Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 31 May 2020

Toronto Raptors look poised to make Finals, but Golden State Warriors are clear favourites: NBA Playoffs preview

Click or swipe through for each matchup | See also: Playoff schedule | NHL predictions

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After a regular season that should prove memorable for incredible individual performances and an MVP race for the ages, we enter the play-offs pretty close to where we thought we would, with the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers as the favourites.

However, a third straight Finals meeting between the two teams is not a certainty, especially given Cleveland’s lacklustre play of late and a wide-open Eastern Conference. Golden State are getting back Kevin Durant from injury having played flawlessly without him the past few weeks, so there is intrigue as to how the team will coalesce with a fully healthy (and historically gifted) roster. Ready to pounce are the typically strong San Antonio Spurs and a pair of point guards in James Harden and Russell Westbrook who have torn up record books all year.

A Cavs-Warriors Finals is indeed the most expected ending, but paths exist here for interlopers. Let’s break down the first-round matchups and try to pick who will eventually raise the trophy in June.

Play-offs begin Saturday at 11pm in the UAE when the Cavs host the Pacers.

Kevin Jeffers

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EAST 1 v 8

Boston Celtics v Chicago Bulls

Season series: Tied 2-2 (Home team won each game)

The Celtics were expected to improve this season, but not to supplant Cleveland as the Eastern Conference’s top seed. They clinched it on the last day of the regular season to set up home-court advantage until the Finals, and they will face a Chicago Bulls team that has vastly improved of late.

Boston might be the most beatable top seed in recent memory. They are loaded to the brim with young talent and consistently good two-way players, but only have one real scoring threat in 5-foot-7 sparkplug Isaiah Thomas. Defences have effectively keyed on Thomas lately, showing how little scoring depth Boston have behind him. Teams with good offensive backcourts — like the Bulls, with Jimmy Butler and a rejuvenated Rajon Rondo — can exploit Thomas’s diminutive size on defence, forcing him off the court if needed.

An upset would not be a total shock here, but ultimately Boston have enough depth to finally win their first play-off series under head coach Brad Stevens, even if the Bulls take them to the brink. A deep run by the top-seeded Celtics should not be expected, though.

Pick: Celtics in seven

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EAST 2 v 7

Cleveland Cavaliers v Indiana Pacers

Season series: Cavaliers won 3-1

The defending champion Cavs have been downright awful of late, losing their last four in a row and going only 12-15 since the All-Star break. They rested players the final two games, deciding not to even challenge Boston for the top seed after two straight losses to Atlanta last week seemingly drained them of purpose. The sheer talent on this roster warrants more than the disappointing 51 wins they managed, and it is reasonable to worry if they are mentally up to the challenge of defending their crown.

Indiana will not be a pushover, and have a top-10 player in Paul George who can take over any given game and play tight defence on LeBron James to give the Cavs fits. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and even in-season veteran additions like Deron Williams and Kyle Korver will have to pick up some scoring slack. James cannot do it all on his own.

Wait ... yes he can. And he will, at least in this round.

The Cavs, even with a terrible defence and without the top seed, are still the favourites in a conference that James has won an astounding six straight seasons. A seventh is expected, even if his own team might be standing in his way this time.

Pick: Cavaliers in six

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EAST 3 v 6

Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks

Season series: Raptors won 3-1

Milwaukee are here on the back of basketball unicorn Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 22-year-old who is unlike any player the league has ever seen. It’s unimaginable how good the “Greek Freak” will be when his game is fully formed, but as things stand now he’s already a matchup nightmare on both ends and an absolute joy to watch. Bucks fans are lucky to have him.

Toronto, of any team in the East, have the means to defend him, though. Also having to deal with the now-healthy (and still-excellent) Bucks forward Khris Middleton, Toronto have enviable defensive depth on the wing in DeMarre Carroll, Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker (the latter two added midseason) to keep Milwaukee’s offensive strengths in check.

The Raptors appear fully healthy as their best player, Kyle Lowry, is back to pair with DeMar DeRozan in the one of the league’s best offensive backcourts. They both struggled at times in last year’s postseason, but the path is there for Toronto to make their first ever run at the Finals. This collection of players will probably never have a better chance to reach those heights, and could be the best overall team in the East if everything clicks into place.

Pick: Raptors in six

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EAST 4 v 5

Washington Wizards v Atlanta Hawks

Season series: Wizards won 3-1

Atlanta have one of the league’s best defences, but will have to get creative with their line-ups to shut down John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. That could mean we see little of Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroeder while the Hawks play small in the middle and go wing-heavy — Paul Millsap could play a lot of centre here — while allowing Thabo Sefalosha and Kent Bazemore to man the backcourt defensive duties.

The Hawks come in as one of the hottest teams in the East after finding a scoring spark while knocking off the Celtics and Cavs (twice) in a three-game span last week. Washington — who have had a fantastic year from Wall and a finally-healthy Beal — have drawn a tougher-than-expected opponent in the first round.

The last time the Wizards were in the play-offs was two years ago, and they were knocked out by a 60-win Hawks team in the second round. They could have won had Wall not been banged up. This team is much better than that one from two years ago and with a much better coach in Scotty Brooks. Expect Wall to look unstoppable at times and the Wizards to get revenge on Atlanta in a hard-fought series.

Pick: Wizards in seven

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WEST 1 v 8

Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers

Season series: Warriors won 4-0 (By an average of 19.5 points)

While Kevin Durant’s former OKC teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden have dominated attention for their season-long MVP duel, his new team embarks on their expected march to a third straight Finals and a first title for the league’s second-best player. Durant only returned to the Warriors’ line-up recently, so there could be a feeling-out period in the early part of this series to work the gifted scorer back into a line-up not short on gifted scorers.

Portland have been a team transformed since trading for Jusuf Nurkic from Denver. He’s solidified the post for a team that was struggling to repeat last year’s play-off season despite a talented backcourt pairing of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The Blazers went 18-9 after adding Nurkic to the line-up, leaving the rest of the West’s play-off hopefuls behind to grab the final seed.

Unfortunately, the ride will end here for this year’s Blazers. Their future looks bright, but the present belongs to Golden State.

Pick: Warriors in four

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WEST 2 v 7

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies

Season series: Series tied 2-2 (Home team won each game)

Basketball fans who love the high-octane offence and highlight-reel plays the league has been abundantly gifted with this season will be thrilled to skip this series entirely. The other, weird basketball fans who love fundamentals and gritty defence have their ideal matchup.

But hey! The Gasol brothers get to face each other in the play-offs, so Spanish fans will be keenly interested in this series. Marc Gasol remains one of the game’s best centres, and will pummel older brother Pau any time the Spurs get caught in that low-post matchup. Don’t expect Pau to have much effect this series while his better, younger brother gives San Antonio problems.

Kawhi Leonard will probably finish third behind Harden and Westbook in the MVP voting. He is easily the most important player on the league’s second best team and averaged a career-high 25.7 points per game while playing his typically dominant perimeter defence. Far from flashy or outspoken, he’s the cog that keeps a consistent Spurs team turning.

It will be weird seeing the Spurs in the play-offs (for an amazing 20th straight season) without Tim Duncan, but the first-round result will at least look familiar.

Pick: Spurs in six

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WEST 3 v 6

Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder

Season series: Rockets won 3-1

Far and away the most intriguing and likely the most entertaining matchup of the first round. Any sports fan should make it an appointment to watch this battle between Houston’s James Harden (who led the league in assists and was second in points) and Russell Westbrook (the scoring champ and first player in 55 years to average a triple-double for the season). One of them is likely winning the MVP after two of the most incredible individual statistical seasons ever. It’s a shame only one of them will win the award, but it’s an even bigger shame only one can advance past the first round.

While Houston won three of four regular-season meetings, two of those came by one score, as did OKC’s lone victory in the series in November. Of all the first-round series, this is the toughest to predict.

Houston (not Golden State) led the league in three-pointers made and attempted, which can be a tough thing to rely on when defensive pressure is ramped up in the play-offs. They were only 15th in three-point percentage, meaning they rely on volume over efficiency. And the Thunder feature a pair of really good perimeter defenders in Anthony Roberson and Victor Oladipo.

While I would personally give the MVP to Harden for leading a Houston team that far out-performed expectations, Westbrook has extra gears few humans do, and I think he does just enough give the Thunder their first series win without the departed Durant. This is going to be so much fun.

Pick: Thunder in seven

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WEST 4 v 5

Los Angeles Clippers v Utah Jazz

Season series: Clippers won 3 of 4

Utah are here thanks to a stifling defence that allowed a league-best 96.8 points a game. A fully healthy season out of centre Rudy Gobert and a career-best year from Gordon Hayward have Utah in the play-offs for the first time since 2012.

Home-court advantage for this round really would have helped out the young Jazz, but they failed to lock that up in the season’s final games, allowing the much-more-experienced Clippers to grab the 4 seed. The current Clippers core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have frustrated in recent years for not reaching its perceived potential, and the franchise has never gone as far as the conference finals.

But the Clippers have one thing on their side that hasn’t been a guarantee for them — health. When Paul, Griffin and Howard are all on the floor, the Clippers are an elite team. Their health and experience will win out, but a spirited Jazz team will give them a fight, especially when the games are in front of the fevered Utah crowd.

Pick: Clippers in seven

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Finals predictions

The West is so tough compared to the East. That’s not news. Still, it’s a much easier conference to call, as the Warriors are far and away the best team. The addition of Durant will give them the crunch-time, isolation-type scorer they lacked while over-relying on perimeter offence the past two Finals runs. They can afford to lose a Durant or Steph Curry the way other teams can’t. Barring catastrophe, it’s just impossible to see them not there at the end.

The East was supposed to be just as predictable. But I think this is the year LeBron James finally starts to run out of gas. He played way, way too many minutes this season to help make up for an otherwise under-performing roster, and his run of six straight Finals means he’s a 32-year-old with far more miles on him than most 32-year-olds. We forget sometimes, but the man is human.

So who grabs the East? I think the Raptors and Wizards both have it in them and will meet in the conference finals after the Raptors knock out the Cavs in the second round, with Toronto making their first ever Finals.

Unfortunately, waiting for them will be one of the greatest teams in history.

Pick: Warriors over Raptors in four

kjeffers@thenational.ae

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Updated: April 13, 2017 04:00 AM

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