NBA Playoffs: Preview Each 1st-Round Series

NBA Playoffs: The 1st-Round Matchups In The East

Is the Eastern Conference going to see a seventh straight trip to the Finals for LeBron James? Or did the Cleveland Cavaliers late-season fade and loss of the 1-seed open the door to challengers? Wherever you stand, this is a wide-open conference and it starts right out the gate. Here’s an outline of how the first round of this side of the bracket shapes up in the NBA playoffs...

Boston-Chicago: Has there been a more intriguing matchup on the 1-8 seed lines in recent years? Chicago may be the 8-seed, but they’re also the sixth-best defensive team in the NBA. In a league where experience in the postseason is paramount, the Bulls have the most proven winner in the series with Dwayne Wade—who still averages 18ppg. In a league that values its stars, Chicago’s Jimmy Butler is at least even-up with the terrific Boston point guard Isaiah Thomas.

On the Celtics side of the coin, their 53-29 record is pedestrian by the standards of a #1 seed. They are not a good rebounding team, ranking 27th in the league. They’re heavily dependent on the three-point shot, a direct consequence of the lack of a true post player.

I won’t try and tell you the Bulls are better than the Celtics—there’s a reason one team is seeded #1 and another #8 after a long 82-game schedule. Boston is consistently better prepared and vastly more efficient on offense—they rank eighth in efficiency, while the Bulls are 20th. What I will tell you is that this series feels more like a competitive 3-6 matchup or even a 4-5 than the usual walkover we usually see at this spot in the draw.

Washington-Atlanta: The Wizards are the favored 4-seed and have the dynamic backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, a duo that has combined to average 46 points-per-game. They get good three-point shooting from Beal, Bojan Bogdanovic and Otto Porter. They have a viable post player in Marcin Gortat.

But there’s one thing they don’t do well and that’s play defense. Washington is 20th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Atlanta is fourth. If picking the winner of this series were just about dropping the names of the best players, the Wizards would win—no disrespect to Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard or Dennis Schroder for the Hawks, but Washington is the deeper team. But the Hawks’ whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

Is that sum enough to cover spreads, win games and maybe win a series at dog prices? I’ve been studying the NBA diligently for seven months precisely to be ready with answers to those questions now.

Toronto-Milwaukee: Toronto is clearly the more complete team. While Milwaukee star Giannis Antekounmpo deserves a tip of the cap for his splendid season with a 23/9/5 per-game average, the Raptors have lineup balance and playoff experience.

What’s intriguing is that if you look at the championship odds, we see Toronto priced at 30-1 and Milwaukee at 150-1. I don’t bring this up because I think either team is going to win the NBA title, but because it reflects a market belief that the Raptors are five times better than the Bucks. Is the gap that dramatic? And how will that manifest itself in pointspreads on a game-to-game basis?

Cleveland-Indiana: The Pacers are built heavily around a single star (Paul George) and they don’t play very good defense. That sounds a lot like the formula Cleveland uses. Whatever issues the Cavs have, this isn’t the opponent to exploit them. Just be sure you check with me first to see how many points that margin is worth.


NBA Playoffs: The 1st-Round Matchups In The West

The NBA playoff matchups are set and what follows are the key factors I'm looking in handicapping the four first-round series in the Western Conference...

Houston-Oklahoma City: It's too bad the MVP votes will already be cast (though not publicly announced) when James Harden and Russell Westbrook go head-to-head. But NBA bettors can't get hung up in the media circus that will surround this most entertaining of first-round matchups. Because it's issues away from the stars that will likely determine who covers pointspreads and wins basketball games.

For all of Westbrook's electricity and his astonishing 32 points/11 rebounds/10 assists per-game average, Oklahoma City is not a very good offensive team. They rank just 17th in offensive efficiency. Some of that is due to excessive reliance on Westbrook, but some of it also due to the fact that Westbrook is...well, he's inefficient, shooting just 42 percent. By contrast, Houston ranks 2nd in efficiency on the offensive end.

Before you run out to bet the Rockets though, keep in mind the Thunder hold significant edges in team defense and rebounding. Houston is below-average on the defensive end, not unusual for Mike D'Antoni-coached team with Harden as its star. And Oklahoma City is the best rebounding team in the NBA. Westbrook, Enes Kanter and Steven Adams are the prime rebounders and the Thunder bring good depth to this area.

So is it about offense or defense? Will one star or the other make a playoff statement to an attentive public? I'll be prepared with the answer to those questions when the series tips off from Houston on Sunday night (9 PM ET, TNT).

LA Clippers-Utah: Not far behind Houston-OKC in the entertainment category is this battle between the 4-5 seeds that starts at the Staples Center on Saturday night (10:30 PM ET, ESPN). There's a similar dynamic to the Rockets-Thunder series in that if you want offense, you'll bet the Clippers (fourth in the NBA in efficiency) and if you believe in defense, you'll be attracted to the Jazz and their #3 ranking league-wide in defensive efficiency.

The other contrast is that of stars going against consistent rebounding. Los Angeles has the marquee names—Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan all make their share of commercial appearances and all are producing on the court. Surprisingly though, a team with Griffin and Jordan is just 16th in the NBA in rebound rate (percentage of available rebounds secured). Utah, led by Rudy Gobert is third. It's imperative that successful teams in the NBA playoffs rebound the basketball.

It's also imperative, at this time of year in this league, that you have marquee players you can count on. Unfortunately for handicappers, we'll have to decide between the two. And I'll be ready.

Golden State-Portland: The Warriors are the top-heavy favorite to win the NBA championship, at 5-11 odds and even heavier to come out of the West at (-400). Portland is more than just the 8-seed—they're significantly behind the rest of the playoff field in this conference.

The only question here is just how many points Golden State can afford to give on a game-in, game-out basis. That's no small question and one I'm confident my season-long preparation leaves me qualified to answer.

San Antonio-Memphis: Are the echoes of 2011 going to be reawakened? That's when Memphis upset San Antonio as a #8 seed in the first round. Or is it the echoes of 2013? That's when these same teams met in a more anticipated conference finals and it turned into a Spurs wipeout.

Click here and get with me for the answers each night during the NBA playoffs.