By: John Albinson, Chief Sports Editor
Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards
At the time this piece is being written the Celtics are currently up 1-0 in this series, but my prediction is still Wiz in 7. As dynamic as Isaiah Thomas has been all season, John Wall is the best player in this series, and in my opinion, the best point guard in the Eastern Conference. After a career year which saw him average 23.1 points and 10.7 assists per game, Wall brought that same production to the first round of the playoffs, where he led Washington to a 4-2 series win over the Atlanta Hawks. It would be unfair, though, to leave out his backcourt mate Bradley Beal, who, after a few injury-plagued seasons, finally stayed healthy this year and proved his worth as a top ten shooting guard in the league. The duo of Wall and Beal can only be rivaled by that of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in terms of Eastern Conference backcourts still in the postseason, but more on those two later. The Wizards seem more poised for playoff success than the Celts; not to say that Boston doesn’t want it more, but Washington truly seems like the better team to me. Brad Stevens is one of the best head coaches in the NBA but has very little playoff experience, while Washington’s Scott Brooks coached the Oklahoma City Thunder for seven seasons and has a lot of postseason experience. Boston winning this series wouldn’t shock me, but I think Washington pulls it out.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Toronto Raptors
I know that the Raps acquired Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline, and I know that Lowry’s fully healthy, and I am even aware that (for some strange reason) FiveThirtyEight has Toronto having a 54% chance of winning this series. Do you want to know the last time a LeBron James-led team lost a non-Finals playoff series? 2010. That streak will not be broken this year. As much as the Cavs struggled during parts of the regular season this past year—and even sometimes during their first round sweep of the Pacers—they still have one of the most prolific offenses in the league. They can’t say the same for their defense, but I don’t think that will be as big of a problem as other people think. The Raptors ranked tenth in points scored per game, but thirtieth in assists per game. The bulk of their offense runs through their All-Star backcourt of Lowry and DeRozan; it’s one thing to excel in the regular season, but it’s a whole other ballpark to string together six or seven incredible performances in the postseason. The Cavs aren’t the most balanced team either, but I trust LeBron and Kyrie & Co. more than the squad from up North. Cleveland in 6.
Golden State Warriors vs. Utah Jazz
Rejoice, Jazz fans– your team won a playoff series for the first time in seven years! They now have the honor of losing to the Warriors. It will be a success if Utah manages to win two games in this series—hell, even one would be pretty impressive. The Jazz are honestly a really good basketball team, and they’re one of the more “complete” squads in the league—but the Warriors are the Warriors. Yes, the Jazz have frontrunner Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, as well as first time All-Star Gordon Hayward, but I don’t see the Dubs having much of an issue handling them. The Jazz should be very happy with their season, as they’re one of the most promising teams in the league. Hopefully, this season’s results will be enough of a factor to keep Hayward from bolting to a different team in summer free agency. Warriors in 5.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets
As of writing this, the Rockets have just routed the Spurs 126-99 in a Game 1 victory at San Antonio. This is definitely the hardest series to predict, as both teams were phenomenal this year. The Spurs registered their NBA-record eighteenth straight season of 50+ wins led by superstar Kawhi Leonard, while James Harden of the Rockets had a transcendent year in Houston as he switched from shooting guard to point guard and led Houston to the third-best record in the league. Houston’s entire offense runs through Harden; when he shuts down, so does the entire team. The Spurs, though, have as much depth as anyone but lack the offensive prowess to keep up with Harden when he goes off. I love both of these teams, and if the Warriors didn’t exist, I think the winner of this series would go on to win the Finals. Spurs in 7.
Eastern Conference Finals Prediction: Cleveland over Washington in 6
Western Conference Finals Prediction: Golden State over San Antonio in 6
NBA Finals Prediction: Cleveland over Golden State in 7