NBA

Oklahoma City Thunder to sneak through while Houston Rockets pull off sweep in first-round predictions

Jay Asser 14/04/2018
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Russell Westbrook enters the playoffs after averaging a triple-double for a second straight season.

Houston v Minnesota

This may be a year when we see no sweeps in the first round, but if any series is capable of ending in four games, it’s this one.

The Timberwolves have star power working in their favour with their trio of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but they don’t match-up well with what the Rockets like to do – namely pick-and-rolls and isolations after drawing mismatches.

Towns is going to be in a bind defending on-ball screens and if Minnesota send help defenders to corral the roll man, both James Harden and Chris Paul will pick them apart with pinpoint passes to shooters.

Rockets in 6

Boston v Milwaukee

Conventional wisdom in the playoffs suggest riding with the team that has the best player on the court, which in this series will clearly by Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The problem with that line of thinking in this match-up is the Celtics are definitely the better team, collectively speaking. They’re well-coached, scrappy and make you earn everything on the defensive end.

The Bucks are in many ways the opposite, with their ultra-aggressive defensive scheme often leading to easy looks for the opposition. If Boston can get a little bit of hot shooting, they should be just fine.

Celtics in 6

Oklahoma City v Utah

It would be a bit of a surprise if this series doesn’t go at least six games with how evenly-matched these teams are.

Oklahoma City went 3-1 in the head-to-head meetings during the regular season, but all of those games occurred before Christmas, with two of the Thunder’s victories coming when Rudy Gobert didn’t play. Gobert obviously changes the equation and will likely force Oklahoma City’s stars to settle for more mid-range jumpers.

On the other end, the Jazz have lived and died by rookie Donovan Mitchell, but in a playoff setting, he’s going to need more help.

Home court could sway this.

Thunder in 7

Cleveland v Indiana

This Cavaliers team might not be capable of flipping the switch, considering it’s largely a different squad the ones of past seasons. But they still have LeBron James and playoff LeBron is an absolute force to be reckoned with.

However, it looks like his five-year streak of not dropping a game in the first round is about to end because this Pacers team is very, very solid. Victor Oladipo transformed into a legitimate All-Star and All-NBA candidate, while big man Myles Turner is always an X-factor.

LeBron will advance as expected, but it won’t be as easy as he’s become accustomed to.

Cavaliers in 6

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NBA

LeBron James' iron grip on Eastern Conference and other talking points for the first round of the NBA playoffs

Jay Asser 14/04/2018
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LeBron James hasn't lost a game in the first round of the playoffs since 2012.

The NBA’s second season is under way and set to provide us with plenty to talk about over the next two months.

From the Golden State Warriors’ quest to repeat and stamp their claim as a dynasty, to James Harden and Chris Paul attempting to change the narrative on their postseason failures and lead the Houston Rockets, to LeBron James’ potential final stand with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the playoffs are chock-full of storylines.

Here are the main talking points from the four series that get started on Sunday.

Another formality for LeBron?

As much as his own team changes, as well as the situations around him in the rest of the East, LeBron remains LeBron – which is to say he has a lot of history on his side.

James has reached seven straight Finals – a staggering number – and during that span, the East has served as little more than fodder for him.

So while the Indiana Pacers, Cleveland’s first-round opponents, enter the match-up with a better point differential and net rating, consider this: LeBron hasn’t lost a first-round series in his career. In fact, he hasn’t even dropped a single game since 2012.

These Cavaliers, however, are probably the weakest team James has played on since his first go-around with the franchise and even though the Pacers don’t figure to dethrone him, Cleveland will have their hands full in potential clashes with Toronto and/or Philadelphia later on.

Not having Kyrie Irving around anymore to help shoulder the load can’t be understated. LeBron just wrapped up his first regular season in which he played all 82 games, doing it at the age of 33, and even though he’s a physical marvel, the mileage may be exacerbated if he has to do literally everything in these playoffs.

It’s never been wise to bet against him, but this will be James’ biggest challenge in some time.

Breaking barriers

James Harden will likely win the MVP this season and Chris Paul is a Hall of Fame point guard. And yet for many, both of the Houston Rockets’ stars will be judged on what they accomplish in the playoffs, where past shortcomings have somewhat damaged their reputations.

Paul has somehow never reached the conference finals, while Harden has had his own postseason meltdowns, including last year’s disastrous finish in Game 6 of the second round against San Antonio.

If they’re going to change the narrative that they’re not primetime playoff performers, this will have to be the year. They won’t be overly criticised for falling victim to Golden State down the road, but Houston have to at least reach the conference finals and put up a fight after the dominant campaign they’ve put together.

Before that, they’ll have to take care of business against Minnesota in the first round and whoever they see in round two, but the Rockets have no excuses for falling short of expectations.

Rockets

George’s future

LeBron James isn’t the only star whose future could be decided by what happens in these playoffs, as the Oklahoma City Thunder are under a lot of pressure to win to retain Paul George.

It’s impossible to say how well the Thunder need to do for George to re-sign this summer, but losing in the first round to the Utah Jazz certainly won’t help. And unfortunately for Oklahoma City, they appear to be under the most threat of any higher seed of being upset early on, with their opening match-up arguably the closest of all the series.

The Thunder’s ceiling is undoubtedly high as they showed at times this season that they can beat the league’s elite. However, they also had Jekyll and Hyde moments when they played well below their talent level, making it hard to discern just which team will show up on any given night.

George

How far can Boston go?

For probably every other team, losing your two stars to injury would be a death knell. The Celtics, however, have somehow managed to remain competitive even as body after body has hit the floor.

It speaks to their coaching, depth and ability to constantly defy expectations that they’re still favoured in the first round against Milwaukee, who will have the best player on the floor in Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it seems inevitable that the magic will run out at some point.

Boston have nothing to lose this season and they’ll certainly play like it, making them a dangerous underdog, regardless of the talent missing.

Stevens

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NBA

Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers to advance with hard-fought series wins in first-round predictions

Jay Asser 14/04/2018
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Toronto's DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are aiming for a deep playoff push.

Golden State Warriors v San Antonio Spurs

If anyone can flip the switch whenever they want, it’s the Warriors.

Even with no Stephen Curry, Golden State are capable of playing much better than they have of late and it’s been impossible to quantify just how little interest they’ve showed in the regular season.

The Gregg Popovich-led Spurs are exactly the type of team to take advantage of mental lapses and it’s hard to imagine them not taking at least one game, simply on their cohesiveness and playing style alone.

But the talent gap is just too wide without Kawhi Leonard and even though they’ll go down fighting, they will go down.

Warriors in 5

Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards

The Raptors have to win Game 1. It seems short-sighted to suggest a series opener is a must-win and while it won’t technically decide anything, Game 1 is symbolically crucial for Toronto to show that this season is, in fact, different.

Otherwise the pressure will rise quickly, which won’t help someone like Kyle Lowry who hasn’t exactly been reliable in previous playoffs.

Fortunately for the Raptors, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan won’t have to win the guard match-up with John Wall and Bradley Beal to advance because Toronto’s bench should continue to be one of their better advantages.

Raptors in 6

Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat

Points should be at somewhat of a premium in this match-up, which pits two teams who finished the season in the top seven of defensive rating.

Especially with Joel Embiid missing at least the start of the series, there’s a chance this turns into a grind-it-out series with physical play on both sides.

When Embiid returns could prove to be important, but even in his absence Philadelphia have the talent edge, although Erik Spoelstra’s coaching helps negate some of that.

However, it’s just hard to see where Miami’s points come from on a consistent basis, with firepower their biggest deficiency.

76ers in 6

Portland Trail Blazers v New Orleans Pelicans

The teams split the season series with two wins apiece and it’s likely their first-round match-up will be similarly competitive.

Both have star players capable of winning games on their own, with Damian Lillard on one side and Anthony Davis on the other, which is why the supporting casts may ultimately be the deciders.

On paper, Lillard seems to have more help with CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, but New Orleans’ ancillary players are somewhat underrated, especially point guard Jrue Holiday who has the ability to defensively neutralise one of the Blazers’ guards. Portland will have to earn this.

Trail Blazers in 7

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