Columns & Blogs

Picking the NBA playoffs, round by round

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) drives past Miami Heatís Luol Deng (9) during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game Thursday, April 2, 2015, in Cleveland.
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) drives past Miami Heatís Luol Deng (9) during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game Thursday, April 2, 2015, in Cleveland. AP

I was asked Thursday during a radio interview if I consider the Cleveland Cavaliers a prohibitive favorite to win the NBA championship.

I get why the question was posed. LeBron James is so hard to beat in the playoffs because he might have the widest skill set in the league. When a small forward is both your team’s best point guard and best power forward, he’s quite a weapon.

But, no, I don’t think the Cavaliers are unbeatable in the East because of other Cavs’ inexperience. The Cavs’ second- and third-most important players, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, are new to the playoffs.

What happens if Boston steals a game in Cleveland to take home-court advantage? Do Irving and Love rise to the occasion or does the pressure get to them? I don’t know. You don’t know. They don’t know.

In the West, you have a Golden State team with so many answers and a Most Valuable Player candidate in Charlottean Stephen Curry. They have a rookie coach in Steve Kerr and a commitment to defense that wasn’t always their vibe.

But the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs are too easily dismissed. The Spurs against the Los Angeles Clippers could be the most entertaining first-round series in recent memory. The trendy term among marketers in these days of DVRs and Netflix is “appointment television.” Clippers-Spurs is that sort of must-see TV.

What do I think will happen in the playoffs? A shot in the dark picking each round:

First round

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Atlanta Hawks versus No. 8 Brooklyn Nets: The Nets were fortunate to get into the tournament the last night of the season. Extending this series to a sixth game in Brooklyn would be a nice postseason for the Nets. Hawks in 5.

No. 4 Toronto Raptors versus No. 5 Washington Wizards: The problem for me is the Hornets have been the Raptors’ Kryptonite, so I might dismiss them too easily. I like the way the Wizards are composed and I think Washington point guard John Wall is the best player in this series. Just a hunch.Wizards in 6.

No. 3 Chicago Bulls versus No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks: Jason Kidd did a good job in his first season as Bucks coach. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau might be headed toward a divorce from his front office. I don’t see many Bulls starters I’d trade for Bucks starters. And the Chicago bench is strong: Bulls in 5.

No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers versus No. 7 Boston Celtics: Will the Celtics act like making the playoffs validated their season or are they hungry for an upset? Regardless, coach Brad Stevens has demonstrated he belongs in the NBA. Still ... Cavaliers in 5.

Western Conference

No. 1 Golden State Warriors versus No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans: The Warriors will win, but I don’t think this is a pushover. Tyreke Evans in the Pelicans’ backcourt could cause the Warriors some problems defensively. And while Curry is the best player in this matchup, Anthony Davis isn’t far behind. Warriors in 6.

No. 4 Portland Trail Blazers versus No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies: I like any team that has both LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. But the Grizzlies are built for the playoffs when the game slows and defense and half-court execution become even more important. Grizzlies in 6.

No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers versus No. 6 San Antonio Spurs: A first-round series that probably includes at least three future Hall-of-Famers (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Chris Paul). I won’t be surprised if the Clippers prevail but … Spurs in 6.

No. 2 Houston Rockets versus No. 7 Dallas Mavericks: James Harden carried the Rockets to the No. 2 seed. That team looks a little tired entering the playoffs. Early this season the Mavericks were exceptional offensively. The Rajon Rondo deal hasn’t been a great fit. Rockets in 7.

Second round

Hawks versus Wizards: Washington doesn’t play elite defense. You don’t want to get into a jump-shooting contest with Atlanta, a team with centers who make 3-pointers. Hawks in 6.

Cavaliers versus Bulls: Chicago will want to turn this into a brawl. The Bulls have been good at roughing up James and they have the depth to give a lot of fouls. A very entertaining contrast in styles. Cavaliers in 7.

Warriors versus Grizzlies: This series is about contrasting pace. The Warriors are built to push the ball, the Grizzlies are built to win games 98-92. I honestly think the Grizzlies could be a huge threat to the Warriors reaching the NBA Finals. Warriors in 7.

Rockets versus Spurs: The Spurs are the best-run organization in major-league sports and Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA. The Rockets are still evolving into a legit contender. Spurs in 6.

Conference Finals

Hawks versus Cavs: I struggle to call this series. I think the Hawks are collectively the better team, but James is by far the best player in this series. If the Cavs get this far I sense James will get them to the last round. Cavaliers in 6.

Warriors versus Spurs: Charlotteans lose a lot of sleep each spring, staying up to watch Curry in late-night playoff games. I’m guessing if the Warriors get by Grizzlies (no given) they will figure out how to put away the Spurs: Warriors in 7.

NBA Finals

Warriors versus Cavaliers: How many times will we see old video of James going to Davidson games because he appreciated how Curry played in college? It’s a cool story line, but now they’re peers and rivals. Warriors in 7.

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell