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Ah, the NBA Playoffs. The time where teams build their “Giannis Wall” to try and slow down the Greek Freak, LeBron turns his phone off (psycho) for the playoffs, and the entire world roots against Golden State so Klay can stop counting his rings every time he gets into a scuffle on the court. And at RYP, it’s public pool time! We’re hosting a free-to-play NBA Playoff Challenge with cash up for grabs.
Before I get into the picks, apologies are in order. If you read my Expert Picks for the TaylorMade First Major Challenge, I hope and pray that you didn’t actually use those picks. I did make it VERY clear that I was the furthest thing from a golf expert, and the results showed that. Turns out, there’s no prize for coming in 9015th place! I may not be a golf expert, but I am a diehard NBA fan. Basketball is by far my favorite sport, so if I wasn’t able to gain your support with my golf picks, I believe I can do so for my NBA picks. Let’s get into it.
The Play-In Tournament
I’ll clarify this out of the gate: for this challenge on RYP, you don’t need to make picks for the Play-In Tournament. Picks will start once all 16 teams are finalized. But I’m here to pick everything!
9 New Orleans Pelicans vs. 10 Oklahoma City Thunder
How bout them Thunder! It’s crazy to me how narrow-minded some NBA fans can be with this team. They’re gotten an enormous amount of criticism online for tanking, but is that really warranted?
It took two seasons to pull off a rebuild. Two. This team is loaded with young talent but draws an incredibly tough matchup in the Pelicans. The Thunder will have their day, but not in this game. In what should be a gritty game (the Thunder struggle to make shots and the Pelicans turn the ball over a bit too much) the Pelicans should be able to pull off a W on the backs of elite scorers CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.
The Pick: New Orleans
7 Los Angeles Lakers vs. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves
What an absolutely perfect scenario for the Lakers. The Timberwolves completely imploded in the last game of their season, with a fight breaking out between Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson that led to Gobert’s dismissal from the game, and rising star Jaden McDaniels punched a wall on his way to the locker room and fractured his hand.
The T’Wolves will certainly miss McDaniels on the defensive end, and believe it or not, the Lakers are playing solid basketball right now. They should be able to take advantage of a relatively inexperienced Minnesota squad and come out with the win.
(Edit: the Timberwolves just suspended Rudy Gobert out for this game. AD is going to feast!)
The Pick: Los Angeles
9 New Orleans Pelicans vs. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves
The Wolves might feel the loss of McDaniels here more than they do in the Lakers matchup. McDaniels is a great matchup for Brandon Ingram, and without that defensive boost, BI could be in for a huge night. I like this one to be closer than the Lakers matchup for the Wolves, but this season has been a mess for Minnesota and it would be fitting for it to end with two straight losses to knock them out of the playoffs.
The Pick: New Orleans
9 Toronto Raptors vs. 10 Chicago Bulls
MAN is this one going to be a stinker. These are two of the most inconsistent teams in the entire league. On some nights, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bulls could hang 150 on their opponents, and the Raptors look like the Ben Wallace Pistons on the defensive end every once in a while. But neither of these teams have been able to put it all together for a long stretch. This is one of those games where you look at the odds and go with it, because after all, Vegas is smarter than all of us.
The Pick: Toronto
7 Miami Heat vs. 8 Atlanta Hawks
What happened to the Miami Heat? Just one year removed from a Conference Finals appearance and with a similar cast of characters, the Heat dropped all the way down to a 7 seed in the East. Did PJ Tucker really make that big of a difference? Either way, this is not an ideal matchup for Miami. They’re one of the stronger defensive teams in the league, but they’ll need an elite offensive showing to get by the Hawks, something they haven’t done often this season.
The Pick: Atlanta
7 Miami Heat vs. 9 Toronto Raptors
The road ends here for Miami. The Raptors have dominated Miami this season, winning their season series 3-1. The Heat are great at team defense, but the Raptors simply have too many guys who can knock down shots and fill up the stat sheet. I don’t see one guy going crazy in this matchup, but the fact that Barnes, FVV, OG, Siakam, and even Poeltl can all give the Heat defense fits should be enough to pull out the win. There’s too much for the Heat to contain. Sorry, Heat fans.
The Pick: Toronto
1 Denver Nuggets vs. 8 New Orleans Pelicans
And here we go. Although Nikola Jokic fumbled the MVP this season, his team is still built for a deep playoff run. They have Jamal Murray back for the playoffs, and if he performs like he did in the bubble, they could cruise to the NBA Finals. Jokic, Murray, MPJ, and the rest of the Nuggets squad simply pose too much of a threat for the Pelicans, especially without Zion Williamson. They should handle the Pels with ease.
The Pick: Denver in 5
4 Phoenix Suns vs. 5 Los Angeles Clippers
We FINALLY get to see the Suns at full strength this year. We have a small sample size, but it looks like the trio of KD, Booker, and CP3 are firing on all cylinders. Plus, the Clippers will be without Paul George for at least the first round of the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is a giant killer, but this is too much for even him to overcome.
The Pick: Phoenix in 6
3 Sacramento Kings vs. 6 Golden State Warriors
This is an abysmal draw for the young Sacramento Kings. They’re coming off an incredible season and have reinvigorated their franchise and fanbase, and they run into the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Are these the same exact Warriors that won the NBA Finals over my Celtics last season? No. But, they’re still the Warriors. It seems like the media has done the ‘are the Warriors finished?’ every season for the past 3 or 4 years now, but I’m not buying it. I’ll take the championship pedigree in a competitive series.
The Pick: Golden State in 7
2 Memphis Grizzlies vs. 7 Los Angeles Lakers
I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m falling for the Lakers. Now, a huge reason for this is the matchup. If they somehow fell to the 8 seed in the Play-In tournament instead of the 7 seed, I’d pick the Nuggets in a heartbeat. But the Grizzlies will be without Steven Adams for the entire postseason which plays perfectly into the Lakers’ style of play. LeBron is still LeBron, but if they want to make a postseason run, it needs to be on the back of Anthony Davis. I’m as much of a Kenny Lofton Jr. truther as the next guy, but without Adams protecting the paint, AD is going to feast. The improvements they made a the trade deadline should help them pull off a first-round upset.
The Pick: Los Angeles in 7
1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. 8 Toronto Raptors
Don’t try to get cute here. The Bucks are rolling through Toronto.
The Pick: Milwaukee in 4
4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 5 New York Knicks
Man this series is going to be FUN. The Knicks get a chance to see the one that got away in Donovan Mitchell, and Jalen Brunson gets the opportunity to prove if he can be the guy. These teams are so evenly matched that it makes me think it will come down to the home court advantage. I see Mitchell having some explosive performances to lift Cleveland in their first post-LeBron playoff run past the Knickerbockers.
The Pick: Cleveland in 7
3 Philadelphia 76ers vs 6 Brooklyn Nets
Again, don’t get too cute here. The Nets have been a nice story by hanging onto a playoff spot after the departures of KD and Kyrie, but they have no answer for the MVP Joel Embiid and his supporting cast.
The Pick: Philadelphia in 4
2 Boston Celtics vs. 7 Atlanta Hawks
If you’ve read anything NBA-related from me on RYP, you know I’m a diehard Celtics fan. I’m putting my bias aside for this pick, but there is no shot the Atlanta Hawks can get by the Celtics. Sure, we’ve had our rough patches this season, but Tatum is developing more and more into a superstar every season, we’ve solved the point guard issue with the addition of Brogdon, Jaylen Brown is still Jaylen Brown, and this team plays incredible defense. They should have more than enough to get by Trae Young and Co.
The Pick: Boston in 5
1 Denver Nuggets vs. 4 Phoenix Suns
This series is a great example of an unstoppable force meeting and immovable object, if the unstoppable force is a team that can’t get out of the Western Conference and the immovable object is a team that can’t win the Finals. Now, the immovable object did just add NBA Champion Kevin Durant but still. This series is stumping me. Both teams are top-10 in team defense and in scoring. One has an MVP candidate, another has a former MVP. The Nuggets have better depth, but that won’t be the difference in this series. At the end of the day, the Nuggets aren’t built for the playoffs. Unless Jamal Murray goes absolutely nuclear like he did in the bubble, they don’t have the firepower to keep up with a team like Phoenix. The playmaking style of a guy like Jokic works in the regular season, but he needs an elite second option to make up for the ramped-up defense of the playoffs. KD and Booker along with CP3’s playmaking ability will be too much for them to keep up with.
The Pick: Phoenix in 7
6 Golden State Warriors vs. 7 Los Angeles Lakers
Just when you thought we were done with LeBron vs. Steph, they’re back! I don’t think this time will be much different than year’s past. The Warriors having home-court advantage in this series is huge, they’ve been terrible on the road this season. The Lakers actually won the season series against the Warriors 3-1, but Steph didn’t play in two of those losses. With Wiggins back with the team and the ‘playoff Warriors’ activated, they should find their groove and expose the Lakers’ flaws to move on to the Western Conference Finals.
The Pick: Golden State in 6
1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers
This series is going to be sneaky challenging for the Bucks. When you look at the Cavs roster, the scoring potential obviously jumps off the screen. Mitchell, Garland, and even Mobley are capable of giving you 30+, but this team is actually first in the league in defensive rating. The only problem with this is that the Bucks aren’t far behind them. They can keep pace with the Cavs and also put a stranglehold on them defensively. They have two legitimate DPOY candidates in Brook Lopez and Giannis, and they play unselfish basketball on the offensive end. The Cavs will be in contention in the East for a long time, but a tough draw against an elite team will end their run this season.
The Pick: Milwaukee in 6
2 Boston Celtics vs. 3 Philadelphia 76ers
We own the Philadelphia 76ers. Plain and simple. Embiid can win 50 MVPs, Harden can go back to his MVP form, Doc Rivers can figure out how to make a defensive adjustment for the first time in his career, it doesn’t matter. There is no way the Celtics lose this series. Book it!
The Pick: Boston in 6
The Conference Finals
4 Phoenix Suns vs. 6 Golden State Warriors
Well isn’t this poetic. There’s always talk in sports about script writers this, script writers that, well, what could be a better script than this? KD, who apparently doesn’t care about his own legacy (I doubt that) gets the chance to silence the doubters and take out the team who brought him his greatest successes as an NBA player. The Suns are definitely a superteam, but they don’t touch how good the KD Warriors were. A win against his former team would do wonders for his legacy as an all-time great, and I think he’s going to do it. This series is going to be an offensive masterclass, but like everyone said when Durant went to the Warriors, who’s going to slow down Kevin Durant? Wiggins is a great defender but KD has done more against better opponents, and Klay is not the defender he used to be. Enjoy the offensive fireworks in this series, but the Suns will have the last laugh and move on to the Finals for the second time in three seasons.
The Pick: Phoenix in 7
1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. 2 Boston Celtics
This series comes down to one man: Khris Middleton. Now, that’s probably not what you expected, but this man is the Celtic Killer. He averages 22 and 5 against the C’s in the playoffs, which might not seem like much, but when you pair that with Giannis’ ability to score at will and a team of shooters surrounding both of them, he’s dangerous. The one question is Middleton’s health. He re-aggravated an injured knee, but the MRI results came back clean and he is expected to be ready for the playoffs. If he’s at 100%, I think the Bucks have enough to take down the Celtics. If not, we’re going back to the Finals. I’ll operate on the assumption that he’s not 100%.
The Pick: Boston in 7
The NBA Finals
2 Boston Celtics vs. 4 Phoenix Suns
Defense wins championships. In all four games the Warriors won over the Celtics in last year’s Finals, they held Boston to under 100 points. That’s the exact way the Celtics need to approach this series, and I believe they will. We know about reigning DPOY Marcus Smart, we know that Jaylen Brown can lock down the best of the best, we know about the “Giannis Stopper” Al Horford, we know about elite shot-blocker Rob Williams, and we know how scrappy guards like Brogdon and Derrick White can be on the defensive end. Individually, they’re all great defenders. As a team, they’re an elite unit. They’re the type of unit that can take away both your first and second-best scoring option, leaving the role players to have to step up. Are we really confident that Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton can be the differences in an NBA Finals series? Didn’t we very recently see evidence that they can’t? I don’t see why this year will be any different. You can’t stop Kevin Durant, but you can contain him. The Celtics will win the NBA Finals this year off the containment of Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. Jayson Tatum will continue his ascension into superstardom and win his first Finals MVP based on dominance on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. Yes, I’m a homer, but the stars are aligning this year for the Celtics to hang Banner 18.
The Pick: Boston in 7
Whew, we made it. Are you still with me? Get over to our NBA Playoff Challenge and make those picks!
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