NBA Playoffs: Breaking down the first round matchups

After another whirlwind of a regular season, the NBA playoffs have finally arrived. Can anyone dethrone the Warriors? Are the Bucks the team to beat in the East? Can Toronto reach new heights with Kawhi Leonard? The answer to these questions will begin to reveal themselves Saturday, so let's take a deeper dive into each series.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

 (1) Milwaukee Bucks vs (8) Detroit Pistons

The Bucks absolutely stampeded through the regular season en route to the NBA's best record. This team has few holes in its statistical profile and should have no trouble rolling past an average Pistons squad. The main priorities for Milwaukee will be staying healthy, getting some playoff experience, and biding time for Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic to return. 

Prediction: Bucks in 4 

(2) Toronto Raptors vs (7) Orlando Magic 

The Raptors will hope to finally breakthrough with LeBronto no longer being an issue and a real superstar in Kawhi Leonard leading the way. Leonard and Marc Gasol bring much needed poise to this nervy group, and Pascal Siakam gives them another threat on offense. And while Toronto should win this series, the Magic are easily the most threatening of the East's bottom feeders. Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon have the size and athleticism to hang with Toronto, and this group has played great lately, posting a +7.7 net rating (good for fourth in the NBA) since February 1.

Prediction: Raptors in 6

(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs (6) Brooklyn Nets

The Sixers got absolutely exposed by Brad Stevens in last season's playoffs with Ben Simmons looking lost and Brett Brown having no counter to the Celtics defensive scheme. While Simmons' lack of a jumpshot is a serious issue moving forward, Philly's cohort of All Stars should be able to handle Brooklyn behind a big series from Joel Embiid. Props to Brooklyn for exceeding expectations and finding themselves a solid core, but Philly simply create too many matchup problems for their league average defense.


Prediction: Sixers in 5

(4) Boston Celtics vs (5) Indiana Pacers

This series had the potential to be truly fascinating until Victor Oladipo was lost for the season. The Pacers still have grit and are strong defensively, but they simply lack the offensive firepower to win this series. Losing home court advantage in this series was critical for them as they have a +7.6 point differential at home but are -1.0 on the road. Whether the Celtics have another gear or not remains to be seen, but it won't matter this round.

Prediction: Celtics in 5

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Golden State Warriors vs (8) Los Angeles Clippers

The Warriors slept through parts of the regular season and still secured the top seed in the West. While what the Clippers have done this season is remarkable, they simply do not have the firepower to match Golden State and its five All Stars. It remains to be seen if anyone does. 

Prediction: Warriors in 5

(2) Denver Nuggets vs (7) San Antonio Spurs

The Nuggets surpassed expectations this season, pushing Golden State for the top seed into April. They play great as a team and their starting lineup is criminally underrated. They are also dominant at home posting an eye popping +10.5 point differential at the Pepsi Center. However, that number falls to -2.6 outside of it, the largest split in the league by a large margin. San Antonio have the coaching and grit to keep things interesting and take care of business on their home floor, but the Nuggets will bring it home in the altitude.

Prediction: Nuggets in 7

(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs (6) Oklahoma City Thunder

Both teams are struggling heading into the playoffs, with Portland down Jusuf Nurkic and actively trying to lose their last game to avoid this matchup. That said, they may have lucked out after all. OKC have posted a -.2 net rating since March 1 and have seen their defense slip from its early season heights. With Nurkic, the Blazers would be well positioned to knock the Thunder out, but they may struggle on the glass without him, allowing OKC to control the pace and get out in transition.

Prediction: Thunder in 6

(4) Houston Rockets vs (5) Utah Jazz

This is quite possibly the most compelling series of the first round with two very strong teams battling for the right to play Golden State. James Harden and the Rockets have the most optimized offense in the league, taking over half their shots from deep and the majority of their other shots in the paint or at the charity stripe. However, Utah rank second in the league in defensive rating, allowing just 105 points per 100 possessions. The difference will come from beyond the arc, where the Utah defense is somewhat vulnerable, ranking just 15th in opponent three point percentage. 


Prediction: Rockets in 6

While the real fun mostly starts next round, the first round has a handful of interesting matchups that will reveal a lot about which teams can seriously challenge Golden State's empire for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. 

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