NBA First Round Preview (04/14/17)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz
It's hard to believe, but the regular season is already over and the NBA playoffs are here. The matchups are set and the journey to the NBA Finals begins Saturday. We've done the simulations and the third act between the Warriors and Cavaliers appears imminent. Until then, we've broken down the most interesting parts of each of the first round series.

What do the Trail Blazers get as a reward for their incredible post-All-Star push to grab the eighth seed, a stretch where they had the fourth best net rating in the league? They receive a series with the best team in basketball. In a rematch of last year's Western Conference Semifinals, the tables have turned entering this series. Portland is the team dealing with injuries (Jusuf Nurkic and Allen Crabbe may miss games) while Golden State is now fully-equipped with Kevin Durant returning to the lineup. Damian Lillard channeled his inner Brandon Jennings proclaiming “Blazers in six” (sort of) but without some very fortuitous three-point defense (in all of the Warriors' losses this season, they've shot below their season average of 38.3% from three) simply getting to a game six would be a minor miracle. Secretly, extending the series may work in Golden State's favor, giving them more reps to reintegrate Durant into the rhythm of the team.

No playoff race had bigger stakes than the one between the Clippers and Jazz. Claiming the fourth seed, the Clippers not only secured home-court, but also favorite status for the series. If the Jazz had won the fourth seed, they would be the slight favorite in the series (try it for yourself using the Bracket Simulator). Home-court notwithstanding, this is the most evenly matched first-round series. Even though the ends are similar, the means are very different. Utah's preferred starting lineup struggled to a negative point-differential in just 152 minutes together this season. Los Angeles' starting five played the third most minutes of any lineup in the league and trailed only the Warriors' starters in net rating. In fact, the Clippers' starters played as many minutes as the Jazz top seven lineups combined. Utah has the third-toughest defense, while the Clippers have the fourth-best offense. However, at the end of the day, this series is more about the future of each franchise than advancing in the playoffs. Whoever wins this series has little chance of defeating the Warriors in round two (consistently below 30% in simulations) but whoever loses will enter the offseason with serious doubts about the viability of its core moving forward.

It was destined to be. A season's worth of debating over the MVP award and the top two candidates will have it out in a best-of-seven series. Individually, Westbrook has been the superior player in their four head-to-head matchups, averaging 36.3/9.0/9.3 plus 37.1% from three compared to Harden's 20.5/7.3/12.3 and just 22.6% from three. As a team though, Houston took the season series 3-1; but, the games were decided by a total of just 15 points. Keep in mind the current full strength rosters for both teams have not faced each other. The biggest advantage for the Rockets is behind the arc where they average six more makes per game than the Thunder. Erasing that 18-point difference will be Westbrook and Co.'s biggest challenge. Luckily, they have an advantage of their own – in the clutch. Oklahoma City was the second-best team in the clutch according to, whereas Houston was very mediocre in those same situations. Houston is the odds on favorite to take the series, but lookout for some close finishes.

This marks the fourth postseason meeting between these two teams in the past seven years. In seven of the fourteen games, both teams failed to reach 100 points. I was in attendance for a Spurs-Grizzlies game in March and I guarantee that trend will continue this season. Riding the same core that upset the Spurs under similar circumstances in 2011, the Grizzlies look to be running out of gas, especially considering the news that Tony Allen will the miss the series with a calf injury. The Spurs, on the other hand, have revamped their roster since 2011 and are poised to continue their current eight-game playoff winning streak over Memphis take the first step towards another championship. San Antonio has the second-highest championship odds (13.1%). Making that a reality would likely feature a date with the Warriors, where they would have about a 45% chance of advancing and then approximately the same odds as Golden State of defeating the East champion.

Perhaps no team has as much pressure on them to win their first round series as the Boston Celtics. With the addition of Al Horford, full health, and the number one seed, the Celtics are out of excuses if they fail to escape the first round with this group once again. Their performance post All-Star Break has been less than encouraging. As it turns out, their opponent, Chicago, actually was the more efficient team despite a worse record over this stretch. The conventional wisdom on this series says the Bulls can exploit the Celtics on the offensive glass. However, since trading Taj Gibson, the Bulls are no longer one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the league. Over that same period, the Celtics have actually improved to around average on the defensive glass. If the Bulls are to have a chance, they will need to continue both their hot shooting to match the Celtics from three and their foul-resistant defense to keep the Celtics off the free throw line where they have been hurting teams effectively to end the season.

If there ever was a series that deserved to be aired on NBA TV, it's this one. Washington has the worst net rating of the teams with home-court advantage in the playoffs. Atlanta has the worst net rating of any team in the playoff period. Since the All-Star break, both teams have floundered in the bottom half of the league. Over the last 27 games, the Wizards defense has been amongst the bottom five of the entire NBA. In that same time, without Paul Millsap for an extended time, the Hawks offense bottomed out, posting a horrifying 101.0 offensive rating. The return of Millsap definitely changes the equation in the direction of the Hawks, but their fatal flaw lingers and Washington is the perfect team to exploit it. Atlanta coughs the ball up as much as anyone – opponents average nine steals a game against them. Behind the speed of John Wall, the Wizards are one of the best teams in the league in transition and off opponent turnovers. Capitalizing on Atlanta's mistakes will be the key to victory for the Wizards in order to set up a potential semifinal series with their blood rivals from Boston.

Since the league went to seven game series for the first round in 2003, there have only been two seasons without a first round seed upset. Our simulations have this series pegged as that potential upset. However, the Bucks will have their work cut out for them. The Raptors are a bit of an enigma at this point due to the turmoil on their roster since the trade deadline. They made multiple trades to significantly alter their rotation and then Kyle Lowry missed 21 games. The full strength, new look Raptors have played just three games together; so predicting what they're capable of is a difficult task, even for the Predictalator. Milwaukee has weathered personnel trouble of its own. Most notably, Jabari Parker tore his ACL in February and Khris Middleton missed the first 50 games of the season with a torn hamstring. Given the shaky performance of Lowry and the Raptors in the playoffs the past few seasons, there is legitimate reason for concern. Add in the short amount of time to build chemistry and the pressure on the franchise to challenge for a Finals appearance, the ingredients for an upset are there.

A lot has changed since the last time LeBron James faced Paul George and the Pacers (with Lance Stephenson!) in the playoffs. LeBron was still in Miami, the Pacers were the best defensive team in the league, and they met in the Eastern Conference Finals. The current Pacers are mediocre on both ends of the floor and possibly the most erratic team in the playoffs. At one point they won seven games in a row and then immediately lost six in a row. They then followed that by alternating wins and losses over the next 14 games – one of the most bizarre stretches in league history. The current Cavaliers team had the second-worst defense in the league since the All-Star break, raising the question of whether they can “flip the switch.” Internally, confidence remains high. Both Coach Ty Lue and James share optimism over a secret strategy to clean up their defensive issues. Regardless, when it comes to the Eastern Conference, Cleveland has the most talent by a wide margin and by far the best odds to make the Finals (47.8%) and win the title (12.6%). As fun as it will be to watch George and James battle head-to-head, the Cavaliers have repeating on their minds – this series is a tune-up.