Early Thoughts on the NBA’s First-Round Playoff Matchups

The NBA playoffs are here. With the first-round matchups set, The Crossover previews each clash and offers a few early storylines to watch.
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You can exhale! The last night of the NBA season was absolutely chaotic, with the Wolves and Nuggets playing an overtime–thriller for the final playoff spot in the West, while the bottom half of the East fought for seeding. It was a fitting end to a fascinating season. But now it’s time for the postseason, where legends are born and narratives are created.

Here are some extremely early, very much immediate thoughts on each first-round matchup.

Eastern Conference

(1) Raptors vs. (8) Wizards

The Wizards are backing into the playoffs after losing to the Magic (!!!) on the last night of the season. Hmm. Toronto has also looked creaky for the last few weeks, though the Raptors probably lost a little bit of motivation after creating a lot of separation in the East. At first blush, this isn’t a typical one vs. eight matchup. Washington arguably has the best player in the series in John Wall, though he’s not quite at 100% after midseason knee surgery. The Raptors always seem to struggle in the playoffs, and playing a talented Washington team seemingly won’t make life comfortable. This series could come down to the benches. Toronto’s is great, while Washington’s is not. The Raptors have the edge, but don’t be shocked if this one is a little close.

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(2) Celtics vs. (7) Bucks

Ooooohh. There’s some serious upset potential here, with Boston missing Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis from the lineup. (Smart does have a chance to return mid-series.) The Bucks will have the most talented player on the floor in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and that means something in the postseason. This series will be a clash of styles—Milwaukee’s high-powered offense against Boston’s stingy defense. I expect a lot of close, grind-it-out games as the Celtics try to slow down the pace. The Bucks will be a trendy pick, but Boston will have a decided coaching advantage between Brad Stevens and Joe Prunty. Do you really want to bet against Stevens, who’s had an answer for every injury so far?

(3) 76ers vs. (6) Heat

This may be the best matchup in the East bracket. The precocious Sixers against the hard-working Heat. Process vs. Culture. Both teams are well coached, though Erik Spoelstra has quite an experience advantage over Brett Brown. (In Brown’s defense, he was on the sidelines for many deep Spurs playoff runs.) Philadelphia enters the series as the hottest team in the NBA, with 16 straight wins, 13 of which came against non-playoff teams, however. If Embiid misses extended time, this one could be a little close. These squads played four hotly contested regular season games, with both winning twice on their home floor. Hope for an expedited Embiid return just for more trash talk with Hassan Whiteside. Philly is definitely the more talented team here. We’ll find out if the Heat’s playoff experience means anything.

(4) Cavaliers vs. (5) Pacers

The Pacers finished only one spot ahead of the Cavs in net rating after perhaps peaking a bit too early in the year. Cleveland, however, has the ninth-best net rating in the league since the trade deadline, when Koby Altman re-made the roster. Indy has been one of the best stories of the NBA season, and drawing LeBron James in the first round is an extremely unfair reward. Who guards LeBron for Indy? Who slows down Kevin Love? How can we ignore the George Hill revenge factor? We can spend time analyzing this series, or we can just acknowledge that there’s no way LeBron goes out this early.

Western Conference

(1) Rockets vs. (8) Timberwolves

Minnesota’s reward for fighting tooth and nail to get into the playoffs is a dance with James Harden and the Rockets. I’m not sure Minnesota has the defensive chops to keep this series close. The Rockets swept the season series with Minny, and the Wolves had the second-worst defensive field-goal percentage in the league. Houston also has an extra motivation to keep this series short to give Luc Mbah a Moute a chance to heal from his dislocated shoulder. I would be surprised if Harden, Chris Paul and their gang of shooters don’t end this series quickly.


(2) Warriors vs. (7) Spurs

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Spurs are facing the Warriors for their second straight playoff series, and for the second time without the services of Kawhi Leonard. Golden State is not as magical offensively without Stephen Curry, but if the Dubs lock in defensively, this shouldn’t be much of a series. LaMarcus Aldridge has been great this year, but it’s hard to shake the memories of him struggling against the Warriors last postseason. Will Aldridge be enough in the face of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson? This series should reveal if the Warriors are capable of flipping the switch, because the Spurs will make them work. If Golden State is locked in, this series won’t last long. It comes down to if the first round will actually grab the Warriors’ attention.

(3) Blazers vs. (6) Pelicans

Anthony Davis is in the playoffs for the second time in his career, while the Blazers are hoping to continue the success of a strong second half. These teams are pretty evenly matched, with both entering the last night of the season with 1.8 net ratings. The Pelicans have found life in a post-DeMarcus Cousins world by relentlessly feeding Davis and inexplicably letting Emeka Okafor anchor their defense to solid results. Nikola Mirotic has added a nice spacing punch in New Orleans, and lineups with Davis at center are thriving. Portland’s success is predicated on its defense, but I’m curious how it will hold up when the Pelicans spread the floor. The role players are going to be important here. If the Blazers’ wings hit their threes, they become nearly impossible to beat. Meanwhile, Dame and C.J. are liable to win a game themselves by going supernova from three. I’m excited for this series, and I’m really tempted to pick the Pelicans.

(4) Thunder vs. (5) Jazz

After Gordon Hayward left Utah and OKC added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, who would have guessed the Jazz and Thunder would meet in the first round of the playoffs? The Thunder won the season series 3–1, but the last time these teams played was in December, before the Jazz transformed into a defensive juggernaut. This is going to be a test for the Thunder. Their offense grows stagnant at times, and Rudy Gobert will loom large in the paint. OKC seemingly has the talent advantage. The Jazz have the No. 1 net rating in the NBA since the All-Star break. If the game slows down, as it often does this time of year, that would seemingly favor Utah’s grindy nature. Something to keep an eye on? The Thunder initially found success with Corey Brewer playing in place of Andre Roberson. The lineup of Russ, PG, Melo, Brewer and Steven Adams eventually finished the season with a net rating close to 0, though. The Jazz could very well pull this off.