Sports Cui-sine: NBA Playoff Predictions

by Mark Cui | 4/15/19 2:09am

The NBA playoffs kicked off with several upsets over the weekend. Is this the year of the underdog (at least in the earlier rounds, before the Warriors inevitably sweep in the finals)? Or are we just overreacting once again? Here are my hot takes for the first round.

Eastern Conference:

Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs. Detroit Pistons (8) — Bucks in 4

The Pistons had a just decent enough run to close out the regular season and sneak in as an eighth seed, and the team looks to delay their vacation for as long as possible against the top-seeded Bucks. Detroit hasn’t won a playoff series in 11 years, and the uncertain health status of new addition and superstar Blake Griffin only makes this long drought certain to continue. The Bucks absolutely dominated the regular season with an impressive 60-22 record. Head coach Mike Budenholzer — who was recently announced as the National Basketball Coaches Association 2019 Coach of the Year this week for his work in his first season at the helm of the Bucks — changed the team’s strategy, designing offensive spacing around their star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and placing renewed emphasis on high-volume three point shooting. Antetokounmpo has made the jump to superstardom this season, as he is one of the two leading candidates for MVP after a 27.7/12.5/5.9 season. Malcolm Brogdon, who had a stellar 50-40-90 season, may be injured this round, but expect other solid players — like new addition Brook Lopez, who has made 76 more 3s than LeBron James this season, Khris Middleton, who made his first all-star game this year, and Eric Bledsoe, who received a massive contract extension this season— to step up. The Bucks haven’t won a playoff series since 2001, but it’s hard to envision that their dominance in the regular season will not translate to an easy sweep of the Pistons.  

Toronto Raptors (2) vs. Orlando Magic (7) — Raptors in 5

It took a career night from D.J. Augustin and a straight up bagel from Kyle Lowry for the Magic to steal the first game, both of which I don’t expect to happen again. Sure, Magic star Nikola Vuvevic will likely play better than his 3-14 stat line on Saturday, but look for the Raptors to rebound and take the next four. 

Philadelphia 76ers (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6) — Nets in 7

I’m calling the upset here. The Nets surprisingly took game 1, and their win gave viewers a glimpse of how they could neutralize the 76ers star-studded starters. Jimmy Butler had a great game with 36 points, but Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick all struggled to overcome the opposing defense. Like many teams have during the regular season, the Nets took advantage of Simmons’ lack of a reliable jump-shot and rendered him ineffective by pushing him out of the paint. They neutralized sharpshooter Redick by playing him aggressively and relentlessly attacking him on defense. After the Nets’ starting center Jarrett Allen picked up two quick fouls, they switched to an effective zone defense that temporarily confused the 76ers. I’m sure the 76ers will adjust accordingly, but the team has never really fully jelled into the offensive superpower many critics predicted following the Harris acquisition. Though lacking the same caliber of individual players in their starting five, the Nets certainly have the personnel to send the 76ers home early. 

Boston Celtics (4) vs. Indiana Pacers (5) — Boston in 5

After making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals last season with their young players in leading roles, many thought the Celtics would be the top challenger to the Warriors with the return of stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. However, the team has been beset by internal dysfunction throughout the season, and Hayward has only slowly return to his pre-injury form — the team still has yet to play up to its potential. However, the Pacers have been even worse. The team had a strong stretch of basketball following the loss of its star player Victor Oladipo and should be commended for making it this far, but the Pacers have been playing worse since the latter half of the all-star break in key offensive and defensive metrics. Look for the Celtics to take this round, despite losing their best defender Marcus Smart a few days ago. 

Western Conference

Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (8) — Warriors in 4

Steph Curry is unstoppable, posting an unreal 38/15/7 statline in game one against the Clippers. The Warriors just have too many star players. Although the team has lost a few bench players from last year and Draymond Green hasn’t been the same all year, the additions of Demarcus Cousins and Andrew Bogut at the center position (even though the former is a defensive liability and may never be as good as he was pre-injury) make the team just as dangerous. The Clippers are well-coached and won’t go down easy, but the Warriors won’t let an eighth seed get in their way of repeating as champions. 

Denver Nuggets (2) vs. San Antonio Spurs (7) — Spurs in 7

Going to go with the upset here. After barely missing the playoffs last year, the Nuggets had a fantastic comeback season to safely secure the second seed. The team has been astounding on its home court, finishing 34-7, but has been mediocre on the road, with a 20-21 record. Losing home court advantage does not bode well. In addition, the team is still young and their star Nikola Jokić is playing in his first playoff series. On the other side, the Spurs are led by the legendary playoff-tested Gregg Popovich, and their stars DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge have at time stepped up big in the playoffs. Expect this to be close, but the Spurs’ experience gives them a slight edge. 

Portland Trail Blazers (3) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (6) — Thunder in 5

This will be a fun series to watch, especially the point guard battle between Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard. My prediction is technically an upset based on seeding, but that’s only because a critical piece to the Blazers’ post-season goals, center Jusuf Nurkić, was recently lost to injury. Paul George has dropped off significantly after playing like an MVP the first half of the season and the Thunder have struggled with 3-point shooting throughout the season, but the loss of Nurkic and the Thunder’s strong defense tilts the matchups in favor of the Thunder. They take it in five. 

Houston Rockets (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5) — Rockets in 5

James Harden had an unreal 36.1/6.6/7.5 season this year and looks to lead his team to a title after taking the Warriors to seven games in last year’s Western Conference Finals. The Jazz have been playing well since their slow start to the season. Their stifling defense led by center Rudy Gobert, will certainly give the Rockets trouble in the paint, but the Rockets will depend on their 3-point shooting to take the series. They may drop a game or two if their shooting goes cold or Harden has an off-game, like game seven against the Warriors last year. Otherwise, the Rockets take it in five.