We are officially into the second round of the 2019 NBA playoffs, and every higher seed has advanced in their respective first-round series. That could change in the second round, however, as the Rockets, Trail Blazers, Celtics and 76ers all have upsets on the brain.
The conference semifinals will be full of intriguing matchups with elite players on every team, so the results will be much more difficult to predict. But that hasn’t stopped our panel of CBS Sports NBA experts from looking into their crystal balls. While most have faith in the top seeds in the Eastern Conference, two of our experts are predicting upsets, with the Celtics advancing to the conference finals. We were nearly unanimous in picking Toronto to get past Philly, but one writer sees the Sixers moving on.
As for the highly anticipated Warriors-Rockets series, no one is picking against the defending champs despite Houston coming so close last season to knocking off Golden State in the Western Conference finals. In the other West semifinal, the Denver Nuggets will take on Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. Although most like Portland to advance, the higher seed is still getting some respect from some in our panel.
Here is a look at all of our expert picks for the second round of the NBA playoffs.
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 4 Boston Celtics
Why the Bucks will advance
The Bucks were worlds better than the Celtics in the regular season, and that will lead some to believe they should be massive favorites. I don’t see it that way. Boston is suited for postseason basketball because of its versatility and ability to adjust throughout a series. Milwaukee’s offense sometimes looks unstoppable, but it will be challenged — the Celtics, even without Marcus Smart, have the personnel to match up well here.
It’s hard, however, to trust Boston to score against this team. The Celtics’ sweep of the Pacers obscured their mediocre offense in the first round. To beat the Bucks four times, they will need to be elite on both ends. I can see a path there — it involves Al Horford dominating to the point that Milwaukee is forced to alter its approach — but I can’t predict that it will happen. The Bucks are the safe pick. — James Herbert
Why the Celtics will advance
Despite how the regular season went for these two teams, this series is Kyrie Irving is healthy and ready to step up in the playoffs once again, they — Al Horford vs. Brook Lopez, in particular — they can exploit on the offensive end, Gordon Hayward finally looks like his old self and on top of everything they have far more playoff experience. — Jack Maloney, and the Celtics are more than capable of winning.
No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers
Why the Raptors will advance
Can the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Toronto Raptors in a seven-game series? Absolutely. But there’s a very small margin for error for a Sixers team that doesn’t have nearly the depth or versatility as the Raptors. And that’s why the Raptors should be considered heavy favorites. Their defense has the highest ceiling of any NBA playoff team; since the All-Star break, they ranked third in the NBA in defensive efficiency. (For comparison’s sake, the Sixers — who were missing Joel Embiid for a chunk of that time — ranked 16th.) But what the Raptors have done this season is flip the script on their franchise history. This has always been a team that’s excelled in the regular season only to flop in the playoffs. This Raptors team is different. From the moment they traded for Kawhi Leonard, the past year has been one long, intentional plan to prepare for this moment. Whereas the Sixers have had to adapt on the fly after adding Jimmy Butler and then Tobias Harris, the Raptors have spent the season pacing Kawhi, and experimenting with different, versatile lineup combinations that they can break out as needed in the playoffs. Adding Marc Gasol at the trade deadline — a move that’s tailor-made for a series against Embiid — is only the icing on the cake. There are a couple scenarios where the Sixers can beat the Raptors. They have the more talented starting five, after all. But there are many, many more scenarios in which the Raptors beat the Sixers. — Reid Forgrave
Why the 76ers will advance
The series between the Sixers and Raptors will be a battle, but the Sixers have an opportunity to come out victorious if they are able to play like they did in Games 2 through 5 against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. The Sixers have more top-tier talent and star power than the Raptors, and in the postseason that becomes especially important as rotations shrink and teams’ top players are relied upon to carry a larger load. Toronto is deeper on paper, but Sixers head coach Brett Brown has an opportunity to neutralize that to an extent with the right rotations, as he did in the first round by using both Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris as backup ball-handlers.
Plus, the Sixers’ starting five has still played well below 20 games together as unit, and the possibility remains that their chemistry will continue to grow and they could reach another level that we haven’t seen yet. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain
No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 4 Houston Rockets
Why the Warriors will advance
It’s tempting to pick against the Golden State Warriors. We all remember how close the Houston Rockets came to beating them last time, and, if the defending champs find themselves in a desperate situation again, it’s hard to be confident that they’ll get themselves out of it. The Warriors’ defense has been shaky by their standards, and Houston has repeatedly proved it can take them out of their offense.
This series has the potential to be an all-timer, even if you aren’t partial to isolation basketball and matchup-hunting. These teams know each other extremely well, and they have been waiting for this rematch for almost a year. If pressed to make a prediction, I can’t bring myself to pick against Golden State, even with DeMarcus Cousins sidelined and an improved version of James Harden. The Warriors have the higher ceiling, and having a healthy Andre Iguodala to throw at Harden changes the complexion of the matchup. — James Herbert
No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers
Why the Nuggets will advance
The Nuggets struggled through their first-round series with the Spurs, needing seven games to beat the No. 7 seed. Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers cruised past the Thunder without much trouble at all. But all season long, the Nuggets were the better team, and they should prove that in this series, especially with the Blazers shorthanded in the frontcourt. Nikola Jokic showed in the first round that he’s built for the playoffs, and should absolutely dominate this matchup. There’s no one on Portland who can guard him, and that will be the difference. — Jack Maloney
Why the Trail Blazers will advance
The Portland Trail Blazers looked like a force to be reckoned with against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, and they may ultimately prove to be too dangerous to handle for the Denver Nuggets. Even with Jusuf Nurkic sidelined, the Blazers have no shortage of big bodies to throw at Nikola Jokic in order to limit his effectiveness in the second-round series between the two teams: Enes Kanter, Zach Collins, Meyers Leonard, and Al-Farouq Aminu will likely all take turns trying to make life difficult for Jokic, while Denver may have difficulty containing Portland’s backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the offensive end.
Add in the facts that the Blazers have more postseason experience than the Nuggets and that they are playing with a chip on their shoulder after being swept in the first round last season, and it seems like the Blazers are poised for a series victory. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain