James Harden

Can James Harden help lead Houston to the promised land?

The West

It seems as though Houston and Golden State are on a collision course once again. In a perfect world, these teams would face off in the Western Conference Finals. Instead, they'll end up battling in the second round. Before I go counting unhatched chickens, I guess I should mention that both teams are still in the midst of first-round matchups.

I am confident, however, that Golden State will easily dispatch the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clips have been a great story this year and considering that his best player is either Lou Williams or Danilo Gallinari, this is certainly some of head coach Doc Rivers' best work as a coach. That said, the magic act ends at the hands of the Warriors. Speaking of those Rockets, they'll advance to the second round after knocking off Utah. With Chris Paul now healthy, this team has some unfinished business from last year.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves though, let's take a look at the other first round matchups out West. First we've got the Portland Trailblazers going toe-to-toe with Oklahoma City. Damian Lillard is one of my favorite players in the league. He combines with CJ McCollum to form one of the most dangerous backcourts the league has seen in a while. The presence of Jusuf Nurkic was supposed to get the Blazers over the hump. But Nurkic went down for the season and if Portland is going to beat OKC, Lillard will have to play like a man possessed. While I'm not a big Russell Westbrook believer, I do think that he and Paul George will prevail.

Speaking of upsets, how about a No. 7 seed, knocking off a No. 2?  If I could buy stock in the future of the Denver Nuggets, I would. In Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic they've got two budding young stars. Ultimately I think their lack of experience, combined with San Antonio's vast playoff experience will spell doom for Denver. In Gregg Popovich, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, this team has veterans with playoff performances under their belt.

That will leave OKC facing San Antonio with an appearance in the Western Conference Finals on the line. I look for a herculean effort from Paul George to help the Thunder to advance. And the winner of the Golden State/Houston series will be forced to labor through seven games before advancing. Houston was really close to taking Steve Kerr and Company out last year before Paul's injury. This is the year that they actually pull it off. Houston will then dispose of the Thunder to advance to the NBA Finals.

The East

Things look a bit more certain in the Eastern Conference where I only see one upset on the horizon. That would consist of the No. 6 Brooklyn Nets taking down the No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers. Joel Embiid is suffering from knee tendinitis and seems to be out of shape on top of that. The next time that Tobias Harris has a big playoff series will be the first time. With Ben Simmons unable to shoot, there's going to be a lot of pressure on JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler to produce. The Nets’ D'Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie are quality players who can create for themselves and others. Jarrett Allen offers a defensive presence in the paint.

The loss of Marcus Smart is a big blow for the Boston Celtics. But then again, they are playing the Indiana Pacers in the first round. This matchup is just what the doctor ordered to get Boston back on track.

I expect both of the other two series' to also be claimed by the higher seeds. The Milwaukee Bucks are very good. They had the best regular season record in the league. And, oh yeah, they are playing the Detroit Pistons. I invite you all to pay attention to Giannis Antetokounmpo. It's a shame that a guy on the verge of winning an MVP is such a novelty to casual fans, but playing in Milwaukee will do that to you.

Sticking with the chalk, the Toronto Raptors will take care of the Orlando Magic. Orlando stole Game One, but that's the only win they'll get

The subsequent Boston/Milwaukee matchup will receive all the hype, which is probably fine with Toronto who has quietly put together one of the deepest rosters in the league. Toronto will take down Brooklyn in the second round to reserve a date in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Squaring off against Toronto will be the Celtics who'll need all seven games to finish off Milwaukee. But the  defense of Kawhi Leonard and OG Anunoby will make life tough on the Celtics' wing players and Toronto will prevail en route to a finals matchup with Houston. That is where Houston's toughness will net the franchise their first title since Hakeem Olajuwon.


Tom Hoggard is sports director/media consultant at East Carolina Radio. He hosts the Outer Banks Sports Report on 98.1 The Score Monday through Friday from 7 to 9 a.m.

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