Toronto Raptors (1)
First Round Opponent: Washington Wizards (8)
What version of Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan will show up?
The Toronto Raptors have now made the playoffs for four consecutive years with the combined efforts of Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan, but they have only produced disappointing results in the playoffs. During the 2014-15 NBA regular season, Lowry was putting up strong numbers: averaging 17.8 points, 6.8 assists, and 4.7 rebounds. However, he only averaged 12.3 points, 4.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds in the playoffs and the Raptors were swept in the first round. Meanwhile, Derozan had a stellar 2016-17 regular season averaging 27.3 points, 4 assists, and 5.2 rebounds. Although he performed well in the regular season, he only averaged 20.9 points, 2.7 assists, and 4.2 rebounds. In order for the Raptors to achieve postseason success, they need their two stars to replicate their regular season production.
Boston Celtics (2)
First Round Opponent: Milwaukee Bucks (7)
Who will carry the offensive load?
After Gordon Hayward suffered a devastating ankle injury five minutes into the season, the Celtics lost an all-star caliber player who was expected to carry the offense. This forced Kyrie Irving to step into a leadership role which was unfamiliar to him. With the help of young stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Irving was able to lead the Celtics to a second seed spot in the Eastern Conference. After Irving’s injury, the team announced that Irving would be done for the year, raising questions about the team’s offense and its ability to perform without him. While Brown and Tatum have shown signs of brilliance, they have also been wildly inconsistent. If the Celtics’ role players are able to produce on the offensive end, they will be able to persevere through the injuries
Philadelphia 76ers (3)
First Round Opponent: Miami Heat (6)
Will Ben Simmons continue to produce impressive stats?
Ben Simmons had a high amount of pressure on him before the start of the season. After missing his first season due to injury, it was time for the “process” to take action. The last time the 76ers went to the playoffs was during the 2011-12 season. Simmons is a rare athlete who has an impressive skill set for a 6’10 forward. He was given the responsibility of being the point guard and main facilitator for the team and has thrived in that role. Simmons averaged 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 8.2 assists, and led his team to a third seed spot in the East. During a 16 game win streak at the end of the season, Simmons averaged a triple double. For the 76ers to succeed in the playoffs, Simmons has to continue to produce and lead his team.
Cleveland Cavaliers (4)
First Round Opponent: Indiana Pacers (5)
What will be enough for LeBron James to stay in Cleveland?
Throughout the year, there have been rumors that LeBron James is going to leave Cleveland in free agency for a different team. During the first half of the season, the Cavaliers were not playing like the title contenders they have been in the past. In danger of missing the playoffs, the Cavaliers front office executed multiple trades before the deadline, however, making the playoffs was not the only motivation behind the trades. They knew that if the team was not successful LeBron would not want to re-sign, so they were desperate to improve their roster. Now that the playoffs are here, will it take a finals appearance to entice LeBron for another season with the Cavs?
Indiana Pacers (5)
First Round Opponent: Cleveland Cavaliers (4)
How will they be able to contain LeBron?
Every NBA fan knows that stopping LeBron James completely is not an option, but he can be contained. The Pacers will need to experiment with different defensive matchups on LeBron throughout the series. The most logical option is Lance Stephenson, a tough defender who has competed strongly against LeBron in the past. He knows what LeBron’s tendencies are, and can try to expose his weaknesses. The other option is Victor Oladipo. Oladipo is an athletic guard who has quick hands, but he is undersized. Listed at 6’4 compared to LeBron’s 6’8 frame, Oladipo will struggle to defend in the post. Either way, LeBron cannot have his way with the defense if the Pacers wish to have a chance in the series.
Miami Heat (6)
First Round Opponent: Philadelphia 76ers (3)
Will Hassan Whiteside give 100% Effort?
Dwyane Wade has stated, “When he’s engaged and into it and wants to do what Hassan does, he’s one of the most dominant centers in our game.” There have been multiple reports from various sources that have echoed this message, and it has shown in Whiteside’s efforts. When he is engaged on both ends of the court, he is capable of 20 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 blocks per game, however, when he is unfocused, he can get lost in the mix. The Heat need to have Whiteside 100 percent engaged in order to get past the 76ers who are coming off a 16 game win streak.
Milwaukee Bucks (7)
First Round Opponent: Boston Celtics (2)
Will the Supporting Cast Be able to Help Antetokounmpo?
Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the rising stars in the NBA, and has lots of potential that has yet to be fulfilled. Antetokounmpo has improved his scoring averages every year and has led his team to the playoffs for the second consecutive season. He averaged 26.9 points, 10 rebounds, and 4.8 assists during the regular season, but what has been holding back the Bucks from success is the lack of production from other players. The players around Antetokounmpo do not have unguardable skills that can trouble defenders, and it could be a problem for a team facing the Boston Celtics who have the fourth highest rated defense in the league.
Washington Wizards (8)
First Round Opponent: Toronto Raptors (1)
Will the lack of team chemistry affect team success?
The Washington Wizards have a reputation of being a team with little chemistry, and this showed during the regular season. The duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal have been fun to watch, but little success has been found. When Wall went down with a knee injury that would keep him sidelined for three months, Beal stepped up his play and helped the Wizards to a 10-3 record in his absence. During that streak, center Marcin Gortat tweeted that they had a great “team” win. Wall felt the comment was unnecessary and went to ESPN to express his displeasure with Gortat. Although the Wizards went to the Eastern Conference Semifinals a year ago, it will take a special effort to achieve that success again.
Houston Rockets (1)
First Round Opponent: Minnesota Timberwolves (8)
Can Clint Capela contain Karl Anthony-Towns?
Clint Capela was not viewed as a potential star out of college, but has proven the scouts wrong with his performance this year. He averaged 14 points and 10.3 rebounds while helping his team hold the best record in the league. Capela has always been viewed as a defensive specialist who is not afraid of contact. He will face a tough task of defending against Karl Anthony-Towns, a dominant big man who averaged 21.3 points, 12.3 rebounds. The Timberwolves should not be a tough opponent for the Rockets, but Towns has the rare ability to change a game with his dominant performances in game.
Golden State Warriors (2)
First Round Opponent: San Antonio Spurs (7)
Can Kevin Durant carry the offensive load?
One of the main reasons Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder two summers ago was that he would have less pressure on him to perform. However, Stephen Curry has been sidelined with multiple injuries, and Durant has had to lead the team with less help. During Curry’s absence, the Warriors are below .500, a great concern for a team who has reached the finals in three consecutive years. It remains to be seen if Durant will be able to lead the Warriors to another finals appearance.
Portland Trail Blazers (3)
First Round Opponent: New Orleans Pelicans (6)
Will the Blazers be able to maintain their defensive intensity?
In past years, the Blazers have been held back by their defense, and as a result were not able to make a run in the playoffs. However, this season the Blazers have shown that they are more engaged on the defensive end. Their defensive efficiency is in the top 10, and they possess one of the best rim protecting frontcourts in the league. The Blazers need to maintain their defensive edge to beat the Pelicans who have the best big man in basketball, Anthony Davis.
Oklahoma City Thunder (4)
First Round Opponent: Utah Jazz (5)
Will Paul George and Carmelo Anthony perform better offensively?
The Oklahoma City Thunder had high hopes during the off-season for their new Big three consisting of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George. Both of the new additions had a reputation of being ball-dominant scorers, which raised questions whether they could perform well alongside each other. The questions were answered during the regular season, but not with positive results. George’s field goal percentages were lowered significantly, and his role has changed to a spot up shooter. The same goes for Carmelo Anthony who’s scoring average dropped from 22.4 to 16.2. If the Thunder want to live up to the preseason hype, they need George and Anthony to thrive in their new roles.
Utah Jazz (5)
First Round Opponent: Oklahoma City Thunder (4)
Will playoff inexperience affect playoff success?
The Utah Jazz were not expected to be a fifth seed in the Western Conference after they lost all-star forward, Gordon Hayward, to free agency. However, they drafted Donovan Mitchell from Louisville and have not skipped a beat since. Mitchell, the team’s leading scorer, has been able to fill the void that Hayward left, and it has resulted in a second consecutive playoff appearance. The only thing holding the Utah Jazz from more success is their lack of playoff experience. It is unusual for a team led by a rookie to achieve playoff success, and the Jazz are facing a team with three all-stars. However, they have shown throughout the season that they play well as a team, and they have a good chance to upset the Thunder.
New Orleans Pelicans (6)
First Round Opponent: Portland Trail Blazers (3)
Will Rajon Rondo step up his game during the playoffs?
During past years when Rajon Rondo has been on a playoff team, he has elevated his performances significantly. Most notable was his performance during the 2017 playoff while playing for the Chicago Bulls. They were facing the number one seeded Boston Celtics, and almost averaged a triple double while leading them to a 2-0 series lead. He unfortunately suffered a broken hand, and was ruled out for the rest of the playoffs. The Bulls lost four straight games and were eliminated. If Rondo steps up his game as he normally does in the playoffs, the Pelicans will be in good shape to upset the Blazers.
San Antonio Spurs (7)
First Round Opponent: Golden State Warriors (2)
Will a slower pace of play result in less team success?
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is regarded as one of the best coaches in NBA history, and has led them to five championships during his tenure. He offensive system is known for its slower approach and the promotion of ball movement. The Golden State Warriors have reached the NBA finals for three consecutive years, and their offensive approach is a fast paced, three point shooting team. More teams have been transitioning to this style of play, and it has shown to be successful. Meanwhile, the Spurs have continued their slower paced offense, and as a result, have slid in the regular season standings. The Warriors will try to outrun the Spurs with fast breaks, and the Spurs will need to adapt to that style of play.
Minnesota Timberwolves (8)
First Round Opponent: Houston Rockets (1)
Will Tom Thibodeau’s habit of overworking his starters prove to be detrimental to the team in the playoffs?
Tom Thibodeau coached the Chicago Bulls from 2010-2015 and was successful for most of his tenure, however, his teams never got past the Eastern Conference Finals. The expectations were high for the Bulls because they had league MVP Derrick Rose, and a good supporting cast that included defensive player of the year Joakim Noah. The lack of success was blamed on Thibodeau with the reasoning that he overworked his starters during the regular season. He was hired in 2016 by the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he has carried the same philosophies with him. Four of their starters from this season were in the top 25 in minutes per game, but the Timberwolves had to fight for the final spot in the playoffs. If the starters are worn out for the Timberwolves, they will not be able to keep up with the number one seed in the West.