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JVT's NBA first-round preview and picks

By Jonathan Von Tobel  (Point Spread Weekly) 

Western Conference

(1) Houston vs (8) Minnesota 

Regular Season: Houston 4-0

On the surface, it is a huge positive that Jimmy Butler returned to action and to form just in time for the postseason. However, if history repeats itself, then this will be a short-lived jaunt in the playoffs for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Butler started in three of the regular-season meetings with Houston, suffered his knee injury in the third and missed the final matchup. Regardless of his status, the result was always the same: a Houston blowout. In each game, the Rockets scored at least 116 points and, in three of them, Houston dropped 120 points or more while shooting over 43 percent from beyond the arc. It’s a story of contrasting styles, and it does not work in the Timberwolves’ favor. The Rockets are first in the NBA in both 3-point rate and 3-point shots made per game, but Minnesota is dead-last in both categories. The stark contrast in styles was painfully apparent in each of the meetings this season, which is why Houston won each one going away. And why it should be more of the same story this time around.

Pick: Rockets In 4

(2) Golden State vs (7) San Antonio

Regular Season: Golden State 3-1

Two teams that are struggling to get back into decent form for a run at a Larry O’Brien Trophy will meet in this series between Golden State & San Antonio. There is not much to glean from the regular-season series between these two clubs, but it is worth pointing out that the game in which Durant, Curry & Thompson did not play was the only victory for the Spurs. The two games in which the entire crew for the Warriors were on the floor for more than 10 minutes resulted in a double-digit victory for Golden State. The Warriors finished the season ranked 28th in turnovers per offensive play, and 26th in turnovers per game. Whether those issues are a result of a lack of effort, or a sign of trouble has yet to be seen. Oh, and they’re missing Steph Curry for the first round of the postseason. However, the Spurs aren’t exactly the picture of perfect team play. After the loss to New Orleans to close the season, San Antonio is 1-12 in its last 13 road games, and the team’s dropped seven straight away. The issues are on offense when they on the road, as the team’s offensive efficiency drops nearly seven points per 100 possessions in foreign arenas. The road issues are not something that is going to be fixed overnight, and Oracle Arena remains one of the toughest home venues in the league. The Warriors were waiting to flip the switch, and NBA fans will see the difference this weekend.

Pick: Warriors In 5 

(3) Portland vs (6) New Orleans 

Regular Season: 2-2

This will be a great series to watch, especially in the frontcourt where two of the premiere big-men in the NBA will go head-to-head in Jusuf Nurkic & Anthony Davis. In fact, it will be a key matchup to watch. Nurkic is second among centers in defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) this season, behind only Rudy Gobert. Now that Anthony Davis is the lone big prowling the floor, Nurkic will be able to key on him defensively in an attempt to slow down his MVP-like play that has carried the team down the stretch. It will leave quite the battle for the two backcourts to have throughout the first round matchup. The Pelicans boast Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo, with Holiday having just gone through one of his best seasons as a professional. He and Rondo have been the catalysts behind an offense that pushes the pace, and ranks first in the NBA in possessions per contest. While Holiday is very solid defender (11th of qualified point guards in DRPM) it will be a task for Rajon Rondo to chase around Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum for a best of seven series. As for Portland, the most underrated part of this team’s play is the defense. The Blazers finished the year seventh in defensive efficiency, allowing 1.031 points per possession, and ninth in opponent floor percentage. The team also plays at a slower pace, averaging exactly 100 possession per contest, and that will help in the environment of the playoffs in which games can become a grind. 

Pick: Portland In 6

 

(4) Oklahoma City vs (5) Utah

Regular Season: Oklahoma City 3-1

The Utah Jazz ended the 2017-2018 NBA season as arguably the hottest team in the league. After a loss to Indiana on January 15 the Jazz closed the regular season with a 31-8 record. That run was made possible by a team with great length that plays defense, and forces turnovers. Utah is the second best team in steals per defensive play, and fifth in opponent turnovers per play. They are the second best team in terms of defensive efficiency, while allowing just 99.8 points per contest. It begins and ends with center Rudy Gobert, the best defender among every eligible position player in the NBA, according to DRPM. Not just centers. Gobert missed the final two meetings of the regular season series between these two teams, so his play will be a welcome addition for Utah. His presence alone alters almost every shot at the rim, and allows a defender like Ricky Rubio some leeway when he is beaten off the bounce. That will come in handy with the Oklahoma City Thunder, who has a point guard in Russell Westbrook who lives off of destroying slow defenders with dribble penetration. The Thunder are an equally proficient team on the defensive side, ending the season as the ninth best team in defensive efficiency. Rebounding is a huge strength as well, with center Steven Adams leading the charge on the boards. Thanks to Adams’ effort on the glass the Thunder are able to pull down 27.7 percent of their misses. The problem with Oklahoma City is consistency, specifically from its two other stars Carmelo Anthony & Paul George. Specifically Anthony, who is suffering through his worst season as a pro with career lows in both shooting percentage and points per game. All in all, it is a toss up series with two very evenly-matched teams, so expect a long series.

Pick: Utah In 7

Eastern Conference

(1) Toronto vs (8) Washington

Regular Season: 2-2

 

The Toronto Raptors and their deep and youthful bench were dealt a favorable hand when the faltering Wizards fell into their lap as the final seed. Washington closed the regular season on a 7-12 slide, including a final stretch in which the team posted one win in six games. If the window is expanded to the final 21 games for Washington it is an even bleaker picture, especially for the role players. Over that stretch the Wizards were outscore by 9.2 points per 100 possessions with Otto Porter Jr. on the floor, and Kelly Oubre continues to struggle to find his shooting touch. The former Kansas Jayhawk is shooting 36 percent from the floor since the All-Star Break, and just 29 percent from beyond the arc. That does not bode well for an upcoming series with a team that’s bench is as deep as the Marianas Trench. When the squad of Van Vleet, Siakam, Wright, Miles & Poeltl are on the floor together they are outscoring opponents by 17.1 points per 100 possessions. That’s pretty good. The team is playing at a much quicker pace, and shooting the three at a higher rate than years past. In fact, they average 11.8 threes made per game and are fifth in three point rate. Tie that into a defensive efficiency rating that is the fifth best in the NBA, and this will be a series that the Raptors should be able to handle with relative ease.

 

Pick: Toronto In 6

 

(2) Boston vs (7) Milwaukee

Regular Season: 2-2

 

While the Boston Celtics don’t enter the playoffs on an insane winning streak of any kind, they do enter with perhaps the most impressive resumé of the NBA teams. It seems that no matter which player would go down with an injury, it did not matter for the best defensive team in the Association. Lose Gordon Heyward? Rip off 16 consecutive wins. Kyrie Irving is out with knee surgery? Post a 14-8 record in games in which he did not play. It all stems from how Boston plays defense, and that is really well. The Celtics allowed just 1.008 points per possession this season, 100.4 points per game and opponents shoot just 47.1 percent from the floor against them. It’s not all roses though, because there is a trade-off when a team loses its best offensive player. In the games in which Irving has not been on the floor the team scores just 103 points per 100 possessions, which places them in the bottom tier of teams. The Milwaukee Bucks are the antithesis of that on offense, with an efficiency rating of 106.4 for the regular season. A lot of that is due to having one of the best players in the league on their roster in Giannis Antetokoumpo. However, the team’s inconsistencies on defense are what will hold it back, and there was no better example of that than the one seen on the final day of the regular season. The Bucks allowed 46 points, and had a defensive metric of 172.4! This will be a hard fought series due to the lack of offensive talent for Boston, but expect the better defensive team to pull it out.

 

Pick: Boston In 7

 

(3) Philadelphia vs (6) Miami

Regular Season: 2-2

 

It’s been an entire month since the Philadelphia 76ers felt the sting of a loss. Sixteen straight victories for the young Philly team has a lot of bettors buying into ‘The Process’ making its way out of the Eastern Conference. Why not? The numbers back up the support. Philadelphia is the second-best team in multiple defensive categories, third in defensive efficiency and first in opponent floor percentage. Offensively the statistics stack up as well. The 76ers move the ball better than most teams, and have the second best rate in assists per possession. The show is run by impending Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons, who posted an assist rate during the regular season of 31.7 and nearly averaged a triple-double during the month of April. Making Philadelphia even more attractive is the potential return of Joel Embiid, which seems to be creeping closer. Should he appear in the first round the task would get even taller for a Miami Heat team that is not exactly the most potent offense seen. The Heat score just 1.037 points per possession, which had them ranked 22nd in the regular season. Miami got this far by playing a solid prank of defense that kept them in almost every game this season. The Heat allowed 1.032 points per possession, the eighth best rating in the Association. Part of playing great defense is controlling the glass, which is something the Heat excel at as well. Miami pulls down 79% of opponent misses, which ranks higher than Philadelphia. That’s really the only thing the Heat have going for them, so don’t expect too much of a fight in this first round series.

 

Pick: Philadelphia In 5

 

(4) Cleveland vs (5) Indiana

Regular Season: Indiana 3-1

 

Yes, the Indiana Pacers took three of four meetings with Cleveland this season, which would usually be a sign of things to come. However, these are not your pre-trade deadline Cavaliers, which is what the Pacers took out thrice. No, this variation of Cleveland has won 12 of 16 contests heading into the tournament, and LeBron is playing what seems like the basketball of his career. The defense remains an issue for the Cavaliers, and the new additions from the trade deadline have not done much to improve the team’s 29th ranked defensive efficiency rating. The lackluster effort on defense is balanced out by an offense that scores 1.097 points per possession, good for fifth in the league. It’s an offense predicated on LeBron attracting defenders, and whipping it around to multiple shooters around the court, and it has proven effective. It will face a stiff test against Indiana, a team that has limited opponents to just 34.9 percent on three point shots. The Pacers lack a try defender to follow LeBron around the court, so that will be the main challenge. However, the supporting cast of Cleveland could have some trouble creating their own offense when LeBron is off the floor. As for the Pacers’ offensive attack, that is centered around Victor Oladipo. The Pacers are lethal in the mid-range, and are the ninth-best three point shooting team in the NBA. Oladipo can drive and dish with the best of them, and he has a smorgasbord of versatile wings to work with on the pick-and-roll. Regardless of a regular season series, LeBron has always shown that he and his teams are different come the postseason. It will be a wild series, but with the same results.

 

Pick: Cleveland In 7

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