Atlanta Hawks (5) at Washington Wizards (4)
12:00 pm CDT
It was a real step forward for the Wizards this season under new head coach Scott Brooks. After finishing 41-41 last season, the Wizards stepped up to 49 wins and the 4th seed in the East, thanks largely to an improved offense that features excellent three point shooting from the wing spots in Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, orchestrated by the driving, dishing, and scoring of John Wall. With one of the best screeners in the PnR game Marcin Gortat freeing space for Wall, the Wizards are often playing downhill. Defensively the can struggle. They force a lot of turnovers, which helps their transition game, but they have trouble defending the rim sometimes, and opponents posted a 52.4 percent eFG.
The Hawks got caught in between a little bit this season. They lost Al Horford to free agency, but spent money on Dwight Howard as a replacement. They traded Jeff Teague for a draft pick to give the reins to Dennis Schroder, but hung on to expensive veterans. They finally traded Kyle Korver at the deadline, but backed off moving Paul Millsap. It added up to a mediocre season and points to a coming rebuild, but in the meantime they survived this season and made the playoffs with a stout defense (fourth in the league.) It’s not going to be enough against the Wizards.
Wizards in six.
Portland Trail Blazers (8) at Golden State Warriors (1)
2:30 pm CDT
The Warriors are once again the number one seed and favorites for the title. They feature the best offense and second best defense in the league and devastate with a three-headed offensive monster of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, who combine to average 72 points per game. Yikes. Their stars allow other guys to shine, and they have an array of multi-skilled veterans coming off the bench. They can play in any number of ways, but will always look to push the pace and find open threes.
The Blazers snuck into the playoffs with a .500 record, and when healthy can score with the better teams in the league. Their acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic at the deadline gave them a big and skilled presence underneath, but he’s been out with a leg injury and his status is unclear. Their struggles come defensively, and it’s difficult to see them slowing the Warriors down enough to make a series of this. Damian Lillard will have a couple of monster games though.
Warriors in four.
Chicago Bulls (8) at Boston Celtics (1)
5:30 pm CDT
The Celtics took advantage of the Cavs’ poor finish to grab the top spot in the East. Isaiah Thomas is their primary scorer and one of the best in the league at 29 per. He hoists threes, finishes inside despite his size, and gets to the line—his quickness, ball-handling and shot making abilities make him very difficult to stop. Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder have been good wing shooters (both 39+ percent from three) and adding Al Horford has given them a different dimension; they are a much better team with him out there despite unspectacular stats. Their weakness is rebounding, though the Bulls are not good enough to take advantage of it.
Chicago made the playoffs almost by default, and for long stretches of the season it appeared they had little interest in doing so. But they won seven of their final nine games to beat out the Heat for that last spot. Frankly, it seemed like a miserable year in Chicago after management brought in veterans Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade and the team failed to gel. There was grumbling about veterans vs. young players, and there were times it seemed Fred Hoiberg was in over his head. But their defense carried them (6th in the league) and Jimmy Butler is a real two-way star.
Celtics in five.
Oklahoma City Thunder (6) at Houston Rockets (2)
8:00 pm CDT
The storyline here is pretty obvious: Two of the top MVP candidates, stat machines Russell Westbrook and James Harden going at it. Westbrook had one of the most remarkable seasons in NBA history, averaging a triple double and leading the league in scoring. He does everything for this team, and does it so well they avoided a post-Durant collapse and won a more than respectable 47 games.
James Harden had an equally impressive season leading the Rockets with renewed focus to 55 wins under new head coach Mike D’Antoni. The Rockets have been at the forefront of the three-point revolution, but with D’Antoni it escalated even more. The Rockets led the league with an astounding 40 three-point attempts per game, and also were number one in free throw attempts, which perfectly encapsulates how they play. Threes, layups, and free throws. Harden is surrounded by capable shooters and he plays the pick and roll as well as anyone in the league. It all adds up to the second best offense in the NBA, though they can struggle defensively.
Westbrook might win the Thunder a couple, but I think in the end the Rockets are too good.
Rockets in six.