We’re finally here. Playoff time. Saturday, April 13th, at 2:30 Eastern, the first game of the NBA playoffs will tip off. So now that we’ve got a bracket and the games are approaching, let’s rank the most riveting matchups that we’ll see this year.
8. Bucks/Pistons (1v8)
Sorry Detroit fans, but this won’t be much of a series. It was a respectable season for Detroit, and a great one for Blake Griffin, but the Pistons really don’t have a shot against Giannis and the NBA’s only 60-win team. What a crazy run for Milwaukee, can we take a moment to appreciate that? Coming off a 44-win season, the Bucks improved to 60-22, best in the NBA. A 16-win improvement without adding any stars is really impressive.
Credit to Mike Budenholzer, and, of course, Giannis. The likely MVP, he’s putting up historic stats: 27.7, 12.5, 5.9, achieved only by Giannis and Oscar Robertson. And if you add in field goal percentage, Giannis’s 57.8% puts him in a league of his own. It really is a modern Shaq-type season, or maybe a cross between O’Neal and Scottie Pippen. I’m not sure who in the NBA can stop Giannis, but it’s not the Pistons.
7. Warriors/Clippers (1v8)
Naturally, the other 1/8 slots in as the second-least exciting matchup. Although every Warriors game is fun to watch, this series will likely be a bloodbath. This Clippers season was so much fun, but sinking to the 8th spot will turn out to be their downfall. The Warriors Death Sentence is now looming over their season. If they had slotted into the 5th, 6th or even 7th seed, they could’ve given someone a series, but they just don’t measure up to Steph, Klay, and KD. Although it’s unclear how soon Steph will make his playoff debut, Golden State will breeze through this series.
6. Raptors/Magic (2v7)
Orlando has been the hottest team in the NBA as of late, winning 12 of their last 14 games. And although it’s been moderately enjoyable to watch their run, they’ve met a buzzsaw that they really have no chance to overcome. The Raptors went 58-24 with Kawhi playing 60 and Lowry 65. Speaking of, Kawhi has quietly been having an incredible season, averaging 27, 7, 3, with 50%, 37%, and 85%.
Per 100 possessions, he’s got an offensive rating of 119 and a defensive of 105. That means each 100 possessions with Kawhi on the court, the Raptors average 119 points for and 105 against, a net rating of 14. That’s ridiculous. Back at full strength, Toronto is a force to be reckoned with in the East. They’ve been overlooked all season, and I can’t wait to watch them face off against Philly and probably Milwaukee, but their first-round matchup with Orlando won’t be quite as riveting.
5. Celtics/Pacers (4v5)
Man, I love this Pacers team so much. I still can’t believe they are where they are after losing Victor Oladipo. Bojan Bogdanovic has really stepped up, as has Wes Matthews, and Young, Turner, Sabonis, I mean the whole team, really. Coach Nate McMillan deserves a lot of credit, too.
However, come playoff time, I don’t see them having much of a chance against Boston. I was trying to come up with reasons to pick Indiana in this series, but Kyrie Irving vs. Darren Collison really isn’t much of a contest. If the Pacers had homecourt, I may be able to talk myself into it, but they finished the season 29-12 at home, 19-22 on the road. That’s really the nail in the coffin when it comes to the case for the Pacers, and this feels like a 5-gamer to me.
4. Nuggets/Spurs (2v7)
First off, I want to give Denver the proper respect for their regular season. 54-28, an eight-win improvement, and a 2-seed in a really tough Western Conference. Hats off to Nikola Jokic, Michael Malone, and the Nuggets on a magnificent regular season… I had to get that out of the way first, because… I think they’re one of the weakest 2-seeds I’ve ever seen, especially in the West. This 54-28 team is historically bad for a West 2-seed, tied as the worst West 2-seed since 1985-86 when the league had 22 teams.
They also have very little playoff experience. Their four top minutes leaders have combined for zero playoff minutes (Jokic, Murray, Harris, Barton). So I was ready to pick against Denver in the first round. However, the Spurs aren’t necessarily the right matchup to pull off the upset. Their post-centered offense doesn’t really take advantage of Jokic’s weaknesses. Taking him out to the perimeter and forcing him to defend pick and roll is really the way to play him out of a series. It’ll also be fun to watch DeMar DeRozan in the playoffs again, but without LeBron in his path. After leading a Toronto team to the ECF, he and San Antonio shouldn’t be overlooked, but I can’t quite get myself to pick them.
3. Sixers/Nets (3v6)
I’ve been saying this for a little while now, but Brooklyn is a sneakily bad matchup for the Sixers. I can’t wait to watch the chess match on the court. Let’s break this down. Philadelphia has struggled all season against quick, scoring point guards like D’Angelo Russell. Ben Simmons hasn’t been able to guard point guards as well as you’d hope, and Jimmy Butler is better off on stronger wings. D-Lo’s stop-and-start moves are tough for the 76ers to contain, and he’s also got the midrange floater game that minimizes the impact of Joel Embiid. On the other end, Kenny Atkinson and the Nets have been throwing out weird defensive looks all season, including some zone and matchup-zone type of sets that the Sixers could struggle against, especially considering their lack of spacing.
When 2 of their 5 prized starters are effectively non-shooters, Brooklyn is the type of team that can use that to shut them down. Another case for the Nets is that Kenny Atkinson will likely out-coach Brett Brown over the course of the series. And I haven’t even mentioned Joel Embiid’s knee injury, which is holding him out for at least one game and could swing this series. That being said, with a healthy Embiid, Philly is bigger than Brooklyn at every position, literally, and Joel Embiid looks at Jarrett Allen like the lion from Madagascar looks at a cartoon steak. And Jimmy Butler has been a great closer for Philly in the 4th quarter. In the end, I’m gonna pick the Sixers, who have a significant talent advantage, but I am excited to watch this series for sure.
2. Rockets/Jazz (4v5)
We saw this matchup in the second round last season, and the Rockets won in 5. There are definitely a few takeaways that we can transfer over from last year, but it’ll be a very different series for a few reasons. Utah was short-handed, without Ricky Rubio or Thabo Sefolosha. In that series, Royce O’Neal averaged 30.2 minutes, Alec Burks 19.6, Dante Exum 14.2, and Raul Neto 13.4. This year, they’ve got Rubio healthy, and they’ve added Kyle Korver. Not to mention Donovan Mitchell has been on another level.
Post All-Star break, he’s averaging 27, 5, and 5, shooting 46%, 45%, 83%. Read that one more time, it’s pretty impressive. On Houston’s side, Chris Paul just hasn’t been the same this year. At 33, he only played 58 games, averaging 17 and 9, shooting only 41% from the field and 36% from deep. However, James Harden has been absolutely nuts this year, as has been well documented, and I’m not really sure who on Utah guards him. I guess it’s Jae Crowder, but I don’t feel great about that. I also think Houston’s role players may be better this year than last. Trevor Ariza has been vastly overrated since his departure, and Austin Rivers, Danuel House, and Kenneth Faried are all really good pickups, not to mention PJ Tucker and Clint Capela have been better, too.
Still, this series will likely be decided by the same thing as last year. Rudy Gobert simply can’t switch on the perimeter, and Houston is really good at playing the matchup game and creating isolations. Clint Capela, on the other hand, is one of the best at moving his feet on the perimeter, which (in part) enables their switching defense. The Rockets will be able to keep Capela on the floor while forcing the Jazz’s hand with Gobert by hunting him (and Kyle Korver) through isolations and switches. Can’t wait to watch how this one plays out.
1. Thunder/Blazers (3v6)
I honestly don’t know who to pick in this series. On one hand, you have Portland, who’s had the same basic roster for the past five or so years, and consistently finishes around a 3-5 seed. We know what we have in the Blazers, and we’ve seen what Damian Lillard can do in the playoffs. On the other hand, Oklahoma City is one of the league’s most confusing teams.
Paul George may still be injured, Westbrook has really been Westbrick, and their role players simply can’t shoot. This matchup features some of the most electrifying talents in the playoffs, and there are also some interesting matchup details. First off, OKC swept the season series 4-0, which definitely tells you something. Additionally, Russ has always been a tough matchup for Lillard. His strength and speed give Dame issues, especially in the playoffs when his defensive effort is ramped up. And the lack of Jusuf Nurkic will really hurt Portland, too. Nurk is the primary screener for the Blazers, in an offense that features lots of them. He helps to create lots of the looks that Lillard and McCollum get, and without him, their offense has hurt.
And on the other end, I don’t see how Enes Kanter will be able to stay on the floor. “Pick and roll at 00 every time”, as Devin Booker hilariously put it. I’m gonna end up picking OKC, but I don’t feel great about it, and this series gets my vote for the most exciting one. Hopefully, Paul George looks healthy, and if he does, I honestly might pick the Thunder to win the next round, too.
Thanks for reading, and I can’t wait to see how the playoffs unfold. Enjoy it!