NBA playoff predictions: Clippers-Spurs too good for first round

The 2015 NBA postseason gets started this weekend with all eight series playing Game 1s Saturday and Sunday. In order, of first Game 1 to last, a preview and prediction for each series:

No. 4 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards (Game 1 – 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday)

Nobody expected the Raptors to make the playoffs last season, so them taking the Nets to seven games in the first round was a bit of a surprise. This year, most everyone expected Toronto to be better than 49 wins. Still, it’s hard to call the Raptors a disappointment. Fact is, they’ll be judged largely on what they do in the playoffs. And some consistency from the likes of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas could carry them to a new level.

Much like the Raptors, the Wizards were perhaps a bit of a letdown. Not a major letdown, mind you, but a team that failed to play with much steadiness in a season that saw the door open wide after the declines of the Pacers and Heat. Either way, the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal and the experience of playoff-savvy forward Paul Pierce just might give them the edge. Prediction: Wizards in seven.

No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans (Game 1 – 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday)

Can anyone contain Stephen Curry? For the entire regular season, the answer was no. But the Warriors, clearly, are more than just their dynamic shooter and passer. Klay Thompson is a fantastic second banana, while Draymond Green, Marreese Speights, Harrison Barnes and others understand their roles and occasionally stand out. Overall, Steve Kerr’s first season as an NBA coach has been a smash hit. Hard to see his team losing in a seven-game series.

Meanwhile, Anthony Davis is the heartbeat of the Pelicans and perhaps a future league MVP. This is a team that plays hard and smart and could make several of the games in this series highly entertaining evenings. But as far as getting an actual win, well, that seems considerably more like a long shot. Prediction: Warriors in four.

No. 3 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks (Game 1 – 7 p.m. ET Saturday)

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Here’s the thing about the Bulls: They play playoff-style basketball all season. In other words, coach Tom Thibodeau’s team slows almost every game down to a grind, with the Bulls defending, scratching, clawing and fighting to the bitter end. If Derrick Rose is anything close to the Rose most fans know and love, and Jimmy Butler continues his All-Star ways, the Bulls could totally go places.

Then there’s the Bucks. They are young, athletic and clearly well-coached by Jason Kidd. It’s rare that a man has his team’s undivided attention for an entire season — but make no mistake, Kidd has gotten through to these guys. Oddly enough, the Bucks haven’t played quite as well since replacing point guard Brandon Knight with Michael Carter-Williams via a deadline-day trade. This will be a good lesson for them for next season, when injured rookie standout Jabari Parker is due to return. Prediction: Bulls in five.

No. 2 Houston Rockets vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks (Game 1 – 9:30 p.m. ET Saturday)

James Harden may not be the best player alive, but it’s not for a lack of thinking so. That type of confidence, coupled with the Rockets’ ability to score a ton of baskets in a matter of moments, makes you think they could do something special. A lot will depend on how Dwight Howard performs in an offense that’s thrived by moving farther and farther from the basket.

On the other hand, the Mavericks have been a disappointment after obtaining Rajon Rondo in a midseason trade. Rondo has been subpar, and the Mavs as a whole haven’t meshed despite all the talent. On the bright side, with the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons and others, when the Mavs are hot, they can overwhelm you. But they’d better heat up, like, yesterday. Prediction: Rockets in six.

No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 7 Boston Celtics (Game 1 – 3 p.m. ET Sunday)

OK, so LeBron James and the Cavs didn’t overpower everyone, win 72 games and coast to the top seed in the entire league. But they did go 34-9 after beginning the season with an opening-day loss to the lowly New York Knicks and a 19-20 start. Two major reasons for the uptick: The improved health of James and the midseason trades for J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert.

As for the Celtics, well, they seem just happy to be here. They won’t admit it, but the eighth seed and a first-round matchup with a team other than the Cavs may have been preferable. Isaiah Thomas and the rejuvenated Evan Turner could make a game or two interesting, as should the fantastic coaching of Brad Stevens. Beyond that, it’s hard to think happy thoughts. Prediction: Cavs in four.

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No. 1 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 8 Brooklyn Nets (Game 1 – 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday)

Paul Millsap may be the most underrated All-Star in either conference, and overall, people just don’t respect Atlanta. But popular opinion doesn’t win championships, and the Hawks may be the best team ever entering the playoffs with a chip on their shoulder. They’re balanced, deep and utterly unselfish through and through.

The Nets, on the other hand, sort of backed into the postseason on the final day, relying on a loss by the Indiana Pacers to even make it. Still, key Nets such as Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams are battle-tested veterans. The real question is, do they have enough around them to make this a series? Probably not. Prediction: Hawks in six.

No. 4 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies (Game 1 – 8 p.m. ET Sunday)

This is one of those strange series in which the lower seed has the home-court advantage. Still, the Blazers possess youth, springy legs and two real stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. It worked well in last year’s first round vs. the Rockets. The big question is whether those two will get enough consistent help (especially on the road) against a highly disciplined opponent.

As for the Grizzlies, it’s hard to remember they were once right there with the Warriors as class of the West, and not long ago. They struggled a little recently, as they sort of lost their way and backed off from their usual grind-opponents-into-the-ground philosophy. But with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Jeff Green, this is a veteran team. At this time of year, that counts for plenty, folks. Prediction: Grizzlies in six.

No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 6 San Antonio Spurs (Game 1 – 10:30 p.m. ET Sunday)

Just the Clippers’ luck. They peak at the right time and suddenly look like a real contender — then draw the defending champions in the first round. But when you take into account the way Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and the rest have played lately, it’s easy to believe this is the year the Clippers become something beyond just hype. That said, one slip-up against the Spurs and they’re likely toast.

The Spurs, of course, weren’t too shabby themselves near the end, winning 11 straight before losing the season-finale to the Pelicans. It was no ordinary loss, though — as the Spurs plummeted from the second to sixth seed. So it will be an uphill climb for Tim Duncan and friends, as the 1994-95 Rockets are the only team to win a title when starting at No. 6. But if anyone is capable of matching such a feat, it’s these Spurs. Frankly, this series should be up in the air until the very end. Prediction: Clippers in seven.