NBA Playoff Predictions: Plenty of Warriors love…and Bucks, too

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It’s prediction time… and of course we’re talking Golden State Warriors a lot.

How could we not? They are the most talented team, they’ve won the last two titles, and they are the clear favorites for good reason. However, we’ve got love for the Bucks (and Raptors) and see a few upsets along the way.

Here are our predictions:

Do you predict an upset in the first round (lower seed beating a higher seed)?

Eastern Conference:

Kurt Helin: While I think Indiana can push Boston — especially with Marcus Smart out injured — there will be no first-round upsets in the East. There is too big a gap between the top four and bottom four (if Indiana had a healthy Victor Oladipo, this could be a different conversation.

Dan Feldman: No. The top four of the East is loaded. The bottom three is… not. Though I do predict with Marcus Smart out, the fifth-seeded Pacers will push the Celtics to seven — the home team winning every game.

Dane Delgado: I could certainly see the Indiana Pacers beating the Boston Celtics in the first round. Boston will be without Marcus Smart for at least the first two playoff series, and the Celtics are a mess internally. Rotationally, they still haven’t fully recovered from Gordon Hayward‘s injury, and they have not shown the flashes of brilliance that they did last year. We still don’t know if Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown will step up the way they have in the past, and this team only won one more game than the Pacers. Indiana is spunky and is playing without their best player. I wouldn’t count on it, but the Celtics are weirdos and the Pacers are a capital “T” Team.

Western Conference:

Kurt Helin: Denver’s gambit to get the Trail Blazers the three seed (and put the Rockets on the Warriors side of the bracket) helps out Oklahoma City. The Thunder have stumbled and struggled since the All-Star break, with Paul George‘s shoulder issue a big part of that, but OKC is a team better built for playoff basketball. Combine that with Portland being without Jusuf Nurkic and the Blazers will fall again in the first round. Also, while I think Houston will be Utah, that series will go deep and be close.

Dan Feldman: Thunder over Trail Blazers. It’d be different if Jusuf Nurkic were healthy, but Portland is not the same on either end of the court without him. It’s not that I especially like Oklahoma City. I don’t. But the Thunder swept the Trail Blazers in the regular season, and Portland tried to avoid this matchup. It’s as if the Trail Blazers know what’s likely coming.

Dane Delgado: The West is almost the opposite of the East. Three out of the four first-round playoff series could end with the “lower” seed beating the “higher” seed. Utah could strangle the life out of Houston’s offense. The Oklahoma City Thunder have swept the season series with the Trail Blazers, who are also missing Jusuf Nurkic. The Denver Nuggets are a fast-paced team with no playoff experience going up against the stalwarts of the playoffs in the Spurs. If I had to pick a series to go south, I would go with the Spurs beating the Nuggets in a major upset. Or the Thunder. Hmm… can I get back you?

Who will win the conference finals?

Eastern Conference:

Kurt Helin: Toronto over Boston. These are not the Raptors that fall short in the playoffs, new coach Nick Nurse has worked all season to find different lineups that make this team more versatile, plus they have a closer now in Kawhi Leonard. I’m predicting Boston to beat Milwaukee in the second round, but if Malcolm Brogdon is back healthy and Marcus Smart is not, the Bucks will win that series. Either way, I’ll take the Raptors to represent the East.

Dan Feldman: Bucks. I really like these Raptors. The 76ers and Celtics have the requisite talent to have a chance. But Milwaukee has been the NBA’s best team throughout the season. We ought to take that more seriously.

Dane Delgado: The Milwaukee Bucks. Many times it’s reasonable to expect that teams with no playoff experience won’t be able to plow through the postseason the way a more veteran team might be able to do. But the East is riddled with flawed teams top to bottom, particularly at the top. Milwaukee is the most complete team in the conference with the best player.

Western Conference:

Kurt Helin: Golden State over Denver. The only things that will beat the Warriors are injuries or boredom, and I don’t think they will get that bored. It’s trendy to pick Denver to get upset in the first round, but I believe in this team and they set themselves up with an easier path to the conference finals (I would have picked Houston over Denver, but that’s not how the seedings shook out).

Dan Feldman: Warriors. Houston could test them in the second round, but there’s no way to pick anyone else. The Warriors have all the talent and experience anyone could want.

Dane Delgado: Who would pick against the Golden State Warriors at this juncture? Unless something affects this team’s health, they should make their way to the Conference Finals and beyond. However, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the cakewalk it’s been in the past. The Warriors still need to flick the proverbial switch into playoff mode, so there is some doubt cast about their readiness for this moment. It might take them few games to ramp up, and the second round could actually be their biggest test, but I expect to see them in June once again.

Who will win the NBA Finals?

Kurt Helin: Golden State over Toronto, but this is going to go six or seven games. For the first time in a couple of years, the Warriors biggest test will be on the biggest stage in the NBA Finals, but in the end they just have too much and they know they are trying to win one more before this team breaks up this summer.

Dan Feldman: Warriors. Whether to pick Golden State or the field is a tough question this year. There are teams that can beat the Warriors. But if asked to pick a single team, there’s no way I’m choosing anyone else.

Dane Delgado: There’s no reason to bet against the Golden State Warriors… until there is a reason. This team still has the most talent, the most experience, and the best track record. Health is the biggest thing with the Warriors, and when Stephen Curry rolled his ankle the last week of the season Golden State fans collectively gasped for their playoff lives. Still, Kevin Durant seems ready, Draymond Green is rested up from not doing anything all season long, and Andre Iguodala still is able to contribute. My heart wants the Milwaukee Bucks to win this whole thing, but my head says they will have to wait.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.