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NBA playoffs: First-round matchups ranked by entertainment value

With the playoffs kicking off on Saturday, ranks first-round series based on entertainment value. 

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The playoffs are drawing nigh. This is a time when knowing what to watch live, what to record for later, and what to block out is hard. So, fear not:’s new, holistic, scientific formula for evaluating expected entertainment quality is here.

We ranked each series one (lowest) through eight (highest) in five categories, creating a scale where 40 points equals maximum potential amusement. The criterion are below.

1) Aesthetic value.This broad category incorporates the basest possible elements of an entertaining series. Think fast-paced offenses, style of play, Boris Diaw pocket passes, Michael Beasley playing basketball, and guessing what Russell Westbrook will wear to the arena. 

2) Star power. Pretty self-explanatory. The NBA’s a star-driven league and always has been. The presence of elite talent and captivating personalities matters here.

3) Matchup intrigue. Shared history, recent head-to-head results, past playoff meetings, lingering beefs, and who’s guarding who. For example: if the Hawks and the Hornets had drawn each other, fulfilling the ancient Meet the Hoopers prophecy, that series would instantly win this category.

4) Upset potential. This considers the likelihood of a lower seed winning and then factors in how surprising that upset would be. The two five-over-four scenarios (both of which feel realistic) took precedence this time around, but shock value played a larger part in the ratings after that.

5) Stakes. Think big-picture ramifications: upcoming free agencies, coaching security, and how winning or losing could affect player legacies and team-wide attrition.

Make sense? Read on, and happy viewing.

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8. Spurs (2) vs. Grizzlies (7)

Aesthetic value: 1
Star power: 2
Matchup intrigue: 1
Upset potential: 2
Stakes: 3
Total score: 9

As bizarrely fun as this patchwork Grizzlies team looks on paper, the truth is they lost 14 of their final 17 games and cannot be trusted. This series would be recommended viewing were Marc Gasol and Mike Conley good to go, but alas. Watching Kawhi Leonard play defense is generally one of my favorite things to do, but frankly, there won’t be anyone out there demanding his full attention. Figure in the fact that the Spurs swept the season series and are 20–4 vs the Grizzlies dating back to 2011 … and justify score-watching on your phone.

7. Heat (3) vs. Hornets (6)

Aesthetic value: 5
Star power: 3
Matchup intrigue:
Upset potential: 3
Stakes: 1
Total score: 14

The nature of our scoring system doesn’t do this series total justice, but relative to everything else happening, it’s a little less compelling. The Hornets are going to play team ball and shoot a lot of threes, and there’s the distinct possibility of a Kemba Walker breakout swinging the outcome. The Heat feature the ageless Dwyane Wade and big-shot artist Joe Johnson and give this series some upside by parking the unpredictable Hassan Whiteside around the rim. 

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But ultimately? We’ve seen Miami in the playoffs before, Charlotte’s fans are mostly just happy to be back, and the bigger implications are slightly lacking. It’s likely to be a longer series, for better or worse. That said, if the Heat go deep enough to draw the Cavaliers? Very different story.

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6. Hawks (4) vs. Celtics (5)

Aesthetic value: 3
Star power: 1
Matchup intrigue:
Upset potential: 8
Stakes: 2
Total score: 17

Both of these teams are sneaky fun, like to share the ball, and have the coaching factor working in their favor. If you’re into the essence of basketball, the Hawks and Celtics both have their moments. Boston lost the season series, 3–1, but its upset chances look favorable given the bevy of guards it can trot out there to apply defensive pressure. Atlanta would like to prove last season’s conference finals run wasn’t fluky, and that certainly might encourage Al Horford to stick around.

The individual matchups here are enticing. Imagine Isaiah Thomas going at the fun Dennis Schróder, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart sniffing out Kyle Korver around screens, and Paul Millsap probably sticking Jae Crowder if the Celts go small late in games. Granted, it’s kind of a series for nerds and might be really low scoring, given these are two of the four best defensive teams in the conference. Getting to watch out-of-bounds savant Brad Stevens draw up plays gives this one a tangible boost.

5. Raptors (2) vs. Pacers (7)

Aesthetic value: 4
Star power: 4
Matchup intrigue: 5
Upset potential: 6
Stakes: 4
Total score: 23

There are two feel-good storylines here: the Raptors, angling for their first playoff series win since 2001, and a quite healthy Paul George playing truly meaningful basketball for the first time in two years. Toronto fared better in the season series and will trot out an exciting, drive-heavy attack against Indiana’s stout defense.

DeMarre Carroll will be back from his injury to stick George. You probably didn’t watch enough Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan this season. You can bet on Drake sitting courtside at some point. And there are some upset possibilities, given the Raptors have blown these things before. Complicating matters, the Pacers were a frustratingly awful late-game team this season, which could mean tight games, big shots, and heightened drama. Expect the Raptors to get it done … but it’s worth watching to make sure.


4. Cavs (1) vs. Pistons (8)

Aesthetic value: 2
Star power: 5
Matchup intrigue:
Upset potential: 4
Stakes: 6
Total score: 24

Did you know the Pistons took three of four games in their season series with the Cavaliers? Just throwing that out there. Cleveland is rightfully favored, but this one might be a little bumpier than usual—they draw a confident opponent with almost nothing to lose. There’s always high postseason drama with LeBron’s Cavs, whether it’s a locker-room storyline or actual on-court pressure. Ty Lue will now try his hand at managing the circus, and odds are something will be weird.

From a basketball standpoint, you’ll want to watch for LeBron’s extra playoff gear to kick in. Keep an eye on Cleveland’s playoff rotations, and if they can get Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving going. Almost everyone is picking the Cavs to make the Finals and then lose. Given the expectations, they’re damned both ways. Still, if they can stay healthy this year, having a full deck adds a wrinkle to the hypotheticals.

3. Thunder (3) vs. Mavericks (6)

Aesthetic value: 6
Star power: 7
Matchup intrigue:
Upset potential: 5
Stakes: 8
Total score: 30

Straight-up, the Thunder really, really needs to get back to the Finals to maximize the chances to keep the band together. That’s not overflowing it. A first-round loss would be a total disaster, and though it’s not necessarily probable, staring down Dirk Nowitzki when it counts is never easy. OKC trots out two of the league’s five most exhilarating players, scores a ton of points, and yet still thinks itself out of fourth quarters on occasion. The Kevin Durant saga rolls on, and on, and on.

The Mavericks have been in these spots before, and will exhaust their options to make it close. And 2011 Finals hero J.J. Barea has come on especially strong off the bench. We should be soaking up every Dirk game like it’s his last, for the sake of possibility. If Dallas somehow makes this close and pulls it off, it’s must-watch TV. If you’re into giant ramifications, the Thunder are the team for you.

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

Aesthetic value: 7
Star power: 8
Matchup intrigue:
Upset potential: 1
Stakes: 7
Total score: 31

This series checks a lot of boxes but just misses out on the No. 1 spot, thanks to the distinct possibility of a four-blowout sweep. The Warriors are historically good and the Rockets are notoriously erratic but even so, there’s a ton of opportunity for this to get exciting. Golden State’s title defense is the biggest storyline of these playoffs, and the fact it goes through James Harden and Dwight Howard just boosts the intrigue. How often do we see Western Conference finals rematches in the following year’s first round?

If you’re even tangentially aware of the NBA, you already know the Warriors are rock stars. You’ll see a ton of points, a ton of Steph Curry and a ton of Harden getting lost on defense. The Rockets could totally implode here. Nothing’s off the table. So no matter how safe this feels for the Dubs, this series grades out highly. It’s still not too late to get caught up on this season’s main plot. Think of this series as effective binge-watching for what’s to come.

1. Clippers (4) vs. Blazers (5)

Aesthetic value: 8
Star power: 6
Matchup intrigue: 6
Upset potential: 7
Stakes: 5
Total score: 32

The fireworks are ready to go off. Start with the Chris Paul-Damian Lillard matchup and work down. The Clippers’ depth, experience and talent level stand out, but the Blazers have had some remarkably hot stretches and are also playing with little to lose. Nobody thought they’d be here but them. Watching Lillard and C.J. McCollum zip around every night can get addictive. This could be a long series if the Clippers don’t focus from the start.

L.A.’s situation is much the opposite after years of early exits and last season’s collapse, an aging team and rumors of a possible roster shakeup. Blake Griffin will be scrutinized. DeAndre Jordan will have to make free throws (although it can certainly be argued that’s not exactly entertaining). Paul is still without hardware. This established Clippers core may be approaching a crossroads. Whether the train wrecks now, later, or never, it’s going to be hard to look away.