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Post All-Star Break NBA predictions

Courtesy of David Richard, USA Today Sports

With both the All-Star Break and the trade deadline in the rear-view mirror, contending NBA teams are preparing for what should be an interesting final two months of the regular season.

While the top two seeds in both conferences may very well be set, everything else seems to be up in the air. That promises to bring us some major drama as we inch closer to the playoffs.

Can the Golden State Warriors complete what could be a historic season by defending their title? Do the San Antonio Spurs have what it takes to unseat the defending champs?

What about the Toronto Raptors? Can they send shock waves throughout the Association by taking out the Cleveland Cavaliers back east?

Here are our playoff predictions around the NBA heading into the first weekend after the All-Star Break.

Western Conference

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1. Golden State Warriors

In the midst of a six-game road trip, the Warriors will have a total of just seven road games remaining on the schedule after February 27. That bodes well for the team’s goal of breaking the Chicago Bulls record of 72 regular season wins.

The bad news for the 48-4 Warriors is the fact that they have 16 games remaining against team that currently boast a winning record.

Despite this difficult schedule, Golden State will likely earn the top seed out west. Losers of just four games, they are currently five games ahead of San Antonio in the loss column.

2. San Antonio Spurs

Lost in all the hoopla of the defending champions putting up a historical season,  San Antonio is currently pace to win nearly 70 games. Still undefeated at home, earning a top-two seed would nearly guarantee that the Spurs will find a way to the Western Conference Finals, at which point anything is possible..

While San Antonio continues to sing the praise of the Warriors, it’s  important to note that the latter has won just one regular season game on the Spurs home court over the past two decades.

With two more regular season games against Golden State at home, the Spurs can prove that they aren’t going to play second fiddle in the Western Conference come playoff time.

More than this, a 5.5 game lead over Oklahoma City for the second seed almost guarantees San Antonio would avoid Golden State until the conference finals.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

As long as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are healthy, Oklahoma City can knock off any NBA team in a best-of-seven series. The two are combining to average 51.8 points 15.5 rebounds and 14.5 assists per game. Astonishing statistics.

And with a 29-7 record since the end of November, the Thunder are right up there with Golden State and San Antonio among the teams to beat in the NBA.

The primary issue here has been a lack of a supporting cast. While Durant and Westbrook have put up MVP-caliber seasons, no one else seems to be stepping up.

After all, those two are combining to score 44 percent of the team’s points. That’s not going to work against either the Warriors or Spurs.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

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If Blake Griffin is actually able to return healthy, the Clippers could make some noise out west. Despite all the drama in Los Angeles, here’s a team that enters the unofficial second half of the season with the fourth-best record in the Western Conference and on pace to win 54 games. That’s nothing to ignore. A win against San Antonio coming off the break also isn’t something to throw aside.

Outside of Griffin’s extended absence, the biggest issue here is how the Clippers have performed against upper-echelon teams. They were 0-7 against the top-five teams (record-wise) prior to defeating San Antonio Thursday night.

And while Chris Paul has been electric this season, he needs Griffin back to turn the Clippers into a true title contender.

5. Houston Rockets

I can’t for the life of me look at the teams battling for the final four spots out West and think a single one has anywhere near the talent Houston possesses. That’s simply baffling considering the Rockets head into the final two months of the season under .500.

The only real positive here is just how weak the mid-tier of the Western Conference has been. Despite a 27-28 record, Houston is only five games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the fifth seed.

With Marc Gasol potentially lost for the season and following the trades of Courtney Lee and Jeff Green, there’s a chance Memphis will fall completely out of the playoff picture as the season continues. That will leave James Harden and Co. vying for a playoff spot against squads with inferior talent.

6. Dallas Mavericks

Rick Carlisle has done a tremendous job keeping his veteran-laden team fresh throughout the season. In fact, there’s not a single player on the team averaging more than 33 minutes per game.

Add into the equation the days off he’s given to veteran players, and the Mavericks should be fresh down the stretch.

At 29-26, Dallas is right there with four other teams battling for the final four spots in the playoffs. Though, it’s important to note that this team has taken a step back recently. It boasts a 10-13 record in the new year.

The good news here is that only 10 of the Mavericks final 27 games come against teams that are currently over .500.

7. Utah Jazz

With eight wins in their past 11 games, Utah is in prime position to earn a surprising playoff spot out west.

We know all about Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward. However, it’s been the recent play of second-year guard Rodney Hood that’s made the difference. He’s averaging 20.4 over the past 10 games, giving Utah that perimeter threat the team had been missing earlier in the year.

Considering there are legitimately only nine teams battling for eight playoff spots in the Western Conference, Utah stands a darn good chance of earning a lower-end seed. And if it continues playing at the level we have seen recently, that’s a strong likelihood.

8. Portland Trail Blazers

No one in their right mind had Portland pegged as a playoff contender after its roster turnover this past summer. But in a weakened Western Conference, that’s where the Blazers find themselves heading into the unofficial second half of the season.

With wins in eight of their past 10 games, the Blazers have already started to climb the standings. In fact, they find themselves less than five games out of a top-five seed out west.

Portland will face a difficult remainder of the schedule. Of its final 28 games, 15 will come against squads with a winning record.

In addition to this, Portland will have only 10 home games remaining on the schedule once its current five-game home-stand comes to a conclusion. That’s going to make it difficult for this squad to inch its way up the standings.

Eastern Conference

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1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Still the top team back east, Cleveland has a bit of a cushion. It’s currently three games ahead of Toronto for the top seed in the conference. It’s also on pace to win 60 games, a mark that would nearly guarantee the top seed in the conference.

While most of the ado has surrounded the team’s decision to fire David Blatt, it’s important to note that Tyronn Lue has this squad playing good basketball.

Cleveland has won eight of 10 with a healthy Kyrie Irving looking like the stud he was prior to suffering an injury in the NBA Finals this past June. During this recent 10-game run, Irving is averaging 24.0 points while shooting 53 percent from the field.

2. Toronto Raptors

Clearly entrenched in as a top-two seed back east, Toronto seems to be the only team in that conference prepared to contend with Cleveland for a spot in the Finals. In fact, the Raptors are currently in a stretch that has seen them win 14 of their past 16 games.

It’s primarily been the All-Star backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry that has Toronto thinking conference title. The two are combining to average 44.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game.

The only real issue we can foresee here is that 16 of Toronto’s final 30 games come against squads with a winning record. Though, that shouldn’t be enough to force the team from a top-two seed with its current 4.5 game cushion over Boston.

3. Boston Celtics

We can continue to call Boston pretenders. That’s really not going to have much of an impact on how this team performs down the stretch.

With a 13-4 record over their past 17 games, the Celtics are playing as good as any other team in the Eastern Conference. This has them as the No. 3 seed heading into the post All-Star Break schedule.

Isaiah Thomas has been the rock that’s holding Boston together, but the play of both Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley cannot go unnoticed. Add in the likes of key role players Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger, and this squad might just be legit.

4. Atlanta Hawks

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This is where it gets interesting back east. As to where Cleveland and Toronto will likely be the top seeds with Boston a bit further away at three, four through eight are real tossups.

Only 3.5 games currently separate the fourth and ninth seeds in the Eastern Conference. And while Atlanta has struggled recently (losers of seven of 11), the trade deadline being behind this squad has to account for something.

With Al Horford and Jeff Teague both being bandied about leading up to Thursday, there had to be some distraction within the locker room.

More than this, the Hawks have more recent history of success with their current roster than any other team outside of the top two in the conference. That also has to account for something.

The expectation here has to be that this squad will find a way to right the ship and pull away from the other squads vying for home court in the first round. It really is that simple.

5. Miami Heat

A lot of this will depend on the health of Chris Bosh. If he’s able to return after being put back on blood thinners, the Heat will be in good shape moving forward.

After all, the veteran talent this team possesses will come in handy down the stretch. Bosh and Dwyane Wade can will Miami to a top-five seed alone.

Add in the return of Goran Dragic from injury and the interior presence of Hassan Whiteside, and this team is just too good to fall behind the pack.

It’s also important to note that after February the Heat have only nine games remaining against teams that are currently over .500 with three of them coming against an injury-plagued Chicago Bulls team.

6. Detroit Pistons

If you don’t think adding the likes of Tobias Harris and Marcus Thornton isn’t going to help Detroit moving forward, I have absolutely no idea what to tell you.

Harris is a dramatic upgrade at the three and should see more open shots with Andre Drummond on the court at the same time. Meanwhile, Thornton will be able to pack a solid punch off the bench.

For the most part this season, it has been Drummond and Reggie Jackson providing most of the scoring in Detroit. With three more rotational players on the roster, that promises to change.

At .500 on the season, there’s no reason to believe Detroit can’t make a run for a top-six seed when all is said and done in two months.

That’s only magnified by the fact that the Pistons boast a pretty favorable schedule down the stretch with 15 of 28 at home and only 13 of those games against squad currently over .500.

7. Indiana Pacers

While a struggling Pacers squad stood pat during the trade deadline, others behind them in the standings improved a great deal.

It might not be enough for the Washington Wizards to make up the ground they lost, but Detroit surely looks like the more well-rounded team right now. Heck, the Charlotte Hornets could very well bypass Indiana.

Outside of that, the Pacers still have the best player of any team behind them in the standings. That’s going to be enough for this squad to earn a playoff spot.

The question now becomes whether Paul George will get ANY help from a struggling supporting cast.

8. Charlotte Hornets

It will be interesting to see how Courtney Lee fits into the scheme in Charlotte. He joins a solid back-court trio of Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lin to form some solid depth there.

In fact, there’s a decent chance Batum will end up playing more small forward moving forward. That in and of itself has to be considered an upgrade over Marvin Williams — a huge deal with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist lost for the season.

Charlotte’s ability to contend back east will be somewhat reliant on the healthy return of Al Jefferson, who is expected back this weekend. If that happens, there’s no reason to believe Charlotte isn’t a top-eight team back east.

Western Conference Quarterfinals

1. Golden State over 8. Portland 

This would actually be a solid learning experience for Portland’s young backcourt. It, however, wouldn’t come close to ending in an upset.

Golden State is the vastly superior team at every position, including both back-court positions. It has a shutdown defender inside, something that wouldn’t bode well for a Blazers squad that lacks any sort of interior presence.

4. Los Angeles over 5. Houston

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xoaYqFUmG00

Don’t expect a repeat of the playoffs from a season ago here. Short of Dwight Howard and James Harden somehow finding a way to mesh after so many years of acting like oil and water, the Clippers would run roughshod through Houston in a best of seven. And if Blake Griffin returns healthy, it would get ugly relatively quickly.

2. San Antonio over 7. Utah 

Utah boasts a tremendous amount of  high-upside young players, something that could give San Antonio fits in the playoffs. It, however, doesn’t have the ability to overcome what would be shutdown defense by Kawhi Leonard against Gordon Hayward.

And in reality, the Jazz wouldn’t be able too come close to scoring anywhere near enough without Hayward playing out of his mind.

3. Oklahoma City over 6. Dallas

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Dallas has been a darn good story thus far this season. Having to rely on a mesh of veteran talent, Rick Carlisle has this under-manned team playing pretty good basketball.

That in no way will equate to success against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The sheer thought of Deron Williams, Raymond Felton and J.J. Barea attempting to guard Westbrook is hilarious, as is Chandler Parsons trying to fend off Durant.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

1. Cleveland over 8. Charlotte

Despite all the drama in Cleveland, there are very few teams that can come close to competing with LeBron James and Co. in a best-of-seven series. And while Charlotte has done well to build a playoff team, that would come to an end quickly against the Cavaliers.

More than anything else, James taking on a combination of Courtney Lee and Marvin Williams has mismatch written all over it. Add in Kyrie Irving taking on Kemba Walker, and this has the making of an extremely one-sided affair.

5. Miami over 4. Atlanta 

If Miami is able to get a healthy Bosh back on the court and the Hawks find a way to show their first-half struggles were an outlier, this would turn into one heck of a first-round playoff series.

The primary reason we give Miami an advantage here is experience. As mentioned above, Wade and Bosh have proven they can take a mediocre supporting cast to playoff wins. Despite winning 60 games a season ago, Atlanta’s top players can’t say the same thing. That will make all the difference in a hotly-contested series.

2. Toronto over 7. Indiana

Toronto is the closest thing to a competitor for Cleveland in the east. Meanwhile, Indiana has found a way to put up a losing record since starting the season winning 12 of its first 17 to start the season. This, in and of itself, makes a potential first-round matchup between these two teams a mismatch.

6. Detroit over 3. Boston

Boston is in the midst of a tremendously surprising season — one that could lead to Brad Stevens winning Coach of the Year. Though, it’s highly likely that this is going to be the worst version of the Celtics we are going to see over the next five-plus seasons.

In a hypothetical series against Detroit, the biggest issue would be Boston’s inability to man up against Andre Drummond inside.

Not a single player on the Celtics’ roster can compare to him on the boards, something that would give the likes of Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris more opportunities on the perimeter.

Western Conference Semifinals

1. Golden State over 4. Los Angeles

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A healthy Blake Griffin would make this one a series. In fact, there’s an argument that Los Angeles might be best equipped to take out the defending champs in a best of seven.

The primary issues here for the Clippers is on the wing. Do they have anyone capable of contending the three-point line? In this, we aren’t necessarily talking about Stephen Curry. After all, Chris Paul has proven to be a worthy adversary in previous matchups.

Instead, do the likes of J.J. Redick, Paul Pierce, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Green offer enough on the defensive end to stop Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes? That seems highly unlikely right now.

3. Oklahoma City over 2. San Antonio 

Pace and matchups. There are potentially two teams that could handle San Antonio’s likely record-setting defense. One of them resides in Oakland and is months removed from winning the title. The other possesses two legit MVP candidates.

Can Kevin Durant put up stellar numbers against the reigning Defensive Player of the Year? If so, how will San Antonio come close to stopping an up-tempo Thunder offense? The answer to that latter question may involve Tony Parker — a scary proposition for fans in San Antonio.

The Spurs may be on pace to win 68-plus games. They have multiple future Hall of Famers and an MVP candidate in Kawhi Leonard. All that’s fine and dandy. They don’t, however, have the personnel to stop what the Thunder can throw their way in a best of seven.

Eastern Conference Semifinals

1. Cleveland over 6. Detroit 

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Detroit might be on the upswing, but there’s no reason to believe it can handle an upper-echelon team in a best-of-seven series. Not only would LeBron James take Tobias Harris out for a walk in this hypothetical series, Reggie Jackson doesn’t possess the defensive skill-set to stop Kyrie Irving.

And while Andre Drummond would pose a major issue for Cleveland inside, Kevin Love’s ability to score from the outside would push Detroit’s big’s out of the paint. That would also cause some problems for the Pistons.

2. Toronto over 5. Miami 

Based on what we have seen in the Eastern Conference, it’s pretty much Toronto and Cleveland vying for a spot in the Finals.

Sure Miami’s veteran experience would play a role here, but not a single fan in South Beach can anticipate a Goran Dragic-Dwyane Wade backcourt being able to handle Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan on the perimeter. That’s the reality of the situation here.

The Heat’s slow-it-down pace will work well in the playoffs against multiple conference opponents. It’s just not a recipe for success against a Raptors squad that can excel in the perimeter running said pace.

Western Conference Finals

1. Golden State over 3. Oklahoma City

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This hypothetical conference finals matchup would be all sorts of fun. Four of the best players in the NBA going up against one another with the underrated Draymond Green and Serge Ibaka squaring off inside.

More so than against San Antonio, the Thunder’s lackluster defense would be called into question against the NBA’s highest-scoring team.

Sure Oklahoma City might be able to drop 110 on Golden State throughout the series, but it’s not going to outscore the Splash Brothers consistently in a best of seven without anyone else stepping up. We saw that first-hand when these teams squared off on Super Bowl eve in Oakland.

Eastern Conference Finals

1. Cleveland over 2. Toronto

I really want to avoid predicting a rematch of last year’s NBA Finals, but that really does seem to be where things are headed right now.

Toronto is a good story. It represents what team building should be about. It’s also going to fall short when the Raptors eventually square off against Cleveland in the playoffs.

We love the idea of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, which has been an electrical back-court tandem. We also need to understand that Kyrie Irving would be a huge x-factor in this series. If he’s able to win that one-on-one matchup, it would leave Toronto in a vulnerable position.

More than this, we have absolutely no idea whether DeMarre Carroll will be 100 percent healthy when the playoffs come calling. He’s the only member of the Raptors that has a track record of success against King James.

NBA Finals

Golden State over Cleveland

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Surprised? As we saw in the Finals last June and when these two teams met twice in the first half of the season, Cleveland simply doesn’t have what it takes to overcome what Golden State brings to the table on a consistent basis.

LeBron James was utterly ridiculous in the Finals last year. The player he went up against, Andre Iguodala, was the actual MVP of the series. Let that sink in when concluding that the Warriors won simply because both Irving and Love were injured.

Speaking of Love, he’s really a non-factor when it comes to going up against Golden State. He stands no real chance of beating Draymond Green in the low post. And in reality, Green has the defensive skill-set to shut Love down offensively.

The biggest key here would be Irving going up against Curry. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, Curry is averaging 23.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 6.8 assists in his past four games against Irving. Conversely, Cleveland’s guard has put up a 17.0-4.3-2.8 split during that same stretch against Curry.

The other thing to look at here is that Golden State has won 42 consecutive home games. Can Cleveland really expect to take one of four in Oakland while handing the Warriors three consecutive road losses? That seems unreasonable.