NBA playoffs: First-round analysis and predictions

Read on for brief analysis and picks for each series.

The 2015-16 NBA season has reached its merciful end for the Knicks and Nets, but there’s plenty of basketball left to be played when the playoffs tip off beginning Saturday. Read on for brief analysis and picks for each series.

Eastern Conference

(1) Cavaliers vs. (8) Pistons

To entirely count out the Pistons, who split the two regular-season matchups in which the entire Cavs’ big three played, would be a mistake. Reggie Jackson (18.8 ppg, 6.2 apg) can be a handful, and Andre Drummond (16.2 ppg, 14.8 rpg) led the NBA in rebounding. The midseason trade for Tobias Harris (14.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) has paid off, as well.

But, come on, LeBron James (25.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 6.8 apg) isn’t going to bow out to Detroit. Not when he’s got a healthy Kevin Love (16 ppg, 9.9 rpg) and Kyrie Irving (19.6 ppg, 4.7 apg) flanking him.

Even with all the off-court distractions in Cleveland, the Cavs have firepower in spades to reach the conference semifinals in six games.

(2) Raptors vs. (7) Pacers

Toronto’s worst enemy in this series may be the specter of two consecutive early playoff exits, one in a down-to-the-wire Game 7 and another in a listless four-game sweep.

But the Raptors look different this year after a minor offseason overhaul upgraded the defense, and Kyle Lowry (21.2 ppg, 6.4 apg) and DeMar DeRozan (23.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg) made the All-Star team.

The key is continuing to contain All-Star Paul George (23.1 ppg, 7 rpg, 4.1 apg). The Raps held the Indiana star to 6.8 points below his regular-season scoring average while winning three of four head-to-head matchups. If that trend holds, Toronto will exorcise its demons and advance in five games.

(3) Heat vs. (6) Hornets

By now, the Heat have learned to live without Chris Bosh (19.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg), who is on blood thinners for a blood clot. Miami relies on a committee led by Dwyane Wade (19 ppg, 4.6 apg) and Hassan Whiteside (14.2 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 3.7 bpg).

Charlotte leans heavily on Kemba Walker (20.9 ppg, 5.2 apg) at the offensive end, but the depth around him is the best Charlotte has seen since Michael Jordan bought the franchise.

While the series will start in South Florida, it was the Hornets who won there last month in their only meeting since Bosh went out of the lineup.

This figures to be a competitive series, but ultimately Miami has too many weapons. The Heat will move on in seven.

(4) Hawks vs. (5) Celtics

Isaiah Thomas (22.2 ppg, 6.2 apg), at just 5-9, established himself as an All-Star for Boston. But Atlanta has a pair of All-Stars of its own: Paul Millsap (17.1 ppg, 9 rpg) and Al Horford (15.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg).

The Hawks won three of four head-to-head matchups during the regular season, including both matchups on their home court. In doing so, that gave Atlanta the tiebreaker when each team finished 48-34 for the season, let the Hawks retain home court advantage.

The Celtics will need to prove they can win in the South. They have the depth to pull it off, but the Hawks play excellent team defense.

Look for the Hawks to emerge in seven games.

Western Conference

(1) Warriors vs. (8) Rockets

There’s not much reason to believe Golden State will be stunned in the first round. In fact, it would be a minor shock if they drop even one game to Houston.

That’s not a knock on the Rockets or their stars, James Harden (29 ppg, 7.5 apg, 6.1 rpg) and Dwight Howard (13.7 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg). Both are great, although Howard no longer can play at his best on a nightly basis.

Stephen Curry (30.1 ppg, 6.7 apg, 45.4% 3P), Draymond Green (14 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 7.4 apg) and the gang are in another stratosphere, and likely could survive this round even if one was forced to miss several games. Even then, they have sharpshooter Klay Thompson (22.1 ppg, 42.5% 3P). The Warriors will win in four.

(2) Spurs vs. (7) Grizzlies

If the Warriors are the No. 1 seed, San Antonio is No. 1A. Any other year and this team would be a major front-runner to win it all.

The emergence of Kawhi Leonard (21.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 44.3% 3P) as an MVP candidate and offseason signing of All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge (18 ppg, 8.5 rpg) takes a lot of pressure off the still-spry, nearly 40 Tim Duncan (8.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg).

The Grizzlies are without two of their three best players, Marc Gasol (16.6 ppg, 7 rpg) and Mike Conley (15.3 ppg, 6.1 apg). Zach Randolph (15.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) won’t be able to carry this team on his own.

Consider it a miracle if the Grizzlies win a game. Spurs advance in four.

(3) Thunder vs. (6) Mavericks

No team, not even the Warriors, has a duo at the level of Kevin Durant (28.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Russell Westbrook (23.5 ppg, 10.4 apg, 7.8 rpg). Attempt to neutralize one, and the other will wreak havoc. True of Durant, the more consistent of the two, but Westbrook has been a triple-double machine all season.

But when Enes Kanter (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg) — a talented offensive player and matador on defense — is a key rotation player, that helps explain why this team doesn’t always hold its opponent in check.

Dallas will lean heavily on 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki (18.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg), but he won’t have enough support to lift the Mavs in this one. OKC should make it a short series, winning in five.

(4) Clippers vs. (5) Trail Blazers

The Clips have thrived despite star Blake Griffin’s (21.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg) distracting, off-court injury. Credit goes to future Hall of Famer Chris Paul (19.5 ppg, 10 apg, 2.1 spg) for leading Los Angeles to a top four seed in the wild West.

Griffin is back now, and DeAndre Jordan (12.7 ppg, 13.8 rpg) is in his prime at center, which should take pressure off Paul.

Their Portland counterparts are the surprise of the season thanks in large part to Damian Lillard (25.1 ppg, 6.8 apg) and his stellar second half of the season. The emergence C.J. McCollum (20.8 ppg, 4.3 apg) is a big part of that, too.

The Blazers will make it interesting, but L.A. should move on in six.

Scott Fontana