Four Dream First-Round Playoff Matchups

With the postseason approaching in 12-ish games, the playoff picture is starting to take some semblance of shape — postmodern art, as opposed to a formless void. Although a few teams have started to solidify their spots, the bottom half of both conferences is still wildly unsettled. We’re getting to the point now, though, that we can start to dream about the best matchups available for neutral basketball fans.

Denver Nuggets vs. Golden State Warriors

The Nuggets are a lot like the 2021-era Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis was a two-time MVP, but the Bucks had flamed out in the playoffs multiple times. We had people on TV saying crazy things like “Giannis is Robin to Khris Middleton’s Batman.

Giannis, of course, eventually overcame his lack of perimeter shooting to win an NBA championship in dramatic fashion, dropping 50 points in the clinching Game 6 after being down 0-2 against the Phoenix Suns. Denver fans hope the same fate awaits their beloved Nikola Jokic.

Recent rough stretch aside, the Nuggets have run roughshod over a league in which nearly every team has made a win-now move. That should make them the bonafide favorites no matter who they play in the West… but if you asked 100 fans on the street who wins between Denver and Golden State, I’m not sure 40 would pick the team from Colorado.

Just like Giannis’ shooting, Jokic’s defense remains an awkward question mark on a historically great resume, a suspicious wine-stain-looking blob on a museum centerpiece that might be there on purpose, but you’re pretty sure was an accident. In aggregate, Jokic’s defense is fine! But in a microcosm, it can be exploited, and nobody (this side of Phoenix) is as well equipped to attack the Joker as Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole.

Golden State may feel good about their chances, but it’s worth remembering that this would be the league’s third-worst road team against the second-best home team. Since the Warriors became The Warriors, Golden State’s core has won at least one road game in every playoff series they’ve played in together, but they’ve never looked this pathetic on the road during regular seasons past. The present Denver squad, meanwhile, is fully loaded for bear, with better shotmaking and better perimeter defense than they’ve ever had. This is not yesteryear’s Nuggets.

Neutral fans can’t lose: we would either see an incredible upset affirming Golden State’s status as a title favorite yet again, or we’d see a heavily criticized MVP exorcizing some personal demons in the ultimate confidence booster.

Phoenix Suns vs. Dallas Mavericks

Speaking of rivalries, Luka Doncic vs. Devin Booker is perhaps the current NBA’s greatest. In the age of player empowerment, AAU ball, and constant player movement, it’s rare to find true enmity between players. Rivalries develop, to be certain. But to find two players who genuinely dislike each other and have played absolutely scintillating basketball against each other is rare (apologies to Draymond Green and Dillon Brooks, but these two stars are in a different magnitude class).

Dallas’ surprising run to the Western Conference Finals last season famously came at Phoenix’s expense. The Suns built up a 2-0 lead, and later led 3-2, with Devin Booker and Luka Doncic chattering at each other the entire time — two angry squirrels arguing over the same acorn. But the Suns lost the final two games in humiliating fashion — they were outscored by 27 and then 33 points, respectively, in Games 6 and 7. Embarrassing! It also led to possibly the greatest NBA photo of the last decade:

Behind the meme: Inside the lead-up to Luka Doncic's hilarious smile at ...

After that collapse (eerily reminiscent of Phoenix’s failure against the Bucks in the Finals just the season before), Phoenix seemed cooked.

The NBA schedule-makers love nothing so much as drama, and when the current season tipped off, the two teams met again. Initially, it looked like more of the same. Dallas jumped out to a massive lead… but this time, Phoenix didn’t quite give up. Instead, they battled back and won the game in thrilling fashion behind a Damion Lee dagger. It was no payback for the playoff loss, but it undoubtedly felt real, real good.

The squads have met four times this season and split the pot. But the most recent game, a four-point Phoenix win, was perhaps the most telling. New Sun Kevin Durant led Phoenix past Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving by a Slim (see what I did there?) margin, 130-126. It was an epic offensive onslaught from both sides, one of the most entertaining games of the year, featuring a blown layup at the end by Doncic and a shocking 4-for-5 deep-ball performance from former football player Ish Wainwright that swung the game in Phoenix’s favor. It also led to this:

luka doncic devin booker

Durant’s latest injury could trickle into the postseason, but that just makes this potential matchup all the meatier. Can Devin Booker (who’s averaged 36/8/5 in three games with Kevin Durant healthy) carry the load until KD gets back? Will Luka continue to assert his playoff dominance against a team he tortured last year? Which unlikely role player will be the next to step up for either squad?

I’ve got a lot of questions. Only these two teams have the answers, and I pray we get to find out.

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat

These teams have actually played twice in the Joel Embiid era. Philly dominated an easy Round 1 matchup in 2017-2018 but fell to Miami last season in a strange series that featured a hobbled Embiid (who missed the first few games), slowed James Harden, and several gimpy Heat players. This year’s Miami team looks a lot like last year’s one-seeded squad…but living moai PJ Tucker will be wearing white and blue instead of black and red.

Even beyond Tucker, Philadelphia has bolstered its depth to an impressive degree and has far more capable secondary players than they did just a year ago. Philly would be the heavy favorite… but there’s no doubt that Miami can give the 76ers problems. The two teams have split the season series so far, 1-1, but Miami beat Philly with Embiid by two points before getting blown out by Philly without Embiid a few days later.

Miami has always given Joel trouble — they love to trap and double him, often from unexpected places, and while Embiid has vastly improved as a playmaker, he still takes a split-second to read the defense before making a pass — a split-second too long against Miami. Bam Adebayo is also big and athletic enough to block even Embiid’s nearly-untouchable fadeaway in isolation.

The Heat have a bevy of capable defenders to throw at James Harden and Tobias Harris, too. The X-factor, however, is Tyrese Maxey. The Heat are a strong, physical, smart team, but they have little perimeter speed. Maxey has blink-and-you-miss-him quickness coupled with a reliable three-point shot, which makes him a nightmare matchup for Miami. Given the Heat’s struggles to score all season, if Maxey gets going early, Miami isn’t equipped to play catch-up.

A win for Miami re-establishes them as a threat in the East, and they would have no qualms going up against Boston again after losing to them by literal inches last season. Philadelphia, meanwhile, could banish the ghosts of playoffs past with a convincing win over a confident Miami squad. Iron sharpens iron, and the 76ers could use a good win against a stout opponent early on to prepare them for the likely next-round battle against longtime foe Boston.

Sacramento Kings vs. Los Angeles Lakers

20% of Kings fans are dying for this matchup; 80% of Sactown supporters are terrified of it.

To understand why, let’s rewind a couple of decades. The Kings had the league’s best record in 2001-2002. The Kobe-and-Shaq Lakers were two-time defending champs and had dispatched inferior Kings teams in the previous two postseasons. Sacramento was looking for sweet, sweet revenge in the Western Conference Finals… but it never came. A Robert Horry buzzer-beater in Game 4 and some, uh, questionable officiating in Game 6 gave the Lakers one of the most controversial playoff series wins in league history. Three straight years of losing to the Lakers way back then has understandably left many Kings fans jaded about their odds in another hypothetical battle.

But the Lakers, if they even make it to the playoffs, don’t know if or when LeBron is coming back. Anthony Davis is seemingly always a game-time decision, and the supporting cast, while significantly bolstered, is still flawed. The Kings have an unstoppable offense — beautiful, motion-based, and egalitarian. If LA gets even a slightly hampered LeBron, I’m not sure the Lakers would have the firepower to keep up.

That’s a big if, though. LeBron and Davis have won the Finals together, while few of the Kings’ regulars have meaningful playoff experience. If a fully-healthy Lakers squad entered this matchup, it would likely be a betting coin toss.

With a win, the Kings establish themselves as a for-real threat in the West instead of a cute Cinderella story, as so many are treating them. If revenge is best served cold, this would be positively fossilized, but Sacramento fans would have no complaints for the chef. A Lakers victory, however, could only signal that AD and LeBron are at full throttle. And the last time that happened, they won a championship.

There are few rivalries with literal decades of history, and this is one of them. It would be a heck of a start to the playoffs. 

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.