In theory, these first-round matchups could all be null soon. The reality is that in the Eastern Conference, three teams are tied for fifth, at 14.5 games behind Miami. In the West, just 3.5 games separate sixth from ninth. Projecting the NBA’s possible first-round playoff matchups even with fewer than 20 games is a volatile game. I like the odds of a blind man in a darts contest over nailing all eight first-round series while still four weeks away from the end of the regular season.
The playoffs, however, are so close it’s impossible not to look ahead at the possibilities. This, then, is an exercise of both hope and grounded reality. Of the dozens of playoff projections, I’ve done my best to see truly possible matchups. Doing that, however, means seeing the kinds of series I can’t help but become extremely excited about. A game here, or a game there, and these matchups could work or be busted equally â€” in theory. I hope they become real, because these 8 first-round series would be incredibly entertaining.
*** *** ***
8. NEW YORK (3) vs. BOSTON (6)
Forget about the possibly made-up Honey Nut Cheerios debacle between Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett on Jan. 9 that spilled onto the Madison Square Garden loading dock. It’s more relevant to see this series as a possible seven games between pure survivors after the toll injuries has had on the Knicks (Wallace, Chandler, Stoudemire, Anthony) and Celtics (Rondo, Sullinger). A series that might be voided altogether by insurance claims officers would be one between teams like wounded animals and feature the matchups we’ve seen before but still clamor for (Garnett vs. Anthony, possibly Paul Pierce vs. Anthony), and the Avery Bradley vs. Iman Shumpert faceoff that hasn’t truly been seen in full bloom this season. The last time these teams played, on Jan. 24, Shumpert had returned from his knee injury in London just two games before. Bradley, too, had played in just 11 games since his recovery from a shoulder injury that had kept him out all season before that point.
7. OKLAHOMA CITY (1 or 2) vs. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (7 or 8)
On the surface there’s a deep divide between these teams when they face each other that presents an otherwise unremarkable series on its surface. Just like that, suddenly the theatre of Dwight/Kobe/Pau/Nash vs. Russ/Durant/Ibaka is swallowed up in that chasm between a dysfunctional older team and a young, at-its-prime squad. There may not be another series this season where hype has exceeded the results so drastically. But it’s not just winning that matters to OKC: it’s about style, too. That underlying reason makes those routs â€” OKC is 3-1 this season against L.A., and wins by an average of 12.6 points â€” look much more interesting from a difference perspective.
What’s driving OKC? Last fall, Ric Bucher wrote about the drama that has brought this rivalry to its head, when Bryant tried to drive a wedge between Westbrook and Durant at the Olympics by telling Westbrook he was being overshadowed. The Thunder teammates sniffed it out and came back at him this season ready for revenge over the attempted third-party mutiny â€” they are the highest total scorers by any players against the Lakers this season (see chart via Basketball-Reference.com). Are you telling me you wouldn’t watch a matchup of young stars out for blood against a superstar in one of his last playoff appearances of his career?
6. MEMPHIS (4) vs. DENVER (5)
As Denver has rolled along to an NBA-best 29-3 home record, we’ve all become used to a few, consistent elements of those wins. There will be transition points, Kenneth Faried will throw down an athletic dunk, Ty Lawson will break down a defense with devastating penetration and some complementary player (pick your favorite! Wilson Chandler, Corey Brewer, even Andre Iguodala) has a star turn. It all seems a bit inevitable when in Denver, like the lack of oxygen at that altitude. The difference in predictability between the home Nugs and road Nugs, however, is a bit like a Jekyll and Hyde who never found the antidote to his mood swings, whereas Memphis has risen and fallen wildly this season and yet has seemingly found its answer in the last few weeks.
Memphis has recovered its elite, No. 2 defense to start the season, and after finally coming to terms that the Rudy Gay trade was dead and done with. By doing that, it’s recovered its composure, as well, since the All-Star break. They win at home (25-8), have the fewest road losses of any team in the West (19-11) and are capable of locking down Denver’s most lethal parts, even on the road. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol don’t match up well with Faried in athleticism but are far better passers and shooters, especially as they step 10 feet out or farther. Lawson, meanwhile, is playing like an absolutely top-three point guard at the moment and would be a struggle for even Memphis’ elite defender Tony Allen to check for a full half. In some series, a defense will be far superior to its opponent’s offense, or vice versa. Here we could get the rare series where a No. 2 defense could face the No. 4 offense. Regardless of the game is in Memphis or Denver, it’s a must-watch for strength vs. strength.
5. MIAMI (1) vs. MILWAUKEE (8)
The Bucks are not Miami’s kryptonite as much as they are that brand-new speedbump in your neighborhood that’s clearly passable but extremely annoying to do so. Milwaukee has held Miami to its fifth-worst shooting percentage this season at 45.7 percent in their two games this season, per NBA.com. It’s not only a far cry from Miami’s 49.5 percent season average, it’s incredibly more than 10 percentage points better than the 55.8 percent Philly, the East’s No. 10 team, allows to Miami, and not far off from the 54.1 percent Toronto, the East’s No. 9, has allowed to Miami.
These being the Bucks, though, some things haven’t changed since Scott Skiles left as head coach: Mainly Monta Ellis (1,096 attempts) and Brandon Jennings (1,005 attempts) each rank in the NBA’s top 10 for shots this season while sharing the backcourt and blame for why volume shooting guards can never play together. Of those in the top 10 in field-goal attempts, they easily have the two lowest shooting percentages. You may want to put your faith in their hands, but they’re not ready despite promising signs to the contrary in the last 10 games (Milwaukee is 6-4) where Ellis has delivered. It would be wise to ignore the small changes from Ellis and Jennings and instead see the Bucks’ best chance at taking Miami owes to that which hasn’t budged: Larry Sanders. The influence the NBA’s top interior defender has on Miami is invaluable: The Heat average 106 points per 48 minutes when Sanders is on the bench, compared to 74.1 points when he plays. That’s like fitting an entire first half of some college games inside Sanders’ impact range. Put another way, having Sanders on the floor is like adding a sixth player â€” and the way Miami is playing, any opponent might just need a sixth guy on the floor.
The fun part: A playoff preview is Friday when these two teams meet.
4. INDIANA (3) vs. BOSTON (6)
One-hundred and eighty degrees opposite from a possible Houston-Oklahoma City matchup in the West is the all-defense dream round between the Pacers and the Celtics. It’s been a decade and more since the Eastern Conference moved past those brutal Miami-New York first-round matchups, yet the defense Boston and Indiana play would fit right into those mid-90s brawls â€” Jeff Van Gundy might reflexively lunge for someone’s leg in this series. Avery Bradley and the Celtics have the league’s fifth-best defensive rating as Paul George and Indiana are first. The possible matchups make me want to lock this series in right now instead of waiting out the final four weeks of the season: Roy Hibbert vs. Kevin Garnett; Brandon Bass vs. David West; Jeff Green vs. Lance Stephenson; Paul George vs. Avery Bradley, and on and on.
Something to watch is how well Boston’s improved defense can sustain itself while running with few reserves due to injuries to Jared Sullinger and Rajon Rondo. Since Rondo’s last game on Jan. 25, Celtics opponents have shot 42.6 percent, which isn’t far off Indiana’s league-leading 41.6 percent allowed, though still allowing eight points more than Indiana per game. Green becomes the player to watch here because with fewer bodies available for Doc Rivers‘ rotation, the value of his talent at multiple positions becomes invaluable.
3. OKLAHOMA CITY (2) vs. HOUSTON (7)
“Would you want to see a rematch of James Harden against his old team yet again after he went for 46 points the last time?”
Yes. Yes I would.
2. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (4) vs. DENVER (5)
Like many series in here, this is highly probable to not happen. It’s dependent on the Clippers not jumping Memphis for the No. 3 seed, and despite the Clippers’ 11-point loss to the Grizzlies last night, I still like their chances to finish third. Should they not, however, this is a series tailor-made for the poor editors who have to cut highlight tapes for ESPN and NBA TV. Though the thought of how many dunks this series could produce would make even Phi Slamma Jamma blush, the athleticism these teams share is only part of a larger mirror-image thing between the two.
- Let me count the ways: Chris Paul played like the West’s best point guard the first half of the season, while Ty Lawson has taken that mantle in the last two weeks, averaging 23.1 points (season average: 17.0), 7.5 assists (SA: 7.1), 53.8 percent shooting overall and 42.4 from three (SA: 45.9 and 37.8, respectively) with 2.5 turnovers (SA: 2.6) per game. At Denver’s Pepsi Center, coach George Karl‘s directive of run till opponents are reaching for their shorts is clear, and Lawson’s command of such coaching has never been more seamless in his fourth season. The best part about Lawson’s development is how it will force Paul, who doesn’t back down from challenges or give up his best point guard title easily, to match it.
- More similarities: Each has superb role players and reserves whom can fill multiple positions, with Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe treated like extensions of the starting lineup for L.A. Likewise, the Nuggets throw waves of Wilson Chandler, Corey Brewer, Andre Miller and JaVale McGee at opponents. One downside is that each group of reserves can be guilty of pushing pace too often when they struggle, leading to play that’s too wild for the situation (there is no such thing as “controlled” chaos with these groups).
- In the post, each team relies on immensely talented forwards whose development yet feels incomplete. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan meet McGee and Kenneth Faried here. It’s sexier to judge every member of this uber-athletic quartet on their leaping capabilities but in the playoffs, the winner will have the player who’s able to convert more buckets with their back to the basket, not their chin at the rim.
And those dunks, too. All those dunks.
1. BROOKLYN (4) vs. NEW YORK (5)
For the Knicks, currently third and 10.5 games behind Miami, to fall roughly four games to fifth would take machinations on a Rube Goldberg scale to occur. Still … after last night’s brutal loss in Denver with Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler each leaving with knee pain, it could be closer to happening than I ever expected. And make no mistake, millions of New Yorkers and I want this to happen badly. Partly because Hurricane Sandy’s arrival delayed the first matchup between these two in what was supposed to be the Barclays Center’s debut â€” I’d like to recover some pomp to go with the circumstance. Mostly because during the 2-2 season series, these two played with an intensity befitting June and believing as if they were Finals contenders, not mid-level Eastern teams. The rivalry has already given us two game-winning shots in their four games this season.
It’s as if New Yorkers’ collective desire to make this rivalry relevant nationally â€” instead of simply a regional turf war â€” has been made clear to the players, and they have responded with fantastic performances. Brooklyn has held New York to 42.7 percent shooting, which is nearly two percentage points off its season average, and forces 16.8 turnovers per 48 game, 4.6 higher than the season average for New York, which leads the NBA in lowest turnover rate.
You can’t pin this on East Coast bias, because I live 3,000 miles away from Madison Square Garden. Rather, it’s because rare are the first-round series that feel like a conference final, series that are compelling for a number of reasons instead of the storylines we make up to drum of drama. The Knicks and Nets are not the best teams in the East; we tried that one in November and it didn’t work, and now we’re left with squads who are somewhere between their season’s peak and valley. (We’re never quite sure where they are with these teams more than most, like their GPS broke in the fall after the Rasheed Wallace experiment failed and the threes stopped falling like rain and Avery Johnson was fired.) We’re left with two teams playing for New York City. If that’s all there is, with the understanding a second-round win is unlikely for two teams limping to the finish line, there’s still a lot there.
What do you think?
Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGreif.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.