NBA Roundtable: First-Round Playoff Predictions

NBA Roundtable: First-Round Playoff Predictions

This article is part of our NBA Roundtable series.

The NBA Postseason gets underway Monday afternoon. Here's how the RotoWire NBA staff believes the first round will play out:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 8. Orlando Magic

James Anderson: Bucks in 4. This will be a re-run of the Bucks' 2019 first round sweep over the Pistons. I wouldn't expect Giannis to play more than 30-32 minutes in any of these games and the Bucks may win all four by double digits.

Alex Barutha: Bucks in 5. The Bucks looked less-than-dominant in the bubble, but even if they looked terrible, I wouldn't consider picking against them in Round 1. When Orlando lost Jonathan Isaac, they lost any chance of slowing down Giannis. Still, the Magic are still a well-coached, competitive team, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt to win one game.

Shannon McKeown: Bucks in 4. Milwaukee is the best team in the NBA by a significant margin, and Orlando has no business being a part of the playoffs. 

Nick Whalen: Bucks in 4. Milwaukee didn't look as dominant as expected during seeding play, but the Bucks should cruise to four easy victories.

Mike Barner: Bucks in 4. The Bucks are going to make quick work of the Magic. The Magic don't have anywhere near the firepower needed to even keep this series competitive.

Alex Rikleen: Bucks in 4. Not a lot to analyze here. One team is dramatically better than the other. 

2. Toronto Raptors vs. 7. Brooklyn Nets

Anderson: Raptors in 4. The Raptors are the most underrated team in this year's playoffs. The Bucks had the best regular season defense but I think the Raptors will have the best postseason defense. They also have such a clear, solidified rotation where they only play good players. I think they are complete enough, good enough and well coached to the point that predicting anything other than a sweep against this Nets team is an insult to Toronto.

Barutha: Raptors in 4. As much as Brooklyn has impressed with a skeleton crew in the bubble, they just don't have the talent to keep up in this series. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot can only do so much.

McKeown: Raptors in 5. With Spencer Dinwiddie, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving out, the Nets don't have the talent to make this a competitive series. Caris LeVert will go off for at least one huge outing, but Toronto will advance easily. 

Whalen: Raptors in 4. The depleted Nets have more than held their own in the bubble, but Toronto's defense will absolutely suffocate Brooklyn's halfcourt attack.

Barner: Raptors in 4. The Nets at least avoided the Bucks in the first round, but I think they still get swept. The Raptors have looked great even after Kawhi Leonard left town and they have the depth to make another deep run in the playoffs.

Rikleen: Raptors in 5. This Nets team is hungry and scrappy, which is why I'm predicting the Gentleman's Sweep (as opposed to the less formal variety). But this is another series where the underdog is almost painfully overmatched.

3. Boston Celtics vs. 6. Philadelphia 76ers

Anderson: Celtics in 6. The Sixers went from being super overrated heading into the bubble to being a bit underrated since the Ben Simmons injury. The numbers still say they are a dominant team when Joel Embiid is on the court, regardless of whether Simmons is on the court. They should win a couple games thanks to having the best player in the series, but I also think they will wear down as the series goes on.

Barutha: Celtics in 6. In losing Ben Simmons, the 76ers lost all hope of a consistent transition offense and a chance to legitimately check Jayson Tatum. The halfcourt offense should flow through Embiid, but I'm assuming Boston will double-team and force him to constantly make tough decisions with the ball. I'm still banking on Philly's overall talent forcing six games, but it would surprise me if they're able to win the series.

McKeown: Celtics in 7. The Sixers don't have the right roster to advance far in the playoffs, especially with Ben Simmons out, but I expect Joel Embiid to have a monster series. This will be one of the more competitive series in Round 1, but Boston's more well-rounded roster and coaching edge will lead them to victory. 

Whalen: Celtics in 7. I think the Sixers could absolutely win this series, but the longer it goes, the more I think Boston's depth ends up winning out.

Barner: Celtics in 5. I would have picked the Celtics to win this series even if Ben Simmons (knee) was healthy, but with him out, this could get ugly in a hurry. Joel Embiid will go off in a game to at least get the Sixers one win, but this should be a short series.

Rikleen: Celtics in 5. I really could see the 76ers winning this in 6, but I don't trust their locker room or coaching staff enough to actually pull it off. The best Embiid-stopper in this series is now his teammate (Horford), and they have enough wing defense in Thybulle-Richardson-Harris to cause legitimate problems for Tatum, Brown, and Hayward. But if the 76ers do lean into that lineup, they'll struggle to score. And any combination that doesn't include all three of those wings simply cannot stop the Boston offense. Both teams struggle with depth, but Boston is deeper, especially with a bench player moving up to fill in for Simmons. The 76ers have the best player, but the Celtics have the next four.

4. Indiana Pacers vs. 5. Miami Heat

Anderson: Heat in 5. The Heat look really impressive since switching to Bam Adebayo at center. I think this one will be closer to a sweep than to going 6, and look for Miami to push a dominant Bucks team to six games in Round 2.

Barutha: Heat in 6. Indiana's top-end talent is still good without Domantas Sabonis, but I can't trust TJ "Michael Jordan" Warren and a still-less-than-100% Victor Oladipo to overwhelm Miami. The Heat looked to be firing on all cylinders in the bubble, and I don't anticipate the wheels falling off in Round 1. The Pacers' bench is especially suspect.

McKeown: Heat in 6. This may be the most evenly matched series in the first round. If Domantas Sabonis and T.J. Warren were at full strength, I would be tempted to side with the Pacers. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Miami's long-range shooters are enough to survive an injury-depleted Pacers roster.

Whalen: Heat in 5. Victor Oladipo still isn't totally back, and when T.J. Warren isn't playing like Calvin Cambridge crossed with Julius Irving, the Pacers are overmatched by Miami at just about every position group.

Barner: Heat in 6. There is no way Jimmy Butler is going to let the Heat lose in the first round to this team. No way. Losing Domantas Sabonis is also a crushing blow to the Pacers, who are also playing without one of their key reserves in Jeremy Lamb (knee).

Rikleen: Heat in 5. Another Gentleman's Sweep out of respect for the underdog. I would have struggled here if Sabonis was healthy and Oladipo and Brogdon were operating near what we know is their best-case versions. But they aren't. Butler is a playoff killer, and Adebayo is becoming an incredible force. It's hard to win a series when the other team has the best two players by far.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. LA Lakers vs. 8. Portland Trail Blazers

Anderson: Lakers in 5. Even if the Lakers are only the third or fourth best team in the playoffs, they are still way better than Portland. Dame and CJ should steal a game or two, but the Blazers don't have anyone to slow LeBron down, so I look for him to pick apart their sieve defense as the series goes on.

Barutha: Lakers in 6. Lillard has looked unstoppable in the bubble, and the Lakers don't have the personnel to guard him. However, Portland doesn't have the personnel to guard LeBron, which is more of a problem. The Blazers' defense, in general, is poor, and they'll need to out-gun the Lakers to have any chance of pulling an upset. Ultimately, I think LA's defense will prove to be too much for Portland.

McKeown: Lakers in 6. Dame will put on a show and steal a couple games, but it's hard to beat a team with two of the top five or six players in the league. 

Whalen: Lakers in 6. I'm really, really down on the Lakers, so I wouldn't be surprised if Portland comes out and wins Game 1 or Game 2. But the Blazers simply don't have enough on defense to actually win the series. 

Barner: Lakers in 5. Damian Lillard will help the Blazers steal a game, but I'm not worried about LeBron James and company looking a little off inside the bubble. Once the playoffs get started, look for them to roll.

Rikleen: Lakers in 6. If Nurkic had been healthy this season, Portland would have easily been my pick for 3rd in the West. Add to that the emergence of Gary Trent Jr and the Lakers playing without Bradley and Rondo, and I think this should be a really fun series. At the end of the day, however, the Trail Blazers defensive strategy of "sometimes they'll miss probably, let's get back to offense!" just can't work in a playoff series against LeBron James.

2. LA Clippers vs. 7. Dallas Mavericks

Anderson: Clippers in 6. It's unfortunate that the Mavs couldn't get up to the 6 seed, because I think they are better than the Nuggets, Jazz and Thunder. However, this is a brutal draw, and the Clippers have the best defensive matchups in the league for Doncic. Rick Carlisle is a stud, so I could see him scheming them to a win in one game and Doncic is too brilliant to not steal another win.

Barutha: Clippers in 5. Dallas has the best offense in NBA history, so I'd like to think they can at least win one game. But I don't think they have the resources necessary to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on either side of the ball. It's a nightmare matchup for Luka Doncic, who may be guarded by one of those two at all times.

McKeown: Clippers in 5. This is the worst possible Round 1 matchup for Luka Doncic and the Mavs. Doncic will have trouble taking over the series, or even an individual game, with Kawhi Leonard or Paul George shadowing him. If the Mavs played any other Western Conference team in the first round, I would be tempted to make them my upset pick. 

Whalen: Clippers in 5. Dallas could take a game early while the Clippers are still adjusting to a full roster, but LA's combination of depth and perimeter defense should be more than enough to keep the Luka Doncic-Kristaps Porzingis duo at bay.

Barner: Clippers in 5. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are healthy, so the Clippers are my pick to win it all. As awesome as Luka Doncic has been, his supporting cast outside of Kristaps Porzingis won't be enough to hang with the Clippers.

Rikleen: Clippers in 5. I think there's a good chance the Mavericks make these games close. But the full-strength Clippers are just way too good, and too aware of the stakes, to lose more than a game. Remember, last time we had a postseason, Kawhi Leonard was the best player in the NBA by a long shot.

3. Denver Nuggets vs. 6. Utah Jazz

Anderson: Nuggets in 6. If the coaches were flipped, I'd pick the Nuggets in 4 or 5, but I think Utah's coaching edge will lead to a couple close wins. From a depth standpoint, it's not that close, even though the top-end talent is comparable.

Barutha: Nuggets in 5. Denver's ability to stretch the floor, with Nikola Jokic especially, will reduce the effectiveness of Rudy Gobert's rim protection. Aside from that, Denver is the deeper, more talented team. The Jazz are hurting without Bojan Bogdanovic, and Mike Conley had to leave the bubble for paternity leave.

McKeown: Nuggets in 6. Prior to Mike Conley leaving the bubble, I was planning to pick Utah to play spoiler. With Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic both out, Utah doesn't have the firepower to compete with Denver's deep roster. 

Whalen: Nuggets in 5. Denver had the worst defense of any team in the bubble, and who knows how long they'll be without Will Barton and Gary Harris. But Utah is also down two key pieces and can't match the Nuggets' high-upside role players.

Barner: Nuggets in 6. The Jazz losing Bojan Bogdanovic (wrist) is huge given that he's one of the main scorers in their offense. The Nuggets are dealing with some key injuries of their own, but with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray healthy and Michael Porter Jr. emerging, they still advance here.

Rikleen: I honestly don't know. If you're making me pick, Nuggets in 5, but spend your time reading analysis from people who think they understand this series. I'm flummoxed.

4. Houston Rockets vs. 5. Oklahoma City Thunder

Anderson: Thunder in 7. I'd take the Rockets over the Nuggets, Jazz and Blazers, and I think they'd give the Lakers a great series, but I think this could be one of CP3's career legacy series. A revenge series, if you will. One through five, I think the Thunder have more talent, and if they play Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari around 40 minutes per game, that could be enough to get it done. The Thunder were also the most clutch team in the league this year.

Barutha: Rockets in 7. This is the series I have the least amount of confidence about. Russell Westbrook's absence for the start of the series matters, but we know Harden can control a game for 40 minutes if need be. These teams are just opposites in so many ways that it's tough to get a read on what will happen. The Thunder are an old-school, mid-range-jumper-hitting, big-guy-in-the-paint team; the Rockets are full-send into the small-ball revolution. I think the talent of Harden and the Rockets will win out, but OKC has the pieces to pull the upset.

McKeown: Rockets in 6. The likely absence of Russell Westbrook makes this series more interesting, but I still think Houston has enough to advance. James Harden will have an all-time series and lead the Rockets to Round 2. 

Whalen: Rockets in 6. With or without Russell Westbrook, this series was never going to be a cake walk for the Rockets. I think Houston ultimately prevails, but I wouldn't be shocked if OKC makes it a seven-game series.

Barner: Thunder in 7. The Thunder could have already made this a tough series for the Rockets, but with Russell Westbrook (quadriceps) out for Game 1, and possibly longer, the Thunder have a great chance to pull off the upset. They've been one of the best road teams in the league this season, so playing in the bubble might actually help their chances of making a run in the playoffs.

Rikleen: Rockets in 6. I'm assuming Westbrook returns by Game 3 or 4. This gets a lot dicier for them if he's out longer than that. It'll be an interesting clash of very different teams, but I think the Rockets have more overall talent, better coaching, and are more likely to win the stylistic battle. Either way, we're certain to get lots of annoying after-the-fact commentary about what the loss means for either Chris Paul's or James Harden's legacy.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
James Anderson
James Anderson is RotoWire's Lead Prospect Analyst, Assistant Baseball Editor, and co-host of Farm Fridays on Sirius/XM radio and the RotoWire Prospect Podcast.
Mike Barner
Mike started covering fantasy sports in 2007, joining RotoWire in 2010. In 2018, he was a finalist for the 2018 FSWA Basketball Writer of the Year award. In addition to RotoWire, Mike has written for Sportsline, Sports Illustrated, DK Live, RealTime Fantasy Sports, Lineup Lab and KFFL.com.
Alex Barutha
Alex is RotoWire's NBA Assistant Editor. He writes articles about daily fantasy, year-long fantasy and sports betting. You can hear him on the RotoWire NBA Podcast, Sirius XM, DraftKings Live and other platforms. Vince Carter and Alex both first dunked during their respective sophomore years of high school.
John McKechnie
John is the 2016 FSWA College Writer of the Year winner. He is a Maryland native and graduate of the University of Georgia. He's been writing for RotoWire since 2014.
Alex Rikleen
Rikleen writes the NBA column "Numbers Game," which decodes the math that underpins fantasy basketball and was a nominee for the 2016 FSWA Newcomer of the Year Award. A certified math teacher, Rikleen decided the field of education pays too well, so he left it for writing. He is a Boston College graduate living outside Boston.
Nick Whalen
RotoWire's NBA Editor and host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Nick was awarded the FSWA Best Podcast -- All Sports award in 2017 and 2018. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.
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