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NBA Playoffs 2017 first round outlook, previews, predictions

By
Kerry Eggers, The Sports Xchange
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James warms up prior to the Cavaliers game against the Atlanta Hawks at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on April 7, 2017. File photo by Aaron Josefczyk/UPI
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James warms up prior to the Cavaliers game against the Atlanta Hawks at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on April 7, 2017. File photo by Aaron Josefczyk/UPI | License Photo

Among the certainties of life these days: Death, taxes and the Golden State Warriors as favorites to win the NBA championship.

At least that's the way it seems to the 15 teams that join the Warriors in the playoffs, which begin Saturday with four first-round games.

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Over the past three years, Golden State averaged 69 regular-season victories, won an NBA championship (2015) and lost in seven games to the Cleveland Cavaliers after taking a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals (2016).

For the third consecutive year, the Warriors will enter the postseason as the team to beat.

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"Right now, Golden State is the best team on the planet," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. "OK, fine. Let's all go try to beat them. Let's see if somebody can beat them. Portland has the first crack, and (the Blazers) will give it everything they have."

A look at the eight first-round matchups:

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EASTERN CONFERENCE

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

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (far right) drives to the lane. File photo by John Angelillo/UPI


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Boston comes into the playoffs as the surprise top seed in the East, and the Celtics are brimming with confidence. "These are the playoffs that I've looked forward to the most since I've been in this league," said center Al Horford, a 10-year veteran who was in the playoffs eight times with Atlanta. "I feel very strongly about this group. I can't wait for us to get started."

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Chicago split four regular-season meetings with Boston and climbed into the playoffs by winning seven of its last nine games. The Bulls' point guard, Rajon Rondo, is laboring with a sprained wrist, but backup Jerian Grant has been "terrific," in the opinion of coach Fred Hoiberg, as the replacement down the stretch of the season.

The Celtics finished the season hot, too, going 9-3 in their final 12 games. Now they look to get past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Our pick: Celtics in six.

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

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James is guarded closely by Atlanta Hawks DeAndre' Bembry. File photo by Aaron Josefczyk/UPI


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Even as Cleveland stumbled down the stretch, losing its last four and finishing 4-7 over the final 11 games, there is little reason to believe the defending NBA champions are in trouble.

The Big Three -- LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love -- are healthy and ready to go. Center Tristan Thompson, who missed four late-season games due to a sore thumb, is back. The bench goes 11-deep, with midseason acquisitions Deron Williams, Derrick Williams and Kyle Korver adding punch to the reserve corps.

The Cavaliers took three of four regular-season meetings with Indiana, which has been the streakiest team in the league this season. The Pacers finished the season 5-0 after losing four straight before that.

Paul George has been sensational of late, averaging 33 points in April to help Indiana secure a postseason berth. Even with George at his best, the Pacers are in over their heads against the Cavs.

Our pick: Cavaliers in five.

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

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) dunks. File photo by Rich Kane/UPI


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Toronto is hot at the right time, having won 12 of its final 14 games. Guard DeMar DeRozan is on fire, having scored at least 35 points six times in his past dozen games.

The Raptors won two of three against the Bucks this season, and Toronto has prevailed in 12 of the past 13 meetings. The Raptors' playoff experience a year ago -- reaching the Eastern Conference finals, where they fell to Cleveland in six games -- should be valuable for this postseason.

Milwaukee played well the last six weeks, going 16-7. The Bucks' hopes rest largely on the shoulders of 6-foot-11 point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, at 22 already one of the premier players in the league. The "Greek Freak" averages 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists. He must produce a big series for Milwaukee to advance.

Our pick: Raptors in six.

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

Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) scores on a fast break against Miami Heat forward James Johnson (16). Fie photo by Mark Goldman/UPI


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Washington was up and down over the past month, closing the season 8-9. However, the Wizards have proved to be one of the top teams in the East, rivaling Toronto for the best backcourt in the conference with John Wall and Bradley Beal. The Washington guard duo combine to average nearly 44 points a game, and Wall is among the top assists men in the league.

The Wizards took three of four games from the Hawks during the season.

Atlanta survived a seven-game losing streak in March and goes into the playoffs with wins in four of the past five. The Hawks are perhaps the most balanced offensive team in the postseason, with six players averaging double-figure scoring -- led by power forward Paul Millsap's 18.1 points per game.

Our pick: Wizards in five.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

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

Warriors Stephen Curry (30) escapes grip of Clippers guard Chris Paul (3). File photo by Jon SooHoo/UPI


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The teams have played often over the past two seasons, including last year's Western Conference semifinals, which Golden State won in five games. The Warriors have ruled in 11 of the 13 matchups, sweeping all four games this season.

First-year Warrior Kevin Durant feasted against Portland this season, shooting 60 percent while averaging 29.3 points and 7.8 rebounds. Durant missed 19 games from late February to early April with a knee injury, returning for the Warriors' final three games.

The Blazers finished the season with a flourish, winning 17 of their last 23 games. Portland hopes to regain the services of center Jusuf Nurkic, who missed the final seven games with a non-displaced fracture of his right leg. After coming over in a trade from Denver, Nurkic helped the Blazers to 14 wins in 20 games. The Blazers must get plenty of production from guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who average 50 points between them.

Our pick: Warriors in six.

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

Golden State Warriors Klay Thompson (C) has San Antonio Spurs Kawhi Leonard (2) and Kyle Anderson (1) reach in as he drives to the basket. File photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI


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Neither team enters the playoffs on a roll. San Antonio lost four of its last five games. Memphis has lost nine of the last 12, including setbacks to New Orleans, Sacramento, Detroit, Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers.

San Antonio and Memphis split four regular-season meetings.

The Spurs have regained the services of starting shooting guard Danny Green, who missed five late-season games with a quad injury.

Memphis is in the playoffs for the seventh straight season. These Grizzlies are a veteran group, with a nucleus -- center Marc Gasol, guards Michael Conley and Tony Allen and reserve power forward Zach Randolph -- that has played together for several seasons.

Our pick: Spurs in five.

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

Houston Rockets James Harden (2nd from right) and the bench suffered an early exit in the postseason in 2016 after a loss to Golden State. File photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI


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The series features the two leading candidates to claim this year's Most Valuable Player Award: Houston's James Harden and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook.

The Rockets enjoyed a renaissance under first-year coach Mike D'Antoni, who has injected energy into the offense and connected well with Harden. Houston was hit with some injuries through the latter part of the season, but the Rockets will have their full rotation available to open the playoffs.

This series will feature a battle of "bigs," with Houston's rising Clint Capela and Nene taking on Oklahoma City's formidable pair of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. Adams is the tough guy and defender, and Kanter the rebounder and scorer off the bench. Harden and Westbrook both will have their big moments, but it may be the supporting casts that decide this series.

Our pick: Rockets in six.

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

Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) and Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers interact with the referee. File photo by Jon SooHoo/UPI


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The Clippers enter the playoffs on a roll, having won seven in a row and 11 of their last 13 regular-season outings. They may be without key reserve Austin Rivers, however. The backup shooting guard, the son of coach Doc Rivers, missed the past six games with a hamstring injury.

The Clippers have a veteran and versatile starting five, with three All-Stars -- point guard Chris Paul, power forward Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan. They beat Utah in three of their four regular-season meetings.

This series features a matchup between perhaps the two premier defensive bigs in the game -- Jordan and Utah center Rudy Gobert.

The Jazz have been dealing with injuries down the stretch to several rotation players, including point guard George Hill, shooting guard Rodney Hood and power forward Derrick Favors. All are expected to be available for the playoffs, and they will be needed.

Our pick: Clippers in seven.

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