The 2018 NBA Playoffs tip off Saturday afternoon with a matchup between the defending champion Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. The Warriors were knocked off from their streak of No. 1 seeds in the Western Conference by the Houston Rockets.
Led by Chris Paul and MVP frontrunner James Harden, the Rockets posted the best record in franchise history at 65-17. Similarly, the Toronto Raptors secured the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time.
If LeBron James is to extend his streak of NBA Finals appearances to eight years, it will need to come with the Cleveland Cavaliers as the No. 4 seed in the East. The first answer comes in the form of a matchup with an upstart Indiana Pacers team led by Victor Oladipo.
While the Los Angeles Lakers saw noted improvement on the court and seemingly have plenty of reason to be optimistic, this season was their fifth in a row missing the playoffs.
Nonetheless, members of the LakersNation.com staff submitted their NBA playoff predictions and Finals winners.
Daniel Starkand (@DStarkand):
Rockets over Timberwolves (4-1): The Timberwolves have some nice young players and a legit star in Jimmy Butler, so I will give them a game, but the Rockets just have too much fire power.
Warriors over Spurs (4-1): Without Kawhi Leonard, I don’t give the Spurs much of a chance in this series. If Stephen Curry was playing I would have it being a sweep.
Trail Blazers over Pelicans (4-3): I think this should be a fun series with Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis going at it. Ultimately, I don’t think Davis has enough help around him with DeMarcus Cousins out.
Thunder over Jazz (4-3): OKC has too much playoff experience to lose to a team whose leading scorer is a rookie.
Rockets over Thunder (4-2): Once again I have the NBA’s best moving on to the Western Conference Finals, although this should be a fun, competitive series.
Warriors over Trail Blazers (4-2): This series more than any will depend on the health of Curry. If Curry is playing, I think Golden State wins in five, if he isn’t I think Portland has a chance, so I’ll go somewhere in the middle with Warriors in six.
Western Conference Finals
Warriors over Rockets (4-3): I cannot wait for this series. Should be a great, back-and-forth one, although with a healthy Curry I Still feel the Warriors are the better team.
Raptors over Wizards (4-3): This isn’t your typical 1-8 matchup, although I do think the Raptors fine a way to get by.
Bucks over Celtics (4-3): Without Kyrie Irving, I feel the Celtics are too young and inexperienced to win a playoff series.
Sixers over Heat (4-1): Philadelphia is playing really well right now, and getting Joel Embiid back should only make them better.
Cavaliers over Pacers (4-1): LeBron James is my only reason for this. Will be fun to see Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. get an opportunity to play in the postseason though.
Cavaliers over Raptors (4-2): As we saw in the regular season, even though the Raptors have a better record, they’re still not superior to Cleveland.
Sixers over Bucks (4-3): I’m also looking forward to this series, a lot of great young talent on display.
Eastern Conference Finals
Cavaliers over Sixers (4-2): LeBron will be headed to the Finals for an eighth straight season.
Warriors over Cavaliers (4-1): Cleveland is not good enough defensively to stop the Warriors. It will be much of the same from last year’s Finals where they hang with them for a half and then midway through the third quarter, Golden State pulls away.
Matt Borelli (@mcborelli):
Rockets over Timberwolves (4-1): This will likely be the most lopsided series of the entire postseason. The Rockets’ No. 2 ranked defense and the All-Star combo of James Harden and Chris Paul is ultimately too much for the Timberwolves to overcome.
Warriors over Spurs (4-2): On paper, this matchup would appear to be the most intriguing series of the first round. Unfortunately, both teams will be shorthanded, as the Warriors and Spurs will be without the services of Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard, respectively.
However, the Warriors still have a sizable advantage over the Spurs with their existing trio of All-Stars in Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Those three allow Golden State to take care of business in six games.
Trail Blazers over Pelicans (4-2): A healthy DeMarcus Cousins would make this series more interesting, but the All-Star duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is enough to push the Trail Blazers past the Pelicans.
Jazz over Thunder (4-2): The Jazz lack a bonafide superstar in comparison to the Thunder, but their No. 1 ranked defense in the Western Conference allows them to pull off an upset in the first round.
Rockets over Jazz (4-2): Both teams place in the top-six in defensive rating, but the key difference that determines this outcome is on the offensive side. The Rockets rank No. 2 in that department, while the Jazz check in at No. 15. That contrast is large enough for the Rockets to eliminate the Jazz.
Warriors over Trail Blazers (4-2): The Trail Blazers keep things close, but with Curry back in the fold for Golden State, the Warriors cruise to their fourth consecutive Western Conference Finals appearance.
Western Conference Finals
Rockets over Warriors (4-3): In one of the most anticipated playoff series in years, the Rockets and Warriors trade blows until a deciding Game 7 sees the former knock off the reigning NBA champions.
Raptors over Wizards (4-3): A seven-game series right out of the gate will certainly please NBA fans everywhere. But when it’s all said and done, the Raptors All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan slightly edges out the Wizards’ duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal, and propels Toronto to the next round.
Cavaliers over Pacers (4-1): The Pacers were one of the bigger surprises of the league this season, but the Cavaliers get the best of them in five games, riding their veterans to a series victory.
76ers over Heat (4-2): Joel Embiid will miss the first game of the series, but the 76ers still face no problem knocking off the Heat in six games. Ben Simmons, in particular, will play a large role in this outcome and leads the Sixers in scoring each contest.
Celtics over Bucks (4-2): Even without Kyrie Irving, the Celtics manage to stave off Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Cavaliers over Raptors (4-3): While most are picking the Raptors in this scenario, I’m on the other side of the fence. Toronto is at a disadvantage in terms of rest, and that is ultimately what helps the Cavaliers advance to another Eastern Conference Finals.
Celtics over 76ers (4-3): If Irving was in the fold, this series probably wouldn’t have reached seven games. Give credit to the 76ers for an outstanding playoff run, but home-court advantage proves huge in this case as the Celtics are able to finish the job in Boston.
Eastern Conference Finals
Cavaliers over Celtics (4-3): Both the Cavaliers and Celtics enter the Eastern Conference Finals on fumes, as each team endured a seven-game series in the previous round. But LeBron won’t be denied another opportunity to reach the NBA Finals and wills the Cavaliers past the Celtics in seven games.
Rockets over Cavaliers (4-2): The Rockets’ magical season is capped off with an NBA championship. They defeat Cleveland in six games, as Harden goes on to win regular season and Finals MVP honors. As soon as the confetti falls, all eyes will be on LeBron and where he’ll ultimately sign this summer.
Trevor Lane (@Trevor_Lane):
Rockets over Wolves (4-0): The Wolves barely snuck into the playoffs by defeating the Nuggets on the final day of the season but their prize is to run into a bearded buzz saw. Houston, with James Harden and Chris Paul running the show, rain a barrage of threes that typically mean death to their opponents. The Wolves finally have a healthy Jimmy Butler back, but their first playoff appearance since 2004 will be short lived.
Warriors over Spurs (4-1): San Antonio will be without Kawhi Leonard and Golden State will miss Stephen Curry, but the difference is that the Warriors have more than enough depth to deal with it. The Spurs will still put up a good fight and should steal a game or two but that should be it. The big question will be whether the Spurs decide to trade Leonard this summer before he hits free agency in 2018.
Pelicans over Blazers (4-2): Going with the upset on this one, if only because Anthony Davis is that good. If Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are on then the Blazers take this series, but a cold shooting game or two against a Pelicans defense that was third in the league over the final 15 games could turn the series.
Jazz over Thunder (4-3): Ok, in reality I think the Thunder take this. Donovan Mitchell has been amazing but the playoffs are a different animal, one that Russell Westbrook is very familiar with. That said, even though George said the Thunder’s playoff success won’t factor in his free agency decision, an early exit certainly wouldn’t hurt the Lakers’ chances.
Rockets over Jazz (4-2): The Jazz have the ability to catch fire, particularly if Ricky Rubio hits his shots the way he does whenever he plays against the Lakers. Joe Ingles is underrated and Rudy Gobert should control his matchup in the middle with Clint Capela, but ultimately the Rockets simply have too much firepower for Utah to handle. It was an impressive post-Gordon Hayward season for the Jazz, but it comes to an end here.
Warriors over Pelicans (4-1): Assuming Stephen Curry is back for the semi finals, the Warriors should cruise in this one. Sure, Anthony Davis will give them some problems, but with the long arms of Kevin Durant and Draymond Green protecting the rim they should get enough stops to advance. Klay Thompson could play a big factor in this one, as Golden State can shift him over onto the problematic Jrue Holiday during crunch time.
Western Conference Finals
Rockets over Warriors (4-3): If there was any justice in the world this would be the NBA Finals. Just when it looked as though the Warriors juggernaut would go unchallenged for the foreseeable future, along came a Rockets team bolstered by Chris Paul’s masterful point guard play. I don’t feel good picking against Golden State, but something has just felt slightly off about them this season and I think that crack in the armor is enough for the Rockets to blast through. The real winner here is basketball fans because this is a dream matchup.
Raptors over Wizards (4-2): The Raptors may have a reputation for playoff struggles but I think they break that trend here. Washington presents some serious challenges, especially if the duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal are clicking, but Toronto has been excellent all year and has earned the top seed in the East for a reason.
Celtics over Bucks (4-3): This is going to be closer than most think. In the playoffs, when play slows down and every possession matters, Boston is going to really miss Kyrie Irving’s ability to create offense for himself. In the end, the Celtics squeak by, but Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, and the sneaky-good Kyrie Middleton won’t make it easy on them.
76ers over Heat (4-2): In case you haven’t heard by now, the 76ers are on a 16-game winning streak. Sure, they have feasted on a lot of tanking teams, but they have also picked up decisive wins over the Wolves, Nuggets, Cavaliers, and Bucks in that span. Given Joel Embiid’s questionable health and the level of grit the Heat bring, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an upset, but I can’t go against the 76ers when they are playing this well. Which also makes them an ultra-scary threat to steal a free agent star in July.
Cavs over Pacers (4-2): Really, this can simply be chalked up to not picking against the playoff version of LeBron James. His game always hits another level this time of year, and as impressive as the post-Paul George Pacers have been, they don’t have the firepower to deal with James.
Cavs over Raptors (4-2): This should be the Eastern Conference Finals matchup, but unfortunately, the two top teams wound up on the same side of the bracket. Still not picking against LeBron this early even with Toronto having home court advantage. The Raptors are good, but if the Cavs can get a few solid showings from Kevin Love to back up James plus a hot game or two from J.R. Smith and Jordan Clarkson they take it.
Celtics over 76ers (4-3): This really could go either way. Embiid will be key, but ultimately I think Boston is a well-disciplined team that finds a way to get the job done without their Irving. The Jayson Tatum vs. Ben Simmons dynamic will be a fun one, and I’d expect Jaylen Brown to throw in a few impressive performances as well. At the end of the day though, whoever advances to the Eastern Conference Finals is fortunate to not be on the other side of the bracket.
Eastern Conference Finals
Cavaliers over Celtics (4-2): LeBron James gets to the NBA Finals for the eighth straight year, though I don’t think this Cavaliers team can get to the same level as some of James’ previous squads. If Irving were healthy I’d be tempted to give the nod to the Celtics here, but I don’t think James is going to be denied. Al Horford will be key to keeping Boston focused and a Terry Rozier explosion might help them steal a game or two but playoff LeBron is a real thing.
Rockets over Cavs (4-2): Houston brings home an NBA championship to go with the World Series they narrowly stole from the Dodgers last fall (still hurts). Playoff LeBron doesn’t have enough gas left in the tank at this stage to deal with the Rockets’ shooting, while Clint Capela’s dives to the rim cause all kinds of problems for Cleveland.
The big question out of this result is would a Rockets win prevent James from taking his talents to Houston this summer? He surely noted the backlash Kevin Durant received when he took the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mantra to heart and jumped to the Warriors in the summer of 2016.