Highlander NBA playoffs predictions

Jon Hammond, Senior Staff Writer and Christian May-Suzuki, Senior Staff Writer

Western Conference Finals picks

Jon: I have the Golden State Warriors returning to the Western Conference Finals this year, but I see them going up against the Memphis Grizzlies. This will be a trying matchup for the Warriors as the Grizzlies managed to disrupt Golden State’s offensive flow in the second round of the 2015 playoffs and even led the series 2-1. The physicality that the Grizzlies play with is exactly the type of basketball that disrupts pull-up shooters or off-screen shots, and the Grizzlies’ size also poses a problem for the Warriors, as they will likely rely on JaVale McGee to stop Gasol and Randolph. Despite the inside the paint mismatch, the Warriors absolutely outclass the entire league when it comes to shooting and Memphis won’t be able to keep Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in check for four games while also having to deal with Kevin Durant as well. Warriors in 6

Christian: I hate to be the frontrunner, but there just seems to be no way the favorite that no one wants to acknowledge, the Warriors, are a star studded group whose offensive depth will not be kept in check by any team located outside of San Antonio or Cleveland. Reinvigorated size and and a brand new offensive threat in former MVP Kevin Durant beckons the Warriors into a postseason where the words “blew a 3-1 lead” are still ringing in their heads from the embarrassment suffered last season. The Warriors should come in with a similar intensity that they did in 2015 while clawing for their first title, as opposed to the cocky and lackadaisical attitude that caused plays such as Steph Curry throwing lazy behind the back passes down late in the NBA Finals to happen. On the bottom half, the Spurs should have their way with all three teams they can be matched up with before the Warriors, as none of the teams have the offensive depth nor the defensive cohesion to stand up to Kawhi Leonard’s oppressive defense and Gregg Popovich’s ability to turn offensive junk scraps into jewels. In addition, they should be able to handle the Grizzlies physical style of ball which would normally wear most teams out due to the fact that arguably the best defender in the NBA in Tony Allen is out indefinitely. However, the Spurs won’t have quite enough talent to match up with the Warriors, who are the undisputed favorites in the West entering the playoffs. Warriors in 6

Western Conference Darkhorse

Jon:

  • Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizzlies have a unique brand of basketball that feels like they still think it’s 1980, meaning they play hard-nosed, in your face basketball. This style is of course complimented by their two very versatile big man duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph as well as their point guard Mike Conley who is leading the team in every offensive category (20.5 ppg, 6.3 apg, 45.9 percent from the field). While Memphis may have to go up against the fundamental juggernauts, the San Antonio Spurs, I think Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker just cannot take the type of beating the Grizzlies are going to dish out. Even though Memphis may not have Tony Allen at all throughout these playoffs, I think the grit and talent of this team pulls through in the end.

Christian:

  • Oklahoma City Thunder: Never underestimate an angry Russell Westbrook. Averaging a triple double is no simple feat, and Westbrook did so with a team that has been questioned since the Fourth of July, when Durant announced his intent to sign with Golden State. The Thunder bench is quite thin, but Westbrook’s supporting cast is surprisingly strong at the top. Victor Oladipo has done a fine job finding a niche in the Westbrook-dominated Thunder offense, and Steven Adams has continued to develop as a defensive post presence. Enes Kanter has done a good job leading the bench unit as well, averaging 14.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game on 52 percent shooting from the field in just 21.3 minutes per game to lead a second unit that has been much maligned all season. While the perimeter defense needs to be reinforced for Westbrook’s Thunder to be considered a true contender, don’t be surprised if a Westbrook explosion or two changes a series you may have thought to be decided.

Eastern Conference Finals picks

Jon: The King had his reign and now it’s time for a new regime in the East, a green regime. Cleveland hemorrhaged away their chances for the top seed in the East and the Boston Celtics took full advantage of it and reclaimed first place in the conference. Isaiah Thomas has more than proved how ready he is to lead this team deep into the playoffs and that he is ready to be a championship-caliber point guard. While he is averaging 28.9 points and 5.9 assists, Thomas will most certainly lead this team, but Marcus Smart will be the X-factor for the Celtics going through these playoffs. Smart may have ended the regular season in bit of a shooting slump, but his motor and defensive tenacity have not skipped a beat and they are going to be turned higher than 11 for the playoffs. Smart’s defensive tenacity has earned him the respect of his teammates and Head Coach Brad Stevens who believes Smart will make plenty of winning plays that won’t show up in the stat sheet. I would expect either Toronto or Indiana to meet the Celtics in the conference finals but the Celtics aren’t going to be stopped. Celtics in 7

Christian: Zero-Dark-23 has been activated, so we once again get to witness the full onslaught within Lebron James’ arsenal ravage the NBA for the next month. No team on their side of the bracket has the combination of depth and experience to compete with the Lebron and Kyrie show, with Milwaukee just emerging, Indiana’s below average offense, and Toronto’s difficulty in matching up with LeBron consistently. On the other side, I think that the potential Celtics and Wizards series may end up being the most closely contested series in the past few years outside of the Finals. Both teams are young with an opportunity at dethroning the King right in front of them. Both teams would have matchups that could tilt in either team’s favor on any given night, from the All Star point guards with a lot to prove in the Wizards’ John Wall and the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas to the clashing of emerging wings Otto Porter of the Wizards and Jae Crowder of the Celtics. I think that Wall’s size and knack for pickpocketing in particular will wear out the 5’9” Thomas in the matchup, while Thomas’ defense on Wall will not be as impactful. That being said, the Wizards don’t have quite enough firepower to take down the King barring an incredible series from Wall or fellow guard Bradley Beal. While the journey is much different than last year, the destination, more likely than not, remains the same. Cavs in 6

Eastern Conference Darkhorse

Jon:

  • Indiana Pacers: If Paul George takes that last shot with four seconds left instead of CJ Miles, this series is 1-0 Pacers up. Despite the hard reality that George did not in fact take that shot and the Cavaliers won the first game, the Indiana Pacers are still my darkhorse pick. Cleveland ended this regular season on a terrible note, giving up 100 points per game for almost all of March, and the team themselves looked like they had no effort in them. Not to mention these same Cavaliers dropped the last four games of the season, including back-to-back losses to the Atlanta Hawks in which the Cavs not only gave up more than 100 points but even blew a lead. Even if LeBron James literally carries this team himself, it’s not going to be enough this time, because the Pacers aren’t just hungry, they’re starved, and now they smell blood in the water. The Cavs have once again showed their vulnerability by giving up more than 100 to Indiana, and barely surviving the last possession, while at home no less.

Christian:

  • Washington Wizards: The Wizards have quietly amassed a strong and deep team lead by an MVP candidate that has flown under the radar. John Wall has put together an incredible season that no one is talking about, averaging 23.1 points, 10.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds while bumping his field goal percentage up to 45.1, better than both MVP favorites Westbrook (42.5) and Rockets point guard James Harden (44.0). On top of that, he played both sides of the ball, finishing first in overall steals with 157 and second in steals per game with 2.01, only trailing Draymond Green’s 2.03 mark, who had three less steals overall than Wall. Alongside Wall, Bradley Beal has finally remained healthy and has not needed a minutes limit as he warned in January of 2016, playing 77 of 82 games this season while averaging 34.9 minutes per game. Through this healthy season, Beal proved he was worth the third overall selection the Wizards used on him in 2012, averaging 23.1 points per game while shooting a surprisingly strong 48.2 percent from the field and maintaining a 40.4 percent mark from beyond the arc. If their superstar backcourt emerging wasn’t enough, small forward Otto Porter has shown great potential as a versatile scoring option this season, boosting his field goal and 3-point percentages from 47.3 and 36.7 to 51.6 and 43.4 respectively while slightly increasing his number of attempts per game. Those marks put Porter fourth among small forwards with at least 800 attempts in field goal percentage and fourth in the NBA in three point percentage among players with at least 200 attempts. While their depth is nothing to marvel over, the offensive firepower that the Wizards possess make them a threat in a short series.

NBA Champs

Jon: I really do not think anyone is going to beat the revamped Warriors four times, ever, not just in the playoffs. If the Cavaliers manage to make it back to the finals for round three of The King vs. The Kid, I have the Warriors taking that series. Even if the Celtics push all the way to the NBA Finals they lack the defensive fire power to stop the Warriors especially since Thomas will have the daunting task of guarding Curry and that is a total mismatch. Quite frankly I don’t think any team has the defensive fortitude to stop Thompson, Curry and Durant while they are all on the court together and the Warriors will get a defensive boost with Durant back in the line up. Warriors in 6

Christian: This should be the third round of Cavs and Warriors,  the Thrilla’ in Manilla of the NBA. The Cavs and the Warriors have each faced their share of roster issues in the previous two NBA Finals, the hope is that we can finally have a fully healthy rubber match for all the glory. Kevin Durant is certainly an incredible asset, but the Warriors gave up some of their incredible depth and one of the best rim protectors in Andrew Bogut to do so. The world will finally get to see if the trade-off made the Warriors stronger than they were before, and I think that it’s a resounding yes. I expect to see the super team flex its muscles and slowly wear out LeBron and the Cavs. Facing a Game 7 in Oracle once again, the Warriors with their elevated talent and experience from the previous season should propel Golden State to its second NBA title in the modern age. Warriors in 7

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