With the 2018 NBA Playoffs on the horizon, there are lots of great series matchups that will be a joy to watch. The best part of this is that there are a lot of evenly matched teams playing in the first round this year. And even if they may not be level talent wise, some of the philosophical collisions will be extremely intriguing. That being said, here are our cases for each team to advance along with our predictions for each first round matchup.
Houston Rockets vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
Houston: There is little that needs to be said about the validity of the Houston Rockets. They boast the best player in 2018 and have a roster that is staggering. James Harden and Chris Paul (along with Mike D’Antoni) will look to put their playoff woes behind them and make a championship run. They will face the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round, which is a tough matchup for them but isn’t completely overwhelming. Their backcourt will be no match for the Wolves and their overall system will be strong enough to beat anything Tom Thibodeau throws at them defensively. This will be a long series but Houston has what it takes to advance past this round and beyond.
Minnesota: While their opponent in Houston has a lot of star players on their team, the Timberwolves have some studs as well. Karl Anthony-Towns is the most dynamic big man in the NBA and will be a problem for Clint Capela. If Minnesota can find a way to get Capela out of the paint, KAT will have him right where he wants him. A big x-factor for this series will be Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has been a bit of a disappointment for Wolves fans but he does show some flashes. He played well down the stretch for Minnesota as the team was fighting to get into the playoffs (averaging 13.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.0 APG while shooting 33% from 3 and posting a 5.3 +/- in the last three games of the regular season). If he can continue this in any way, the Timberwolves will not go down easily.
Prediction: Houston in 7
Houston: Let’s be honest, the talent on these two rosters are not even close. On Houston, you have a player who is probably going to be this season’s MVP and Chris Paul, who is having one of the best offensive season’s ever for a pg. The Rockets have the best clutch player in the league, and have two players who can go iso and win a possession for you. Their spread pick and roll is deadly and can’t really be stopped. The only way they can lose a game is if they cold from 3.
Minnesota: The only way they can win this series is by a miracle. Jimmy Butler does not look 100% and even if he was, it would be a tough series. KAT is great but he needs to get more touches. But the biggest thing is their defense. Ranking in the bottom half in the league, I don’t think they can stop the Rocket’s amazing offense. They also don’t have anyone to match up with CP3.
Prediction: Houston in 4
Oklahoma City Thunder vs Utah Jazz
Oklahoma City: Russell and his gang will have their work cut out for them in the first round. They will play the Jazz, a team that many teams were not looking forward to facing. But they have one distinct advantage over them that the Thunder will look to exploit. The combined talent and stardom of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony far exceeds that of Utah and they will rely heavily on these players. Westbrook especially so, as he is on a hot streak after accomplishing his triple double feat again. He will need to continue this play the Thunder will be loud and unstoppable force in the West.
Utah: The Oklahoma City Thunder may have stars on their roster, but what they have lacked all season is a reliable system that gets the most out of each player on their team. This philosophy installed by Coach of the Year candidate Quin Snyder is what separates them from the Thunder and will be what could elevate them in this series. This along with a hot Donovan Mitchell will be what the Jazz need to advance.
Prediction: Oklahoma City in 6
Oklahoma City: The newest big 3 made it to the playoffs, but now it’s time to see what they can do. Melo and George have had some rough moments these last few months, and now they need to step up. Westbrook averaged a triple double again this season, but if the playoffs from last year are any indication, that doesn’t mean much. A large part of their offense is the Adams-Russ pick and roll, which will be challenged by the Jazz well. In order to win this series, Melo and George will need to step up and play both ends of the court well.
Utah: Can Mitchell defy what we normally think of Rookies? He is the leading scorer of this offensively challenged Utah team and now he’ll have to do it on the world’s biggest stage in basketball. If they want to win this series, he will have to score efficiently and get other players open looks. Gobert is healthy and playing great, but can he stay on the floor if OKC goes small? He can shut down pick and roll plays, but is useless if pulled away from the hoop.
Prediction: Jazz in 6
Portland Trail Blazers vs. New Orleans Pelicans
Portland: This series will likely be my favorite one to watch and keep track of. Both of these teams have what it takes to play at a high level and could make some noise in this postseason. What separates Portland though is their dynamic backcourt. The combination of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is almost unmatched across the league and will give them a distinct advantage in this series. The Pelicans, while they have an improved Jrue Holiday and a Rajon Rondo who has played well recently, don’t have anyone near the same level as them. The Blazers will go as far as these two players will take them.
New Orleans: While Portland has those two solid players on the back end, the best player in this series will be on the Pelicans in Anthony Davis. If it were not for a historic season by Harden, Davis would be many people’s picks for the MVP. I cannot blame them, Davis has been a special player in the wake of the DeMarcus Cousins injury and has drug this team into the sixth seed. If he continues his dominance, there is no one on the Blazers that will be able to keep up with him down low. They do have a solid center in Jusuf Nurkic, but he is no where near as good as the Brow. Davis will be the force he has been in 2018 and he will get the Pelicans their first playoff series victory since 2008.
Prediction: New Orleans in 7
Portland: Their backcourt is amazing with Lillard and McCollum, but can they get enough help from the rest of their roster? They can lack quality wing and big man depth, and they need to be able to defend at a high level to win this series. For most of this season, their defense has been top 5 but I think that’s fools gold. Nurkic needs to play well on both ends to give them a chance.
New Orleans: We all know Anthony Davis is awesome, but can he drag the Pels to the series win? He needs to be dominate on both ends and get good play from surrounding players. Mirotic has been on fire and Holiday and Rondo can play shut down D on the perimeter. They need to keep the pace up and keep A.D at center with shooters and move the ball.
Prediction: New Orleans in 6
Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs
Golden State: The defending champions still have a majority of their roster hat has made them great in their time as a dynasty. While they will be without star guard Steph Curry for this series, they will have little to worry about in terms of the Spurs. They have been without their star in Kawhi Leonard all season and have looked like a lackluster squad in his absence. The top level talent of this team will win out in this matchup as San Antonio just doesn’t have what it takes to beat Golden State.
San Antonio: The Spurs are going through a drought this year. They have been without their key difference maker and their core is aging rapidly. But the advantage they have with the great coaching mind of Gregg Popovich is something that can’t be ignored. If anyone can crack the Warriors system, it is him. Plus, when you consider the lethargy that Golden State has played with this season and the fact that they will be without Curry, the Warriors have never been vulnerable. If there was ever a time in this recent Golden State run for them to falter, it would be this series.
Prediction: Golden State in 5
Golden State: Can they care? It remains to be seen if the Warriors can turn on the switch this year, and their best player is hurt. But they still have Kevin Durant and 2 other all stars Quin Cook has stepped up well with injuries, but how will he do in the playoffs? If their defense can pick up, this should be an easy win with their scoring talent over the Spurs.
San Antonio: If the Spurs were playing against a worse coach, I think they would have a better shot, but two good coaches playing against each other neutralizes the advantage. They are missing their top player on both ends of the court, and to win this series, they will have to lockdown the warriors, which really has never been done. I don’t think this is going to be pretty.
Prediction: Golden State in 4
Toronto Raptors vs. Washington Wizards
Toronto: When you have been as dominant as the Toronto Raptors have been this regular season, they should be highly considered for playoff contention. The Raptors also have a solid backcourt in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and have the best bench in the entire league. They will be a force to be reckoned with in the East and should be able to breeze past the struggling Wizards.
Washington: The Raptors may have been good in the regular season, but they will have to emerge past the Wizards if they wish to make a deep postseason run. The Wizards, though they have their faults, have the roster composition to hang with the Raptors. They also have a good guard combo in John Wall and Bradley Beal. This matchup will be vital in this series as both teams rely heavily on these positions. Wall is especially important. He has shown he can be a playoff force, as he was one of the most dominant players in last year’s postseason. If he can somehow pull together a similar tear, the Wiz could shock the world.
Prediction: Toronto in 6
Toronto: I want to believe. I really do. But them losing to the Cavs and struggling late in games has shaken my belief in them. But I think their depth and defense will help them win this series. They have played top 5 offense and defense all season, and just have a solid team. If they can play to their strengths and not get caught up in iso basketball, this should be an easy win for them.
Washington: They should be better, but their not. They have the talent but can’t seem to figure out how to put it together and win games. They don’t play defense together, and don’t move the ball when Wall is in the game. The only way to win this series is to play super small ball and force the Raptors to not play their depth.
Prediction: Toronto in 5
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers
Cleveland: The Cavaliers have LeBron James. It is almost as simple as that. He is the soul of this team and the Cavs will go as far as he brings them. This matchup versus the Pacers is a good one for Cleveland as they lack the talent needed to compete with James and company. They do have a star in Victor Oladipo, but he alone won’t be able to beat James. The Cavaliers will make quick work of this series and try to make their fourth consecutive Finals.
Indiana: While the Cavs have a star in James, the rest of his supporting cast is the weakest it has been since his return to Cleveland. Between shipping out Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love being less than healthy, and all of the off-court drama that currently surrounds the team, there is a chance that Cleveland is not quite in the right head-space for this series. If that were to happen, with how Oladipo and this team is playing, the King could be in for a shock.
Prediction: Cleveland in 5
Cleveland: Is LeBron still playing? Yes? Ok then well I think that’s a wrap. He is still a monster and can win this series himself if he wants to. Love is a matchup nightmare for the Pacers and the Cavs have enough talent to win this series on their offensive talent alone
Indiana: Oladipo needs to become God for the pacers to win. He can play both ends of the court, but he cannot guard Bron. I don’t think anyone on this team can. Turner will have to hit shots and show why some people think he is a star in the making for them to win a game or 2.
Prediction: Cleveland in 4
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat
Philadelphia: Philadelphia, in the riches that have been their 2018 sports season, may have another champion in their midst. The Sixers have won their last 16 games and have a young star in Ben Simmons playing at the top of his current level. They also have an emerging young player in Markelle Fultz who has played well since his return from injury. Philadelphia will be missing their biggest star for at least part of this series in Joel Embiid. But he will be back after a game or two and will be a force for Miami to try and defeat. The Sixers are playing on top of the world right now and I see no reason that it stops in this series against Miami.
Miami: The youth and stardom of Philly is nice and all, but what really wins in the playoffs is experience and coaching. The Heat have those in spades. Erik Spoelstra has won two championships as the head man in Miami and has the know-how to beat an inexperienced coach in Brett Brown. The Heat also have a roster that could give Philadelphia trouble. They have two solid centers in Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo that will be able to matchup nicely with Embiid. They also have a plethora of wing talent in James Johnson, Justice Winslow and Josh Richardson that they can throw at Simmons to try and slow him down. Nevertheless, this series will be a long and interesting one that has the makings of a classic seven gamer.
Prediction: Philadelphia in 7
Philadelphia: Their defense is just elite. Covington and Simmons can just shut down perimeter players, and their switchability can just kill teams. Simmons, doesn’t have a jumpshot but he probably doesn’t need one. Embiid needs to come back around the middle of this series otherwise they could be in trouble. They have good depth and shooting, you just have to trust the process.
Miami: Miami has a good shot at this. They have a good coach, depth, and talent. I just don’t think the have quite enough. They have the wing talent to throw at Simmons, but I don’t think they can score enough to win this. Dragic is aging and doesn’t matchup with their guards well.
Prediction: Philadelphia in 6
Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Boston: Despite injuries to Irving, Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward; the Celtics look like they are in great shape to advance to the second round, and maybe even beyond. Their draw against the Milwaukee Bucks will be an easy one as they have a coaching and overall talent disadvantage. Brad Stevens will take advantage of this and will make quick work of this series.
Milwaukee: The Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is their only hope of advancing past the Celtics. Boston doesn’t have a wing player that could compete with him and he could have an opportunity to play at full force. If he can put a fantastic series together, the Bucks have a chance.
Prediction: Boston in 5
Boston: Their top 2 players on their team are out for the season, but I just love their Team. The J-Team can kill it, and Horford is still a really center. Their defense is lockdown, and I think the coaching is going to make a difference in this series.
Milwaukee: If the Bucks put Giannis at center and put shooters around him, they have a chance. They will have the best player on the court during this series and that means something. If they had a better coach than Joe, I would probably say they would be the favorite. But they have been to inconsistent during the season and can’t really play together.