NBA playoffs 2019: Ranking 16 teams in bracket before Round 1
16. Pistons (41-41)
They limped into the playoffs, losing seven of their last 11, with Blake Griffin nursing an achy left knee. As a Clipper, Blake hated facing Draymond. As a Piston, Blake hates facing Giannis. Andre Drummond is a load in the paint, of course, but Reggie Jackson was voted, for the fourth consecutive season, the player with the most inflated opinion of himself. (OK, we made that up). They’ll be fortunate to avoid getting swept by Milwaukee.
15. Clippers (48-34)
Doc Rivers has been a coach (20 years) longer than he was a player (13) and he has never done a better job. Anytime a team trades its best player (Tobias Harris) and improves (30-25 with Harris, 18-9 after he left), that’s worthy of praise. He has the NBA’s most productive bench (53 points per game), but that won’t be enough to worry the Warriors, whose only chance to drop one is if they allow themselves to get (wink wink) LA’d.
14. Pacers (48-34)
Expected to tumble after losing Victor Oladipo for the season on Jan. 23, they hung in for a while before that loss caught up to them. They were 16-19 after VO’s injury. They’re a plucky bunch that will make the Celtics work for everything. Won’t be enough. Barring a Beantown meltdown, Indy goes home in five.
13. Nets (42-40)
Another playoff newbie, last here when they had Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko. Brooklyn’s guards, led by D'Angelo Russell, play with a certain machismo. It’s a fairly simple formula for Kenny Atkinson’s crew. If the Nets rebound and defend well enough to play at their frenzied pace, they put a legit scare into Philly. If not, enjoy the experience.
12. Magic (42-40)
What are they doing here for the first time since they fielded a roster with Hedo Turkoglu and Quentin Richardson? One word: Defense. Orlando was No. 1 in the NBA in that category over the final 10 weeks, during which only Houston lost fewer games. The problem is the offense can light it up one night and go dark the next. We won’t be surprised if they extend Toronto to six games.
11. Spurs (48-34)
The annual rodeo road trip (25 days between home games) nearly knocked them out of the playoffs. But they regrouped, as Gregg Popovich teams tend to do, and began to understand the defensive demands placed upon them. If DeMar DeRozan keeps it together and if LaMarcus Aldridge wears his aggressive hat, they could knock off Denver. Two “ifs” usually are at least one too many.
10: Thunder (49-33)
That shoulder injury that kept Paul George out of the regular-season finale – a game OKC wanted to win – frightens us. He is a two-game swing against Portland. If he’s healthy and productive, we lean toward the Thunder. If not, we go the other way. We do look forward to the contrast between Russell Westbrook’s pants-on-fire style and the cool hand of Big Game Dame.
9. Blazers (53-29)
Without Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers turn to Enes Kanter, an accomplished scorer incapable of defending a push broom. He’ll give OKC’s Steven Adams the business. The only chance of advancing, though, is if the mediocre forwards provide suitable support to dynamic guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who should get their share. This series should go seven.
8. 76ers (51-31)
The Tobias Harris trade filled a void, giving them another player that can get create his own shot. Jimmy Butler is a big-time player and we expect to see his best. Everything else comes with concerns, from Brett Brown’s coaching to Ben Simmons’ judgment to, most of all, Joel Embiid’s tender left knee. Jojo is this team’s biggest edge, and any game he misses can go either way.
7. Nuggets (54-28)
Coach Michael Malone points out that “Gregg Popovich’s got five rings. I’ve got a wedding ring.” Malone is on point. The Nuggets are deep and have enough weapons to prevail, but the postseason is a new experience for most of them. We don’t trust teams relying on so many players with zero playoff experience. They should take the Spurs, but if they do it will feel less like a triumph than survival.
6. Celtics (49-33)
No team has gone through more ups and downs and insane turnarounds than these guys. Is Kyrie all in, or daydreaming of elsewhere? Will the youngster recapture the spirit they had last postseason? They’re here on talent, but no contender is more mercurial. If Gordon Hayward can shine, the Celtics might be able to recover the genius label attached to coach Brad Stevens only a year ago.
5. Jazz (50-32)
This bunch, with two plodders in the starting lineup, was sneaky good after the calendar turned to 2019; Utah had the third-best record in the league from that point. We love Donovan Mitchell and respect Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio, but we see Rudy Gobert as the key. If he can scare Houston away from the paint, his defense has a chance. If not, Utah will get bounced before getting back to Salt Lake for Game 6.
4. Bucks (60-22)
Because he excels at both ends, even minus a reliable jumper, Giannis is our MVP. Khris Middleton was his All-Star teammate, but we’d sooner fear Eric Bledsoe. They’re good. They crushed a lot of teams. But the last time Milwaukee got past the first round, the Greek Freak was 6 years old. Again, we’re skeptical of teams with no previous postseason success. This is the year they get the deep cuts that become scar tissue to aid the future.
3. Raptors (58-24)
For the first couple of months, they looked like the league’s deepest team. Kawhi Leonard’s load was being managed and the bench was thriving. They’ve gone from exceptional to merely effective, still turning defense into transition offense. Having swept two games from the Warriors, the Raptors believe they’re ready for the throne. If Kyle Lowry shows up -- that’s a crapshoot -- they should get a chance to find out.
2. Rockets (53-29)
They are the biggest threat to the Warriors, and it’s not because of James Harden. He’ll get his, at times, but he also has a history of developing allergies in the crucible that is the postseason. Houston ranked No. 2 in offensive and defensive ratings since the All-Star break. If the defense holds up, they’ll find their way close to the top, only to be disappointed once again.
1. Warriors (57-25)
We saw nights of indifference, quarters of recklessness and even a few bombs tossed into their fabled chemistry. Now that the lights are bright and the throats are tight, no team performs better. Nobody can guard KD. And no offense can thrive against Draymond. Klay Thompson will have two or three nuclear games. If Stephen Curry’s ankle is OK, as has been indicated, we fully expect a threepeat.