The NBA Playoffs are right around the corner and although we will see many of the familiar teams grace the postseason, there are some new and up-and-coming teams to be on the lookout for. The Cavaliers will again finish atop the Eastern Conference behind MVP candidate LeBron James, and the Warriors and Spurs will sit atop the West.  There are some teams making noise close to the top of the standings, with the Boston Celtics taking claim to the number two overall spot (with a chance to claim the spot from the Cavaliers), and James Harden possibly guiding the Houston Rockets to a third seed while playing the best basketball of his career.

The star power will be on full effect in both conferences.  Cavaliers vs. Heat will showcase dominant big man Hassan Whiteside vs. Cleveland’s big three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. Paul George and Isaiah Thomas will square off in a first round match up. A 3 vs. 6 series of the Wizards and Bucks could showcase John Wall vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Toronto’s All-Star duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will take on Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap and the Atlanta Hawks.

Over in the Western Conference we could see the big four in Golden State take on Portland’s young star studded back court of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. Kawhi Leonard and his veteran cast of stars will take on the familiar faces of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley with the Memphis Grizzlies. MVP front runner James Harden will took to propel the Rockets past Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in what could be their last run together. And newcomer Utah Jazz led by Gordon Hayward will look to knock off Russell Westbrook and his Oklahoma City Thunder as the higher seed in that match up.

Then of course we get to see these stars match up across from a new set of players looking to take the next step in their NBA playoff run.

15. East Round 1: (1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (8) Miami Heat

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Cavaliers win 4-1

The Heat have put together a unforeseen push just to get into the playoff race, and their reward will be a series with the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.  Dion Waiters has taken advantage of the freedom he has been given for the first time in his career, and Hassan Whiteside is a proven dominant presence down low.

Unfortunately LeBron James and company will not sweat through their first round matchup too much.  Expect Irving to take advantage of Goran Dragic and create for the rest of the Cavaliers, while LeBron takes over the games on both ends of the floor.  The Heat may be able to squeak out a game or two at home, but the Cavaliers will be moving forward.

14. East Round 1: (2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Indiana Pacers

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Celtics win 4-2

MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas and the Boston Celtics made a late season surge to threaten the Cavaliers’ top spot, but they will take on the number 2 seed and face Paul George and the Indiana Pacers in the first round.  The Pacers will manage to keep the series and games close, but the coaching and defense of the Celtics, paired with the fourth quarter dominance from Isaiah Thomas will prove to be enough to have the Celtics make it to the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs.  After losing in the first round in three out of the last four years, and a non playoff appearance in 2013-2014, the Celtics will move on to the second round for the first time since the combo of Rondo, Allen, Garnett, and Pierce were in town.

13. East Round 1: (3) Washington Wizards vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Wizards win 4-3

After back-to-back semifinal appearances in 2013-14 and 2014-15, the Wizards found themselves finishing the 2015-16 season with an underachieving record of 41-41 and no playoff appearance.  The Wizards are back, though, and may likely face the up-and-coming Milwaukee Bucks powered by stat-stuffing Giannis Antetokounmpo.  The Bucks will be looking to build on a successful season by their standards and should be able to make a series out of the first round match, up with the Wizards barely edging them out in a seven game classic.  John Wall and Giannis Antetokounmpo will place their names among the NBA elite for years to come with this playoff showdown.

12. East Round 1: (4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Raptors win 4-3

After pushing the Cleveland Cavaliers to the brink in last years playoffs, the Raptors have spent the 2016-2017 season taking a small step back.  They still sport the All-Star duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, which should prove to be the difference in the first round showdown with the frontcourt heavy Atlanta Hawks.  The Hawks will be able to compete in the paint with Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap taking on Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, but in the end the backcourt duo of the Toronto Raptors will prove too much for Atlanta, and the Raptors will again hope to knock off Eastern Conference favorites the Cleveland Cavaliers.

11. West Round 1: (1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Portland Blazers

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Warriors win 4-0

The Blazers have found themselves far away from contention with thirteen games to go, but they may be able to hold chase down the Denver Nuggets and grab the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs.  Their likely reward? The Golden State Warriors.  Along with revamping their roster by adding former MVP Kevin Durant, the Warriors are out to regain the NBA Championship, which they gave up to the Cleveland Cavaliers after holding a 3-1 lead in last year’s finals.  CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard will put up a valiant effort, but the big four in Golden State will prove to be too much for a young Portland team to handle, and the Warriors will move on with ease.

10. West Round 1: (2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Spurs win 4-2

After defeating the Spurs in the 2011 NBA Playoffs, these teams met again during the playoffs in 2013 and 2016, both resulting in a San Antonio Spurs sweep of the Grizzlies.  It may not be another sweep, but the post-Duncan Spurs will get through Memphis and onto the second round behind MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard and his veteran supporting cast. The Gregg Popovich coached Spurs will look ahead to a match up with either the Rockets or Los Angeles Clippers, and the Memphis Grizzlies will ponder their future.  Longtime Grizzlies big man, Zach Randolph will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the Grizzlies will have a new look in 2017-2018.

9. West Round 1: (3) Houston Rockets vs. (6) Los Angeles Clippers

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Clippers win 4-3

James Harden has put together one of the best seasons in NBA history, and is a part of one of the greatest MVP races in recent memory.  If the cards do fall this way, he will be stuck with a tough match up with a Clippers team who may be living out their last playoff run together.  Harden has a nice supporting cast in Houston, and we know the Rockets can shoot the lights out from beyond three, but in a tight-seven game series, the Clippers will outlast the Rockets to move on to the second round of the playoffs.  Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan will be out to prove something and with the help of their supporting cast, they can potentially put together one last run before they make decisions regarding free agency in the off season.

8. West Round 1: (4) Utah Jazz vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder

USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Thunder win 4-2

Two exciting young teams facing off in the first round of a 4-5 match up.  The Jazz will make their first playoff appearance in five years, and the Thunder are back in the mix despite losing one of their franchise cornerstones in Kevin Durant.  The Jazz are headed by NBA All Star Gordon Hayward, athletic center Rudy Gobert and veteran point guard George Hill.  Although they have taken a giant leap this season, the Thunder will prove too much behind MVP favorite Russell Westbrook.  Westbrook will be playing the most inspired basketball of his career with an eye on the Warriors in the second round where he can face off against ex teammate Kevin Durant and company.

7. East Round 2: (1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (4) Toronto Raptors

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Cavaliers win 4-2

This potential semifinal matchup would be a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Final.  As mentioned, the Raptors have stepped back a bit, and unfortunately that means they will meet LeBron James and the reigning NBA Champions in the Eastern Conference semifinals this year.  The Raptors added Serge Ibaka after losing Bismack Biyombo to free agency, but LeBron James has gotten some new faces added to his playmaking arsenal. The Cavaliers should be able to again get by the Raptors and it will be in an easier series than they faced last year. DeRozan and Lowry will get the Raptors two but that won’t be enough to dethrone the 201-2016 NBA Champions.  LeBron will move on to his 7th straight Eastern Conference Final.

6. East Round 2: (2) Boston Celtics vs. (3) Washington Wizards

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Celtics win 4-3

The Boston Celtics will be looking to make their first Eastern Conference Finals since Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen were last teammates in Beantown, and the Wizards are looking to return for this first time since the 1978-79 season.  This should prove to be the most exciting Eastern Conference playoff series with John Wall and Isaiah Thomas going head-to-head for what looks like could be the full seven games.

Both teams are sporting superb coaching in Brad Stevens and Scott Brooks and the coaching battle could turn out to be as good as the battle on the court.  The Celtics will prevail behind clutch performances by team MVP Isaiah Thomas.

5. West Round 2: (1) Golden State Warriors vs. (5) OKC Thunder

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Warriors win 4-2

Well, this should be fun.   Please pan out so that these teams meet in the NBA Playoffs.  If you haven’t been living under a rock this past year, it’s safe to say you know that Kevin Durant left Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder during free agency last summer, and joined thne powerhouse Golden State Warriors who had knocked Durant and the Thunder out of the playoffs the year prior.  The bad blood and competitiveness carries further than Westbrook and Durant as other Thunder players look to get revenge on what could have been a NBA Final trip last season.

Westbrook will put forth a heroic effort, but the Warriors’ big four will prove too much for one many to handle.  The Warriors, as such, may move on to their third straight Western Conference Finals.

4. West Round 2: (2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (6) LA Clippers

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Spurs win 4-3

As we mentioned before, the Clippers as we know them may look a whole lot different following this season, so this could be the last run we see out of Paul and Griffin together. The Clippers will continue to play inspired basketball in a tough series versus the post Duncan-era Spurs, who will now be led through the playoffs by 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.  In what could be a tough seven-game series, Gregg Popovich will out-duel Doc Rivers on the sidelines and Kawhi Leonard will further cement himself as one of the best players in the game today.  Expect the Spurs to move onto their ninth Western Conference Final since 2000.

3. Eastern Conference Finals: (1) Cavaliers vs. (2) Celtics

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Cavaliers win 4-2

The East did offer up some new and exciting teams to look out for, but it will take another season until those teams can really compete to take LeBron James’ spot in the NBA Finals.  LeBron will go to his seventh straight NBA Final, which will be three straight for the Cleveland Cavaliers and fourth for LeBron in Cleveland overall.  Isaiah Thomas and the defense of the Boston Celtics will get them two games, and the group will garner the experience of being on the brink of the finals.

The Celtics will add a top five pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, and reload in efforts to take the Eastern Conference Finals in the upcoming years.

2. Western Conference Finals: (1) Warriors vs. (2) Spurs

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Warriors win 4-3

These two teams have represented the Western Conference in the last four NBA Finals, and one will move on to do such again.  In a hard fought series that will test the Warriors and their big four, Golden State will outlast the Spurs in a seven game series.  We will get an all time duel of Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard, but the shooting and supporting cast of the Golden State Warriors will be enough to move them past the Spurs and onto a third straight meeting with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

After playing villain all season, Durant will prove to be the player that propels the Warriors into the NBA Finals where he will meet up with LeBron James, who defeated Durant as a member of the Miami Heat when Durant and OKC met them in the 2012 NBA Finals.

1. NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Warriors win 4-2

All kinds of backstories, yet all kinds of possibilities. A third straight meeting between the teams in the NBA Finals. Redemption for the Warriors who blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals last year. Kevin Durant getting back to the finals for the first time since dropping the 2012 Finals 4-1 at the hands of LeBron James and the Miami Heat. And we will get to see if the Warriors adding Durant to make the big 4 was all it was hyped up to be. If the Warriors stay healthy, this will not be a series that goes the distance. Both teams will be battle tested, but the Warriors will have a superstar in waiting to step up each game. LeBron could end up worn down from guarding every position on the court against a team that sports out All Star talent at those positions. Warriors win, and Kevin Durant gets his title. But does it come with an *?

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