THE BREAKDOWN

A.J. Hoffman: Previewing every NBA playoff series

Lebron and the Cavs should advance. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The NBA finally matters. Sure, there are some fans who have been living and dying with every game since the fall, but not this guy. I watch the NBA in the regular season because it’s my job. Other than that, I find no real value in it. The playoffs, though, are a different beast. Now things get fun. Here is a quick preview of the first round matchups. 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves

The Rockets could have done better with their first round draw, but they definitely could have done worse. The Timberwolves are a below average team on the defensive end, and it isn’t a secret that the Rockets are a pretty good scoring team. Karl-Anthony Towns is a force, but Clint Capela is good enough to make him work on the defensive end. Jimmy Butler will likely see heavy doses of PJ Tucker on him, especially with Luc Richard M’Bah A Moute missing the series with a shoulder injury. The Wolves will obviously hope that Butler can lock down James Harden and force someone else to beat them. The problem is, there are too many guys on the Rockets who can do just that. 

Prediction: Rockets in 5

(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs

This isn’t the typical Warriors team going into the playoffs. They have struggled of late, and will likely be without Steph Curry for the first round of the playoffs. Fortunately for the Warriors, this Spurs team isn’t coming in as a typical Popovich monster. They are without Kawhi Leonard, their best 2-way player, which leaves them without someone they can feel confident in defending Kevin Durant. LaMarcus Aldridge wanted to be the man when he came to San Antonio, and this is his chance to step up and put on a great performance against a clearly better team. Of course that is always easier said than done with Draymond Green hanging all over you. 

Prediction: Warriors in 5

(3) Portland Trailblazers vs. (6) New Orleans Pelicans

This is an interesting matchup because while Portland is the better team, the matchup is absolutely winnable for the Pelicans. Anthony Davis is obviously the focal point for the Pelican offense (36 points and 14 rebounds in their last matchup), and Jusuf Nurkic will have to play well on the defensive end to at least try and limit the damage that he does. The Blazers are the smaller team, and will hope for strong showings from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The Pelicans won’t make it easy though, as they will throw defensive specialists Rajon Rondo and J’Rue Holiday at the Blazers dynamic duo. This should be a tight series. 

Prediction: Blazers in 7

(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz

Russell Westbrook obviously has the capability of being a one-man wrecking crew, but the Thunder need to get solid performances from Paul George on the offensive end and Steven Adams on the defensive end. Donovan Mitchell will be the focal point of the offense for the Jazz, and it will be important for someone to step up and make an impact as a secondary scorer. Rudy Gobert is a force at the rim on both ends, and rebounding could potentially be a problem for the Thunder if Westbrook struggles to find success banging with the big boys. 

Prediction: Jazz in 6

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Washington Wizards

The Raptors have been the best team in the Eastern Conference all year, but they don’t have a great history of playoff performances. The Wizards, on the other hand, have finished the season in really poor fashion and would have to consider this season a disappointment so far. The talent is there, though, with John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, Jr. all capable of having big games and big series. Toronto will need their backcourt, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to play as well as they have in the regular season. Something tells me this series will be more interesting than the Raptors want it to be. 

Prediction: Raptors in 7

(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks

Both these teams expected to be in better shape going into the playoffs than they actually are. The Bucks were looked at by many as a breakout candidate behind the play of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the season didn’t go as planned. They fired Jason Kidd early in the season and no one stepped up to be a major secondary contributor. The Celtics expected to roll into the playoffs with their two big offseason pickups, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Instead, both are lost for the season. Hayward went down in the first game and Irving fell right before the playoffs started. The Celtics need to make this a grinding series, as they are still a strong defensive team despite their glaring holes on offense. Jayson Tatum has a big opportunity here on both ends. He can be the offensive focal point for the Celtics, but will also be asked to check Giannis on the defensive end. His success could determine if the Celtics get to move on. 

Prediction: Celtics in 7

(3) Philadelphia 76’ers vs. (6) Miami Heat

“The Process” is finally paying off. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are one of the best high-low duos in the NBA today, and the Sixers are playing their best basketball of the season going into the playoffs. They will be without Embiid, at least to start the series, but they have looked strong in his time out with a broken orbital. The Heat want to keep possessions to a minimum and make the games as low-scoring as possible, but they will have to take advantage of every opportunity on the offensive end, as Philly boasts one of the best defenses in the league. The Heat are deep and versatile, but they will clearly be the less talented team on the court. Philly’s momentum should carry over nicely into the first round. 

Prediction: Sixers in 4

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Indiana Pacers

The Cavs and Pacers meeting in a rematch of last year’s playoffs isn’t a big surprise, but the fact that it is a 4-5 matchup is a bit of a shocker. The Cavs have clearly underperformed this season. They have been disastrous on defense all season long, and that is what makes the Pacers such a tough matchup for them. The Pacers are rolling on the offensive end, and they play like a team with nothing to lose. All the expectations sit on LeBron James and the Cavaliers. If they can’t play up to their potential, it could be an early and embarrassing exit to the playoffs. It is hard to imagine LeBron letting that happen though, and if I trust anyone to get it going come crunch time, he is the guy. 

Prediction: Cavaliers in 6