Yes, four games have already been played and this is kind of cheating. I’ll mention if what we saw in Game 1 of Nets/Celtics, Bucks/Heat, Clippers/Mavericks or Nuggets/Trailblazers has changed what I was thinking after the play-in.
76ers def. Wizards 4-1
The Wizards finished the regular season looking like the team most people picked to be a low playoff seed after the Russell Westbrook- John Wall trade, and after the play-in they’ve ended up as just that. But the egg they laid in the play-in tournament against the Celtics showed exactly why I don’t think they have a real shot to advance. Since Westbrook has been given the green light to become the incredibly polarizing player he is now, he hasn’t been out of the 1st round and has given his critics plenty of fuel to discount his new all-time triple-double record. Bradley Beal on the other hand has actually quietly improved in the playoffs his previous 4 trips, significantly increasing his scoring output from the regular season each time.
It won’t be enough to challenge this stifling defense and a fully unlocked Joel Embiid, but Philly is legally obligated to give away at least one game doing something strategically stupid in every playoff series they appear in. Philadelphia in 5.
Nets def. Celtics 4-0
I was tempted to give the Celtics the gentleman’s sweep just because of all the uncertainty around Brooklyn’s health and Kyrie Irving’s…personality. But even when the Nets’ big three really didn’t play well despite putting up big numbers by the final buzzer, the Celtics still didn’t feel like they had any control over this game. What makes the Nets so scary is that they have 3 guys who can heat up and put up 20 in a quarter at a moment’s notice, but they didn’t even have to come close to that potential to get the win over the Celtics.
With Jaylen Brown I think this goes 6 games; without him Boston just needs to start figuring out if this Imagine Dragons album of a season can be chalked up to injuries and Covid, or if big changes need to be made. Brooklyn sweeps.
Bucks def. Heat 4-3
This was easily the hardest pick to make. I was really hoping that Miami would be able to slide their way up to fifth to avoid a first-round heavyweight match-up, but here we are. Even though the Bucks were just two games away from the Finals two years ago, this 1st round series might be the most important one they’ve been in since losing to Allen Iverson & the 76ers back in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals. Giannis Antetokounmpo stock has taken a big hit since this same Miami Heat team embarrassed the Bucks in last year’s conference semis, and Mike Budenholzer is coaching for his job.
The crunch time offense looked better in today’s game, and with two worthy perimeter closers I think the Bucks will redeem last year’s disappointment. Jimmy Butler and co. will definitely shoot better going forward, so it won’t be easy. Should be an ugly, entertaining, long series. Bucks in 7.
Knicks def. Hawks 4-2
The least intriguing first round series outside of New York should be a close matchup. On paper these teams are pretty evenly matched, finishing the regular season with identical records, but I trust a Thibs coached defense in the playoffs a hell of a lot more than I trust a defense that involves Trae Young and Danillo Gallinari. New York basketball is back. Knicks in 6.
Jazz def. Grizzlies 4-2
There are a lot of question marks in this series. How will Donovan Mitchell look after missing over a month? Has the media spent another season proclaiming Rudy Gobert Defensive Player of the Year, only for him to be a liability in the playoffs again? Are the young Grizzlies ready for the playoffs? Are the Jazz for real?
Regardless of the answers to the other questions, how Donovan Mitchell plays will determine how long it takes for the Jazz to move on to the 2nd round- we don’t need to question whether or not they will. If he’s 100% this probably only goes 5, but I think he’ll have some rust to shake off. The Grizzlies will be a tough out, but Utah’s a bit too polished for them to pose a true threat. Jazz in 6.
Lakers def. Suns 4-2
Poor Suns. After their best season in a decade, they get rewarded with a first round match-up with the defending champions led by the greatest player of the century. Chris Paul & Jae Crowder are the only Suns with meaningful playoff experience (sorry Cam Payne), and their resumes are certainly not without blemishes. LeBron James definitely didn’t look 100% against the Warriors. With the roster around him he shouldn’t need to be if Anthony Davis shows up. That’s a big if though and this one could definitely go 7. But I won’t pick against Lebron James in the 1st round. Lakers in 6.
Nuggets def. Trailblazers 4-3
Jamal Murray is a big loss, and the Nuggets won’t make it past the 2nd round without him. But I’ve personally never seen him as a franchise cornerstone caliber player, and this time without him has helped my case. With Michael Porter Jr. stepping up and the addition of Aaron Gordon, the Nuggets have enough firepower to get past Portland.
But just barely. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have been great in the playoffs the last few years, and the Blazers are mostly healthy at the perfect time. I hadn’t even considered the Carmelo Anthony vs. his former team tidbit until he got booed the first time he settled into his triple-threat stance. This should be a fun series. Nuggets in 7.
Clippers def. Mavericks 4-2
The Clippers will always be the Clippers, and today’s loss is not what this team needed to kick off their redemption crusade. Casual fans will have ignored a pretty solid regular season, and they were proved right as this team still just hasn’t quite come together as they should be able to.
When you anoint yourself with a shitty nickname and then play just as shitty as your nickname you kinda asked to be a meme. Bubble or no bubble. But last year was an aberration and Paul George’s reputation as a perennial playoff disappointment isn’t fair- he was great in Indiana & Oklahoma City in the postseason, but after coming back from his leg injury he was shackled with lackluster rosters and post-KD playoff Russell Westbrook. I’m not confident about anything after this round, but just like last year the Clippers are too talented to lose to the Luka-show. Clippers in 6.