By Zach Jacovini
With the NBA regular season officially coming to a close last week, the postseason is upon us starting this Sunday with the Utah Jazz versus the short-handed Dallas Mavericks. The playoffs always draw a huge audience of viewers for the NBA, as hardcore and casual fans alike are curious which team is going to go all the way to capture that ever-elsuive NBA title. As fans, it can be difficult to put biases aside and make playoff predictions based solely on team talent, but that's what I’m going to attempt to do below. Keep in mind, these predictions don’t take into account any future unforeseen injuries or large events in the association that could change the balance of the teams competing.
Eastern Conference Marquee Matchups
(4) Philadelphia 76ers versus (5) Toronto Raptors
This series is tough to make a prediction for a multitude of reasons. While the Sixers clearly have the two best players in the series in center Joel Embiid and guard James Harden, the Raptors are a talented team that may be better than their regular season record (48-34) indicates. The Raptors have a deep bench and are led by guard Fred Vanvleet and forward Pascal Siakam. The Raptors have a huge coaching advantage in the series as head coach Nick Nurse is one of the best young coaches in the entire league. Meanwhile, head coach of the Sixers, Doc Rivers, is a flawed coach at best. I see this as a back and forth series that will be hard to predict game by game, but in the end, I see the fourth seeded Philadelphia 76ers winning in five games. A healthy and rested James Harden and Joel Embiid will simply provide too much offense for the Raptors to be able to handle, and the Sixers will move on to the second round where they will face the winner of the Heat/Hawks matchup.
Prediction: Philadelphia in five games
(1) Miami Heat versus (8) Atlanta Hawks
At first glance, this series doesn’t seem that complicated to make a prediction for. The Heat are the Eastern Conferences number one overall-seed, and they have been an excellent team all regular season long led by their stars in guard Jimmy Butler, center Bam Adebayo and potential 6th man of the year candidate guard Tyler Herro. However, the Atlanta Hawks aren’t your usual 8th seeded squad. They are much better than their regular season performances indicate. The Hawks are led by superstar point-guard Trae Young, and while the Hawks are dealing with several nagging injuries to players such as center Clint Capela and forward John Collins, this is a team that is capable of shooting the lights out on any given night. The Hawks showed just how talented they were in their play-in game versus the Cleveland Cavaliers — despite going down double-digits in just the first quarter, the Hawks clawed their way back into the game and came away with the victory. The Hawks are young and slightly overmatched in terms of overall talent, but their playoff experience last year in which they made it all the way to the eastern conference finals will prove to be the difference in this series.
Prediction: Atlanta in seven games
NBA Western Conference Marquee Matchups
(1) Phoenix Suns versus (8) New Orleans Pelicans
This is by far the easiest series for me to pick in the first round of the playoffs; while I commend the New Orleans Pelicans for their miraculous run to the postseason even without all-star forward Zion Williamson, I think their Cinderella story ends here. The number one seeded Suns racked up an astonishing 64 wins in the regular season compared to just 18 losses. The Suns are perhaps the deepest team in the entire association, and while they are led by superstar guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker, they have a multitude of other talented players. So even when Phoenix has to take their stars off the floor, they are still able to keep and build leads versus other squads. The Pelicans don’t lack talent either, as they have two all-star level players in forward Brandon Ingram and guard CJ McCollum, and because of that, I do believe that New Orleans has the ability to keep some games in the series close. However, the disparity in talent is simply too much for the Pelicans to be able to overcome, and I have the Suns sweeping the series overall.
Prediction: Phoenix in four games
(2) Memphis Grizzlies versus (7) Minnesota Timberwolves
A matchup that many are excited about, the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves series will indeed be must-see television. The Timberwolves are led by all-star center Karl-Anthony Towns and young/athletic forward Anthony Edwards — both of whom are capable of dropping fifty plus points on any given night. Not to mention the wolves have a solid bench, with guard Patrick Beverley and sharpshooting guard Malik Beasley. The Memphis Grizzlies, on the other hand, are coming off an impressive fifty-plus win regular season, and they are led by one of the best point guards in the NBA in Ja Morant. While most might not see this series coming down to a single player, the Grizzlies having Ja Morant single-handedly makes them the favorite in this best-of-seven series. There's simply no player on the Timberwolves that can check Morant in a one-on-one matchup, and that makes all the difference.
Prediction: Memphis in six games