Did you miss most of the first round playoff games because you were scrambling to finish all of your projects/papers before classes end? Were you not paying attention to the regular season but now that classes are ending, you want to watch the playoffs? Are you not really that into the NBA but for whatever reason, want to be able to hold conversation about professional basketball with someone? If any of these describe you, then this guide is exactly what you need to get yourself up to date with everything going on in the NBA.
Background (skip this if you already know how the playoffs work)
The NBA playoffs is a 16-team, 4-round tournament, although it really functions as a combination of two separate 8-team, 3-round Conference playoffs. For each Conference (Eastern and Western) the teams are seeded according to their Conference standings. Each matchup, in every round, is best of seven, so the first team to win four games advances. The winners of the third rounds are the champions of their respective Conferences and compete in the Finals.
What’s going on in the Eastern Conference?
The Cleveland Cavaliers, who won the NBA playoffs last year, were leading the Eastern Conference for most of regular season play, but slipped behind the Boston Celtics following a drop in defensive caliber after the All-Star break. That being said, after losing their last four regular season games, the Cavs turned around to win their first four postseason games, sweeping the Indiana Pacers. Their opponent in the Conference semifinals will likely be the Toronto Raptors. Although, so far, the Raptors have stumbled in this year’s playoffs and the Milwaukee Bucks, especially Giannis Antetokounmpo, have put on a strong showing, the odds of the Bucks doing well enough to take the series are slim. The Raptors’ regular season performance was too strong and the Bucks are too young for the Bucks to have a good chance of winning both of the next two games.
The other two Conference semifinal spots will likely be occupied by the Celtics and the Washington Wizards. Led by point guard John Wall, the Wizards seemed a sure pick to advance prior to the beginning of the playoffs, but the Atlanta Hawks, especially Dennis Schröder and Paul Millsap, have put up a solid fight. If the Hawks can maintain an offensive power throughout the playoffs, which was notably inconsistent in the regular season, they have a chance at eliminating the Wizards. The Celtics actually lost their first two games to the Chicago Bulls, which hinted at an upset until Bulls point guard Rajon Rondo fractured his thumb and tore a ligament in his wrist in Game 2. Although the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler has fought hard against the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas, the Bulls dropped two games and will probably drop two more.
The Eastern Conference Finals are pretty up in the air. The Celtics would probably come out on top against the Hawks or the Wizards, although if the Wizards pull through, they certainly have a solid shot at knocking out the Celtics. The two teams developed over the last couple seasons and are 2-2 in regular play this year. Cavs-Raptors also has a chance at going the other way. If both teams play like they were playing at the end of the regular season, the Raptors will take the W, but if Lebron James performs like he has been during the playoffs, they don’t have a chance.
The Eastern Conference Champion will pretty definitely be either the Raptors or the Cavs, whichever makes it to the finals. Although Wall and Bradley Beal for the Wizards and Thomas for the Celtics have proven themselves to be powerful players that can lead a team into the playoffs, none of these individuals are Lebron James and none of these teams have the full-roster strength of the Raptors.
What’s going on in the Western Conference?
Compared to the Eastern Conference, the Western Conference is significantly easier to forecast. The Golden State Warriors already swept the Portland Trailblazers and will most probably be Conference champions. The Warriors will likely face the Utah Jazz in the Conference semifinals. The LA Clippers looked like a sure bet to beat the Jazz, but with their top scorer Blake Griffin being injured in Game 3 and out for the rest of the playoffs, it seems very unlikely they’ll be able to pull through.
The Houston Rockets have also qualified for Conference semifinals, beating out the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1. Rockets point guard James Harden and Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook were the two most buzzed about MVP candidates, so the clear playoffs win has settled some debates about the relative merits of the two teams, although the Rockets’ win was largely due to the caliber of their non-Harden players. The Rockets will be playing against the San Antonio Spurs, unless Kawhi Leonard is struck by lightning. Although the Memphis Grizzlies were able to notch 2 wins thanks to Mike Conley and some lackluster performance from the non-Leonard Spurs, the Spurs are not only the second best team in the West, but the second best team in the league and, barring divine intervention, should progress to the semifinals.
In the Conference semifinals, the Warriors will beat the Jazz. The Warriors are still the best team in the NBA and could probably beat the Jazz even if Stephen Curry slept through the first four games. The Spurs-Rockets game probably goes to the Spurs, although there is some uncertainty here. The Spurs are normally team that plays well as a team, with the added bonus of having the most dominant full-court player in the NBA as a small forward (Leonard) while the Rockets have been carried throughout the season by a superstar performance from Harden. However, so far in the playoffs, the non-Leonard Spurs have stumbled and non-Harden Rockets have leapt to the challenge. If this role-reversal continues through their matchup, the Rockets have a chance at making it to the Conference finals.
As with most games they play, the Warriors are a pretty safe bet to win the finals. There is a single scenario where the Warriors don’t make it to the finals: the Spurs get their shit together and go on a rampage. The Warriors would be able to handle the Rockets, but if there’s one team that can take the Warriors it’s the Spurs. If the Warriors slip up, which they may, with Head Coach Steve Kerr out of commision due to health issues, a peak Spurs team would be the perfect team to punish them for their slip ups. Still, the Warrior are probably going to take this one.
Who’s going to win it all?
Almost definitely the Warriors. Although the Warriors somehow lost the 2016 NBA Finals to the Cavaliers after a regular season in which they won the most games in the NBA in a single season, this year it looks like they’ll actually take the W. The Cavs’ comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals was a first for the NBA, and really only possible due to a combination of factors, including the Game 5 suspension of defensive force Draymond Green and the heroic efforts of LeBron James. Although Curry isn’t shooting as well as he did last year, and James was playing better in the regular season than he did last year, there’s very little chance of a replication of last year’s Finals. Even if we assume James will play at the Herculean levels he’s shown he can play during the playoffs, the Warriors’ absurd acquisition of additional superstar Kevin Durant and the rest of the Cavs various struggles make the odds of a repeat minute. The Warriors also beat the Raptors, easily. The team with the second best shot at the title is actually the Spurs. If they’re playing at a level where they beat the Warriors and are able to sustain that, they’d have a lock on a Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.