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NBA Playoff Preview Roundtable

To prepare you for the NBA playoffs, we got together some of our writers and asked them some questions to try to get to the heart of the various first round series and where the intrigue will be. Here’s what they came up with.

1. Celtics vs. Bulls. The Celtics are being regarded almost universally as one of the weakest one seeds in recent memory. Although they managed a strong record down the stretch the media seems to want to talk more about their issues than their strengths. At the same time, the Bulls are also a team with some obvious weaknesses, but they don’t seem to match up badly in this series. Is too much being made of the Boston weaknesses, and are NBA fans and writers ignoring the possibility of a coming out year for the Celtics, starting with a big first round?

Premal Bhatt: While I don’t see the Celtics coming out of the East, I do think too much is being made of their weaknesses. We’re just going to act like the Bulls didn’t just barely make the playoffs and clinch on a game where they beat the Brooklyn Nets, who were RESTING players? I think too much being made of their weaknesses fuels the fire and they come out strong in round one. They’re a deep, well-coached roster. And they have what you need in the playoffs in Isaiah Thomas – a go-to scorer.

Jeff Weissman: I don’t think so, and the explanation is really simple. Sure, we can all attack the Celtics for all they’re worth. I’ve certainly done so in the past. But here, I don’t really have to. The guy who runs the team, GM Danny Ainge, did it for me. He’s repeatedly stated that he doesn’t want to go “all in” with this roster, and his actions (or lack thereof) at the trade deadline only echoed that sentiment. If the guy who put the team together doesn’t think they can win, then I don’t really see why I should have any confidence in this team..Personally, I’ve got Chicago in this series, but even if Boston wins, I expect them to struggle for the duration of their playoff run.

Akshat Singhal: I think Boston has some real weaknesses; however, I don’t think Chicago is the team to take advantage of them. On paper, Chicago has a few things working in their favor: they have the best player on the court (Jimmy Butler), and they’re a good rebounding team (something Boston has struggled with).

I don’t put too much stock into regular season head-to-heads, but the trends that were visible in their four matchups this season are ones that will be the focal point for both teams in this series. In the two games the Bulls won this season, Chicago outrebounded Boston by 19 and 20 while also outrebounding Boston on the offensive glass 33-7. Rebounding will continue to be a concern for Boston, but in the teams’ most recent matchup, which was after the Taj Gibson trade, Boston actually won the rebounding battle 51-40. While Taj Gibson alone may not be the difference between the Bulls winning or losing this series, Chicago’s offensive rebounding percentage dipped from 28.4% (2nd in the league) to 23.8% (18th) after the trade.

All that said, I’m not sure this is the season we see a coming out year for the Celtics either. Their weaknesses are real, and while the Bulls have some of the tools to take advantage of those weaknesses, the Bulls have their own issues they haven’t taken care of. Rondo is still a subpar player at this point in his career, and he and Wade have not found success together on the court.

While I did say Jimmy Butler may be the best player on the court in this series, the next 3-4 players all belong to Boston, and Butler’s heroics probably won’t be enough to save Chicago.

Ianic Roy Richard: I do believe there is a possibility that the Celtics could come out and completely trash the Bulls. Isaiah Thomas has certainly been magical throughout the season and Boston has a very solid supporting cast. Al Horford is not the superstar that people advertise him as but his ability to create plays for others from the pivot is huge for Boston, a team low on playmakers.

What helps Boston against the Bulls is that Chicago does not have a dominant rebounder. Were Boston facing Atlanta or Miami, teams with guys who pull down massive amounts of rebounds, I would be quicker to call an upset. With Chicago, they have guys like Robin Lopez, Jimmy Butler, and Nikola Mirotic grabbing the most boards. While Horford is far from a dominant rebounder, he can manage against that type of competition, and Amir Johnson will certainly do his part as well.

Do I think this will lead to a breakout for Boston? Not particularly. They have a great coach and some good depth, but I still don’t factor them in as contenders. That is probably insulting considering they earned the first seed, but like the Raptors last year, I am going to need to see some empirical evidence before I back them as true world beaters.

Anthony Doyle: I’ve gone back and forth on this series repeatedly over the last few days, and I’m still struggling with where I stand. On one hand, Boston has some very real weaknesses, in their rebounding issues, defensive struggles with Isaiah Thomas on the court, and offensive struggles without him.

Chicago, on the other hand, is a team where, while they can take games off anyone when they’re on their game, they drop a lot of games where they simply don’t look like a competitive squad. Which Chicago shows up? While I think this is a winnable series for either side, and I don’t really trust either team, I keep coming back to the fact that I trust the Celtics slightly more here, because winning 52 games doesn’t happen accidentally. Maybe they aren’t world-beaters, and got their first seed partially through circumstance, but they are a good team, and should look like it in this series.

2. Cavaliers vs. Pacers. To say that Cleveland has struggled defensively in the back half of the season would be a massive understatement. Statistically, they’ve been one of the worst defensive teams in the league, and sometimes that doesn’t even do justice to how bad they’ve looked on that end. This series appears to, at least on paper, come down to whether or not the Cavaliers can simply ‘hit the switch’ and become a new team in the playoffs. How much do you buy that narrative, and do you think the Pacers are being underestimated?

Premal: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. But I stick by the thinking that they will flip the switch. There’s something to be said about experience in the playoffs, and the Cavs have plenty of it. Especially in round one, I see them having no problems; they will get to playoff form quickly. The NBA Playoff series format has usually been kind to the better team. The Cavs are the better team. And they have LeBron James.

Jeff: This is the rare playoff series where defense really isn’t all that big a deal. Both teams are pretty bad on that end, and magical switch or not, this is gonna be a superstar shootout. Paul George is really damn good, and Thad Young is about as good a matchup as you’re gonna find for Kevin Love, but it’s still gonna be a tall task to outscore the defending champs. To me, this series comes down to the supporting casts. LeBron and George are going to duel, and each will probably do enough to give their team an opportunity to win. I just think that the Cavs depth is much more likely to hold up their end of the bargain.

Akshat: Cleveland’s issues on defense are a very real concern. The talent is there on defense to be at least a league-average defense, but this team isn’t getting any younger and they’re definitely not getting any quicker. I think there is some truth to the Cavs being able to “hit the switch” in the playoffs, and to some extent, I think they’ll be able to do it again this year. The intensity level on the defensive end needs to pick up. However, I worry more that, with the number of aging players there are on the Cavs roster, flipping the switch might also result in fatigue at an early point of the playoffs. That’ll be a real concern for the Cavs as the playoffs progress.

For Indiana, I don’t think they’re being underestimated. Paul George is still Paul George, and Myles Turner provides a very intriguing matchup, but Indiana has no one outside of them to provide problems for Cleveland or most other teams in the East. As the Cavs work out their defensive issues, the Pacers can likely steal a game or two, but they just don’t have the firepower to stay with Cleveland in a 7-game series.

Ianic: Consider me a believer in the switch. LeBron James has been doubted in the regular season since he arrived in Miami. Despite his brilliance during the season, he always goes a few levels higher in the playoffs. He knows that his legacy could be bolstered a few times over by winning back-to-back championships in the Golden State era of basketball. He is not about to let his teammates cost him a chance to do exactly that.

As for Indiana, they are an alright team. Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis makes a decrepit backcourt on defense, and they aren’t particularly deep, but Paul George makes them dangerous. There aren’t that many players who can win a game by themselves, but George is in that class, and he is the only reason I am not foreseeing a complete sweep by Cleveland.

Anthony: There is something to be said for the right matchup at the right time, and I think there’s a case of that in this series for Cleveland. While they have their issues, and I think they are real, I don’t think they’ll come to light here simply because LeBron James largely negates Paul George’s impact and Indiana doesn’t have enough left to match up with the Cavaliers. Kyrie should feast against a weak defensive backcourt for the Pacers, and I don’t think Indiana can bother the other shooters enough to make it close. While Paul George is a great player having his best season, this wasn’t the team they wanted to run into here.

3. Raptors vs. Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo appears this year to have taken his place as a top ten player in the NBA, and he’s a matchup nightmare for any team. He’ll be facing a Raptors team that’s had a few identity crises this season. The Raptors were an all-time great offensive team for the first month and a half of the season, then they struggled for a stretch before settling as a dominant defensive squad after acquiring PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka. Which Raptors team will we see in the playoffs, and will Giannis be able to take yet another leap to challenge a deep Toronto squad?

Premal: Giannis will have a big series. But again, playoff experience is a real thing in my opinion, and I think the Bucks are just a few more games under their belt away from making a splash in the playoffs. I think this series will go 6 or 7 games because of the matchup problem the Greek Freak poses, but the Raptors have more weapons and are back to full health at the right time.

Jeff: The Bucks are a scary matchup for a lot of teams, but Toronto isn’t really one of them. The Bucks are long and athletic, and will make the game as ugly and grimy as possible. That’s dangerous to a lot of very good playoff squads. But Toronto lives for that grime. If you get into an iso duel with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, you better have an MVP on your roster. Giannis isn’t quite there yet, and I think it’s gonna show. Stars aside, Jonas should be able to feast on Milwaukee’s store-brand Swiss Army Knife of bigs, and the Raps have enough answers for Middleton and Brogdon that I have no problem picking Toronto to win this series — without too much of a hassle.

Akshat: Let me just say that this is my favorite matchup of the first round across both conferences. Toronto is definitely the better and deeper team of the two, but Giannis makes that Milwaukee team so fascinating. The dominant defensive team is the Toronto team we’ll see in the playoffs, while DeRozan and Lowry anchor the offense. Toronto is arguably the deepest team in the playoffs, and has a myriad of players on defense to cause issues for opposing players.

Milwaukee has, in my opinion, the best player in the series in Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s the kind of transcendent player who can lead an underdog team to a playoff win. The combination of Giannis and Middleton is one that can make Milwaukee a perennial threat for years to come. However, unfortunately, I don’t think that will be this year. The duo may be able to steal a couple games from Toronto, but Toronto is too deep and too playoff-tested to let themselves fall to an inferior team.

Ianic:  Two key players in this matchup are inexperienced when it comes to playoff basketball. The only difference is in their role with their respective teams. Like most of his squad, Giannis Antetokounmpo is about to experience playoff basketball for only the second time in his career. As the team’s star, it could be a difficult adjustment for him. The play is entirely different once the postseason lights turn on: a lot more physical, the refs call less fouls, and for a skinny guy like Giannis, it becomes a bit tougher to get buckets. That’s not to say he won’t perform well, just that it will be a shock for him at first.

On the flipside, PJ Tucker is also going to be playing his first minutes of playoff basketball with Toronto. He is a huge factor for the Raptors’ success, but the difference between Tucker and Antetokounmpo is expectations. Tucker could average 2 points throughout the series and still accomplish his job perfectly. Tucker is there for his defensive abilities and intensity within the locker room. He has become the team’s emotional compass and behind him, his troops rally. There is no doubt in my mind that the Raptors are one of the mentally toughest teams in these playoffs, and that is all because of PJ Tucker. Expect to see that defensive-minded squad tip off against Milwaukee and make fairly quick work of them.

Anthony: As a Raptors fan, I don’t doubt that the Raptors’ issues this season have been real, or even think that they’ve completely disappeared because of a good record down the stretch. The schedule was forgiving and although the defense was great, Toronto will still have to improve offensively in the postseason.

The good news is that growth is there and very possible, and Milwaukee isn’t well suited to stop them. Although Giannis will get his because of his unique talents being so hard to defend, he doesn’t naturally guard any of the best players for Toronto, and the Raptors will attack the paint repeatedly against a Milwaukee team light on rim protection. This should look somewhat like a warm-up series for a talented Toronto team primed for a potential deep run. The Bucks have a lot of young talent and they’ll get there, just not this year.

4. Wizards vs. Hawks. Everyone seems to be sleeping on this series. Expecting it to be one of the least interesting or watchable series in the Eastern Conference. It seems like most people aren’t quite sure what to make of either of these teams, with the Hawks not as deep as years past and the Wizards finally having figured out things we weren’t sure they would. Give me a storyline you expect from this series that might make it more exciting than we think.

Premal: This series really is boring to me too. I think everyone’s expecting John Wall to dominate, and I just don’t see it carrying into the entire duration of the playoffs. If the Wizards weren’t playing such a mess of a team in the Hawks, I would’ve had them losing round one. Instead of a storyline, I’ll stick with a bold take – Dwight Howard has the performance of the series out of all starters. But, Wizards still win, and this is the beginning of the end for the Hawks. Atlanta’s should start over after another failed playoff appearance.

Jeff: I’m a Sixers fan, so I know my word isn’t worth much, but I don’t see why anybody would want to face off against this Hawks team in a playoff series. They have a 2000s style roster filled with physicality, pointy elbows, and missed jumpshots. I’d expect injuries in this series, and it’ll only take one to start exposing Washington’s glaring lack of depth. That’s the best part, though. The Wizards are every bit as physical as the Hawks, and this series is gonna be a brutal slugfest that some will hate but people like me will love. Oh, and we get to see playoff Dwight again. That’s always fun.

Akshat: This is a tough one. I’ve tried really hard to find something that makes this series interesting to me and the best I’ve been able to come up with is the emergence of Washington as a legitimate threat. John Wall and Bradley Beal seemed to have finally hit their stride, while MIP candidate Otto Porter has finally become what was expected of him out of college. While Washington’s “Big 3” doesn’t have the offensive fireworks that Cleveland’s or Golden State’s provide, they can be every bit as dangerous when they’re clicking. I expect this will be the series Washington inserts themselves into the conversation for Eastern Conference contenders.

The Hawks should’ve been rebuilding, and trading away Kyle Korver made it seem like they were heading in that direction, but here we are. Atlanta is in the playoffs, slumping but present nonetheless, and look primed for a first round exit as Washington finally has their breakthrough moment.

Ianic: For me, this is all about John Wall vs Dennis Schröder. The Hawks moved on from Jeff Teague this past summer, which has been an all-around solid decision. That said, we are now in the playoffs and this will be Schröder’s first taste of running a team in the postseason. To make matters worse, he is going up against John Wall, who, for my money’s worth, is the best guard in the Eastern Conference.

It’s no secret that Schröder is, at best, bad on defense. If Atlanta is to have any chance against a resolute Washington squad, he is going to have to figure out a way to quickly become passable on that end. Wall is going to be hungry for playoff success after taking one year off. The Wizards’ most recent playoff performance was memorable for their surprise success against Toronto and Paul Pierce’s clutch gene. Now they are back with a new coach and a better overall roster, but the top of the East is deeper too. Two of Washington, Boston, Toronto and Cleveland are going to be disappointed by missing out on the conference finals, and Wall is going to set the tone early to make sure it won’t be the Wizards.

Anthony: It’s no secret that the Atlanta Hawks are now Paul Millsap’s team, and if they have any hope of pulling off what looks like an extremely unlikely upset here, it’s going to be on his shoulders. Millsap is a ‘do everything’ talent who brings a lot of skill on both ends of the floor, scoring in a multide of ways while being a versatile defensive player and capable rebounder. He’ll be matched up here with the mercurial Markieff Morris, and while Morris is clearly talented, he’s failed for most of his career to capitalize on his skills.

If Millsap goes unchecked, because either Morris doesn’t look capable or is in his own head, it could cause problems for a Washington team otherwise fit for a strong playoff run. If Morris can manage to either effectively guard Millsap or equal his production, expect an easy series for the Wizards.

5. Warriors vs. Blazers. On paper this is the biggest mismatch of all the first round series, with an ailing Trailblazers team facing off against a suddenly healthy (and dominant) Warriors squad. Portland has been much improved since acquiring Jusuf Nurkic, but he might miss much of the series as a return date after his fractured fibula has not yet been set. If Nurkic can return, does that change this series, or is this just a 4-game warmup for the later rounds for the Warriors?

Premal: This is all brooms. Warriors are going to coast through this series. Maybe 1 of the 4 games will be close thanks to Lillard, but that’s about it. Any Nurkic we’d see wouldn’t be 100%, and not enough to make an impact on this series. The Warriors are just too loaded for the Blazers to handle.

Jeff: This just hasn’t been the Blazer’s year. I like this roster more than most, but man, it’s the Warriors. A healthy Portland squad would probably struggle to win a game or two. If they can pull enough of their team out of the ER waiting room, they might steal a win through the sheer will of Damian Lillard, but yeah, this is a warmup for the Warriors.

On the plus side, we get to see Evan Turner play some playoff basketball outside of the corner that Doug Collins and Frank Vogel previously locked him in. It was fun in Boston, and it’ll be fun again this year. The Villain is many things, and clutch is one of them. Usually.

Akshat: I’ll start by saying that I’ll be shocked if this series goes past five games. While Portland’s defense has been much improved since the All-Star break, Golden State’s offense has far far too much firepower. Without Nurkic, this is easily over in four games. Even if Nurkic returns, I’m not sure it’ll be enough to slow down Golden State. This is a warm-up round for the Warriors and I’m not sure there’s much Portland will be able to do about it.

Ianic: With all due respect to the run Nurkic has had since arriving in Portland, this is Golden State’s series to lose. Were they to drop this matchup, it would be like a combination of Denver taking down Seattle and the Warriors beating the Mavericks fused together. With or without Nurkic, the Blazers are taking at most one game from a Warriors team that is red-hot since entering the Toaster Era.

Anthony: It’s easy to fall in love with Damian Lillard’s game, as he effortlessly puts up huge scoring totals on a semi-regular basis, but that’s simply not going to be enough here. Nurkic is a nice player who can maybe make the Warriors uncomfortable physically, but won’t slow down this train that’s headed straight through the playoffs. This is a great matchup for Golden State, and should afford them an easy series and plenty of rest.

6. Spurs vs. Grizzlies. This will probably be the least watched first round series, and not without reason. Both of these teams are defensive squads, and the Grizzlies are once again the weirdly competitive team that no one can quite explain. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol lead the team, but can they find enough talent on their aging roster to compete with Kawhi Leonard and his MVP form he’s found this year? Do the Spurs get the sweep, so they can rest some of their older guys for the later rounds? 

Premal: I believe that this series will not be a sweep. The Grizzlies Grit-n-Grind is usually good for a game or two in the playoffs, and I love a team with a good point guard in the playoffs. Kawhi will be an issue for them, so ultimately the Spurs will win, but no sweep and no rest for them, even though they’ll need it before facing the Rockets or Thunder.

Jeff: Spurs most likely sweep here. Conley is very good, and would probably go off against San Antonio’s offense-only point guard rotation; unfortunately, the Grizzlies have nobody else worth Kawhi Leonard’s attention, and the Klaw will be all over the OSU product. Marc Gasol and Z Bo are great, but the Spurs have a ton of ridiculous big man depth to throw at them. Memphis got really unlucky with this matchup. If Parsons could ever get healthy, this might be a little more interesting, but, well…

Break out the broomsticks.

Akshat: Yeah, get out the brooms, because we’re looking at another sweep here. Since the All-Star break, the Grizzlies defense only ranks 20th in the league. The Spurs offense isn’t world beating by any means, but for the second season in a row, they have an MVP candidate (Kawhi Leonard) leading their offense. Interestingly, I think this is the worst team San Antonio has had in several years, but Kawhi has helped neutralize some of their talent loss while also making the most out of the surrounding talent. But like I said, Memphis’ defense just hasn’t quite been there in the latter half of the season.

Ianic: The East has some intriguing first-round matchups. The West is the polar opposite. Look, the Grizzlies are a good team that is well coached. They will do their best to fight and claw their way into an upset, but the Spurs are so much better. Kawhi Leonard has become a legitimate superstar and he is flanked by another star in LaMarcus Aldridge. As good as Conley and Gasol have been, they can’t handle that kind of talent with Memphis’ current roster. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are officially old, and this seems like the last of what was a very fun era in Memphis Grizzlies basketball.

Anthony: If only I could give some optimism to Memphis fans who probably need it at this point. Unfortunately, this isn’t going to be pretty or take long, as the Spurs are simply so much more talented. It’s going to be a slow series, and maybe that keeps the scores somewhat close, but the games themselves probably won’t be, as the Spurs get some much-needed rest in preparation for what they’re hoping will be a long playoff run.

7. Rockets vs. Thunder. The matchup of the likely top two MVP candidates this year should make for a fun series, but give me another storyline or matchup to look for in this one. Other than Westbrook vs. Harden, what conflict dictates who wins this series, and how does either squad find advantages? Will any defense at all be played in this one?

Premal: I think other than the two superstars, this series will come down to Houston’s 3-point shooting. Obvious, I know. If the Thunder can keep up with Rockets, and have defensive discipline with a little cold streak by Houston’s shooters, then a 1-on-1, Harden vs. Westbrook, could make this series go either way. Will the Thunder be able to use their talented big men, or will they be forced to go small to defend the perimeter shooting of the Rockets? Another key component will be foul trouble. The Thunder can’t afford to have Adams and Kanter in foul trouble if Harden starts drawing free throws. On the flip side, if the Thunder can get some key shooters in foul trouble from defending the bigs down low or Westbrook driving, that could be a major key in getting a cold streak out of the Rockets.

Jeff: This series will come down to the bigs. Houston doesn’t need their odd grouping of savvy vets and young specialists to star, but they just need… enough. OKC is gonna do their best to pound the rock inside and wreak havoc with Kanter, Adams, and Sabonis. If Houston’s oft-ignored big man rotation can hold their own, the Rocket’s shooting will simply prove to be too much.

As for defense, I genuinely have no idea. If it’s close, it’ll be a defensive war. If Houston starts running away with it, it’ll turn into a Russ vs. the world shootout, and Russ will lose. Badly.

Akshat: Let’s go with one player: Patrick Beverley. There’s some bad blood between Beverley and Westbrook going back to the 2013 incident that sidelined Westbrook for the playoffs that year. Something tells me OKC fans still haven’t gotten over that incident either. I don’t think OKC has any way to stop Harden, and Beverley is Houston’s only hope to slow down Westbrook. It still won’t be enough, though, as I expect both MVP candidates to have their way throughout the series, but ultimately, the more efficient of the two will be the difference maker. This series will be supremely entertaining with a lot of scoring, but I can’t see Oklahoma City stealing any more than one game.

Ianic:  Having just finished trashing the Western matchups, allow me to say that this is a good one. Billy Donovan vs Mike D’Antoni will be huge. These teams are not as far off as some might think, and OKC plays a style that meshes so well with Houston that it would be crazy to be that any series would outscore this one.

Personally, I will be curious to see how the big man battle works out. We know that Russ and Harden will get theirs, but who between the Clint Capela-Ryan Anderson duo and the two-headed center monster known as Steven Adams and Enes Kanter will come out victorious? The winner of that matchup will dictate who takes the series, which I think could easily go to seven. Any fan of fun basketball should be hoping for a very long series.

Anthony: I’ll be keeping an eye on the benches. While Houston has received a lot of production out of both Eric Gordon and Lou Williams in terms of scoring off the bench, neither of these teams is particularly deep or well-suited to make adjustments for matchups, so it’ll be interesting to see if either team manages to find some surprise contributors to help not just in this series, but looking forward for whoever comes out. I’d expect it to be Houston moving forward, as I don’t believe the Thunder are capable of slowing their offense, but maybe Russell Westbrook has yet another gear in store for us.

8. Clippers vs. Jazz. Two teams here who have been dominant at times this year, but also have struggled with injuries. The Clippers looked like the best team in the league for a stretch early in the season, and their record when Chris Paul plays has been fantastic. The Jazz, on the other hand, have barely had their intended starting lineup play together all season, although they’ve been impressive when together. Both squads look mostly healthy heading into the series. Who do you give the advantage to here, and what decides the matchup viewed as the most competitive first round series by most?

Premal: I think this is advantage Clippers. The matchup between the two teams’ frontcourts will be interesting to watch, with the offensive firepower of the Clippers against the potential Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert. And when it’s close to a toss-up, I go with the better players and the better point guard. Advantage: CP3. Also, I just don’t believe in the Jazz as much as most. Regardless, whoever wins this series is going to lose big the next round to the Warriors, especially if it goes six or seven games like most of us think.

Jeff: Man, this is a really tough one to call, and it’s the one series that you’re making me call. Uh, hold on a sec. Lemme flip a coin.

With a gun to my head, I’d probably pick the Jazz here, and that’s solely from my confidence in Chris Paul’s unique ability to lose playoff series in creative ways. If the Jazz manage to pull it off, it’ll be blamed on CP3, but they’ll really have Gordon Hayward to thank. I love Grandpa Pierce, but I don’t think he’s got enough in the tank to duel with Mr. Starcraft, and any Luc Mbah a Moute minutes are an instant victory for Utah, with their defense.

Akshat: This one is going to come down to whether Utah is able to force the Clippers into a slow game. Utah’s defense has the ability to be lockdown on the perimeter, and is already a lockdown interior defense thanks to DPOY-candidate Rudy Gobert. The Clippers are going to want to speed up the game to neutralize Utah’s defensive impact. This is also the final year in contract for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Chris Paul has been stellar during his time in LA, just like he has been all throughout his career, but despite having talented rosters, has still been unable to make that playoff push we’ve all been waiting for.

It may be a boring answer, but Chris Paul will be the difference maker. His command and how he goes about piercing the Utah defense will be the difference in this ultra competitive first round matchup.

IanicThe battle between the most overrated defender in the league and one of its best will decide this series. DeAndre Jordan has a reputation as one of the best defenders in the league and, while he is good, it is overstated. People are starting to talk about Rudy Gobert, but for a long time, he was hanging out in the shadows and doing his job as the best paint defender in the NBA. Assuming both play to their usual standards, the edge swings favorably towards Utah for me.

Of course no one can underestimate the impact that Chris Paul can have on a series, but George Hill is a nice physical defender to throw at him. Consider both sides’ respective depth, and that Gordon Hayward is likely more useful right now than Blake Griffin, and to me, that spells out a Utah win in a fairly easy fashion. That’s on paper; in reality, we all know that nothing about playoff basketball is ever easy.

Anthony: I’m sure most of my colleagues have already brought up the critical George Hill versus Chris Paul matchup, so I’m going to go in another direction and say that I’ll be watching the battle between Gordon Hayward and the Clippers’ stable of mediocre small forwards who will attempt to guard him. The Clippers have a big hole at the 3, and Hayward gives Utah an opportunity to attack that weakness consistently. Maybe this series gets decided between Hill and Paul, or down low between Jordan and Gobert, but I’d be willing to bet that if the Clippers can’t contain Hayward, that might be just as big of a deal.

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