After 82 regular-season games and six play-in games, the NBA playoffs are finally here! And thanks to an uncharacteristic amount of depth in each conference, the Lakers ’disaster, and the Nets’ drama, the first round will be an interesting mix of contenders, fresh faces and intriguing matchups. With a lot of high-stakes basketball to be played over the next couple of weeks, let’s rank the first-round series by their entertainment value.
8. Suns vs. Pelicans
Although New Orleans is coming in hot off a play-in thriller… the Pelicans are going to have their hands (wings?) Full with the Suns. It would be pretty shocking if Phoenix didn’t do a quick job of this series. The Suns have been a juggernaut when healthy, and they are a veteran-laden team singularly focused on avenging last year’s Finals loss. New Orleans is fun and frisky, but its rotation’s lack of playoff experience will stand in stark contrast to Phoenix. Of note: Willie Green will be coaching against his mentor Monty Williams, who was Green’s boss with the Suns for the two seasons before this one. While it’s a nice storyline, it’s not exactly the kind you tune in for. The only way I see this series getting exciting is if Zion Williamson makes a shocking comeback.
7. Bucks vs. Bulls
Poor Chicago. Once the darling of this NBA season, injuries have mostly robbed the Bulls of what made them special back in the fall. Lonzo Ball, a key defensive presence, will be missing. And Zach LaVine has been dealing with a knee injury for much of the season as well. Truthfully, Milwaukee is an awful matchup for even a full-strength Chicago side. Nobody has an answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo, but especially not the Bulls’ smallish frontline. With Brook Lopez back in the fold as well, this is the healthiest the Bucks have been all season. Even with the Giannis factor and some DeMar DeRozan theatrics, I’ll be surprised if any of these games are particularly thrilling.
6. Mavericks vs. Jazz
This is actually a really good matchup on paper. However, there are lots of good matchups this postseason, and this series is taking a hit due to the uncertain status of Luka Dončić, who is expected to miss Game 1, per reports. If Luka is able to come back, watching him try to work his magic against Rudy Gobert would certainly be fun. And the dark clouds surrounding the Jazz as they try to figure out whether they should keep this group together moving forward adds another element of intrigue. As long as Dončić is less than 100% though, this bout becomes a little less fun.
5. Heat vs. Hawks
My colleague and Open Floor podcast (subscribe!) Sparring partner Michael Pina is trying his hardest to convince me Atlanta will win this series. What I’m willing to say right now: This is definitely not going to be your typical 1/8 matchup in the East. Trae Young has proven to be in a playoff setting, and his skills are going to stretch Miami’s perimeter defense. Will the Heat be able to keep Young in check? Can Tyler Herro and Max Strus hold up against switches? Because Miami may not have the firepower to keep up otherwise. If the Heat are serious about contending (and they need to take themselves seriously) they need to handle this series without incident. Young and the Hawks’ cadre of outside shooters won’t make it easy.
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4. Nuggets vs. Warriors
Depending on how the vote shakes out, this could end up being a battle of two two-time MVP winners in Stephen Curry and Nikola Jokić. The Warriors are a little bit of a mystery, as their best guys (Steph, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole) have barely played together this season. I just don’t see the Nuggets having the defense to slow those guys down, or the offensive firepower to keep up since Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. will likely still be out. Watching Jokić and Steph trade buckets in wildly different styles will be very fun. Just not as fun as what else is on the docket.
3. Sixers vs. Raptors
Now we’re getting spicy. Toronto is becoming a popular upset pick against Philly. The last time these two teams met, the Raps won without Fred VanVleet or OG Anunoby. This series will be a fascinating clash of styles. The Sixers want to slow things down and let their stars shine in the half court. The Raptors are small, switchy and weird. And if anyone is going to cook up some kind of weird scheme against Joel Embiid and James Harden, it’s Nick Nurse. If Toronto does push Philly, it will be very revealing to see how the Harden-Embiid partnership responds to adversity. From stars to zany coaches to all-over-the-map strategies, this matchup really has it all.
2. Grizzlies vs. Timberwolves
Two brash, young, trash-talking teams who are looking to make a name for themselves in the postseason. The Grizz got a brief taste of the playoff action last year before being dispatched by the Jazz in five games. The Wolves are making their first playoff appearance with their current core. This series features high flyers, emerging stars and many players not afraid to get in the face of their opponent. And while the Wolves are the seventh seed, they are a tough matchup for Memphis! I fully expect these games to be close, hard fought and feature multiple dust-ups and hold-me-backs every night. If you want to see And Morant try to dunk in Karl-Anthony Towns or an entire city rally around their hatred of Pat Beverley, then this series is for you.
1. Nets vs. Celtics
Kevin Durant vs. Jayson Tatum is simply too good for the first round. Those two heavyweight stars are worth the price of admission alone, and that’s before you get into the Kyrie Irving – Boston rivalry, the disappointment that will come for whoever goes home in the first round, and the battle between an elite defense and two of the best pure scorers ever. It’s very rare for a series this early in the playoffs to have such high stakes. Both of these teams expect to make the conference finals at the very least. Brooklyn could be staring at three years of having Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the roster with at now a second-round appearance to show for it. There’s a lot on the line for each franchise here, and they both have the talent to throw haymakers at each other every time they step on the floor. If I could pick only one series in the first round to go seven games, it would be this one.
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