Western Conference 1st Round: Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors

Western Conference 1st Round: Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Previous Meetings

  1. Oct. 30 in Toyota Center: Golden State Warriors 112, Houston Rockets 92
  2. Dec. 31 in Toyota Center: Golden State Warriors 114, Houston Rockets 110
  3. Feb. 9 in Oracle Arena: Golden State Warriors 123, Houston Rockets 110

 

Key Matchup: James Harden vs. Klay Thompson

The Houston Rockets are all about James Harden.

According to NBA.com’s statistical databases, only two players have had a higher usage rate: DeMarcus Cousins (shouldn’t be surprising) and Coty Clarke (logged six minutes for the Boston Celtics). JustStephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook andChris Paul have had higher player impact estimates, among those who have averaged at least 10 minutes per game.

If Klay Thompson can throw the bearded shooting guard off, Houston won’t have a chance. Of course, the Rockets might not have much hope even if Harden goes nuts.

 

X-Factor: Dwight Howard

Just imagine if Dwight Howard turns back the clock to 2009 and regains the dominant form that once made him a Hall of Fame lock. If the Houston center can thrive on the glass and throw in plenty of rim-rattling dunks, he’ll force the Golden State Warriors to play bigger than they’d like, setting the tone for the series in his team’s favor.

Are the chances of this happening high? Not at all.

But this is where we have to cue Dumb and Dumber

 

Prediction

The Warriors swept the Rockets during the regular season, and it’s tough to see any other result unfolding. Houston needed a victory on the final day of the calendar to get back to .500 and sneak into the postseason as a No. 8 seed, but its joy will be short-lived.

Golden State Warriors advance in four games. 

 

Western Conference 1st Round: Memphis Grizzlies vs. San Antonio Spurs

Western Conference 1st Round: Memphis Grizzlies vs. San Antonio Spurs

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Previous Meetings

  1. Nov. 21 in AT&T Center: San Antonio Spurs 92, Memphis Grizzlies 82
  2. Dec. 3 in FedExForum: San Antonio Spurs 103, Memphis Grizzlies 83
  3. March 25 in AT&T Center: San Antonio Spurs 110, Memphis Grizzlies 104
  4. March 28 in FedExForum: San Antonio Spurs 101, Memphis Grizzlies 87

 

Key Matchup: San Antonio Spurs vs. the Clock

There’s no real matchup we can highlight. Not with Mike Conley andMarc Gasol out for the year while Tony Allen attempts to stave off natural decline and the maladies that kept him out at the end of the regular season.

The only true matchup comes between the San Antonio Spurs and the clock, as they need to turn this series into a sweep and stay as fresh as possible for the tougher opponents in the later rounds. Going even five games could spell bad news down the road.

 

X-Factor: N/A

Xavier Munford? Lance Stephenson? JaMychal Green?

No healthy member of the Memphis Grizzlies roster will make this a competitive series.

 

Prediction

While San Antonio was busy completing one of the greatest regular seasons in NBA history, Memphis was fighting against that pesky injury imp and attempting to stay in the picture. The Grizzlies did so successfully, but this is a team that has posted a minus-6.6 net rating since the beginning of March.

For perspective, the Phoenix Suns have been outscored by 6.9 points per 100 possessions this season.

The Spurs aren’t going to have any trouble here, especially after sweeping the Grizz during their first four matchups. Four will soon become eight.

San Antonio Spurs advance in four games. 

 

Western Conference 1st Round: Dallas Mavericks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Western Conference 1st Round: Dallas Mavericks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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Previous Meetings

  1. Nov. 22 in Chesapeake Energy Arena: Oklahoma City Thunder 117, Dallas Mavericks 114
  2. Jan. 13 in Chesapeake Energy Arena: Oklahoma City Thunder 108, Dallas Mavericks 89
  3. Jan. 22 in American Airlines Center: Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Dallas Mavericks 106
  4. Feb. 24 in American Airlines Center: Oklahoma City Thunder 116, Dallas Mavericks 103

 

Key Matchup: Dirk Nowitzki vs. Serge Ibaka

If you’re going to beat the Dallas Mavericks, you have to slow down Dirk Nowitzki.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are such forces of nature that they’re almost always going to produce for the Oklahoma City Thunder. But Father Time has slowed the legendary Dallas Mavericks power forward just a bit, to the point that Serge Ibaka could potentially take him out of the game and make this first-round matchup a cakewalk for OKC.

During the Thunder’s four regular-season meetings with the Mavs, Nowitzki averaged 19.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 55.3 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. If they can keep him to those numbers again, good news will follow.

 

X-Factor: Justin Anderson

Justin Anderson has impressed throughout his rookie season, even though he’s had trouble finding his stroke from NBA range. He’s been good on the defensive end, consistently accepting tougher matchups and holding his own against established players.

However, guarding Durant is a bit different than your typical assignment.

If the Virginia product proves he’s not afraid of the big stage and slows down one of the most potent scoring machines the Association has ever seen, that could pay large dividends for Dallas’ upset bid.

 

Prediction

There’s a reason OKC swept the Mavericks during their four previous meetings. Actually, there are plenty of them.

These two teams are on significantly different tiers of the NBA’s overall hierarchy, and there are no magical Michael Jordan clones coming to save the underdog in this first-round series. The Thunder should roll without much trouble, especially with Durant motivated to shine during what could be his final postseason in an Oklahoma City uniform.

Oklahoma City Thunder advance in four games. 

 

Western Conference 1st Round: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Clippers

Western Conference 1st Round: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Clippers

Steve Dykes/Associated Press

Previous Meetings

  1. Nov. 20 in Moda Center: Portland Trail Blazers 102, Los Angeles Clippers 91
  2. Nov. 30 in Staples Center: Los Angeles Clippers 102, Portland Trail Blazers 87
  3. Jan. 6 in Moda Center: Los Angeles Clippers 109, Portland Trail Blazers 98
  4. March 24 in Staples Center: Los Angeles Clippers 96, Portland Trail Blazers 94

 

Key Matchup: Chris Paul vs. Damian Lillard

What could this be other than a matchup of marquee point guards?

Chris Paul is the two-way stud who remains near the top of the class at this position, while Damian Lillard is an offensive machine capable of torching even the NBA’s toughest backcourt stoppers. If one of the floor generals severely outplays the other, it should tip the balances.

 

X-Factor: Allen Crabbe/Al-Farouq Aminu

In LAC, you know where the offense is coming from. Paul can lead the charge on most nights, and he’s supported by DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick and the recently returned Blake Griffin.

The Blazers don’t have that luxury. Lillard and C.J. McCollum make for a killer one-two punch, but they don’t have a reliable third scorer to help them survive close games. No team in the Western Conference had a No. 3 scorer average as few points as Allen Crabbe did in Portland (10.3).

If either of those wing players catch fire, it would take loads of pressure off the young backcourt and makes the Blazers even tougher to shut down.

 

Prediction

The Clippers are too talented to lose in the first round, especially because the notion that Paul flops in the playoffs is fundamentally incorrect and flat-out laughable. Lillard will heat up a few times and could steal a game or two, but the Blazers’ unexpectedly successful season will come to a relatively quick end.

Los Angeles Clippers advance in six games.

 

Eastern Conference 1st Round: Detroit Pistons vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

Eastern Conference 1st Round: Detroit Pistons vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Previous Meetings

  1. Nov. 17 in The Palace of Auburn Hills: Detroit Pistons 104, Cleveland Cavaliers 99
  2. Jan. 29 in The Palace of Auburn Hills: Cleveland Cavaliers 114, Detroit Pistons 106
  3. Feb. 22 in Quicken Loans Arena: Detroit Pistons 96, Cleveland Cavaliers 88
  4. April 13 in Quicken Loans Arena: Detroit Pistons 112, Cleveland Cavaliers 110

 

Key Matchup: Andre Drummond vs. Tristan Thompson

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been at their best when they throw together a smaller lineup and maximize the amount of talent they have on the floor. As Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale explained, they even boast one of the league’s 10 best small-ball units, though it surprisingly contains Matthew Dellavedova instead of Kyrie Irving.

But the playoffs often come down to which team can better enforce its style, and Tristan Thompson failing to hold his own against Andre Drummond would play right into the Detroit Pistons’ hands. The Motown center is a dominant presence on the glass, and the last thing the Cavs want is to see him create endless second-chance opportunities, which would force them to go bigger more often than desired.

 

X-Factor: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

The four-out, one-in system works best when everyone is catching fire from beyond the arc, but not every member of the starting five has helped draw defenses away from Drummond. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been the primary culprit, firing away from downtown 4.9 times per game but connecting at a mere 30.9 percent clip.

If he makes Cleveland pay for leaving him open—something you’d think he’d be able to do, even if that hasn’t yet been the case—everything else will get easier for the Detroit offense.

 

Prediction

Do you think we’re going to bet against LeBron James advancing past the first round of the playoffs?

His team has made it to the NBA Finals during each of the last five seasons, and that streak won’t come to an end this early. A motivated Cavs squad will be superior to the regular-season version that dropped three contests to Detroit.

Cleveland Cavaliers advance in four games. 

 

Eastern Conference 1st Round: Indiana Pacers vs. Toronto Raptors

Eastern Conference 1st Round: Indiana Pacers vs. Toronto Raptors

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Previous Meetings

  1. Oct. 28 in Air Canada Centre: Toronto Raptors 106, Indiana Pacers 99
  2. Dec. 14 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse: Indiana Pacers 106, Toronto Raptors 90
  3. March 17 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse: Toronto Raptors 101, Indiana Pacers 94
  4. April 8 in Air Canada Centre: Toronto Raptors 111, Indiana Pacers 98

 

Key Matchup: Kyle Lowry vs. George Hill

Though he got some well-deserved national attention at the beginning of the season, Kyle Lowry has fallen a bit off the radar despite maintaining his high level of play.

He should be a serious candidate for Most Improved Player, as well as someone who shows up on the tail end of a few MVP ballots. According to my total points added database (TPA, which is explained in full throughout this article), Lowry put together the NBA’s No. 8 season during 2015-16, trailing only Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul.

George Hill has stopped his fair share of strong floor generals, but he’ll have his work cut out for him in this clash.

 

X-Factor: Monta Ellis

The days of Monta Ellis thriving as an offensive stud are behind us. Playing under head coach Frank Vogel, his career-best defensive box plus/minus (0.9) exceeded his offensive box plus/minus (minus-0.6) for the first time in his NBA tenure.

But the 30-year-old shooting guard still has the ability to break out, even if he shot just 42.7 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from beyond the arc this season. Should he turn back the clocks and relieve some of the offensive burden faced by Paul George, the Indiana Pacers could upset the Toronto Raptors.

 

Prediction

The Pacers aren’t pushovers. Not with George leading the scoring charge and an underrated defensive frontcourt patrolling the paint.

However, Lowry has been the best player on either team in 2015-16—a fact that won’t change now. He and DeMar DeRozan are clearly the better backcourt, and throwing DeMarre Carroll back into the mix should only aid the depth of this dangerous Raptors squad.

Toronto Raptors advance in six games.

 

Eastern Conference 1st Round: Charlotte Hornets vs. Miami Heat

Eastern Conference 1st Round: Charlotte Hornets vs. Miami Heat

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Previous Meetings

  1. Oct. 28 in American Airlines Arena: Miami Heat 104, Charlotte Hornets 94
  2. Dec. 9 in Time Warner Cable Arena: Charlotte Hornets 99, Miami Heat 81
  3. Feb. 5 in Time Warner Cable Arena: Miami Heat 98, Charlotte Hornets 95
  4. March 17 in American Airlines Arena: Charlotte Hornets 109, Miami Heat 106

 

Key Matchup: Courtney Lee vs. Dwyane Wade

Dwyane Wade has often looked rejuvenated during the 2015-16 campaign, relying on his offseason conditioning to keep going at a high level. The result of that extra work has been a much stronger defensive effort, but he’ll have a tough time chasing Courtney Lee around the perimeter.

Lee has only scored an additional 0.6 points per game in Charlotte Hornets victories this year, but it’s how the points have come that matters.

When the Hornets are on the losing end, he’s knocked down 40.8 percent of his field-goal attempts and shot 37.5 percent from three-point territory. In wins, those numbers rise to 48.4 and 38.0, respectively.

Will Wade have to expend so much energy that it hurts him on the offensive end? Keeping up with Lee ain’t easy.

 

X-Factor: Hassan Whiteside

If Hassan Whiteside is chasing big stats at the expense of making the right basketball plays, the Miami Heat could be in big trouble. And that may be a distinct possibility with the center chasing a max deal in free agency as soon as Miami’s season comes to an end.

On the flip side, he could be locked in, wreaking havoc with his shot-blocking ability and throwing down countless alley-oop slams.

 

Prediction

Since the beginning of March, the Heat have outscored their opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, Charlotte has posted a net rating of 7.6 during the same stretch.

Miami has the bigger names, but this Hornets team is rolling. And according to TPA, Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams have both been more valuable than anyone on the Heat roster, while Nicolas Batum comes close to matching Whiteside’s impact.

This should be one of the most entertaining first-round matchups, but Charlotte’s hot streak will continue.

Charlotte Hornets advance in seven games. 

 

Eastern Conference 1st Round: Boston Celtics vs. Atlanta Hawks

Eastern Conference 1st Round: Boston Celtics vs. Atlanta Hawks

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Previous Meetings

  1. Nov. 13 in TD Garden: Boston Celtics 106, Atlanta Hawks 93
  2. Nov. 24 in Philips Arena: Atlanta Hawks 121, Boston Celtics 97
  3. Dec. 18 in TD Garden: Atlanta Hawks 109, Boston Celtics 101
  4. April 9 in Philips Arena: Atlanta Hawks 118, Boston Celtics 107

 

Key Matchup: Al Horford and Paul Millsap vs. Boston Celtics Frontcourt

We’re going to cheat here.

Al Horford and Paul Millsap are the two-headed lifeblood of the Atlanta Hawks, but the Boston Celtics’ frontcourt output is based more on a deep contingent of players. Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko all have to contribute on both ends to keep their foe’s two best in check.

Head coach Brad Stevens has to be on his toes, constantly shuffling bodies to keep everyone fresh and in the best situations possible.

 

X-Factor: Kent Bazemore

Remember when DeMarre Carroll went off for the Hawks during the 2015 playoffs, leading the team in scoring and carrying them through the first round? Well, he’s no longer on the roster, and that role now falls to Kent Bazemore.

The current swingman isn’t nearly as consistent, but he does have the potential to explode at any moment. With his lefty stroke, he can rain triples while balancing his output with some athletic drives to the hoop. And if he’s feeling it, the Hawks are a much tougher out.

 

Prediction

Boston’s ability to thrive on both ends of the court should play well during the postseason. Though the Celtics don’t have a superstar to lean on in late-game situations, Isaiah Thomas can score in anysituation, and Jae Crowder’s versatility will help everywhere.

Boston finished the regular season ranked No. 10 in offensive ratingand No. 4 in defensive rating. Meanwhile, Atlanta sat at No. 2 on the point-preventing end but only No. 21 on the scoring side.

It’s that balance that will win out in the end, even though this should be another great series.

Boston Celtics advance in seven games. 

 

Western Conference Semifinals: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Golden State Warriors

Western Conference Semifinals: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Golden State Warriors

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Previous Meetings

  1. Nov. 4 in Oracle Arena: Golden State Warriors 112, Los Angeles Clippers 108
  2. Nov. 19 in Staples Center: Golden State Warriors 124, Los Angeles Clippers 117
  3. Feb. 20 in Staples Center: Golden State Warriors 115, Los Angeles Clippers 112
  4. March 23 in Oracle Arena: Golden State Warriors 114, Los Angeles Clippers 98

 

Key Matchup: Chris Paul vs. Stephen Curry

Even though Chris Paul and Stephen Curry are two of the league’s elite point guards, one has rather clearly outplayed the other in the four head-to-head matchups this season:

Player PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT% +/-
Stephen Curry 31.8 5.8 5.5 46.8 46.5 89.7 +8.0
Chris Paul 24.0 5.0 7.8 50.0 40.0 82.4 -6.2

Slowing down Curry is an impossible endeavor this season.

But Paul has to try.

 

X-Factor: Jamal Crawford

Don’t be fooled by his gaudy scoring figures, the occasional game-winner or the hype he’s receiving in the Sixth Man of the Year race. Jamal Crawford hasn’t been a particularly valuable commodity for the Los Angeles Clippers this season, playing inefficient offense, devolving as a facilitator and basically refusing to play defense.

His player efficiency rating stands at a below-average 14.0. Box plus/minus confirms this, grading him slightly below average on offense and well below on defense. ESPN.com’s real plus/minus has him as the No. 374 contributor in the league. TPA leaves him below 453 other players and ahead of only 19 in value added this year. The Clippers’ net rating even improves by 6.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s not on the floor.

Still, Crawford is the team’s best scoring option off the pine. And if you’re going to upset the Dubs in a seven-game series, you need more than one capable ball-handler, as well as a legitimate threat when using the second unit.

 

Prediction

LAC just doesn’t match up well with the Warriors, even if the team managed to keep the final margin fairly small in three of its four regular-season games. Especially with Blake Griffin back in action, the Clippers have enough firepower in the starting lineup, but the complete lack of depth is foreboding.

Golden State Warriors advance in four games.

 

Western Conference Semifinals: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs

Western Conference Semifinals: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs

J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Previous Meetings

  1. Oct. 28 in Chesapeake Energy Arena: Oklahoma City Thunder 112, San Antonio Spurs 106
  2. March 12 in AT&T Center: San Antonio Spurs 93, Oklahoma City Thunder 85
  3. March 26 in Chesapeake Energy Arena: Oklahoma City Thunder 111, San Antonio Spurs 92
  4. April 12 in AT&T Center: San Antonio Spurs 102, Oklahoma City Thunder 98

 

Key Matchup: Gregg Popovich vs. Billy Donovan

We could easily pick Tony Parker and his unenviable task of attempting to slow down the juggernaut known as Russell Westbrook. The superstar battle between Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant will also prove quite important during the second-round proceedings.

But nothing matters more than the strategic clash between the two head coaches. On one end, we have the legendary Gregg Popovich—arguably the greatest coach in the sport’s history. Squaring off against him is Billy Donovan, finishing up his rookie year without making too many late-game adjustments (see: Brooks, Scott for reference on what this looks like).

On paper, this is a blowout. But if Donovan has a few tricks up his sleeve that he’s been saving until the postseason…

 

X-Factor: Andre Roberson

If Dion Waiters is forced to play a major role for the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs will exploit him relentlessly. Not only would they turn him into an even more detrimental offensive presence, but they’d target his defensive porosity on almost every possession.

As Kyle Wagner explained for FiveThirtyEight, Andre Roberson can keep that from happening:

Roberson is only 24, and plenty of guys older than he is have come up with a serviceable jumper. And the Thunder have kept on feeding him when he’s open, at least from time to time. But as the rotation tightens up heading into the playoffs, he really needs to make a few, or else we’re going to have a whole heap of Dion Waiters perpetrated upon us.

If Roberson knocks down even a few early jumpers, this series could get a lot tougher for San Antonio.

 

Prediction

Lest we forget while caught up in all the (justifiable) Golden State Warriors hoopla, the Spurs are also one of the greatest basketball teams in NBA history. They outscored their opponents by a staggering 11.3 points per 100 possessions this season.

Per my databases, only the 1995-96 and 1996-97 Chicago Bulls have ever produced superior scores.

The drama here won’t be about whether the Spurs win the series, but about how many games OKC can steal before Durant takes off his jersey and begins the breathless offseason speculation about his next home.

San Antonio Spurs advance in five games.

 

Eastern Conference Semifinals: Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

Eastern Conference Semifinals: Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Previous Meetings

  1. Dec. 15 in TD Garden: Cleveland Cavaliers 89, Boston Celtics 77
  2. Feb. 5 in Quicken Loans Arena: Boston Celtics 104, Cleveland Cavaliers 103
  3. March 5 in Quicken Loans Arena: Cleveland Cavaliers 120, Boston Celtics 103

 

Key Matchup: Jae Crowder vs. LeBron James

If you’re going to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in a seven-game series, one of two things must happen: Torture the Cleveland defense with one three-point bomb after another while dominating with small-ball lineups, just as the Golden State Warriors did in the 2015 NBA Finals.

Option two is to shut down LeBron James.

The C’s don’t have the offensive potency for the former, which puts a whole lot of pressure on Jae Crowder to serve as the James stopper.

Good luck.

 

X-Factor: Evan Turner

“The former No. 2 overall pick emerged as a useful role player for a good Celtics team this year, handling the ball a lot and propping up second units with mid-range scoring,” Grant Hughes wrote for Bleacher Report while revealing Evan Turner as the community pick for Sixth Man of the Year. “With a career on the brink of total irrelevance, Turner’s ascent to even this modest level felt like a quantum leap.”

He’ll need to be at more than a modest level against the Cavaliers.

Turner can make a lot of unorthodox lineups work on both ends of the floor, thanks to his ball-handling skills, passing ability and surprising effort on defense. If the C’s find one that exploits Cleveland’s weaknesses, this former Ohio State standout could well be the key that unlocks the secret.

 

Prediction

This won’t be one of those old-school battles between James’ Cavaliers and a star-studded Celtics squad, but it should still be competitive. Boston is too well-coached and too deep to fade away without a fight, and fans at the TD Garden always know how to inspire their players at the right moments.

But Cleveland is too talented. James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and the rest of the Cavaliers can overwhelm most opponents, and the Celtics will be one of them as a certain four-time MVP marches closer to a sixth consecutive Finals appearance.

Cleveland Cavaliers advance in six games.

 

Eastern Conference Semifinals: Charlotte Hornets vs. Toronto Raptors

Eastern Conference Semifinals: Charlotte Hornets vs. Toronto Raptors

Ron Turenne/Getty Images

Previous Meetings

  1. Dec. 17 in Time Warner Cable Arena: Charlotte Hornets 109, Toronto Raptors 99
  2. Jan. 1 in Air Canada Centre: Toronto Raptors 104, Charlotte Hornets 94
  3. April 5 in Air Canada Centre: Toronto Raptors 96, Charlotte Hornets 90

 

Key Matchup: Kemba Walker vs. Kyle Lowry

Point guard might not be the most important lineup slot for every one of the Association’s 30 teams, but it is for both the Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors. Kemba Walker and Kyle Lowry have both been the best players for their teams, emerging as some of the league’s elite players regardless of position.

According to my TPA databases, “elite” has to be the word we use:

Player TPA NBA Rank Point Guard Rank
Kyle Lowry 380.74 8 3
Kemba Walker 234.6 12 5

Prepare to watch two superstars clash. Yes, in terms of sheer on-court impact, they both qualify as such.

 

X-Factor(s): Jeremy Lin vs. Cory Joseph

We’ll stick with the point guard theme.

Walker and Lowry can’t suit up for 48 minutes each game, which means their backups will have to keep up the high level of play. Both Jeremy Lin and Cory Joseph have been fantastic in their roles off the bench—Lin because of his aggressive, attacking mentality and Joseph with his defensive presence and improved shot.

If either can steal a game with a prolonged stretch of inspired play that lets the starter rest, it could go a long way in a series that might last seven games.

 

Prediction

It’s time for another upset.

Though the Toronto Raptors managed to win two of the three regular-season outings between these squads, only one came recently, and Nicolas Batum wasn’t in the lineup. At full strength, this Charlotte squad has been nearly unstoppable in the last few weeks, blitzing past opponents while thriving on both ends of the floor.

Behind Walker’s inspired postseason play and the impressive depth scattered throughout the roster, expect the Hornets’ magical run to continue for another round.

Charlotte Hornets advance in seven games. 

 

Western Conference Finals: San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors

Western Conference Finals: San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Previous Meetings

  1. Jan. 25 in Oracle Arena: Golden State Warriors 120, San Antonio Spurs 90
  2. March 19 in AT&T Center: San Antonio Spurs 87, Golden State Warriors 79
  3. April 7 in Oracle Arena: Golden State Warriors 112, San Antonio Spurs 101
  4. April 10 in AT&T Center: Golden State Warriors 92, San Antonio Spurs 86

 

Key Matchup: Draymond Green vs. LaMarcus Aldridge

While Tim Duncan has sat out a couple matchups between these two juggernauts, it’s clear he isn’t going to be a key factor in this series. The future Hall of Famer is too easily exposed by the Golden State Warriors’ pick-and-roll action, forcing him to the bench and leaving LaMarcus Aldridge to go head-to-head against Draymond Green.

Aldridge can get the better of the potential Defensive Player of the Year with his high-arcing mid-range jumpers. Those turnaround daggers are nearly unblockable, and he’s proved to be quite adept at getting them off despite picture-perfect contests from Green.

But can he slow down his counterpart on the other end?

 

X-Factor: Boris Diaw

Boris Diaw has only suited up against the Warriors twice this season, but his versatility and playmaking make him a tough matchup for anyone on the defending champions’ roster.

Forget about his limited box-score stats. It’s more important that, perNBA.com’s statistical databases, the Spurs have posted a minus-15.6 net rating against the Dubs when Diaw is on the bench, as opposed to a plus-5.6 net rating when he’s on the court.

Golden State has found a solution for everything during its magical season. Well, everything but Diaw.

 

Prediction

Because the Warriors earned the better regular-season record, the Spurs will have to beat them in Oracle Arena to complete an upset bid. And based on how good this history-shattering squad has been on its home court, that’s a rather tough proposition.

San Antonio is too good to go down without a fight, but Golden State is too good to lose four times in a seven-game stretch. Frankly, the Dubs are too good to drop even three games.

Golden State Warriors advance in six games.

 

Eastern Conference Finals: Charlotte Hornets vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

Eastern Conference Finals: Charlotte Hornets vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Previous Meetings

  1. Nov. 27 at Time Warner Cable Arena: Cleveland Cavaliers 95, Charlotte Hornets 90
  2. Feb. 3 at Time Warner Cable Arena: Charlotte Hornets 106, Cleveland Cavaliers 97
  3. Feb. 24 at Quicken Loans Arena: Cleveland Cavaliers 114, Charlotte Hornets 103
  4. April 3 at Quicken Loans Arena: Cleveland Cavaliers 112, Charlotte Hornets 103

 

Key Matchup: Nicolas Batum vs. LeBron James

Remember what we said about Jae Crowder having to match up against LeBron James?

The same is true for the Charlotte Hornets and Nicolas Batum, who has the point-preventing ability to hold his own against one of the league’s most unstoppable offensive forces. Not only can the French forward switch on screens because of his size and versatility, but his long arms have typically made him an effective matchup against opposing stars.

But this goes both ways.

Batum has been key for the Charlotte offense as well, sparking runs with his passing ability and knack for keeping Kemba Walker’s offensive involvement from rising to unpalatable levels. We’ve seen James play more inspired defense this year, and that must continue in a matchup with Batum.

 

X-Factor: Al Jefferson

This is all about enforcing a certain style of play.

As we’ve already established, the Cavaliers are at their best when playing with a smaller lineup, but Al Jefferson could force them to stray from that strategy. If he’s setting himself up on the left block and torturing overmatched power forwards with his dizzying array of back-to-the-basket moves, Cleveland could be compelled to use an ineffective Timofey Mozgov far more often than head coach Tyronn Lue would prefer.

 

Prediction

No one in the Eastern Conference is going to keep James from that sixth consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals. As hot as Charlotte may be while getting to this stage of the postseason, it doesn’t have the firepower to keep up with a motivated Cavaliers lineup that’s leaving its stars on the court for longer stretches.

This season, Cleveland has posted an 11.7 net rating when James is on the court. With Irving, that net rating stands at 6.4. When Love plays, it’s outscoring the opposition by 8.7 points per 100 possessions.

With these kinds of stakes, all three are going to spend a lot of time on the floor.

Cleveland Cavaliers advance in five games. 

 

NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors

NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Previous Meetings

  1. Dec. 25 in Oracle Arena: Golden State Warriors 89, Cleveland Cavaliers 83
  2. Jan. 18 in Quicken Loans Arena: Golden State Warriors 132, Cleveland Cavaliers 98

 

Key Matchup: Stephen Curry vs. Kyrie Irving

We know LeBron James is capable of putting on a one-man show, just as he did in last year’s clash while coming close to winning Finals MVP despite playing for the losing side. What’s less clear is whether Kyrie Irving can stick with Stephen Curry and still have enough left in the tank to provide positive offensive contributions.

The two point guards have matched up eight times throughout their careers, and Curry has emerged victoriously from six of those contests. If Irving is forced to switch off him and throw the Cavaliers defense out of whack, that tally will grow quickly.

 

X-Factor: Kevin Love

After Kelly Olynyk dislocated Kevin Love’s shoulder in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, we didn’t get to see the power forward match up against the Golden State Warriors during the ensuing NBA Finals. But we should this year, and some red-hot shooting from the perimeter could help tip the scales in the challengers’ favor.

In Cleveland victories this season, Love is shooting 43.6 percent from the field and 37.4 percent from beyond the arc. In losses, those numbers dip to 37.9 and 32.6, respectively.

We’ll let you guess whether that’s causation or mere correlation. Either way, the Cavs would prefer the former set of percentages.

 

Prediction

Even if Cleveland enters this rematch with the luxury of better health, it’s simply not on the same level as its foes.

The Warriors are one of the best teams we’ve ever seen—maybe even the best—and they’ve already shown they can beat the Cavs in a grind-it-out defensive struggle or an uptempo battle filled with offensive explosions.

Once again, a jump-shooting squad will win a championship. Book it.

Golden State Warriors win in five games. 

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