NBA playoffs 2017: First-round predictions

Exhale. The Playoffs are here.

Will the Golden State Warriors glide through the West? Can the No. 1 seed Boston Celtics topple back-to-back Eastern Conference champion Cleveland? Are there any first-round upsets looming?

USA TODAY Sports' NBA experts weighed in with our first-round predictions.

(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers

Sam Amick: Yes, the Damian Lillard-led Blazers will glean confidence from their competitive five-game series loss against the Warriors in the second round last season. And yes, the fact that they have the league’s second-best winning percentage since March 1 (.739, trailing only the Warriors) is evidence enough that they’re rolling. But the overall evidence is far more foreboding: the Warriors were 4-0 against Portland this season and have now won 19 of 23 matchups since Lillard entered the league in 2012. Warriors in five.

Jeff Zillgitt: Portland has the ability to make the games close – as it did in last season’s playoffs – but not the ability to make the series long. Warriors in four.

Michael Singer: Last year's series against the Blazers was pretty fantastic, even if it only went five games. The Blazers weren't going to win that one, and it still seems unfair that the Warriors get Kevin Durant for this iteration. Warriors in five.

AJ Neuharth-Keusch: The backcourt battle of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson vs. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is certainly one to keep an eye on, but make no mistake: The NBA’s Golden Boys are simply too strong to have much trouble. Remember: When these two teams met in the second round last season, Curry was sidelined for the first three games with a knee injury and the Dubs still won in five. Warriors in five.

(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies

Sam Amick: Even with the Grizzlies’ late-season slide (they lost nine of their last 12), this won’t be a repeat of the San Antonio sweep in the first round last season. Memphis, which won two of four games against the Spurs this season, has proven to be a tough out for San Antonio. Spurs in six.

Jeff Zillgitt: Fine job by first-year Grizzlies coach Dave Fizdale, but the Spurs have Gregg Popovich and too much offense and defense for Memphis. Spurs in five.

Michael Singer: The Grizzlies had success vs. the Spurs this year, but they're banged up and not exactly youthful. The Spurs won't miss a chance at proving they're an elite team. Spurs in five.

AJ Neuharth-Keusch: This won't be the sexiest first-round series by any means, as both teams are destined to play hard-nosed, defensive-minded basketball. The two teams split the season series (although Kawhi Leonard was sidelined for the Grizzlies’ first win) and Memphis proved that they're fully capable of competing with the big dogs. But at the end of the day, Gregg Popovich will prevail. Spurs in five.

(3) Houston Rockets vs. (6) Oklahoma City Thunder

Sam Amick: James Harden’s left wrist that hindered his play these past few weeks is feeling good again, and Houston’s three-point attack is the kind of X-factor that the Thunder – much like the rest of the league – have struggled to deal with all season. (Houston won three of four matchups, while averaging 15 made threes in the four games). The clash of the top two MVP candidates will be a sight to behold, with Harden (20.5 points per game against the Thunder on 34.3% shooting overall and 22.6% from three-point range; 12.3 assists and 7.3 rebounds per game) looking to up his game against Russell Westbrook (36.3 points per game against the Rockets on 44.7% shooting overall and 37.1% from three-point range; 9.3 assists and nine rebounds per game). Rockets in six.

Jeff Zillgitt: This should be fun even if too many people make this about James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook as the NBA MVP. Rockets in seven.

Michael Singer: The best series in the first round is going to go the distance, the Rockets' three-point shooters will make the difference, and Russell Westbrook will emphatically underscore his MVP candidacy — even if that won't become official until June 26. Rockets in seven.

AJ Neuharth-Keusch: As far as head-to-head first-round matchups go, it doesn’t get much better than Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden. But the Rockets simply have too much firepower, and if any combination of Harden, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams get hot, these guys can beat anyone. Rockets in six.

(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Utah Jazz

Sam Amick: With so much at stake, the Clippers – who have Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick barreling toward free agency this summer – will avoid an embarrassing first-round exit. They match up well against the Jazz, having downed them three of four times in the regular season while playing stellar defense along the way. Utah shot just 41.7% as a team against the Clippers, with Gordon Hayward limited to a 15.7 points-per-game pace and big man Rudy Gobert limited to a minus-11.8 mark while facing off against Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. Clippers in six.

Jeff Zillgitt: I want to pick the Jazz, but the core of this talented young group hasn’t won a playoff game (swept by Spurs in Gordon Hayward’s and Derrick Favors’ second season in 2012) let alone a series. Clippers in seven.

Michael Singer: The Jazz have been recklessly overlooked for a host of reasons. Expect Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert to prevail, raising a slew of questions for the Clippers. Jazz in seven.

AJ Neuharth-Keusch: Easily the toughest first-round series to pick, but the edge has to go to the Clippers, who dodged a bullet when they locked up homecourt advantage. The Jazz have what it takes to prevail, but the injury bug (their preferred starting lineup only played 13 games together all season) combined with the fact that this is do or die time for this Clippers squad should be enough for Chris Paul and Co. to advance. But barely. Clippers in seven.

(1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Chicago Bulls

Sam Amick: This isn’t the same Bulls team that fell 100-80 to Boston back on March 12, as they’ve won eight of their last 11 and found rhythm at just the right time. Still, Isaiah Thomas and his Celtics didn’t come this far – 27-11 down the stretch – to be stopped in the first round. The two teams split the season series 2-2. Celtics in six.

Jeff Zillgitt: Brad Stevens’ success as an NBA coach continues with his first playoff series victory. Celtics in five.

Michael Singer: The Bulls are more talented than a typical No. 8 seed, but they've been wildly inconsistent this season. You can also expect Brad Stevens to win the coaching battle over fellow former college staple Fred Hoiberg. Celtics in five.

AJ Neuharth-Keusch: After two straight years of first-round exits, Brad Stevens’ squad is hungry. The Bulls have plenty of talent and playoff experience, but as we’ve seen all year, they can’t be trusted to bring any sort of consistency. Plus, the NBA world deserves as much Isaiah Thomas as it can get. Celtics in five.

(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Indiana Pacers

Sam Amick: The Cavs’ flailing defense (26th in points allowed per 100 possessions since Jan. 10) is likely to improve once the “second season” begins, but it’s safe to assume that the Paul George-led Pacers’ offense is good enough to steal at least one game. If we’re lucky, the rekindling of the George v. LeBron affair will lead to an even longer series. Still, it doesn’t bode well that Indiana’s only win against Cleveland this season in four tries came with James on the bench. Cavs in five.

Jeff Zillgitt: Paul George can give LeBron James problems, but Playoff LeBron James is a tough out, especially as the Cavs try to discover their best basketball of the season. Cavs in five.

Michael Singer: Anyone catch that double-OT thriller vs. the Pacers two weeks ago? LeBron won't let Indiana linger, but that doesn't mean we're not in for a few epic showcases vs. Paul George. Cavs in five.

AJ Neuharth-Keusch:  The defensive struggles and recent late-game collapses are no doubt a cause for concern for the Cavs. But we mustn’t forget: These are the defending champs. They’re led by the best basketball player in the world. They’re a completely different beast come playoff time. This will be one of the most entertaining first-round series, no doubt, but Paul George and Co. won’t be anything more than a little speed bump on Cleveland's road to the Finals. Cavs in five.

(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks

Sam Amick: The good news for Milwaukee? They’re undefeated against Toronto (1-0) when shooting guard Khris Middleton plays. The bad news? That game (101-94 on March 4) didn’t include Raptors All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, who recently returned from a wrist injury and rejoined a team that won 12 of its last 14 games. Raptors in five.

Jeff Zillgitt: Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo and friends should make for an entertaining series, but the Raptors’ experience and desire to reach the conference finals will be too much for the Bucks. Raptors in six.

Michael Singer: The Bucks are extremely tempting to pick, but they're also still pretty green. I like the Raptors' postseason savvy. Raptors in seven.

AJ Neuharth-Keusch: Toronto (15-7 since March 1) and Milwaukee (16-8) have been two of the NBA’s hottest teams as of late. The Raptors are much more experienced, but Kyle Lowry has only played four games since returning from a wrist injury that kept him sidelined for 21. The Giannis Antetokounmpo-Khris Middleton duo has what it takes to steal a game or two. Raptors in six.

(4) Washington Wizards vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks

Sam Amick: The Wizards proved in the past few months that they belong among the elite, going 36-17 from Dec. 26 on and trailing only the Warriors, Spurs and Celtics in winning percentage during that span. Scoring on the Hawks’ fourth-rated defense won’t be easy, but John Wall & Co. should get past this Atlanta team that went 11-16 down the stretch (albeit with wins over Boston and Cleveland – twice – late). Wizards in six.

Jeff Zillgitt: The Hawks finished the season strong, grabbed the fifth seed, are well-coached, have depth and can be problematic if the Wizards aren’t ready. Wizards in seven.

Michael Singer: John Wall barely cracked the MVP conversation. Hopefully he'll get his due on a postseason stage. Wizards in six.

AJ Neuharth-Keusch: Washington fell to Atlanta on opening night, but rattled off three straights wins to take the season series. This team — led by a healthy John Wall and Bradley Beal, who are accompanied by a much-improved supporting cast of Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, Bojan Bogdanovic, et al. — has Eastern Conference finals potential. This will be a closely-fought series, but the Wizards have no plans to let the Hawks end their season for the second time in three years. Wizards in six.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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