Is it because we all sense that Kevin Durant is on his way to the bright lights of New York City? Is it because the Draymond-KD feud seems real? Is it because James Harden just put together one of the top-7 offensive seasons in NBA history? Is it because for the first time since his second season in the league, we have a LeBron-less postseason? Whatever it is, the 2019 version of the NBA Playoffs seem different — like we need to be paying closer attention to things we typically would gloss past. We can’t — and shouldn’t — just swipe right and try to move to the conference finals. Not this year, anyway. In the East, there’s no LeBron James so the door is open for any of the top 4 seeds; each of them can make a convincing case for advancing past the first two rounds. Out West, it’s fact — Denver, Portland, Oklahoma City, or San Antonio will be in the conference finals, playing for a shot at the NBA Finals.
It’s already shaping up to be a thrilling playoff ride. And we’re just getting started.
(1) Golden State v. (8) Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers might have the brighter future (AND brighter present) than their L.A. counterparts, the Lakers. But make no mistake, this series goes as long as the Warriors want it to go. Doc Rivers has done a masterful job this season and should get major Coach of the Year consideration; but his Clippers can’t hang with the Warriors, even if they choose to sleep-walk a game or two. Warriors in 4.
(2) Denver v. (7) San Antonio
The young Nuggets are super fun to root for. The problem is that they have no surefire scorer other than big man and top-4 MVP candidate Nikola Jokic — who actually prefers to pass than score. Yes, maybe Jamal Murray emerges as the go-to-guy when Denver needs a bucket late. Or maybe Paul Milsapp. Or maybe Gary Harris. Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. The uncertainty surrounding how the Nuggets are going to get their offense in a seven game series against the best head coach of his generation (and maybe of all-time) cannot be overlooked. I don’t love the Spurs, but at least I know what Pop can do. I think LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan can do enough and will be put in opportunistic situations this series to get the job done. Spurs in 7.
(3) Portland v. (6) Oklahoma City
This is the great “Who Can Exorcise Their Postseason Demons?” series. Russell Westbrook has won 2 playoff games since Durant bolted for the Bay Area while the Blazers are looking to put last year’s embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Pelicans in the rearview mirror. Damian Lillard has had a top-6 MVP season in my estimation, and he’ll need to carry that over into the playoffs if Portland plans on advancing. Yes, OKC dropped in the standings over the final month and rumors swirling about Paul George’s shoulder only get worse by the week, but in the end the Thunder can throw so much more at the Blazers. Thunder in 6.
(4) Houston v. (5) Utah
I hear a lot of NBA insiders saying how this series is nearly a coin flip and that the Jazz could seriously threaten the Rockets. Listen, count me as one who fully believes in Quin Snyder and Rudy Gobert (and in Donovan Mitchell to an extent). But these Rockets won’t be slowed on offense — more specifically, James Harden won’t be slowed. Utah will bring the defensive intensity without question, but I have to ask: where are they getting enough offense to outscore Houston? Rockets in 5.
(1) Milwaukee v. (8) Detroit
The Pistons limped into the playoffs, and the Bucks have been the most consistent team in the entire NBA from start to finish. If the Pistons can steal one, the playoffs will have been a success. But don’t count on it. Bucks in 4
(2) Toronto v. (7) Orlando
I kind of like seeing the Magic back in the postseason. I don’t know if it’s the uniforms or the floor or the aerial views of Orlando and Epcot and Disney. I better not blink, though — it’s going to be over quickly. Raptors in 4.
(3) Philadelphia v. (6) Brooklyn
I’m not sold on the Nets giving the 76ers a huge scare. But it’s worth keeping an eye on Joel Embiid and his injury, as well as how Philly’s big 4 play together in postseason games. Brooklyn will play loose and fun and will challenge the Sixers. But in the end, I’m more interested how Philly looks entering round 2. They need to make quick work of the Nets. 76ers in 6.
(4) Boston v. (5) Indiana
The Celtics might have actually caught a break with the Marcus Smart injury. As strange as that sounds, at least now Brad Stevens can properly allot minutes to Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier. The key to this series — and the entirety of the postseason for the Cs — is Hayward’s ability to score and score efficiently. Boston was 21-4 when he went for 14 or more points, and they were 25-3 when he shot better than 50% from the field. The increased minutes should help him see an increase in production. Celtics in 6.
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