- Will this year's first round produce any epic clashes? With Russell Westbrook and James Harden facing off and the Cavs and Pacers renewing their rivalry, there is hope.
The first round of the NBA playoffs is always a mixed bag. Sometimes you get epics, like the Blazers-Rockets series in 2014 that ended with Damian Lillard's series-clinching three. And who can forget the insane Celtics-Bulls tilt from 2009, which included seven overtimes? Of course, you also get some duds, like the annual series that’s relegated to NBA TV. (Am I wrong for saying most years that series features the Hawks?)
If you don’t think you can keep up with all the first-round action—which tips off Saturday—don’t fret. Here, we’ve ranked each series by entertainment value, so you can have some fun until the stakes are raised a little higher.
1. Rockets vs. Thunder
This is by far the best matchup of the first round. The media will have already made their MVP votes by the time Russell Westbrook and James Harden square off, but this series can go a long way in determining how we look back on who won the award. OKC and Houston also played some entertaining games during the regular season—each of their first three matchups were decided by three points or less.
While Russ vs. James will get top billing, but the Rockets’ aerial attack, Andre Roberson’s defense on Harden, Steven Adams vs. Clint Capela and the Westbrook-Patrick Beverly rivalry are all worthy good subplots. Ideally, we’ll get lots of points with a heavy helping of chippiness on the side.
2. Cavaliers vs. Pacers
The No. 2 seed facing the No. 7 seed isn’t typically interesting, but Paul George and LeBron James have had some memorable playoff battles in the past, and if this series is anything like the shootout between these two teams the last time they played, we’re in for a treat. Cleveland’s slipshod defense could keep these games closer than they should be, though the Pacers have their own defensive shortcomings to navigate.
If George vs. James wasn’t enough, we also get the return of playoff Lance Stephenson! Lance has shown no intention of slowing down his trademark angst since returning to Indy, and we already know he will do whatever it takes to get under LeBron’s skin, or at least into his ear canal. The Cavs should win this series fairly easily, but George is going to go off a couple times in the process.
3. Warriors vs. Blazers
If Jusuf Nurkic can play, this series could be a little closer than Portland and Golden State’s disparate records would suggest. But even if this matchup amounts to a gentleman's sweep, the games should be fun. Lillard is capable of lifting the Blazers to a win on any given night, and these two teams almost always find themselves in some wild shootouts. Portland won’t have the defense to keep with the Dubs, and if Steve Kerr is more liberal with his use of the Kevin Durant-led Death Lineup, PDX could get run out of the building pretty quickly. Whatever happens results wise, at least we’ll see a lot of ridiculous pull-up threes and two raucous crowds on every possession.
4. Clippers vs. Jazz
This is probably the most evenly matched first-round series on either side of the bracket. The Clippers have looked much better over the last couple weeks of the season after a blah stretch in their middle 40 games. Utah has sneakily been one of the best teams in the league all season, with a top-three defense anchored by Rudy Gobert.
The Jazz are somewhat primed for a breakout in these playoffs—it’s possible they even nudge Golden State a bit in a potential second-round series. But Los Angeles has played Utah very well over the last couple seasons, so I really don’t know which way these games will go. We know what we’ll get from the Clips—stellar play from Chris Paul and crisp offensive execution from the starting five. Watching the Jazz and their youngsters play under some expectations for the first time in their careers will be revealing one way or another. Although Utah’s depth has proven to be a little overrated (Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson ain’t what they used to be), Gordon Hayward could be in line for a big breakout. These games will be close if not particularly explosive.
5. Spurs vs. Grizzlies
I might be in the minority, but I love me some Spurs-Grizzlies action. In this series, we’ll see the Gasol brothers square off, and hopefully some honest-to-god, old-school post play. Let me put on my curmudgeon hat for a second, but I love watching Zach Randolph bully people in the post, and it bothers me that the modern NBA forces Memphis to mostly play small. Spurs-Grizzlies is probably the only first-round matchup that will allow for two traditional bigs to share the court at the same time (even if LaMarcus Aldridge has range), and I implore all of you to enjoy watching that style of ball while you still can.
If post play doesn’t do it for you, there’s still the brilliance of Kawhi Leonard, 40-year-old Vince Carter making all of us feel terrible about our bodies, Tony Allen playing First Team All-Defense and Patty Mills heat checks.
6. Raptors vs. Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo will make this series interesting by himself, and don’t be shocked if a more than a few people pick the Bucks to upset the Raptors. I actually love Toronto, though. The Raptors can throw a bunch of guys at Giannis (P.J. Tucker, DeMarre Carroll, maybe even Serge Ibaka), and Kyle Lowry looks mostly healthy after missing 21 games due to wrist surgery. It’s possible these games aren’t very close—Toronto blew out Milwaukee twice this season, though the Bucks picked up a win against a Lowry-less squad. Even still, Giannis flying through the air and DeMar DeRozan hitting impossible midrage jumpers will make much of the action here worthwhile.
7. Wizards vs. Hawks
The Wizards’ starting five has been one of the best units in the league, and Bradley Beal has finally lived up to expectations this season. Watching Washington’s backcourt tops the list of exciting stuff in this series. Otto Porter is a fine player, but he won’t exactly wow you by draining corner threes. Paul Millsap is routinely underappreciated, so you make sure you, uh, appreciate him or something. I don’t know. I don’t want to make you watch this.
8. Celtics vs. Bulls
The Bulls still make no sense and the playoffs would have been better off without them. Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade still can’t really share the court, and I’m not about to get excited about Paul Zipser and his sub-seven PER. Isaiah Thomas will keep this series from being completely forgettable. Actually, I take that back. We will forget this series by June.