It’s that time of year again. After 2,460 games played in the 2013-14 season, 16 teams have earned their placement in the 2014 Playoffs. As Doc Rivers urges, “Now the real basketball starts.”
While much attention has been focused on the first-round matchups in the Western Conference due to the stellar performances by the majority of Western teams this season, there are intriguing matchups in the East that could translate into even more intriguing matchups in the second round.
With big-market juggernauts like the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics not making it to the big dance (the playoffs) in the same year for the first time in NBA history, small-market teams that aren’t rich with postseason lore have a chance to witness first-hand what “real basketball,” as Rivers put it, is all about.
New decals are currently being applied to 16 home courts that signify the NBA is ushering in a new postseason that will create countless memories, entertainment and hopefully some history. The word, “tanking” has been washed away in the NBA, for now at least. Spring has already sprung, and it is time for playoff basketball.
A few first-round battles are predictable, while others offer games that garner more attention. So what are the five first-round matchups that are the most interesting, competitive and entertaining? Let’s take a look.
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5. (4) Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Washington Wizards
Regular Season Series: WAS 2-1
The Wizards wanted a Bulls matchup in the first round for a few reasons. First, they took the regular season series, 2-1. Second, Washington has terrific scorers–in the post, midrange, and on the wing–on their team. Third, they believe they will be too quick for the Bulls, and can therefore inflict damage before Chicago’s defense can set. Lastly, the Wizards’ believe their frontcourt of Marcin Gortat and Nene can control Joakim Noah’s playmaking and defensive presence.
The only problem is that despite Washington’s offensive talents, Coach Thibs’ defense is nothing to overlook. Translation? Chicago’s offense is inconsistent, but they have the ability to break opponent’s knees before their offense can shine. John Wall made the leap with his game this season, and if Bradley Beal ups his performance at the right time, the Wizards’ backcourt could head the push for a full seven-game series.
Do not overlook this Eastern Conference matchup; it will likely sneak up on you. Plus, John Wall and Joakim Noah on the same court at the same time is nothing but fun to watch.
4. (4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers
Regular Season Series: HOU 3-1
Well, this should be a series revolved around offense and the three-point line. Despite the questionable and often lack of overall defense by both squads, each team features two All-Stars as their forefront in LaMarcus Aldridge/Damian Lillard and James Harden/Dwight Howard. Additionally, each team employs solid role players that could tip the advantage point for their team in any given game. The Nicolas Batum/Chandler Parsons one-on-one matchup is not one to sleep on, as that has the potential for representing the X-factor for either team.
James Harden averaged a smoldering 30.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists in the four regular season matchups against the Blazers. Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge average 26.8 points and 15.5 rebounds against the Rockets this season. The good news for Houston is that Patrick Beverley is back in the lineup and will welcome the challenge of limiting Lillard’s impact.
The question for Portland will be can they cause Houston to make mistakes with the ball and take advantage? The question for Houston is can Terrence Jones–with inside help from D12–contain Aldridge? This series has the potential to be better than some may initially think.
3. (2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies
Regular Season Series: OKC 3-1
The Oklahoma City Thunder received a chance for a redo when they found out they would see the Grizzlies in the first round. If you remember, it was Memphis who easily knocked out a Russell Westbrook-less Thunder in the second round last year. This time around, OKC has its superstar tandem at full strength, and Kevin Durant is even better.
However, this first-round matchup is quite intriguing because of what Memphis can do. OKC is at its best when they are able to use their quickness and athleticism, especially in the open court. Yet, Memphis is probably the best in the league in slowing the game down. OKC’s biggest weakness is their habit of making mistakes (turnovers) in a slower-paced game. And Memphis is so talented at exposing this weakness in a team and making them pay. The positional matchups in this series should be very entertaining to watch, especially Westbrook versus Mike Conely. Yet, the key is limiting this season’s likely MVP, Kevin Durant, who is always a gem to watch.
This series is a battle between efficient offense versus efficient defense. Will Memphis be able to drag this series out, or will OKC cruise into the second round without shifting gears?
2. (3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets
Regular Season Series: 2-2
Old versus new. Experience versus athleticism. Veterans versus newbies. Small market versus big market. Those are all phrases to describe the first-round matchup between the Raptors and the Nets. Will Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce channel their inner Riggs and Murtaugh and proclaim, “I’m too old for this s***!” before inevitably saving the day? Or will the young guns up North, led by a star-in-the-making named DeMar DeRozan, be too much to handle?
The Nets may have purposely positioned themselves into the sixth seed in order to avoid a first-round series with the Chicago Bulls. That may have worked out for basketball fans that want to see the dark horses (Chicago and Brooklyn) of the East in the second round, but Toronto is no pushover. With homecourt advantage, it won’t be a reach to see the Raps making this series go to a Game 7, especially when three of their four season games were decided by a total of seven points.
Raptors’ forward Terrence Ross proclaimed back in March that he wanted to see the Nets in the first round. He got what he wanted, and now it’s time to live up to the talk.
1. (3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) Golden State Warriors
Regular Season Series: 2-2
While the majority of basketball fans were hoping for a rematch of past postseason battles between the Clippers and the Grizzlies in the first round, L.A.’s match with Golden State is arguably the next best thing. These two Pacific Division teams DO NOT like each other, and they have made that quite clear during the last two years. Sure, the loss of Andrew Bogut will be a big hurdle for the Dubs to face, but the battle of California itself screams “Watch me.”
Not only does this first-round matchup pit two of the fastest-paced offensive powerhouses against each other, it also provides arguably the best and most entertaining one-on-one matchup in the opening round in Stephen Curry against Chris Paul. Curry has a knack for going nuclear at any point of a game, and once hot is virtually impossible to extinguish. On the other hand, CP3’s normal “chip on the shoulder” mentality is heightened during the postseason, as he enters “playoff mode.”
The series will likely go down to how effective Blake Griffin is in the post. The Warriors will have to go small with Bogut out of the lineup and will rotate a mixture of Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and David Lee to limit Griffin offensively and to prevent DeAndre Jordan from cleaning up on the glass. On top off that, the Splash Brothers must be locked in from the perimeter at all times for the chance to upset the Clips.
As Clippers’ forward Matt Barnes said before their season closer against Portland, “It’s going to be the best first-round series. It’s been a knock-down, drag-out affair for the past two years. It’s two of the best offenses in the league and two of the most exciting teams in the league. They wanted it and we wanted it, let’s do it.”
Which matchups are you most looking forward to?
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