James Harden, Russell Westbrook

What an opening day of the NBA playoffs yesterday! So far all the teams that I picked to win their series won their opening games. Which I am feeling pretty good about, I have to admit.

Especially that statement win by the Milwaukee Bucks because I caught a lot of shit from Raptors fans here in Toronto for picking the Bucks in that series. I stand by it though.

I stand by my predictions for the four series kicking off today as well. So without further ado, let’s get to it.

Eastern Conference Round 1 – Washington Wizards (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5)

Why the Wizards should win: John Wall and Bradley Beal were one of the best back-courts in the entire league this season and the Hawks are going to be hard pressed to defend them.

Wall is coming off his best season ever. Averaging career highs with 23.1 points per game, 10.7 assists, and 2.1 steals (leading the entire association). Optimus Dime would likely have been an MVP candidate in any other season but in what was the best NBA season ever in terms of what individual players achieved, Wall’s amazing year has got lost in the shuffle. He is way too often forgotten in any conversation about the NBA’s best point guards and that needs to be remedied. He is about to put us all on notice in a series against the Hawks that will allow him to showcase his skills.

The Hawks are going to have a lot of trouble with Wall’s playmaking, defensive savvy, scoring ability, explosive foot speed and ability to drive coast to coast and finish with a nice dunk. The Wizards’ point guard looks primed to continue to lead the unexpectedly resurgent Washington Wizards to a first round victory.

Bradley Beal finally stayed healthy for an entire season and became everything we thought he would be and more. He blew his previous career high away by averaging 23.1 points per game on 48% shooting including 40% from three. Beal is lethal on the catch and shoot and when he gets hot, he can absolutely torch opponents. If the Hawks don’t find a way to shut Beal down, the Wizards are going to make short work of them.

In a contract year, Otto Porter has transformed into one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA. He went from being much maligned as a potential bust to celebrated as an absolute stud due to averaging 1.19 points per possession. The increased efficiency has seen his shooting percentage hit 51.6% (!) including 43.7% from three point range. He’s played himself into max contract territory and a great performance in the playoffs will only cement that status. The Hawks cannot allow that to happen.

The Wizards front court is going to need to step up to go against Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap. Marcin Gortat is going to have to battle Howard for all important boards and Markief Morris will have to work to neutralize Millsap’s ability to stretch the floor. If Morris can’t go out to the perimeter with Millsap or prevent his ability to score inside, it’s a match-up that will pose major problems for Washington if the series goes long.

Washington does have a another weapon to deploy in terms of its revamped second unit. Adding Bojan Bogdanovic in a deadline deal with Brooklyn and pulling Brandon Jennings off of the scrap heap has seen their bench scoring jump from 29th to 18th in the association while bench field goal percentage went from 15th to 7th and three point shooting go from 25th to 9th. The result has been a 2.8 net rating which is 8th in the league where they were 28th before the new additions. The improved second unit could prove to be a key to victory against Atlanta.

Why the Hawks should win: The Hawks considered a full blown fire sale this past January, but decided to stay the course and despite some inconsistent play throughout the season are now back in the playoffs. During the final stretch of the season they beat Boston and Cleveland twice in consecutive games are certainly capable of competing against the top teams in the East.

The key to Atlanta’s victory will be if it’s stingy, fourth rated defense in the NBA can shut down Washington’s dynamic attack. They’ll need Dennis Schroder to be able to disrupt John Wall’s play and will likely deploy Thabo Sefolosha to try to contain Bradley Beal in what could be the key match-up of the series.

The Hawks also seem poised to win the front-court battle up front. Dwight Howard has been good again after some struggles in Los Angeles and Houston. He’s been a dominant force in the paint again this season and will win the battle for boards against Washington’s bigs. Paul Millsap is also going to prove a tough match-up for Washington on both sides of the floor as he continues to be one of the premiere stretch fours in the game and shot more threes than at any other time in his career this season while averaging a career high 18.1 points per game. The Wizards are going to have to find a way to stop him from breaking down their D.

Tim Hardaway Jr is also a key for the Hawks. He’s now inserted himself into the starting line-up and has been red hot for the Hawks with a career high 14.5 points on 45.5% shooting. Hardaway’s impact to Atlanta’s offense is pretty immense as they score 109 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor but only 100.6 per 100 when he isn’t. If the Hawks are to keep up with Washington’s scoring, Hardaway is going to be the key to doing it.

Atlanta is also going to need elevated offensive play from Kent Bazemore – who has looked up to the challenge at times and Ersyan Ilyasova – acquired to fill the veteran shooting gap left in the wake of the Kyle Korver trade – as well. The Hawks can’t match Washington’s second unit scoring but if there defense comes through and the offense is able to step up, they can stay in this series and pull off the win.

Who will win: Washington and Atlanta are two teams that were heading in different directions. The Wizards started with an awful 7-13 mark before finding their groove the rest of the season and Atlanta lost 16 of its final 27 heading into the playoffs. Granted, often all bets are off when it comes to the playoffs but there are many areas where the Wizards should be able to come out of on top.

Altanta’s defense and front court will prove to be significant challenges to Washington, but Wall and Beal’s transcendent play combined with increased scoring from the second unit should give Washington the edge in what will prove to be an enjoyable and competitive series. The Hawks will prove to be a tough match-up but the Wizards will prevail.

Prediction: Washington in seven.

Western Conference Round 1 – Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (8)

Why the Warriors should win: The Golden State Warriors might be the best team in NBA history. Over a three year span they have amassed 204 wins. This includes a record 92 away from home. No team in history has done that. Not Jordan’s Bulls. Not the Showtime Lakers. Not Larry Legend’s Celtics. Nobody.

They’ve also been launching an all-out assault on the NBA record books. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are the first duo to each make more than 200 threes in five consecutive seasons. Golden State went an NBA record 146 games without suffering consecutive losses – only doing so after losing potential MVP candidate Kevin Durant to a knee injury. Klay Thompson set a record this season by being the fastest player to score 60 points in a game – doing so in less than 30 minutes. Curry broke the record for most threes in a game in November. The Warriors hit a three pointer in 157 consecutive games. And so on and so forth….

This is a team with the two men who won the last three MVP awards in Curry and Durant. Curry rounded back into MVP form post-all star break as he really locked in after Durant’s injury. Now KD is back and if he stays healthy, the Warriors look like the closest thing in the NBA to an unbeatable team.

Combine that with Draymond Green’s Defensive Player of the Year-level play and the best shooter in the NBA who isn’t Steph Curry in Klay Thompson, one of the deepest benches in the league and you have the makings for a dynasty that seems poised to make a third straight trip the finals.

There is every reason why the Warriors will win this series and it’s nearly impossible to come up with a compelling reason why they would lose.

Why the Blazers should win: They shouldn’t. Portland did win a game against the Warriors in last year’s playoffs but that was with Curry injured. He’s healthy right now and they’ve added Kevin Durant. Barring any injuries from the Warriors, the Blazers are simply too outmatched.

CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard will get theirs and keep the Blazers kind of in it with their scoring, but it’s just not going to be enough.

The only other hope for Portland is the potential return of Jusuf Nurkic. The big reason that Portland is here instead of Denver – who could have provided more match-up issues for Golden State – is the fact that they traded Nurkic to the Blazers and he elevated his game to incredible levels. His player efficiency rating skyrocketed to 21.7 from 14.8. His defensive box plus/minus leaped skyrocketed to 3.8 from 0.9. He averaged a double-double 15.2 points and 10.4 board over 20 games with the Blazers. If you are going to trade a talented 22 year old big, NEVER TRADE HIM IN YOUR DIVISION.

Nurkic’s return can allow the Blazers to exploit the Warriors’ biggest weakness (besides injury potential and one of their shooters going cold): a lack of interior defense. Seriously, Kevin Durant was their best interior defender this season. Nurkic could really hammer them inside, but even that probably isn’t enough.

Who will win: Golden State. The Blazers don’t really offer much of a challenge to an all-time great team. I love upsets as much as anyone else, but it’s not happening here.

Prediction: Golden State in four games.

Eastern Conference Round 1 – Boston Celtics (1) vs. Chicago Bulls (8)

NOTE: I wrote this series preview on Friday morning. Since then, Isaiah Thomas sister, Chyna, passed away in an automobile accident. My thoughts are with Isaiah Thomas and his family.

Why the Celtics should win: It’s been an incredible run for the Boston Celtics over the past few seasons. Since parting ways with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013, they have gone from a rebuilding 25-57 team in the first season of their rebuild to back in the playoffs as a 7th seed in 2014-15 to the 5th seed in 2015-16 to the top seed in the East this season.

There are some questioning the Celtics legitimacy as a number one seed and that talk really needs to stop. The Celtics aren’t some undeserving number one seed but a team that has risen from the ashes due to a complete organizational effort.

The Celtics’ rise is largely due to the genius of Danny Ainge and the Celtics front office who turned Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry into the Nets first round picks in 2014, 2016, 2018 and the right to swap picks in the upcoming 2017 draft (which has a 25% chance of being 1st overall). While James Young hasn’t really panned out yet, Jaylen Brown has the potential to be a major star for the Celtics and has already shown a poise beyond his years as a three and D man.

The Celtics used their own pick in 2014 to grab Marcus Smart who has been a force for them on the back end. Smart is a tenacious defender and has been an indispensable part of the Celtics rise back to the top. Smart also has a tendency to elevate his offensive game during the playoffs. He averaged a career best 12points per game for Boston during their first round series with the Hawks last season but his real skill on the front end is his ability to create opportunities for his teammates. Smart is really going to be a nightmare for the Bulls offense to deal with.

Avery Bradley is coming off the best year of his career averaging 16.3 points on 46% shooting to go along with a meteoric rise in rebounding to 6.1 per game , 2.2 dimes and 1.2 steals per game. Bradley, like most Celtics players, also is an incredibly strong defender. In fact, Bradley is consistently considered to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the entire association.

Jae Crowder has also evolved from a throw-in in the trade that sent Rajon Rondo to Dallas to a coveted core piece of the Celtics success. It was the decision not to trade Crowder that allegedly kiboshed a deadline deal that would have sent Jimmy Butler for the Celtics and Dallas Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle has expressed regret for losing Crowder via trade. He has evolved into a great all-around player with an ability to do just about anything from the wing. He’s a versatile defender and has really broken out as a playmaker for the Celtics and will prove to be a difficult match-up for the Bulls.

It should be interesting to see how the Celtics big men thrive with the Taj Gibson sized hole in the Bulls interior D. Al Horford, Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson in particular should be able to make an impact without Gibson inside and with Robin Lopez only able to do so much.

Of course, the biggest reason for the Celtics success is the undisputed MVP of the team, the king of the 4th quarter all season, Isaiah Thomas. Thomas just has the best season for a Boston Celtic since Larry Bird. He set a team record for consecutive 20 point games with 43 (!). He set the team record for 3 pointers made in a single season with 245 He also is the reason why Boston is the best 4th quarter team in the NBA Thomas averaged over 10 points a game in the fourth which is the highest mark since that stat started being tracked in 1996. He finished the season third in scoring with 28.9 points per game. His explosive foot speed and one of the fastest first steps in the league make him a difficult player for the Bulls to contain.

The Bulls will key in on Thomas which will leave it up to his supporting cast to step up, particularly Al Horford who has had a down year in scoring at only 14 point per game and will need to get more aggressive inside and take advantage the absence of Taj Gibson in the Bulls line-up.

Brad Stevens should have his team ready to go as one of the top basketball minds in the association looks to lead his squad out of the first round for the first time.

Why the Bulls should win: Well they shouldn’t. But that hasn’t stopped the Bulls yet this season.

Chicago has been a wildly inconsistent mess for the most of the season. The team seemed ready to implode at several points when Rajon Rondo openly feuded with Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade on social media. They followed that up with shipping out Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the trade deadline and were reportedly shipping young superstar Jimmy Butler – as sure a sign as any that they were punting the season.

But they didn’t.

The Bulls overcame all of the odds and managed to win 7 of its last 10 to finish at a 41-41 mark and grab the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference – the one that we were all hoping the Cinderella Miami Heat would get.

During that stretch, Chicago knocked off key Eastern Conference opponents like Cleveland, Milwaukee and Atlanta and did it without the departed Gibson and McDermott as well as future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade who only returned from injury with three games remaining in the season when it became apparent that the Bulls could make the postseason.

Inconsistent performers peaked at the right times. Nikola Mirotic who has been a disappointment all year, but has found his shot down the stretch having some big games when it counts the most. Most importantly for the Bulls, he’s found his stroke from three point range again hitting 41.3% since the all-star break as opposed to an abysmal sub-30% mark pre-all star break. The re-emergence of the Montenegrin has been key to the Bulls late surge.

Similarly,the Jekyll and Hyde persona that is Rajon Rondo has been only on the good side which is bad news for opposing teams. Rondo has averaged 11.3 points, 8.3 assists and 7.8 boards over his last ten. He’s been locked in and that’s great news for the Bulls as they won’t be able to compete with the Celtics without a great performance from Rondo, which is exactly what the mercurial point guard is poised to deliver against the team he won a championship all those years ago. He looked in top form in his return against the Nets after missing three games with a wrist injury and will be a key contributor for the Bulls if they are going to hang with the Celtics.

Robin Lopez has been an unsung hero for the Bulls this season. Lopez has undoubtedly had one of his most effective seasons as a rim protector in Chicago and is really the reason why the Bulls interior D didn’t completely collapse following Taj Gibson’s departure. Lopez is also a double-double threat and could really cause problems for the Celtics big men. One of the series key match-ups will pit him against Al Horford and if Lopez comes out on top that could cause serious problems for Boston.

The most important player for the Bulls remains Jimmy Butler. Butler is coming off the best season of his career with 23.9 points, 5.5 assists, 6.2 boards and 1.9 steals per game. He is an elite scorer, defender and play maker and can be a match-up nightmare. Like the rest of his team, he has absolutely peaked down the stretch, scoring 27.3 over his last 10 with over 50% shooting and 6.8 dimes per game. He absolutely can take over a game and the biggest challenge for Boston will be finding a way to contain Butler and neutralize his ability to make big plays. If Butler is able to break out, the Celtics will be in a lot of trouble.

Finally, there’s Dwyane Wade. One of the greatest players ever to step onto the court. He’s battled injuries all season as his body continues to feel the wear and tear of 14 NBA seasons, but he’s still got his scoring touch even if a lot of his explosiveness is now gone due to age. If Wade can tap into the type of performance last season that saw him power the Heat to the second round and two consecutive seven game series, the Bulls will get a huge boost and it might be enough for them to pull off the upset.

If everything comes together for Chicago, there are few first round series where an upset seems more likely. The Bulls have peaked at the right time and have just got back an all-time great player at the right time.

Who will win: This series is going to be way more competitive than any 1 vs. 8 seed match-up has been in a very long time. The Bulls are hot right now and can pose a lot of match-up problems for Boston. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to the Celtics young athletic defenders vs the Bulls veteran back-court of Wade and Rondo. Thomas and Butler are going to get theirs so that secondary scoring match-up becomes incredibly important.

Ultimately, I do have faith in Brad Stevens’ defensive skills and the Celtics young and athletic defenders to get the job done. It’s going to be a long and gruelling seven game series but this young Boston team is going to get out of the first round for the first time.

Prediction: Boston in seven.

Western Conference Round 1 – Houston Rockets (3) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (6)

Why the Rockets should win: This might bet the most anticipated match-up of the entire NBA play-offs. The battle of the two MVP front runners. Russell Westbrook broke a 55 year old triple double record, but James Harden has also been electrifying and playing at a similar supernatural pace. The case for him has always been based on a belief that he’s got the better team and it’s been elevated largely due to his play and he has the chance to prove it here.

Harden has teamed with Mike D’Antoni in a match made in basketball heaven. Seriously, if you thought Steve Nash was the perfect player for D’Antoni’s fast break – once dubbed “seven seconds or less” offense, moving Harden to point guard has shattered that notion. Harden not only set a career mark with 29.1 points per game, he also lead the NBA in assists with 11.2 and added 8.1 boards as well. D’Antoni found the perfect player for his system. Harden is going to get his and the Thunder will be hard-pressed to stop him.

The key question becomes how does Houston stop Russell Westbrook? The likely answer is that they can’t. But if anyone can at least slow him down, it’s Patrick Beverly who is an elite defensive guard and also has a history with Westbrook as it was in a collision with the Rockets guard that Russ tore his meniscus in the 2013 playoffs. The bad blood has been there ever since and Beverly can get under Westbrook’s skin and limit his physicality like few other players can in the league. This is going to be the most important match-up for Houston in this series. The Rockets can’t hope to stop Westbrook but they can try to limit or contain him.

Houston boasts better secondary scoring as well. Eric Gordon has had an incredible season that will see him as a leading candidate for sixth man of the year. Scoring 16.2 points off the bench and gunning threes with a confidence that he’s never displayed before in his career. He’s more than capable of torching teams himself when he gets hot from downtown and when him and Harden are on the floor at the same time, they are very difficult to defend.

If Gordon wasn’t enough off the bench, the Rockets were also able to add former sixth man of the year and noted gunner Lou Williams who gives them even more punch and scoring versatility off the bench and provides match-up nightmares for OKC’s second unit.

Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza present the opportunity for Houston to create some spacing problems for Oklahoma City as well as they can stretch the Thunder’s defense and get them into small line-ups that will get the advantage to the Rockets. Houston will probably look to get them touches and have them shoot from the perimeter to draw out the Thunder bigs and open lanes for Harden to do his work.

The Rockets offense can be overpowering and they have to hope it is in this series to put the Thunder away.

Why the Thunder should win: Russell Westbrook just had the best individual season that an NBA player ever has. He became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple double and he broke the Big O’s 55 year old record of triple doubles in a single season with 42. For a player to do this in the modern era is almost indescribable and the fact that we are alive to witness it is something we all need to feel blessed about.

Westbrook’s numbers are absolutely insane – he lead all scorers with 31.6 points per game, averaged 10.7 boards and 10.4 dimes and really put the Thunder on his back at different times for the season and took a team that many thought wouldn’t even make the playoffs with the departure of Kevin Durant and got them to the sixth seed in the West.

One player won’t be enough to beat the Rockets though.

The Thunder have a key advantage to exploit and that is down low. Steven Adams and Enes Kanter should be able to exploit the Rockets’ front-court and get points in the paint. The addition of Taj Gibson at the deadline also gives the Thunder a proven stopper and strong defensive presence down low that should help in disrupting the Rockets front court scoring.

OKC will also have require Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson to be at the top of their games. Oladipo has been a much improved shooter this season as Westbrook’s second option and back-court partner and is going to be relied on to score consistently when the Rockets D keys in on Westbrook. More importantly, Oladipo is going to be relied on heavily for his defensive abilities as he will have some difficult match-ups from Houston and will likely find himself guarding Harden, Gordon and even Williams in different sets and his perimeter defense will be one of the most important weapons in the Thunder’s arsenal if they are going to beat the Rockets.

Roberson has made a case for himself to be considered to for the NBA’s all-defense play with his perimeter D and if he, as well as Oladipo can get some stops and slow down and disrupt the Rockets tempo that will prove to be the difference in this series. Roberson is likely to draw that Harden match-up with regularity and any way he can slow him down will be vitally important for OKC. This is a monumental task to be certain, but Roberson and Oladipo have been excellent on D for the Thunder this season and are capable of elevating their play in what promises to be the most entertaining series of the first round.

Who will win: This is going to a hotly contested series. All eyes are going to be on this one and everyone is going to have their hot take ready on how it impacts the MVP race. The answer, of course, being that it doesn’t.

There is no question that Harden’s team is deeper and more offensively gifted than the Westbrook’s. His supporting cast of scorers is certainly more impressive than OKC’s offensive weaponry but the Thunder do have some young, athletic defenders to deploy that can cause problems for the Rockets and that’s what this series will come down to.

Westbrook and Harden are both going to produce at a highly level and likely cancel each other out with superhuman feats, but it’s the supporting players who will play the most significant role. In that sense, the Rockets just have too many weapons for the Thunder to stop them. OKC will stay in this series and it’s going the distance, but ultimately the Rockets second unit scoring is going to make the difference in this series and they will move onto the second round.

It still doesn’t mean Harden is the MVP over Westbrook though.

Prediction: Houston in seven.