A quick summary of the first-round
Each series in the first-round brought us intense edge-of-the-seat action. From the New Orleans Pelicans sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers to the all-around play from the Utah Jazz defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder, to the Cleveland Cavaliers-Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics-Milwaukee Bucks giving us an entertaining seven-game series, these not only brought high-level entertainment but some of these series outcomes surprised us all.
The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors displayed dominance in their matchups against the Minnesota Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs, respectively, and showed what they’re capable of. To no one’s surprise, the Rockets carried their regular season play into the playoffs and just like in the regular season series, it was just too much for the Timberwolves to handle in the playoffs as well. James Harden’s and Chris Paul’s play has clicked really well all-year long and their play continues to complement the other Rockets’ players on both ends of the floor.
The Warriors, on the other hand, limped into the playoffs with injuries but once the playoffs began, they picked things back up to what we have been accustomed to seeing in the past. The Rockets and Jazz, are running out of luck if they play the Warriors next as they can be even scarier when Stephen Curry gets inserted back into the lineup once he recovers from his knee injury.
The Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers both met their expectation in advancing to the second-round. Although the Raptors were tied at two games apiece, they managed to win in six against a Washington Wizards team that couldn’t play well together for the most part of the series. John Wall and Bradley Beal kept the Wizards alive with the supporting cast unable to make a strong contribution.
The 76ers showed that inexperience in the playoffs doesn’t exist. They made quick-work out of the Miami Heat, who were outmatched in every position. Without Joel Embiid for two games and not being 100 percent, this series should have been Hassan Whiteside’s to take advantage of the center position but he was nowhere to be found. To add, the Heat’s grind-it-out style of play worked against them, as the scoring discrepancy was huge.
Outside of team-play, we saw out-of-this-world performances on both ends of the court from the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, who averaged 33 points on 57.6 percent shooting from the field, 11.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 2.8 blocks per game in the series against the Trail Blazers, and Cavaliers’ LeBron James, who averaged 34.7 points on 55.3 percent shooting from the field, 10.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists, and 1.4 steals per game in the series against the Pacers. These playoffs also showed a glimpse of 76ers’ rookie Ben Simmons path to being a 'once in a generation' type of player as well as the rise Jrue Holiday’s and Victor Oladipo’s young careers.
Like all NBA fans, Sully and Christopher gave their predictions for the first-round, so let’s quickly look back on them before we get to their second-round predictions.
First-round predictions from Sully and Chris
Eastern Conference second-round predictions
No. 1 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers
Sully – Raptors win series 4-3
This will be the third year in a row where the Raptors and Cavaliers will meet in the postseason. The Cavaliers won the past two meetings but this year will be different. With DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, and their bench, this the best team the Raptors will have going against a LeBron James-led team and it will be the difference-maker for the Raptors in winning the series in seven. Yes, LeBron hasn’t lost a Game 7 since 2008 and when he does play in a Game 7, he goes nuts but this Cavaliers team isn’t as good as this offensively and defensively sound Raptors team. In the series against the Pacers, James had to everything for the Cavaliers just to squeak by. For the Raptors, their 109 points per game offense in these playoffs is what will win them the series because of Cleveland’s 107. 4 poor defense rating. Once again, James will do everything for his team but will fall short.
Chris – Cleveland wins series 4-3
This is a rematch from last year’s conference semifinal matchup as well as the Eastern Conference Finals from two years ago. However, these two teams are vastly different this year. Toronto abandoned their one-on-one “hero ball” ways and adopted a more modern offense. They also have great depth, as they had the fifth-highest scoring bench in the NBA this year. On the other side, Cleveland has the best player on the planet in LeBron James, but this might be the least talented LeBron-led Cavaliers team since the late 2000’s when James had guys like Mo Williams and Larry Hughes as number two options. I expect this to be a fun series that goes seven games. I really want to pick Toronto, but it’s hard to bet against LeBron.
No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers
Sully – 76ers win series 4-2
It took a depleted Celtics team seven games to defeat an inconsistent Bucks team and that puts doubt on the Celtics heading into the second-round. Facing off against the young and fast 76ers team, the Celtics will need every little bit of luck to have a chance to win the series. Boston does rank in the top 10 in defense in the postseason but with the likes of Simmons and Embiid, I don’t see their defense holding up against the duo. For the 76ers, they rank top five in offense rating and did it show in their series against the Heat. Their 102.3 pace rating will outplay the Celtics’ defense and will cause Boston to adjust, which may be tough with their roster. Yes, they do have versatile players in Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart but the rest of the roster fits a more slow-pace game. I doubted the 76ers in the first-round but I am now a believer of this team.
Chris – 76ers wins series 4-3
Despite losing Kyrie Irving (and not having Gordon Hayward), the Celtics managed to squeak by the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games to reach the semifinals. Now, they face a tougher test in the young and talented Sixers. Even without Irving, Boston has the versatility to slow down the dynamic Ben Simmons. The combination of Al Horford and Aron Baynes may also be enough to keep superstar center Joel Embiid in check as well. The numbers bare this out; Embiid averaged 17.3 points per game on 38 percent shooting in the three regular-season meetings with the Celtics this year. However, Philly was able to overcome a stellar Heat defense to reach the second round and I expect them to do the same against a banged up Boston team. This will be a long series, by the team with the healthy stars will prevail.
Western Conference second-round predictions
No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz
Sully – Rockets win series 4-1
Just like the 76ers, the Jazz caught me by surprise. I really thought OKC would figure it out in the playoffs but man, was I wrong. Moving onto this series, the Rockets’ offense is too lethal for the Jazz’s defense. If Harden or Paul are not running iso plays, they constantly move the ball to open up a shot from the perimeter or will cause a mismatch and have a player get an easy basket by driving to the hoop. This will cause huge problems for the Jazz because Rudy Gobert’s effectiveness will decrease as he’ll be in the paint when the Rockets shoot threes or will be mismatched with another player out onto the perimeter.
As good as Donovan Mitchell has been, the Rockets can contain to the point where he is not going for 30 points a night. Paul, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute are just some of the players who can make Mitchell uncomfortable on the offensive end. With Ricky Rubio out at least 10 days, that doesn’t leave much for the Jazz to match up with the Rockets in terms of facilitating the offense. It was a great season but this series will end in five.
Chris – Rockets win series 4-2
The other second-round matchup should be entertaining as well. The Jazz have the interior defense to hinder Houston’s drives to the basket and their roster is filled with plenty of versatile wings who can switch on screens, somewhat negating what James Harden and Chris Paul do best. The same could be said for Houston: their athletes are capable enough defensively to slow down Donovan Mitchell and they also have an elite rim protector in Clint Capela. It should be noted that Utah swept the season series by an average margin of 17.5. Utah is well coached and well equipped to give Houston a fight, but the Rockets have too much talent.
No. 2 Warriors vs. No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans
Sully – Warriors win series 4-1
With Curry out for Game 1 and probable Game 2, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson picked up the offense and have scored in bunches in the first-round. As important as Curry is to this team, the Warriors should be fine going against the Pelicans without him. With a 94.8 defensive rating, which is second-best in these playoffs, not only will Draymond Green be their defensive stopper but he will facilitate the offense to help Thompson and Durant get their shots.
Davis and Holiday showed what they were capable of, especially on the defensive end in the Portland series. Nikola Mirotic and Rajon Rondo were also excellent and I didn’t think they would be, but this Warriors team is far better for the Pelicans to stop. With that, this series will be over quick for the Pelicans.
Chris – Warriors win series 4-2
After a surprising sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Pelicans come into this conference semifinal matchup. Unfortunately for them, they're playing a Warriors team that looked as good as ever in their gentleman’s sweep of the San Antonio Spurs. With Stephen Curry expected to miss at least one game in this series, the outcome is a little cloudier than it originally would have been. I think Anthony Davis has a great series (he’s too great not to), but I think the combination of Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and JaVale McGee (with a bit of Andre Iguodala) will do enough to slow him down. On the other side, the Pelicans just don’t have enough three-point shooting to keep up with the Warriors, even with Nikola Mirotic. This should be a fun series, but Golden State will advance to the conference finals.
That concludes our second-round predictions. Next stop, conference finals. Stay tuned for when that time arrives as we will also give our predictions.