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First Round Playoff Predictions and Previews

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The first round of the playoffs this year brings several tantalizing match ups, mostly in the Western Conference, and there should be some great series. This is a brief look into each series and what teams I think will advance to the Conference Semifinals.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Eastern Conference

Atlanta Hawks (1) versus Brooklyn Nets (8)

This series should not be close. The Hawks are a terrific basketball team from top to bottom, and have one of the best five coaches in the NBA. They won 60 games this year, and have been coasting for around a month secure in their first place position.

The Nets limped into the playoffs with a record well below .500 and playing an unexciting brand of basketball that inspires nobody. Their best players are past their prime, and they only have one or two young guys who could have a breakout series (Mason Plumlee?), which makes the likelihood of an upset very low.

The Hawks are fun, well balanced, and even with an injured Millsap and no Thabo Sefolosha should still handle the Nets easily. I would take every single one of the Hawks starters over any player on the Nets in a vacuum, which highlights the vast talent discrepancy.

Hawks in 4

Cleveland Cavaliers (2) versus Boston Celtics (7)

This series will be a lot more interesting, but won't be any closer. The Celtics actually play a fun style of basketball and compete hard every night under one of the best young coaches in the game in Brad Stevens. They simply don't have the talent to compete with the Cavs, who will have the three best players in the series by a mile.

Expect a lot of Kyrie Irving and LeBron James domination, though the Celtics should be able to score on the Cavaliers fairly easily as well. I suspect that most of the games will be relatively close, and the Celtics could possibly steal one at home with an explosive performance by Isaiah Thomas. It would take a miracle to do more than that.

Cavaliers in 4

Chicago Bulls (3) versus Milwaukee Bucks (6)

Two defensive minded squads will clash, though the similarities largely end there. Coach Thibodeau leads a veteran Bulls squad that has made the playoffs for years, but hasn't made any real runs since 2011. This season is somewhat different in that Derrick Rose is healthy, but he hasn't been very good, shooting barely over 40% from the field and with an assist/turnover ratio of 1.5. Joakim Noah has also had a rough season, but it has been offset by the additions of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, and the vast improvement of Jimmy Butler (one of the lead runners for Most Improved Player).

The Bucks made the leap to the playoffs a year ahead of schedule behind the coaching of Jason Kidd (would be a candidate for Coach of the Year if the Hawks and Warriors didn't happen) and the breakout play of several youngsters. Khris Middleton, a throw in from the Brandon Jennings trade two seasons ago, is now the best player on the Bucks and will make huge amounts of money this season as a solid overall player, terrific shooters, and good defender. The Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, still can't shoot, but at age 20 is already on the path to stardom. Point guard Michael Carter Williams is one of the worst shooters in NBA history, but is a good passer and defender, and he has a lot of spacing on the wings and even a stretch 4 in Ersan Ilyasova.

I think the Bulls are overrated, as they seem to be every year. Rose is a shell of himself, Noah and Taj Gibson have had down years, and Gasol is an awful defender. However, the Bucks just don't have the size or enough good big men to deal with the Bulls, who will pound them inside. This should be a tough and interesting series, and the Bucks do have an outside shot to pull it off.

Bulls in 6

Toronto Raptors (4) versus Washington Wizards (5)

This will probably be the best first round matchup in the East, as it features a very good offense (Raptors) against a stalwart defense (Wizards). The Raptors have home court advantage and have dominated the Wizards in the last few years, but have not been particularly good for several months. After a terrific start to the season, Kyle Lowry has fallen off hard, partly due to injuries, and now has to match against John Wall. DeMar DeRozan is an explosive scorer and will have a huge quickness advantage against Paul Pierce (or size against Brad Beal), and him going off is probably the best bet the Raptors have in this series. The other key will be bench play, as the Raps bring presumptive 6th man of the year Lou Williams on their 2nd unit along with Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross. The Raptors have plenty of scoring, but can they get stops?

The Wizards are also limping into the playoffs, seemingly unable to get any sort of momentum after a blazing hot start. Their offense is stuck in the 80s with head coach Randy Wittman, who is not a rotational champ either. Their hope lies in All Star point John Wall, who was incredible this season on both ends of the court, and his backcourt mate Bradley Beal, who had a nice finish to the season after long bouts with injury and inconsistency. Wall can break down almost any defense and is a terror on the other end, while Beal is a solid defender and one of the most dangerous shooters in the league. Both of them will need to stand out for the Wiz to win. The rest of their lineup consists of mostly veterans, but outside of Marcin Gortat, these are outside of their prime. Paul Pierce looks like a corpse most nights, and while his playoff exploits are infamous, his tank looks like its running on empty. The Wizards' atrocious bench would get destroyed by the Raptors, but with shortened playoff rotations, Wall, Beal, and Gortat will not leave the floor much.

This series seems like it will go 6 or 7, and each team has something that they can exploit (the Wizards' bench and Raptors' poor overall defense). The coaching will be predictably awful as two of the worst in the business go head to head, diminishing an otherwise excellent contest. I honestly have no idea who will win, but am going with the team with the best player (John Wall).

Wizards in 7

The Western Conference (where every series is good)

Golden State Warriors (1) versus New Orleans Pelicans (8)

Ah. Much better. This matchup will probably be more entertaining and feature higher quality basketball than any Eastern first round series. The Warriors are one of the best regular season teams the NBA has seen in years, with the best defense and second best offense (just a hair behind the Clippers) in the league. Stephen Curry is the front runner in the MVP race for good reason, as his absurd shooting abilities open up the court for his teammates every possession. It helps that his supporting cast is terrific as well. Klay Thompson is a top tier shooter in his own right, but features good perimeter defense as well. Draymond Green can space the floor, pass the ball off the dribble, and defend all five positions reasonably well. Andrew Bogut is one of the best rim protectors in the NBA. It goes on and on. Steve Kerr has done an ace job in his rookie season as head coach, and outcoaching the Warriors to victory isn't much of an option this year.

The Pelicans had a fantastic season in their own right. Despite long absences to some of their best players, they were able to claw out 46 wins and make the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. Anthony Davis is the best young player the NBA has seen since LeBron, and will finish in the top 5 of the MVP race as a 22 year old. He is a mismatch for almost anyone on offense and his incredible reach and instincts serve him well on defense as well. Tyreke Evans has had a bounce back year, as has ex-Clipper Eric Gordon, who finally rediscovered his long lost 3 point shot. Joining them are a variety of role players, including three underrated in-season acquisitions in Norris Cole, Dante Cunningham, and Quincy Pondexter. While the Pelicans are a dangerous team and would probably be the third best team in the Eastern Conference, they are undermatched in this series. If Jrue Holliday is able to start and play 30 minutes defending Curry they could cause some problems, but likely not enough.

Warriors in 5

Houston Rockets (2) versus Dallas Mavericks (7)

The least interesting Western Conference matchup is still going to be a fun one. The Rockets have a top tier MPV candidate in James Harden, but injuries to Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverly weaken them substantially. There is also worry about how many minutes Dwight Howard can handle and if he is has regained his form, but Tyson Chandler is a tough defender for him anyway. Trevor Ariza has been an underrated addition as a borderline All-Defense stopper on the wing and a solid enough spacer on the wings. The rest of the Rockets roster is full of veterans who know what to do in the playoffs, including two players who won championships with the Mavs in 2011 (Jason Terry and Corey Brewer).

The Mavericks are interesting in that they are better on paper than in reality, even with coach Rick Carlisle, one of the best out there. Rajon Rondo is more of a name than a reality at this point, as his fear of shooting and going to the free throw line has effectively neutered him as an offensive player. Dirk Nowitzki is having his worst season since 1999 and is a turnstile on defense, but still stretches the floor and creates space like none other. Monta Ellis' explosive scoring ability is their best chance to win this series, as the bulk of their roster just isn't that impressive.

Neither of these teams is a good bet to win the Western Conference, but this series should be pretty close. Again, when in trouble, go with the best player.

Rockets in 7

Los Angeles Clippers (3) versus San Antonio Spurs (6)

Two of the best three teams in the league will clash in the first round, sadly meaning that one of them will go home way too soon. I won't go into huge detail on this one, because there is about to be a lot of very specific coverage on this series, but the most worrying thing about the Spurs is Kawhi Leonard. After missing the first part of the season with injuries and then getting his feet under him, he has been one of the 10 best NBA players since the All Star break, and by far the best defensive player. He (or Danny Green, also a very good defender) will see a lot of time on Chris Paul, which is not a good sign for the Clippers. Meanwhile, the Spurs' offense is as free flowing and creative as ever, an evolving beast that is tough to stop.

Thankfully, the Clippers are up to the task this year. Chris Paul had his best season in a long time, and even with Leonard on him should be able to do a lot of damage on the offensive end, as well as his trademark All-Defense ability on Tony Parker. JJ Redick has been lights out, and his endless screen running is very tough to stop. For the Clippers to win, however, Blake Griffin needs to take his game to another level. The Spurs have good interior defenders, but nobody near the athleticism of Blake, and Leonard is too small to cover him. DeAndre Jordan will help on the glass and on defense, but Blake should be scoring around 30 a game if the Clippers are to win this series.

I can't wait. This is one of the best first round playoff series (on paper anyway) ever, and I think it should live up to the hype. The big difference in this series will be the benches, as the Spurs boast one of the deepest rosters in the NBA while the Clippers have one of the shallowest. Even with shortened playoff rotations, the differential in bench production is a major point in the Spurs' favor.

Spurs in 7

Portland Trailblazers (4) versus Memphis Grizzlies (5)

This series would be a lot better if both teams were healthy, but alas. The Trailblazers are the 4th seed because they won their division, but were only the 6th best team in the Western Conference. Wes Matthews is out for the year, Arron Afflalo might miss the first couple games of the series, and Dorell Wright is still out for a few weeks with a broken hand. Fortunately, the Blazers two best players are good to go, and the Damian Lillard/LaMarcus Aldridge duo is a formidable one. With the afore mentioned players the Blazers were a title contender, but even without them they are a good offensive team capable of putting up huge numbers. Their issues lie on the defensive end, but fortunately the Grizzlies aren't the team to really take advantage on that end.

For the first half of this season, the Grizzlies looked like one of the best teams in the league, but injuries and lack of spacing have taken their toll. Their starting backcourt of Mike Conley and Tony Allen are both injured going into the playoffs, and while both will probably play, it remains to be seen if they are going to be anywhere near fully healthy. If not, the Grizzlies still have their twin towers of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but just wouldn't have the guard/wing power to compete. If they are fairly healthy, this will be a long and tough series.

I don't think Conley and Allen will recover enough in time, while Batum and McCollum should be at pretty close to full strength for the bulk of the series.

Blazers in 6