As the first round enters its final stages, several teams have advanced into the next round. The latest to move on are the Spurs and Raptors, who both prevailed Thursday night to close out their respective series.
Here are our NBA experts’ predictions for every first-round series, followed by their brackets for the entire NBA playoffs — including who they think will win the championship.
No. 1 Warriors vs. No. 8 Trail Blazers
If the Blazers want bulletin board material, they can look here. Only one writer thinks the Warriors will lose a game in this series, with everybody else predicting a sweep. Portland did take a game from Golden State last year, but Stephen Curry didn’t play in it and Kevin Durant was not yet in the Bay Area. Our panel does not appear to think the potential presence of Jusuf Nurkic — he has not yet been cleared to return from his fractured fibula — will tilt the balance of power here.
No. 2 Spurs vs. No. 7 Grizzlies
Everybody’s afraid to doubt the Spurs, but one writer at least picked the Grizzlies to push them to seven games. Memphis is never an easy out when healthy, and this season’s team has a more dynamic offense than in years past. That means it is better positioned to give San Antonio a run for its money, at least in theory. But while you can make a case for the Grizzlies based on individual matchups, no one could look past the two-way excellence the Spurs have shown all year.
No. 3 Rockets vs. No. 6 Thunder
Our experts were divided on this one, which makes a lot of sense considering how close the Most Valuable Player race was. That storyline will surely dominate how this series is covered, but it’s also an interesting contrast in styles. Can the Thunder slow down the Rockets’ high-powered offense with physicality and athleticism? Two of us said yes, and the other three are going with the team that had the league’s third-best record and net rating in the regular season.
No. 4 Clippers vs. No. 5 Jazz
This is the closest matchup on paper, but nobody was willing to pick the Jazz — perhaps because of their stars’ lack of playoff experience and doubts about the health of Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood. At least one writer is having second thoughts about this based on Utah’s incredible defense and multiple playmaking options, but he will take comfort in the fact that, if he’s wrong, everybody is wrong. Anyway, the Clippers’ core four clearly inspired confidence here.
No. 1 Celtics vs. No. 8 Bulls
There’s huge variance in these picks — one writer anticipates a sweep, another sees it going the distance. This one is interesting because Boston is the least dominant No. 1 seed in some time, and the Bulls have an unusual amount of playoff experience for a No. 8 seed. Based on the regular season, the Celtics are the much more cohesive team, but Chicago has some star power, a track record of surprising wins on national television and a significant advantage on the glass.
No. 2 Cavaliers vs. No. 7 Pacers
Everybody thinks the Raptors have the edge, but nobody thinks it’ll be easy. This illustrates the respect that the Bucks have earned this season and perhaps some skepticism about Toronto’s offense sustaining under playoff conditions. Toronto’s midseason upgrades, though, mean that its roster is more balanced and deep than Milwaukee’s, which should make up for the fact that one team has the Greek Freak and the other one doesn’t. Both teams are likely better than their records.
Unsurprisingly, the much more likable Wizards are the favorites, with only one writer predicting this will go seven games. The Hawks’ fourth-ranked defense has the potential to take Washington out of its comfort zone, but it’s hard to trust a team that has struggled to develop an offensive identity. Based on these prognostications, a merely competitive series would have everybody talking about Mike Budenholzer’s genius and how great Dwight Howard was on defense all season.
Playoff bracket predictions
Reiter: The Cavs find a much more daunting road to the NBA Finals than the past two seasons, but get there nonetheless behind more LeBron James heroics. Waiting, again, are the Golden State Warriors with an eye on revenge. This time, there is no 3-1 collapse — just a long, hard slog that Steph Curry & Co. pull out in another epic Game 7.
No. 4 Wizards vs. No. 5 Hawks
Skolnick: The safe play is to assume the champion Cavaliers find and flip that elusive switch, and that lights their path to at least the Finals. And it may seem that way in the first round against the limited Pacers. But it says here that their repeat bid will flicker out in the second round, against a Raptors team that can exploit Cleveland’s defensive deficiencies, and has been fortified defensively itself. So long as the Warriors survive Kawhi Leonard, they’ll meet — and beat — a new Finals foe.
Moore: Someone’s getting bit in the first round. I know it. It happens every year, and this year we may see two of them. But I couldn’t find it. OKC and Memphis are short on firepower, Milwaukee’s short on experience (and the Raptors can’t possibly screw up in the first round AGAIN, right?), the Pacers are up against LeBron, the Bulls are half-man, half-garbage. There’s no team you can say “I feel confident they can pull the upset,” but I already doubt this first-round bracket very much.
Second round I feel much better about. The Wizards are better built for the playoffs than any of the Cavs’ contenders, including 1-seed Boston. Big guards who can score taking on small guards is a good matchup, and the Wizards’ regular season defensive numbers don’t reflect how good they can be defensively. In the West, there’s been something weird behind San Antonio’s typical Spurs success, and it’s not just me — people around the league have echoed those same feelings on what this team looks like.
If the Spurs make the Western Conference Finals no one will be surprised, but I truly think Houston, despite losing 3-1 to the Spurs in the season series, matches up well enough with them to topple them. From there, same old same old, and though last year should teach us not to doubt LeBron, the addition of Kevin Durant is too much.
The Warriors win the Game 5 they feel they should have last year, and top off two titles in three years, behind the biggest free agency acquisition since LeBron James, Durant and Curry’s legacies are secured, and everyone kind of shrugs because there’s nothing special or exciting about it — it’s just what everyone expected.
Herbert: I couldn’t quite bring myself to pick a team to upset LeBron James’ Cavaliers, but I think their road to the game’s biggest stage will be much tougher this time. I also question how much they’ll have left in the tank if they’re lucky enough to meet the Warriors again. This might make for a one-sided NBA Finals, but the earlier rounds should make up for it. Clippers-Jazz, Rockets-Spurs and Celtics-Wizards all have me shrugging my shoulders when it comes to making predictions, which means I’m extremely excited to see what happens.
Maloney: Despite their defensive struggles in the second half of the season, and their bizarre collapse to lose the No. 1 seed, I still can’t see anyone in the East beating the Cavaliers four times. Likewise in the West with the Warriors, as their talent, especially with Durant now healthy, figures to simply overwhelm everyone in their path. Hopefully I’m proven wrong, but I don’t expect Warriors-Cavs III to be as compelling as Round 2 was last summer, and I’ll take the Warriors over the Cavaliers in five games.