Denver's Ty Lawson
(left) and Golden State's Stephen Curry
will lead their teams in a stirring first-round series. (USA Today Sports; Landov)
How does the first round look based purely on entertainment value? Here's our countdown from the least interesting series to the most fascinating:
8. Brooklyn Nets (4) vs. Chicago Bulls (5)
This series promises to be so slow and so stilted that even the diehards' allegiance will be tested. Neither Brooklyn nor Chicago has all that much interest in topping a mere trot in the open court, each preferring to grind the game down in its own way.
For the Nets, that means settling into a stale, plodding offense that works almost solely because of their talent. Deron Williams and Brook Lopez provide the primary impetus behind this stodgy machine, nudging the rest of the roster through drawn-out possessions toward fundamentally basic ends. That rough strategic sketch worked well enough for Brooklyn to rank ninth in points per possession, though it did so in the least aesthetically striking means possible.
Chicago's high-wire defensive act typically makes for a better watch, but I prefer the Bulls as show-stopping foils rather than slow-down co-conspirators. There's still an interesting dynamic to observe between the Nets' simple-but-effective offense and the Bulls' perpetually scampering defense, but even that intrigue is hindered by Chicago center Joakim Noah's health. The most entertaining player in this series will be playing through a bout of plantar fasciitis that will not subside. That's a bummer for both the Bulls and those of us keeping tabs on the series, as Chicago will try its damnedest to prop up its play on both ends with a hobbled defensive anchor and an absent superstar point guard in Derrick Rose.
Complete first-round playoff schedule
7. Indiana Pacers (3) vs. Atlanta Hawks (6)
As marvelous as it might be to see the Pacers slowly coil their way around a foe before squeezing every bit of life out of its offense, they typically draw an NBA TV-heavy (and thus ESPN-/ABC-/TNT-light) broadcast schedule for a reason. Their style may make for riveting theater against high-functioning competition later in the playoffs, but in the first round it typically translates to a slog of a series. This year should be no exception, and even though Indiana has proved to be definitively better than Atlanta over the course of the season, we'll have to trudge through a handful of bogged-down contests before even that much can be confirmed.
6. Miami Heat (1) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (8)
The run of Eastern Conference teams continues with the most likely blowout of the postseason field. The Bucks are a decent team with an engaging, firecracker center at their defensive core, but even Larry Sanders' pogo-stick game won't be enough to redeem the sight of the league's most dominant team rolling over its first -- and most unfortunate -- playoff opponent. The gap between these teams will still make for some vaguely entertaining basketball at times, but those looking for competitive games should hunt elsewhere.
Inside the mind of the volatile Larry Sanders
5. San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (7)
If all is generally well with Tony Parker's health, then the Spurs stand to make quick work of a Lakers team that's simply stretched too thin. Still, I'd suspect that many might find this series to be quite satisfying based on two factors:
• The combination of the Spurs' ball movement -- perhaps the best in the league -- and the Lakers' lacking rotational defense could yield some beautiful basketball from San Antonio. L.A. has looked a bit better defensively as Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have gotten healthier, but the Lakers would still seem to have too many liabilities to reasonably cover against the Spurs' incisive offense. Parker's pushes toward the rim are downright surgical at this point in his career, and that swift precision coupled with San Antonio's general aim to beat the next rotation with a pass to the open man should bear some terrific results.
• There is undoubtedly a certain segment of the basketball-watching population for whom every bit of the Lakers' struggles invokes some measure of delight. If you're in that group (or if you prefer to revel in schadenfreude more quietly), then this may be the series for you. Kobe Bryant's absence relieves the Lakers of any pressure to win a series like this one, but it also likely denies them a chance to compete with a far superior opponent.
Regardless, there should be plenty about this series to enjoy, be it through the prism of a Spurs win or a Lakers loss.
All-Star guard James Harden
gets a crack at his old Thunder
mates in the first round. (Pat Sullivan/AP)
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs. Houston Rockets (8)
The narrative could not come more simply: The Thunder's decision to trade James Harden to the Rockets in October circles back to become an early postseason test. In this series, all of the analysis of how the Thunder might perform -- or might struggle -- without Harden becomes material; Oklahoma City will literally need to overcome the All-Star guard's performance to sustain its title aspirations, though such a framing might make this series seem more competitive than it's actually likely to be.
This has been a terrific season for Houston under Harden's pick-and-roll creation and stylistic leadership. But the Rockets don't make for a particularly credible Thunder opponent, mostly because of their defense. This series could well end in five games or so, but Houston's presence at the very least offers the charms of Harden's return to OKC and a highly entertaining affair driven by some of the best offensive talents in the game.
GOLLIVER: Playoff X-factors for all 16 teams
3. New York Knicks (2) vs. Boston Celtics (7)
It's hard to go wrong with a juxtaposition of teams that hold such genuine contempt for one another, not to mention two opponents who are much closer in performance than their season series (in which New York won three of four, twice decisively) might suggest. Regardless of which way the series turns, the Knicks and Celtics promise to bring a long series of basketball made even more engaging by its extracurriculars. Both teams are loaded with veterans and heavy on surliness, a combination that figures to only heighten the level of poking and prodding between edge-seeking opponents.
But all of that peripheral fun aside, the heart of this series is the interplay between New York's Carmelo Anthony-driven offense and Boston's ever-impressive defense. The latter is geared for just this occasion (the Celtics thrive when they can overload pressure on one star in particular), but the former is generally prepared to overwhelm even the staunchest defensive opposition. Something has to give, and I can't wait to see the ways in which both of these solid teams maneuver to bend without breaking.
Here are highlights from their heated meeting in New York on Jan. 7, when Anthony and Kevin Garnett confronted each other during and after the game:
2. Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5)
Don't sleep on this series, which serves as a continuation of the outstanding seven-game melee that took place in the first round last season. If all goes according to the precedent of the 2012 iteration and the more recent season series, then this matchup will be equal parts chess match, WWE-style spectacle and legitimate battle of wills. Few opponents test the Grizzlies as consistently and effectively as the Clippers do, just as few team defenses are as capable of wearing down Chris Paul by rotating exhaustingly to cover every angle.
It'll be slow, and the confluence of styles involved will separate the Clippers even further from the misleading Lob City moniker that has come to define them among casual fans. But for basketball junkies this is set to be a riveting clash, replete with the major themes, minor elements and natural animosity that have fueled many a great series. Watching Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph grapple on the low block would be worth the time investment alone, but factor in the ascent of Marc Gasol, the variable performance of Eric Bledsoe, the can't-miss defensive work of Tony Allen and the attempt by Paul to unraveling Memphis' interwoven defense and this becomes as enjoyable NBA fare as you're likely to find in the first round.
1. Denver Nuggets (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
If it's truly better for a series to burn out rather than fade away, then this bounding clash of open-court teams stands as the most mesmerizing first-round matchup. The Nuggets may be the superior team, but they welcome a style that keeps most games teetering on the very edge of the rails. It's to Denver's credit that balance in those situations has become a team-wide value, but Golden State will undoubtedly test that stability with an equally aggressive transition game that creates points through an opposite, outside-in polarity.
The Nuggets may be the one team in the league that can consistently outrun other running teams, accelerating the tempo just a few degrees beyond what opponents find comfortable. As much as I appreciate the offensive ability of Stephen Curry and David Lee (among the Warriors' many talented shooters and facilitators), I see them falling into that trap -- albeit in a way that sends the series ramping up the speed and the stakes until it all goes up in a puff of smoke.
Denver figured to be a tantalizing postseason watch regardless of the competition. But getting paired with Golden State means the potential for 48-minute reels of high-risk, must-watch basketball.