neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Now that every NBA team has played Game 82 of the regular season, we can finally get to the real business at hand: The playoffs. Let’s start with the Eastern Conference, where the Milwaukee Bucks earned the franchise’s first top seed since the league adopted the 16-team playoff format in 1984.
What do we think about the big picture in the East? The No. 1 Bucks and No. 2 Raptors were the most dominant during the regular season, but seeds 3 and 4 (Philadelphia and Boston) have as much talent as anybody in the conference on paper. Who do you think should have the edge and why?
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I’m going to go ahead and agree with our algorithm that there’s a big gap between the top two (Milwaukee and Toronto) and No. 3 and 4 (Philly and Boston). Milwaukee and Toronto were a LOT better in the regular season. I agree that Philly might have as much talent on paper, but they didn’t really get it together. I’m not sure you can say that about Boston, especially with Marcus Smart out.
chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Yeah. I spent some time around the Sixers over the past week, and Brett Brown admits what Nate just said: That the Sixers have an enormous amount of talent on paper, but he almost would’ve preferred to have less rest if it meant having more cohesion with that group.
The Marcus Smart injury could end up being really problematic for the Celtics for a couple reasons, too — we don’t know exactly how much time he’ll miss, but it could even be a bad sign in this series vs. Indiana.
Smart would have been the guy guarding Bojan Bogdanovic, who’s essentially taken over as the Pacers’ top gun since Victor Oladipo went down with injury.
Bogdanovic struggled against Smart all season, and his worst numbers of the year were against Boston because of it. But now, I assume they’ll go to Jaylen Brown to defend him, and that hasn’t worked well at all in those instances.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Our predictions give the Celtics a 79 percent chance to advance. Even with the Oladipo injury for the Pacers, that still seems … high?
chris.herring: Probably a little high, yeah. Especially now, without Smart.
natesilver: I mean, I think people tend to underestimate how little luck there is in a seven-game series. The better team tends to win out, especially if it has home-court advantage.
chris.herring: I tend to think the Pacers are The Little Engine That Could. They play very hard … but that will probably only get them so far.
natesilver: For what it’s worth, our algorithm is giving Boston some credit for being more talented “on paper” than they played like during the regular season. Jayson Tatum is probably a better player going forward than what he showed this season, for instance. Gordon Hayward is obviously in a different category, but maybe him, too. Boston also had the point differential that you’d associate with a 52-win team instead of a 49-win team, which is not huge, but it’s something.
chris.herring: Yeah. Hayward has come on really nicely as of late, including a 9-of-9 game vs. Indiana last week. If he’s getting back to his old self, it could be tough for Indiana.
natesilver: It does seem, though, that it’s a team with only one real star-level talent right now, and Kyrie Irving seems pretty checked out. That’s subjective, I know, but they have a pretty big hill to climb — having to win three road series against three VERY good teams (likely Milwaukee, Toronto and Golden State, in that order) even if they get past Indiana.
chris.herring: I’ll be honest: I’m not very amped about the East’s first round at all. But that second round will probably be eons better than the West’s conference final.
neil: Yeah, it sounds from this like Boston-Indiana is the first-round series that has caught your attention the most. But that might be by default.
chris.herring: I think Philly-Brooklyn could be somewhat interesting. It doesn’t sound like an absolute given that Joel Embiid will play Game 1. The Nets are essentially playing with house money, and though they’ve struggled as of late, they had a harder end-of-season schedule than the other teams fighting their way into the playoffs.
natesilver: The Nets are kind of a buzzy team. But Philly, maybe in contrast to a Marcus Smart-less Boston, has enough talent that maybe they can be slightly subpar and still win fairly easily.
chris.herring: Yeah. I don’t expect much from Brooklyn, but I could see them making things interesting because of the limited time the Sixers have had together. Other than that — and some slight interest in how Boston looks without Smart/what it means for Indiana — I wish I could just simulate the East’s first round like a video game or something
neil: Haha. Let’s just play it out in NBA 2K.
chris.herring: Maybe that isn’t fair to Orlando, though. They’ve been good for a decent amount of time now.
neil: They’ve been on fire (11-2) since mid-March.
chris.herring: I just feel like it ultimately won’t matter against a club like Toronto.
natesilver: I also think Philly has more flip-the-switch potential than Boston. Maybe Jimmy Butler accepts his role as what’s essentially a third fiddle on offense and plays dominant defense and starts hitting 3s again. Maybe they treat the playoffs as a fun eight-week road trip instead of worrying too much about how the team is constructed in the future.
tchow: Just tell me what needs to happen to get Sixers vs. Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.
neil: Well, the Raptors would have to lose in the second round AGAIN. How soul crushing would that be for that franchise? This was sorta supposed to be their year after LeBron left the East. (Especially after adding Kawhi Leonard.)
chris.herring: I don’t know how I feel yet about the Sixers-Raptors series, assuming it happens. But I think the Bucks should be favored against everyone, honestly. I think everybody has downplayed them, even as they’ve had this unbelievable season, with the likely MVP and coach of the year.
natesilver: The Raptors somehow won 58 games with Kawhi only playing 60. That’s seriously impressive.
chris.herring: I don’t know if it’s a small-market thing. Or if it’s just that people seem to be a year late on everything. It is impressive!
At the same time, they won 59 last year without him. So I’m more impressed by the Bucks essentially having the same cast and transforming into what they are now. I don’t know. Maybe it’s simply Milwaukee’s newness that I’m taken by.
neil: Are we also maybe holding Toronto’s playoff track record against them? (Even if it’s a relatively new version of that team this season?)
chris.herring: Nah. I’m not. Kawhi is such a different player than DeMar DeRozan, who had a game that didn’t translate all that well to postseason. Also, Pascal Siakam has improved by leaps and bounds. You could ignore him before on defense, and now that’s tantamount to having a death wish.
natesilver: They also have one of the two real stars in the East that’s won a ring before (Kawhi, with Kyrie being the other). Which I know sounds like boilerplate sports radio talk, but our research has found that playoff experience is actually fairly predictive.
chris.herring: I think Toronto fans have wanted to believe their team was different for a couple years now. Almost like that “Shawshank Redemption” scene where Red keeps going to the parole hearing and saying he’s a changed man, ready to rejoin society. But this time, the Raptors are different. Kawhi alone would have made them that way, but Siakam is a different player. As is Lowry, who hasn’t quite looked himself at all times. But has the experience, and has a better roster around him.
natesilver: Our algorithm also thinks that all six of their top rotation guys are above-average defensively. So that’s likely to keep them in every game unless they get mentally checked out.
Which, I don’t know. I wouldn’t totally rule out the possibility that they take a rough loss in a Game 1 or 2 somewhere and start panicking, and Kawhi starts thinking about how nice the Clippers could look next year with him in L.A.
But on balance, I think I’m on the side that says people are reading too much into the Raptors’ past playoff failures. It’s a different team this year, and there’s no LeBron.
chris.herring: Like the Munchkins when they realize the Wicked Witch is dead. Why do I keep using these movie references? What is wrong with me?
tchow: As of right now though, our model actually favors Toronto (slightly) over the Bucks to make the Finals (46 percent vs. 42 percent). Toronto fans have to be happy to see that.
neil: Do you guys agree?
natesilver: Yeah, that surprised me a bit. But Toronto has more playoff experience and Milwaukee has some injury issues.
tchow: I guess it’ll go a long way in the “playoff experience” argument to see how far a team like the Bucks go this year after that seven-game series last season against Boston. I have a hard time betting against them in the East though.
natesilver: On the flip side, Giannis Antetokounmpo is presumably going to start playing 37-38 minutes a game now after only playing 32.8 minutes in the regular season. That actually makes a pretty big difference.
chris.herring: That surprises me, but only a little. Their records aren’t that far off. The Raptors have played Kawhi a lot fewer games than Giannis.
What I do think will be key at some point, which we haven’t talked about yet, is the Bucks’ need to get back to full strength. They’ve been without Malcolm Brogdon, and Tony Snell has missed time, too. It doesn’t matter in a round 1 matchup. But it comes into play in a very big way in the following two rounds, should they get that far.
natesilver: I do wonder if Milwaukee’s whole floor spacing thing will work slightly less well in the playoffs. If you can contain Giannis — obviously not at all easy — there really isn’t a second iso-ball scorer on the whole roster. Maybe Eric Bledsoe, I guess.
chris.herring: I just don’t know how it’s done
natesilver: Containing Giannis you mean?
chris.herring: Before, there wasn’t much trust or belief. But now, you kind of either have to help in the paint against him, or leave open someone like Brook Lopez, who will gladly shoot a triple.
There were screenshots last postseason of four Celtics standing in the paint at one time to stop him, because Milwaukee wasn’t trained to score outside of his drives to the basket.
Now, even Giannis will pull 3s every now and then, just to keep defenses honest. Bledsoe’s had a nice year. Lopez is there, but wasn’t before.
natesilver: I guess I’m saying a team like Toronto that is quick (at least with certain lineups) and can switch a lot, maybe they can contest that Lopez 3.
Or get a few steals when the Bucks telegraph their intentions too much.
tchow: Nikola Mirotic also may be back in time for Game 1. So yeah, the Bucks will have shooters.
neil: And for what it’s worth (maybe something?), Milwaukee beat Toronto in three of their four regular season matchups. Those games were also before all the little upgrades Milwaukee made around the trade deadline. But we’ll have to see how the Bucks look at full strength and if they and the Raptors can even make it all the way to the Conference Finals to face each other.
Let’s move on to the West, where — here’s a surprise — the Golden State Warriors are the No. 1 seed, for the fourth time in five years. Our model currently gives the Warriors a commanding 78 percent chance of winning the conference (and a 60 percent chance of winning the NBA title). On the one hand, that is amazingly high, but does it sound right to you guys?
natesilver: The West playoffs feel a lot less climactic to me now that the Rockets wound up on the same side of the bracket as Golden State.
chris.herring: It sounds about right to me. The one side of the West bracket is the equivalent of Michigan State and Duke being in the same region.
natesilver: Utah is also a pretty rough first-round matchup for Houston. Rudy Gobert is going to make it much harder for James Harden to get to the rim.
neil: Well, Chris, we were talking the other day this idea that the Rockets may have actually wanted the No. 4 seed so that they’d face the Warriors sooner. Can you explain a little about what you meant there?
chris.herring: I fully believe the Rockets may be happy with this setup. At this point, they’re probably of the opinion that they can beat anyone other than GSW (and maybe them, too).
Utah isn’t a pushover at all. It’s kind of an amazing first-round matchup that, in most years would be at least a second-round matchup, and in a post-Warriors universe, maybe even a conference finals.
But that said, Houston beat Utah last year. And they did it by neutralizing what the Jazz do best: Take away threes and the rim. They forced the Rockets to take midrange shots, which they basically view as evil. But the Rockets did that — Chris Paul is a midrange specialist and went off for 40 points one game — and were able to win. So if the Rockets can get by Utah again, having the Warriors in round 2 instead of the Western Conference finals might be beneficial. Just so Paul and Harden aren’t exhausted or injured like they were by round 3 last season, when they played the Warriors.
natesilver: Yeah, I think Chris Paul is key in that series. Utah’s pretty optimally designed to curb Harden as much as you can curb him, but CP3 is a big problem for them.
natesilver: Overall, though, I think if I’m Houston, I’d rather have a hope-and-a-prayer that someone else knocks Golden State out before they reach the finals. Or that someone on the Warriors gets hurt.
chris.herring: Yeah. They’d never admit it out loud, but the potential theory that they want GSW early is fascinating to me. If your line of thought is that you’re almost certainly gonna have to go through them anyway, might as well do it before you’re too spent to have a chance.
neil: Right, because fatigue seemed like a big issue for them by the Western Conference finals last year.
chris.herring: Golden State doesn’t fear anyone, but I think they would privately acknowledge that they see Houston as the only team that, in optimal circumstances, could beat them
natesilver: It could make the Western Conference finals pretty boring though. Our model says there’s a 93 percent chance the Warriors win the WCF (!) conditional on reaching them.
chris.herring: Yeah. That’s why I keep saying the semifinals are gonna be the best round this year. Especially if Houston-Golden State is the matchup, along with those East series.
tchow: Hey kudos to Oklahoma City for avoiding Golden State AND Denver AND Houston. Actually, OKC vs. Portland is the only series in the entire playoffs where the lower seed is favored according to our model. We give the Thunder a 78 percent chance of advancing.
natesilver: OKC and Denver saw their championship odds improve when Houston wound up in the No. 4 seed, and it’s mostly because of the parlay that Houston beats Golden State (possible) and then THEY beat Houston (also possible). I’m not sure that Denver would have any chance against Golden State in a seven-game series, however.
chris.herring: I feel bad that I don’t believe in Denver, given how well they played all year, with injuries, and with so many young guys on that roster.
neil: Is Denver the weirdest No. 2 seed we’ve seen in recent memory? They didn’t even make the playoffs last year, albeit with 46 wins.
chris.herring: Also, every single time Denver plays Golden State, it feels very much like GSW goes out of its way to show how easily they can dominate the Nuggets when they want to. Basically to show that a playoff series could get embarrassing if Golden State felt like imposing its will.
natesilver: The Nuggets benefited a lot from their depth in the regular season — that’s why they battled so well through injuries — but depth doesn’t mean much in the playoffs.
chris.herring: Their relative inexperience in the playoffs concerns me maybe more than it should.
natesilver: It’s a pretty weird roster, and I think the Nuggets have some offseason work to do to turn a couple of their many, many league-average players into another really good player, especially someone who can play out on the wing.
chris.herring: Part of me feels like they simply may not have another gear. Almost like those Tom Thibodeau teams. Because they’re young, perhaps they don’t know to pace themselves. And how could they? They missed the playoffs in the final game of the season last year.
But the fact that Golden State just runs them out of the building whenever they play very much feels like an experienced team versus one that isn’t and needs some playoff seasoning so that they’re ready for the next time.
neil: They feel destined to become another poster child for the difference between what wins in the regular season and the playoffs, for all the reasons you guys mentioned. But at least they do have a legit star in Nikola Jokic.
natesilver: Denver does have a pretty big home-court advantage because of the altitude. So that they got the No. 2 seed is actually pretty relevant.
chris.herring: That’s true. I at least like that they aren’t reliant on the altitude anymore to win games. (Although those teams that played at a breakneck pace under George Karl — and Doug Moe before that — were pretty fun to watch.)
neil: Good point. They were an NBA-best 34-7 at home this season, and they are in that relatively lesser bottom section of the bracket.
natesilver: I mean, we have the Nuggets with a 53 percent chance of reaching the Western Conference finals … and a 6 percent chance of reaching the NBA Finals. That tells you a lot right there.
chris.herring: What else are you all interested to see in the West? Any hope whatsoever for Portland, despite the injury to Jusuf Nurkic?
neil: Portland is another team with a lot to prove after that unexpected first-round sweep vs. the Pelicans (remember THEM?) last year. But OKC is a very tough draw.
chris.herring: Portland got swept this year by OKC. Our projection model is right to not trust them. And Nurkic not being there is a killer. They had put together a really, really nice run before his injury, and perhaps could have made things interesting.
tchow: I really feel for Portland fans. So many “what ifs” due to injury, and they always seem to happen when it looks like they’re on the cusp of putting it all together.
natesilver: Pretty unusual to have a No. 6 seed be better than a 3 to 1 favorite (OKC is 78 percent to win the series, according to our model), but I think I agree, too.
chris.herring: Yeah. There’s isn’t much to love about Portland’s chances
natesilver: The Thunder are also the team that I’d fear the most if I were Golden State after Houston.
tchow: Is CJ McCollum going to be back for this first round?
chris.herring: Yeah. McCollum is back. But he had a true shooting percentage of 46 against OKC, his worst mark of any opponent out West that he played at least three times.
natesilver: Tenacious defense + Paul George (especially if he can get back to his midseason form) is a formula that gives you a puncher’s chance against any opponent.
chris.herring: I don’t trust OKC yet. Some of that is Russell Westbrook’s tendencies being all over the place at times. Some of it is George not having played the way he was playing earlier in the year (still not sure his shoulder is completely right at times).
Their defense, which is one of the best in the league, has been merely average since the break. They don’t have enough shooting. But their top-level talent is better than anybody else’s, outside of Houston and GSW. And that ultimately matters. And their side of the bracket is amazing.
natesilver: Jerami Grant shot 39 percent from three this year, although that’s likely a fluke (he’s 33 percent careerwise).
chris.herring: He’s been a big bright spot for them.
natesilver: If they had another wing that was a true 39-40 percent 3-point shooter, that would make a ton of difference.
neil: OK, so to wrap things up, let’s look at the big picture for the title as it runs through Golden State (like always). If we each had to put together a short list of teams — from either conference — who could beat the Warriors in these playoffs, how many teams would be on it and who are they?
Mine might be two: Rockets and Bucks.
natesilver: Our algorithm feels strongly that the list is EXACTLY three teams long: Milwaukee, Toronto and Houston.
natesilver: I guess people — or Neil and Tony, anyway — have trouble envisioning the Raptors doing it.
tchow: Sorry, Toronto.
natesilver: And to be clear, the Raptors would be big underdogs. Like 3:1 underdogs, per our model, despite having home-court advantage.
tchow: Another way to ask that question, Nate, as a fan of gambling, Warriors have a 60 percent chance of winning another title. Would you bet on the field?
natesilver: No. I think that’s a pretty fair price. And it’s pretty close to the Vegas odds, I think.
chris.herring: Yeah. I feel much better about Milwaukee, just based off their season, analytics and star power than anyone else. But I don’t think Toronto would match up poorly at all with Golden State. They’d have guys who could credibly guard Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and have enough offense of their own to make things interesting.
Boston seemed like a good bet to get there in preseason, but I don’t trust them to accomplish that without Smart being healthy., a And without them putting together a solid string of performances, I still ultimately think it’s the Warriors winning it all again. But I hope someone at least gives them a competitive series, be it Houston, Milwaukee (Toronto?) or both.
tchow: That’s all folks!