With playoff matchups finally set, how does the first round look based purely on entertainment value? Here’s our countdown from the least interesting series to the most fascinating:
Charlotte's reward for making the playoffs for the second time in the franchise's 10-year history is an unfortunate matchup with the two-time defending champions. That’s a tough break for the pleasantly competent Bobcats. Aside from the gap in talent and playoff experience, the Heat dominated the Bobcats in their season series, going 4-0 despite missing Dwyane Wade for two games. A few were competitive, but overall the Heat thrashed the Bobcats by a massive efficiency differential of 15 points per 100 possessions. Charlotte’s typically stout defense was stretched and exploited, with Chris Bosh pouring in three-pointers and LeBron James attacking freely off the dribble. In their last meeting, on March 3, James dropped a career- and franchise-best 61 points in a 124-107 victory. That’s an exaggerated outcome, to be sure, but it’s one that doesn’t bode terribly well for Charlotte’s chances.
The Bobcats will have their competitive moments, jamming Miami's sets with well-coordinated defense and wringing points from Al Jefferson post-ups. This is still a series worth watching as both a potential Heat spectacle and a celebration of the Bobcats’ season. It’s just not a terribly fascinating draw compared with the other matchups on the board.
These teams scuffled through a vaguely competitive first-round series last season. This year should be no different. Atlanta's floor-spreading big men pose an interesting test for Indiana, which relies on having the 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert stationed to defend the rim. With Hibbert either pulled outside or playing off a capable shooter, the Pacers' defense is compromised. That could leave enough room for the Hawks to legitimately push the Pacers in this series, but that might be giving a remarkably average Atlanta team a bit more credit than it deserves. At its most captivating, this series could have shades of upset potential. More likely, though, it'll be an exchange of mediocrity from two teams playing at that level for very different reasons.
This series will be predicated on binding one of the league's most athletic young stars. Such is the way that these Bulls operate -- theirs is a game of prevention, not only of points but also of space and lanes and all that might allow an opponent to score in bursts. Chicago's game plan takes out opponents at their legs, which is a damn shame when an ultra-quick creator like John Wall is so crucial on the other side of the ball. He and these Wizards could be a treat in a more open series. Instead, they'll spend a few weeks drawing blood from stone.
That can be engaging in its own way, provided the audience has an appreciation for what goes into championship-level defense. It helps that Washington has a real shot, too, as will any quality foe against Chicago. The Bulls' miserable offense is just that crippling; no matter how great Joakim Noah has been, how helpful D.J. Augustin turned out to be or how promising Jimmy Butler might seem in spots, Chicago suffers mightily for its lack of shot creation. All the hard work and best intentions in the world couldn't elevate the Bulls beyond a No. 28 ranking in offensive efficiency -- a fatal flaw that will lead to Chicago's downfall at some point. Washington is capable of fulfilling that promise in the first round if all goes their way.
It's a testament to this year's playoff pool that a series like this one -- with all-time greats, awesome offenses and a tinge of rivalry -- could rank so low. The Spurs' consistency is the reason why. Though Dallas has a lot of weapons and a coach who can be trusted to use them wisely, San Antonio controlled the matchup in sweeping the four-game season series. Games between the two tend to be competitive to a point until Dallas' defensive liabilities become all too clear.
It's to their credit that the Mavs can get by for long stretches by trading scores -- even against an offense as prolific as that of the Spurs. At some point, though, Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon surrender a few too many blow-bys and Brandan Wright is outmuscled on a few too many inside scores. These Mavs are fun and they'll keep the Spurs on their toes. They're just not balanced enough to put a scare into what has been the best team in the league over the past few months.
4. Houston Rockets (4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (5)
I'm not particularly crazy about the Blazers' chances of winning, but what this series might lack in length it could make up for in scoring spectacle. Though Houston is defensively capable, it can be lulled into a shooting contest if the opportunity arises. I very much hope that it does. The postseason doesn't offer many opportunities for a team committed to the fast break to run against such an accommodating defense as the Blazers'. If Portland feeds into that pace, this could be a blast of a series -- dependent on high-variance shooting surges, reliant on elite-level shot-makers and featuring just enough defensive spice to keep things interesting.
This is a chance to follow through on what could have been last season, when Russell Westbrook missed the teams' second-round series with a knee injury. It was all too easy then for the Grizzlies to crowd an overextended Kevin Durant, who at the time was just getting accustomed to initiating from the top of the floor. Oh, how things have changed. With Westbrook back and Durant improved, Memphis will be tested on every trip down the floor.
Still, the Grizzles have the caliber of defense necessary to slow down a team as explosive as the Thunder. Marc Gasol's ability to contain pick-and-rolls and wall off the basket could be pivotal. Players like Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen might wind up as a valuable assets in defending Durant or as exploitable pieces for their lack of offense. Mike Conley might be one of the few guards in the league who can keep track of Westbrook, but that in itself might not be enough with Durant now capable of running the show as needed.
Bottom line: There's a lot of fun tension in play between a hyper-athletic, highly efficient offense and a hunkered-down, incredibly formidable defense. It's a stress test for both teams carried out over seven games.
This is a sneaky good series with a lot going on, headlined by the new jacks vs. old hands narrative. To see the fresh-faced and bushy-tailed Raps in the postseason should be reason enough to tune in. Ditto for a chance to check out a Nets team of familiar faces as it kicks off its playoff run.
The real draw, though, is just how testy and competitive the season series between these teams turned out to be. Three of the four games were decided by seven total points. The games were appropriately split 2-2 with neither team claiming any significant advantage. It should be a coin flip of a series made all the better by the fact that these teams talk. Any series with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce involved is bound to be chatty, and the Raptors have managed to dial up the game's tension by playing well and responding in kind.
Plus, with this series Raptors guard Terrence Ross gets exactly the matchup he wanted -- a hope that gave Nets big man Andray Blatche occasion to offer a warning in response:
“S---, you better be careful what tree you bark up. He better be careful,” Blatche told the Daily News. “He’s probably just saying that because he had a good game against us. But I don’t think that’s really what he meant or what he really, really wants.”
I'm not expecting too much more in the way of postgame barb trading, though the underlying animosity should carry through. These aren't just two teams that dislike one another. They're two teams that seem to think they're better than one another -- stances of mutual pride and agitation that make a series all the better. I can't wait to see how that touchiness manifests when the Raptors and Nets are forced to play one another over and over until the series' resolution.
1. Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
This series had all-time potential as pure spectacle when Andrew Bogut was expected to play. The expected absence of his outstanding defense and needless cheap shots bring things down a peg, though. All the same, this should still be a pretty great series. No other teams streak and preen quite like these two, which should result in a series where most everyone involved is good and pissed.
That's particularly enticing in the case of Chris Paul, who seems to enter another state of consciousness when irritated. Anger brings Paul a defensive fury atop his offensive genius. He turns into a hyper-aggressive, surgically precise one-man press, which would make an awesome foil for Stephen Curry. One can only hope that -- even without Bogut's shoves and fouls -- Paul might use the vitriol in the matchup to rage as the best player on the floor. That channeled anger makes for a hell of a show.
Still, it would be shocking if Curry didn't hold his own, balancing out what should be the best one-on-one matchup of the first round. Actually, make that two-on-one; it's highly unlikely that Curry will guard Paul all the time, as the Warriors could (and should) lean on Andre Iguodala or Klay Thompson to shoulder that responsibility. If Iguodala draws the assignment, this would be a great showcase of the elite -- the best point guard in the league working against the best perimeter defender, infused with just the right amount of postseason desperation.