but in the depth department the Spurs comfortably outclass the Clippers. The Spurs’ superior depth and Leonard’s defence on Paul should be the difference in this series.
(4) Portland Trail Blazers (51-31) vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies (55-27)
Regular Season Series: 4-0 Grizzlies
The Portland Trail Blazers just can’t seem to catch a break. Ever since Bill Walton led Rip City to its only NBA title back in 1977 the Blazers have experienced bad luck after more bad luck. Walton’s mangled foot, Sam Bowie over MJ (well, that was just stupidity more than bad luck), Greg Oden, Brandon Roy: the franchise seems cursed. All was going well this season—the Blazers looked like championship contenders, in fact—until key cog Wesley Matthews ruptured his Achilles tendon, an injury that ended his season. That loss dramatically lowers Portland’s playoff ceiling and is compounded by the fact that Arron Afflalo, Matthews’ replacement in the starting lineup, is battling injury himself.
That said, in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard the Blazers possess two of the most dynamic offensive players in the NBA. Aldridge, with his ability to both post-up and step out and hit from 18 feet, is a nightmare to guard. Lillard, as he showed in last season’s first-round win over the Rockets, has a real sense for the big occasion.
The Blazers will need that aforementioned duo to play out of their skins, however, because they’re up against a Grizzlies team who could win it all. In fact, the Grizzlies might just be the worst possible match-up for Portland. Memphis likes to slow the game down and pound the ball inside, bullying teams with their front-court duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. While Memphis has struggled shooting the ball from distance they’re certainly a more dynamic offensive team this season than in years gone by—Jeff Green and Courtney Lee add much needed shooting and shot-creation on the wings. The Grizzlies’ biggest strength remains their defence, however, and if Portland gets nothing from its bench they could be in for a rough ride in this series.
Prediction: Grizzlies in 6
Toronto Raptors draw the Washington Wizards in the first round
‘You think about doing better than last year.’
This season has no easy choices