With the 2016 NBA playoffs starting Saturday, SI.com’s experts provide their predictions on which teams will be playing in June. The first round features several entertaining matchups and intriguing players sure to have an impact throughout the summer.
I realize I’m climbing out on a very long limb with some of these Eastern Conference picks so I’ll try to explain. Cleveland is clearly the best team and should make the Finals. So what if the Cavaliers have been a season-long soap opera? So what if they have seemingly clashed on the court and in cyberspace? Talented squads flip switches all the time. They win whether or not they happen to love each other. But the road becomes harder. They are more liable to fracture when tested, and the Cavs will be tested. The East is a jumble, and if Cleveland trips, the race opens. I am pegging the Hawks and Hornets to make deep runs, for similar reasons. They are supremely well-coached, they shoot the three (Atlanta ranks sixth in three-point makes, Charlotte fourth) and they have played well in the second half of the season (Atlanta has won 17 of its last 24, Charlotte 25 of 34). Maybe it doesn’t help that they also get along, but it can’t hurt.
I’m not picking against the 73-win Warriors so much as I’m stubbornly sticking with my preseason predictions. Out West, I like the Spurs to make quick work out of the ailing Grizzlies with their major talent and depth advantages before leaning on their experience and execution to take down the top-heavy Thunder. The Warriors went a combined 7–0 against the Rockets and Clippers this season and it would be a real surprise if either team took the defending champions past five games. Golden State owns major balance and commitment advantages over Houston and, unlike L.A. with Blake Griffin, it doesn’t face significant health and lineup fit questions.
Back East, I view the Cavaliers strolling past the Pistons and Celtics, two teams lacking in good individual matchups for LeBron James and any level of demonstrated postseason success. The Heat will have a tougher go on the other side of the bracket, but I trust that their second-half success, collective experience and coach Erik Spoelstra’s steady hand will be enough to get past the Hornets and Raptors, two teams lacking playoff pedigrees.
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San Antonio will need some help—injury-related or otherwise—to spring the upset on Golden State, but excellent home court advantage, a high defensive ceiling, a deliberate style of play and lineup versatility give the Spurs a fighting chance. I see LeBron James advancing to his sixth straight Finals by vanquishing his former team thanks to his unmatched individual prowess and a supporting cast that can match up big or small with any lineup the Heat runs out.
In the Finals, I see the Spurs besting the Cavaliers for three reasons: Kawhi Leonard will make James work on every possession and limit his overall impact, Gregg Popovich will exploit Cleveland’s defensive weak links like Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, and the Spurs’ cohesiveness will ultimately win out over a Cavaliers team that doesn’t seem to trust each other quite enough to claim the Larry O’Brien trophy.
It was tempting to call a Celtics playoff run. The team is geared for the postseason, Brad Stevens is impressive, and Boston vs the Warriors would be a lot of fun. The C’s perimeter defenders and unconventional bigs gave Golden State trouble this season. Still, it’s hard to see Boston beating Cleveland in a 7-game series. The Hornets are another team that should fare well, and they should take the first round series in a mild upset. Other than that, it feels like a whole lotta chalk, ending with another Cavs-Warriors matchup that, while entertaining, will likely end with Steph Curry drenched in confetti. This is the Warriors’ era, and they’ll stake their claim to greatness with a repeat.
Although a few teams have the potential to prevent a Warriors-Cavs reunion in the NBA Finals, no challenger is compelling enough to pick as an outright favorite in their respective conferences. Golden State remains unsolvable. Give the defending champs three games or so against most any strategy and they’ll pick it apart. Even San Antonio—an alltime great team in its own right—appeared to be at a loss in its efforts to contain Stephen Curry and Co. There are strategies the Spurs might use to gain ground in a series, though seemingly none that could throw the Warriors sufficiently off balance.
Cleveland is significantly more vulnerable. Yet for all of the profound weirdness surrounding the Cavaliers—the disjointed play, the poor body language, the veiled shots fired—every other East contender comes off as less reliable. LeBron James raises the baseline of Cleveland’s play. Even if the ball movement and defense aren’t as finely tuned as they should be, James is dominant enough to propel the Cavs through round after round in the Eastern Conference bracket. Not that it much matters; the Cavs would be at a disadvantage in a Finals series against any of the three top teams in the West and against a healthy Warriors team most of all.
Unlike the annual crapshoot that is the NCAA tournament, it’s tough to pick an upset in the NBA playoffs. You’re basically banking on a team becoming something they haven’t been all season. A seven-game series is a great way to take chance almost entirely out of the question. Then again, chalk doesn’t always prevail. Players catch fire, strategy trumps talent, injuries and fatigue set in. But I can’t imagine a scenario where the Warriors and Cavaliers don’t meet once again in the Finals. While the Spurs got the Warriors to play their style of basketball in late-season meetings, Golden State proved it’s better at San Antonio’s bread and butter. The East has plenty of feel-good stories, but is short on feel-good upset picks. I’m predicting another year of LeBron and Steph in the Finals and back-to-back titles for the Warriors. It’s a boring pick, but it won’t be boring to watch.
As a logical, levelheaded human being, it’s impossible to pick against Golden State. Watching Stephen Curry and the Warriors march toward 73 wins and their own piece of NBA history this season has been incredible. The experience could only be topped if the Warriors, like the Bulls in 1995–96, complete their mission with an NBA title in June. The climb for Golden State will not be without adversity, as they are likely to face the Rockets, Clippers and Spurs before even reaching the Finals.
There, if my expectations hold true, they will encounter LeBron James and the Cavaliers for a second straight season. Unlike the Warriors, the Cavs face a relatively easy task in the Eastern Conference, but their journey through the playoffs is unlikely to serve as proper preparation for the flame-throwers at Golden State’s disposal. As well-rounded as any team to ever play, the Warriors are built to combat a singular talent like James, and I think they will do so in more impressive fashion than they did in 2015.
I feel terrible going mostly chalk early, and deathly boring rolling with Warriors over Cavs. It’s just an inevitable feeling. I saw Batman vs. Superman earlier this week and from the mess came away with a loosely-derived metaphor. We’ve spent 80% of the time this season closely watching these two familiar, highly-bankable properties, knowing they will eventually get to slam each other through walls and generally make a scene. Just look at Steph and LeBron: one is an overpowered alien life form whose mere existence has dictated the dialogue surrounding the world’s recent state of affairs as we know it, the other an increasingly-mortal man who’s spent a decade mostly taking care of business, but is morally incapable of killing.
It says plenty that this thought didn’t spoil a single thing about the movie’s plot, and similarly, I’m calling no big-picture surprises. I do like both five-over-four “upsets”—I’ve never felt too confident in this Clippers team, and I’m buying playoff Brad Stevens. I believe the Heat have another deep run in the tank, and think the Spurs can execute enough to push the Warriors to seven games. But Golden State’s charmed run doesn’t feel like it’s stopping anytime soon, the Cavs are still the East’s most talented team for all their absurdities, and one of these two teams is significantly improved from last year’s Finals, while the other is simply not. It might just be that simple.