NBA Playoffs: Five first-round matchups we want to see
The early rounds of the playoffs have been a true slog the Warriors’ era, with low stakes and shoddy talent dampening interest in round one. As the gap between true contenders widened, many first-round battles were little more than consolation prizes, a muted celebration before an unceremonious exit.
Golden State’s death star has decimated lower seeds in the West since 2014-15, while King James comfortably kept his throne in the East. Cleveland swept Boston, Detroit, Indiana, Atlanta (twice) and Toronto (twice) during James’ second-stint in Cleveland. The Warriors tallied sweeps of New Orleans, Portland, Utah and San Antonio in the same four-year span. It’s hard to get excited for a scrappy first round series when certain death awaits a week later.
We’ll always end up with a couple of snoozer NBA TV series, at least while the league continues to embrace a 16-team playoff. But this season feels ripe for an increasingly-interesting first round. LeBron’s departure from the East opens a world of possibility on the junior circuit. Eight quality teams comprise the West bracket, with five teams (sorry Spurs and Clippers) capable of challenging Golden State in the Western Conference finals.
So which first round series will hold our attention in April? We broke down the five most exciting potential matchups below.
Thunder vs. Jazz
There’s no shortage of drama with this rematch. Russell Westbrook will steal the headlines as he often does, entering Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City as public enemy No. 1. Good on the league and the Jazz organization for disciplining inappropriate fan behavior after Monday’s incident. Hopefully it will serve as a teaching moment for the Utah crowd, who fuel one of the most impactful home-court advantages in the league.
A rematch with Utah will also provide Paul George a critical chance at redemption. Oklahoma City’s MVP candidate shot just 2-16 from the field in Game 6 last year, getting dusted by Joe Ingles as he clanked a slate of jumpers off the iron. George has been maligned for his playoff shortcomings on numerous occasions. Delivering against Utah could flip his postseason reputation, and advance Oklahoma City out of the first round for the first time since 2016.
Warriors vs. Clippers
We’re likely facing a sweep with whomever draws the Warriors in round one, but the Clippers are the most entertaining potential adversary. Patrick Beverley will spend a week tucked into Steph Curry’s jersey, and a scuffle involving Beverley should be expected. Lou Williams is a delight to watch. Ditto for Montrezl Harrell. Ideally we’d see a repeat of the Golden State’s 2015 matchup with the Pelicans, one of the more entertaining sweeps in recent memory. New Orleans’ tempo brought out the best in the Dubs’ attack, and Game 3 was an instant classic, with Steph Curry pouring in 40 points as the Warriors erased a 20-point fourth quarter deficit. Thinking Golden State is vulnerable in round one is foolish. But even a sweep can provide an enjoyable watch with the right opponent.
Celtics vs. Nets
There’s the obvious narrative intrigue with this series. Danny Ainge and the Celtics fleeced the Nets in 2013, shipping Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett as they entered a period of decline. Brooklyn has won one playoff series since the fateful trade, losing 50-plus games in each of the last three seasons. Boston, meanwhile, used the newfound trove of draft capital to restack its roster, landing Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Deal for Anthony Davis this summer, and the Celtics’ trade with Brooklyn will stand as perhaps the most lopsided moves in NBA history.
Trade blunders aside, though, this would still be an incredibly entertaining series. Brooklyn flings triples with impunity, led by D’Angelo Russell rainbows and Joe Harris missiles. There’s no more mercurial locker room than in Boston, and its jenga tower of personalities could derail a run to the Finals. Perhaps Brooklyn swipes a game or two, denting the Celtics’ armor as they move forward to the East. Yet even without a victory, expect the Nets to go out firing.
Raptors vs. Pistons
We’ve got a Dwane Casey revenge series here, although that storyline will hold my attention through about the first six minutes of Game 1. Yet the on-court matchup still portends a closer series than we’d originally expect. Blake Griffin and Kawhi Leonard would battle mano a mano, with each player bleeding the shot clock and deploying their efficient mid-range games. Griffin is capable of dropping 50 on a given night, and a couple hot games from beyond the arc could swing the series. Andre Drummond has revived his season over the last month. He’s engaged and ferocious on the glass, anchoring Detroit’s defense with an increased focus. Detroit’s twin towers will keep Nick Nurse up at night.
A first-round loss would be crippling for Toronto, more so than any previous loss with DeMar DeRozan. It would nearly guarantee Leonard’s departure, and could spell a new destination for Kyle Lowry. The Raptors’ stakes are high this postseason. Watching them sweat in round one would be fascinating.
Rockers vs. Spurs
Houston’s talent far outpaces its Lone Star State counterpart, but it’s never smart to dismiss Gregg Popovich. Coach Pop is 5–0 in the postseason against Mike D’Antoni, most recently eliminating the Rockets from the playoffs in May 2017.
San Antonio’s six-game victory in 2017 was its last great achievement as well as the final gasp of the Kawhi Leonard era. It was also one of Popovich’s best coaching jobs. San Antonio’s defense on James Harden was masterful. The Spurs shaded Harden severely to the right and induced a string of floaters and runners. Their bigs were imposing yet vertical. They limited Harden’s trips to the line, avoiding the dreaded three-point foul. The Beard went 3-17 from the field in Game 2 and 11-24 in a pivotal Game 5. Harden ended the series with just two field goals in Game 6, limping to the locker room at the Toyota Center following a 39-point defeat. It’s hard to envision any non-Warriors team knocking off the Rockets, but Popovich is the right coach to make it happen.
Article written by Michael Shapiro #SportsIllustrated
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