Zakarin: NBA’s First Round Full of Fireworks

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By: Ethan Zakarin

With the NBA regular season ending with a thrilling overtime affair between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets, the playoffs are finally here. And while Minnesota may have come out on top against Denver, their reward for winning the regular season finale is a date with likely MVP James Harden and the top-seeded Houston Rockets. Its finally NBA Playoff time, so lets predict the Houston-Minnesota series, and the rest of the first round match-ups across what should be an exciting first round .

(1) Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota defeated Denver in a pseudo play-in game for the final berth in the Western Conference, and while Jimmy Butler and company are surely excited to still be playing, a much tougher test awaits. The Houston Rockets had the best record in all of the NBA this year, and James Harden seems poised to capture his first MVP award after putting together a stellar regular season. Any questions about the feasibility of Harden and the newly acquired Chris Paul was put the rest this year, with any questions still lingering about Houston now considering whether they can finally unseat the Warriors in the West. While the T-Wolves young core of Butler, Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins has shown great potential this season, Houston should have no problem sending Minnesota packing.

Prediction: Rockets in 4

(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs

Stephen Curry
Steph Curry’s knee injury could spell trouble for the Golden State Warriors. (Wikimedia Commons)

While both teams obviously possess exceptional talent, this series may be defined more by the players that won’t be playing than the ones that will. Steph Curry’s knee and Patty McCaw’s spinal contusion will keep them both out of this series; and Kawhi Leonard’s quad will prevent him from playing, despite many both inside and out of the Spurs organization questioning whether he could give it a go regardless. Despite Quinn Cook starting in place of Curry, the Spurs realistically have no chance to win this series without Leonard, who is far and away their best player and one of the best in all of the NBA. Without Curry, maybe San Antonio will steal one at home, but any more than that would be a big surprise.

Prediction: Warriors in 5

(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (6) New Orleans Pelicans

In what has been an unfortunate trend all across the NBA this season, the New Orleans Pelicans are one of the victims of an injury epidemic, with All-Star forward DeMarcus Cousins’ achilles injury keeping him out of the entire postseason. Because of this, Portland’s stellar backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will be too much for the Pelicans sans Cousins; and that’s a real shame, because a healthy DeMarcus Cousins paired with Anthony Davis would make for one of the greatest backcourt against front-court match-ups we’ve ever seen. With no Cousins, the Blazers should be the favorites in this series.

Prediction: Blazers in 6

(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz

This quite possibly may be the most interesting first round series in the entire league. The Thunder’s offseason additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony have had mixed success this year, but there’s no denying the amount of talent in Oklahoma City’s lineup when this group is firing on all cylinders. Despite the additions, Russell Westbrook is still the leader, and will have his hands full with rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell, who has carried a Jazz team that, after Gordon Hayward left last season, few expected to compete. Combining Mitchell with center and defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert, this series is probably the most difficult to predict out of them all, meaning we should be in for some close games and high-intensity basketball. The Thunder have been inconsistent all year, but have more players with playoff experience, so I’ll take them­­­ – but barely.

Prediction: Thunder in 7

(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Washington Wizards

DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors look to exorcise their playoff demons as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. (Keith Allison via Flickr)

Setting a franchise record for regular season wins and securing the first No. 1 seed in franchise history shows what an incredible season it has been for the Toronto Raptors. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have both had stellar campaigns, and the Raptors look poised to put their playoff demons of the past aside and try to advance in a wide open Eastern Conference. John Wall missed a lot of time with a hand injury for the Wizards, who will need everything and more from Wall if they figure to compete in this series. Despite their past playoff struggles, it really seems Toronto has turned a corner this year, and with a revamped bench, they should be ready for the Wizards.

Prediction: Raptors in 5

(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks

In another series defined more by players who aren’t playing rather than those that are, one can only lament how this series would go if Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving were on the court for Boston in this set. Fortunately for the Bucks, both players are inactive, and Marcus Smart is also uncertain to return to action after injuring his hand, though he could be cleared towards the second half of the series. This is a series the Bucks probably ought to win, and questions about if Giannis Antentokounmpo is ready to be a superstar could be answered here. The Bucks really shouldn’t lose this, though Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will be enough to make it interesting. This matchup is a wildcard, but one has to assume that a team with a budding superstar like Antentokounmpo should take down such a depleted Celtics Roster.

Prediction: Bucks in 7

(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Miami Heat

The Philadelphia 76ers have been an incredibly exciting team to watch all year, and the future is as bright as can be with young stars Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Dario Saric in the mix. While Embiid’s status is uncertain for this series due to an orbital eye fracture sustained recently, there’s no reason to believe the 76ers combination of young stars and veteran savvy won’t make for a quick exit for Miami.

Prediction: 76ers in 5

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Indiana Pacers

LeBron James
The Cleveland Cavaliers have had an up and down season, but Lebron James is gearing up for yet another return to The Finals. (Wikimedia Commons)

In what has been a most unusual and chaotic season for Cleveland – even by their standards – the Cavaliers possess something no other team in these playoffs has, LeBron James. Indiana has been a surprise team this year, with Victor Oladipo having a career year in almost ever regard. While being wary of the Cavaliers further in the playoffs is certainly valid, picking against one of the greatest players of all time is something that should be done with a great deal of caution. This could be a rocky road for Cleveland this postseason, but a first round exit for LeBron James just doesn’t even sound right.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 6

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