By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
The time has finally arrived — the time where legacies are cemented, players are made, careers are idolized and champions are born.
Yes, its time for the NBA Playoffs!
With the 2009 postseason getting ready to go underway this Saturday, here are my predictions for the first round of this significant playoff season, one that could be signalling a new era of basketball, an era of basketball that does not include the king of the postseason, LeBron James.
Lets start with where we already knew there would be changes afoot, given LeBron’s escape, to the Eastern Conference:
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Detroit Pistons – The Detroit Pistons are making the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Behind the leadership of Blake Griffin — who is averaging 25 points, 5 assists and 8 rebounds and shooting a career high 36 percent from three — the Pistons have a chance to make some noise against their Central Division rival. However, they will be playing against the best team in the league and arguably the best player in the league in MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Averaging 27 points, 6 assists and 13 rebounds and leading the Bucks to be the only 60 win regular season campaign, the Greek Freak is having a career year for a franchise that hasn’t won this many games since 1981.
After losing in the first round last year, look for the Bucks to be determined to go further than last year, especially with a more developed MVP candidate, improved play of point guard Eric Bledsoe and recently minted All-Star Kris Middleton along with the additions of Nikola Mirotic, Brook Lopez and Pau Gasol, players that can shoot over 30% from three and can contribute in the post when healthy.
The Bucks firepower will be too much for the Pistons to handle. I expect the Bucks to win the series 4-2.
Toronto Raptors vs. Orlando Magic – Orlando is back in the playoffs for the first time since the Dwight Howard days in 2012. Led by All-Star Nikola Vucevic, the young core surrounding Vucevic featuring former slam dunk contest participants Aaron Gordon and Terrance Ross and the improved rookie forward Jonathan Isaac, they have become an exciting group of talent under coach of the year candidate Steve Clifford direction.
Though talented, it will be tough for such an inexperienced Magic team to compete in a seven-game series with the Raptors. The new and improved Raptors have excelled with the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard who is back to his normal MVP candidate level of play, and Pascal Siakam has made himself a candidate for Most Improved Player in the league.
The key to this series is the play of guard Kyle Lowry. With King James out of the East, will he feel free to overcome the woes of past historical let downs in big playoff moments, namely against James? I expect Lowry to do it this go around, and this improved Raptors team will beat the Magic 4-1.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Brooklyn Nets – Brooklyn finds its way in the playoff picture for the first time since 2015, and this time with a new and improved roster.
All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell is having a career year with 21 points and 7 assists a game and has shown his maturity under coach Kenny Atkinson alongside young colleagues Jared Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LaVert. They have what it takes to put up a good fight against the league’s best, but they will have their hands full with the Big 4 of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris.
Offensively, Philly has all the tools to make a deep run in the playoffs, especially with the shooting ability of JJ Redick supplementing the team’s star play. The key is can the Sixers play a full 48-minute game consistently and positively improve with the combination of their slow-progressive chemistry?
I think they will for at least the first round and although the Nets will keep the games close and interesting, the Sixers will come out on top, even though the Sixers have struggled in their last 10 games. Philly will win the series 4-2.
Boston Celtics vs. Indiana Pacers – Indiana was quite a surprise in the second half of the season, finishing with the fifth seed in the East after their All-Star Victor Oladipo went down with a season-ending injury.
Key players Myles Turner have stepped up and performed at a high level to get over the hump, but is it enough for the to beat the very talented Celtics in a seven-game series? The Celtics have not lived up to the expectations critics across the league projected them to achieve. They have had a roller coaster season trying to figure out the best lineups to put on the court with the return of their stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
The team has struggled considerably on the road, and they just took a massive blow with one of their key defensive anchors in Marcus Smart being out for potentially two playoff series due to a torn oblique, so others will have to make up for the perimeter defense Smart provided.
This will be a tough battle for Boston against a typically prepared Indiana team, but the Cs have the talent and firepower that the Pacers do not and that will be the key to getting them past the first round. The Celtics will win the series 4-2.
Now let’s switch over to the loaded Western Conference:
Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles Clippers – The Clip Show is far from canceled and with this winning season they have a made a huge case for themselves to be considered by the cream of the upcoming free agent market.
That’s a good thing considering that the Dubs should put them in off-season mode within the next week or so.
Doc Rivers has made himself a candidate for Coach of the Year after leading a young and — compared to the Western Conference powerhouses — under-talented group to the playoffs. They should enjoy the fun while it lasts.
We all know that even though the regular season has their up and down moments, when the playoffs come around, the focus changes, something the Warriors have for years shown us that they are unbeatable when this time of year comes around. Playing against the big three of Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant will be the ultimate challenge for the Clippers and although coach Rivers has his moments coaching against the Warriors in the postseason, he does not have the firepower he once had in previous match-ups.
The Warriors will be too much for the Clippers, and I’m calling this series to be a 4-0 sweep.
Denver Nuggets vs. San Antonio Spurs – Denver’s made an impressive return to the postseason as it sits in the West’s No. 2 spot. They have a lot of offensive talent that can take a toll on defenses. Behind the MVP play of Nikola Jokic and leadership of Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray, they can make a run against the elite teams and have been shown to be one of the most complete teams in the league.
The Spurs are now in the playoffs for a 22nd consecutive season, an amazing accomplishment in NBA history. DeMar Derozan should look to bounce back from last year’s postseason debacle to compete against a prohibitive favorite in Denver, but the Spurs lack of depth is an issue. You should never doubt a Gregg Popovich-run team, but this is not one of the better teams he’s had in his unprecedented run. I see Denver’s talent overwhelming the Spurs in a 4-2 series.
Portland Trailblazers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder – This will be one of the most entertaining series in the league’s first round. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are going to bring the heat against the back court of the Triple-Double King, Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
The key is the surround talent between both teams. Although practically even talent wise on the bench, the absence of Jusuf Nurkic will be a problem for the Trailblazers, especially in regards to defensive play and rebounding. If the Thunder can play like they did earlier this season, excelling both offensively and defensively, OKC should win this series 4-2.
Houston Rockets vs Utah Jazz – Utah is proving that their playoff success last year wasn’t a fluke behind the surging Donovan Mitchell and the ever-dominant defensive play of Rudy Gobert. They will bring the tough tenacity needed for successful postseason play. However, they are playing against one of the top offensive players in league history in James Harden.
Harden’s historical play has brought the Rockets have fought to be a top team in the West. Averaging 36 points a game with 8 assists, 7 rebounds and multiple 50-point games. But the big factor is can he keep that level of play up throughout the entire playoff and more specifically this playoff series where the defense is aggressive and tough.
As long Chris Paul stays healthy and Harden can continue to play at this high level, the Jazz should “Fear the Beard.” Rockets will win the series 4-2.
The NBA playoffs start Saturday.
Joshua M. Hicks is the lead columnist of WARR