NBA playoffs: Ranking the first-round matchups by entertainment value

Can't decide which series to watch? We rank the opening NBA playoff matchups by entertainment value. 
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With NBA 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:

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8. Hawks (1) vs. Nets (8)

In the grand tradition of wrecking ball vs. dilapidated building comes this first-round matchup between the Hawks and Nets. Brooklyn is dramatically improved from its play earlier in the season. It’s genuinely nice to see Brook Lopez back to centering an offense as a more focal component. Yet none of it means a damn thing; the Hawks are so far ahead in terms of fielding compatible talent and making the most of it that the series itself seems a formality.

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7. Bulls (3) vs. Bucks (6)

Viewer discretion is advised. Chicago may be more vulnerable in this series than advertised, but the Bucks do not generally work in the realm of high aesthetic. All of the fun applications of Milwaukee’s length and quickness come embedded in stretches of stiff offensive play. Michael Carter-Williams has actually done a fair job of greasing the works a bit, though in a tighter postseason setting we shouldn’t much expect visionary basketball from the young Bucks. 

And though the Bulls have their moments of next-level offensive execution, the passing lanes won’t be so free and clear against an opponent that overloads the strong side of the floor with abandon. Points will be ground from situational advantages and diligence. If that’s your thing, then enjoy this series in all its clanking brilliance. If not, I assure you there are more accessible series left on the board.

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6. Raptors (4) vs. Wizards (5)

I have a sneaking suspicion that this could be a long series of competitive, hard-fought, garbage basketball. Washington thrives in mucking up games and Toronto’s base response to pressure is to funnel the ball to its top scorers in isolation. Kyle Lowry is a delight, DeMar DeRozan is quite skilled, and Lou Williams is perplexingly good at throwing defenders off balance. But to watch the three take turns against the Wizards’ set, staunch D doesn’t strike me as an especially good time.

The saving grace may be the intrigue of a closely contested series. Neither Toronto nor Washington is demonstrably better than the other; this is one of the most unpredictable matchups on the board. The Wizards can guard, but counter their efforts with one of the most misguided offenses in the league. Nothing they do on that end ever seems to come as simply as it should. To counter, the Raptors balance their successful offense with distressing defensive inadequacy. Nagging injuries have limited Amir Johnson and decentivized Lowry on that end, which when layered with problems in matchups and execution have plunged the Raps to the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency. What gives remains to be seen, though the process of finding out doesn’t quite sound like appointment television.

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5. Cavaliers (2) vs. Celtics (7)

The best that the East has to offer in this first round are highlights and hustle. Cleveland guarantees the former. Kyrie Irving’s handle alone is worth the price of admission, and he’ll need to be especially creative to find ways around Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. With LeBron James, too, comes the potential for any routine drive to transform into a powerful finish or an electrifying assist. These are the perks of having two creators capable of feats well beyond the NBA standard. To see them in playoff action should help make up for what’s likely to be a decisive series.

Boston, though, will do its part to keep things relatively engaging. Isaiah Thomas will be both vital to the health of the Celtics’ offense and a welcome creative foil to Irving. Players of his size should not be able to finish over and around help defenders as well as Thomas does. His shirking of probability makes him riveting, and gives some needed punch to an offense that otherwise lacks the means to manufacture offense at a high level. All the same: Come for the choreography. Celtics coach Brad Stevens will undoubtedly show off some freshly minted and rewind-worthy play designs, put into action with the complete buy-in of Boston’s scrappers.

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4. Trail Blazers (4) vs. Grizzlies (5)

Attrition will play an inescapable part in a series with so many injuries, major and minor. Yet there’s still so much collective skill in this series as to warrant close attention. LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph will all approach the same piece of on-court real estate with divergent styles, and in doing so put on a clinic of modern post play. All three do a fine job of re-routing from the block in service of a greater offense. The discrepancy between them is to what degree their teammates are equipped to space the floor and profit.

Were both of these teams in top regular season form, they’d make for a smart, well-balanced match on both ends of the floor. In their current form, however, things are a bit more stilted. Portland’s defense has waned slightly and Memphis’ offense has dragged. The spotlight, then, comes to what both teams do best: The Blazers do a tremendous job of leveraging good opportunities to create even better ones, while the Grizzlies thrive on taking away an opponent’s primary options. That clash sits at the heart of this series—whether in Tony Allen’s oppressive on-ball defense against Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum’s facilitation to set up the next shot in line, or the battle between Aldridge and Gasol to overwhelm the capable defenders in front of them.

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3. Rockets (2) vs. Mavericks (7)

With the way Houston sprints into the open floor and Dallas’ willingness to run small and play along, this figures to be a downhill series. Relish the occasion of two teams trying like mad to turn over one another to get out on the break. Many of the most important moments in these playoffs will be decided in halfcourt situations with a brilliant player manipulating and exploiting the reactions of the defense. There will be a dose of that here as the situation calls for it. Yet Houston only tends to slow its pace when forced, and Dallas—an adaptable sort with guards who love to run the open floor—may not have the mind or the transition defense to stifle them.

Beyond the stylistic bent, we get the Groundhog Day drama of waiting for ‘Playoff Rondo’. Should he come out of his burrow, Dallas’ playoff chances are amplified. If he turns out to be scared of his own shadow (how else to explain turning away open layups?), the Mavs could be in some trouble. Additionally: Dirk Nowitzki, back at home in the playoffs; a reemergent Dwight Howard; Monta Ellis in pressure situations; a full test of Tyson Chandler’s abilities as a rim protector; Terrence Jones and Josh Smith working their unique skill sets against slow-footed defenders; Rick Carlisle’s patchwork tactics; and both Chandler Parsons and Jason Terry playing in front of crowds that will alternate between adorning and jeering them. Enjoy.

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2. Warriors (1) vs. Pelicans (8)

While there’s some evidence to suggest that the Pelicans could make this a series if they max out Anthony Davis’ minutes, I’m more inclined to believe that the best two-way team in the league this season will dispatch New Orleans quickly once dedicating its full attention. The beauty is that it hardly matters. Golden State’s mid-game explosions make them essential viewing regardless of opponent, though it helps to balance the ticket with one of the most exciting, expectation-shattering superstars in the league. Nothing can take away Davis’ potential to make transcendent plays—those seemingly irredeemable lobs somehow caught and thrown down, the blocks as Davis emerges from the ether, the slips down the lane through multiple defenders. 

This is the first postseason trial of the next great franchise player. Don’t make the mistake of missing it, no matter Golden State’s heavily favored standing.

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1. Clippers (3) vs. Spurs (6)

This is a second-round series come early—a gift of the clustered records that sent the Spurs from a potential No. 2 seed all the way to No. 6 on the last night of the regular season. Many will assume that San Antonio, maybe the NBA’s best team over the last few months, will run through this series easily. They are wrong. The Clippers are flawed and shallow-benched and shaky on defense. They’re also a damn good team with a truly brilliant offense. Even when facing defenders as long and persistent as Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, Chris Paul will find ways to do horrible things to the Spurs. It’s just what he does; Paul lingers in all the right spaces and attacks all the right angles to make an opposing defense nervous, even one as capable as San Antonio’s.

When flanked by starting-caliber NBA talent—as will happen even more often in the playoffs than in the regular season—Paul leads the Clippers to incredible levels of efficiency. The Spurs, of course, will respond as they always do. San Antonio’s possessions will create a steady hum of ball movement, probing from one spot to another in search of weakness. Inevitably it will be found, whether through Leonard knifing in from the wing, Tim Duncan ducking in for a quick hook, or some shooter springing open like clockwork. The Spurs will get theirs, though not without surrendering plenty to Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan along the way. Only one of these teams is regarded as a top title contender, but this is a heavyweight bout all the same. It’s the first round and the Spurs have already come face to face with an opponent who could get the best of them.

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