Chaos is a ladder. And with the play-in tournament adding more rungs on the playoff ladder and another season with COVID has increased the chaos, this is the most volatile season the NBA has seen possibly in the history of the league. In that chaos has come some of potentially the most fascinating first round matchups we have seen in decades.
You have the two most popular players looking like they’ll be playing each other with LeBron James and Steph Curry leading the Lakers and Warriors, two marquee franchises, in a winner takes all game to play one of the brightest stories in the league this year in the Jazz or the Suns. And in the Eastern Conference the storied Boston Celtics with young all-stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will be looking at the play-in tournament as well; giving both conferences at least one big name market with a lot on the line if they would miss the playoffs.
The play-in tournament is proving to be successful in its intentions; getting teams to try longer in the season while also drumming up more interest as the regular season ramps up into the playoffs amongst the fanbases. It’s also giving fans a chance to fantasy book how they want the playoffs to shake out for their own personal first round masterpieces and with COVID knocking teams around in the standings from where they normally would be, this year could have the best first round matchups in the history of the league. In a perfect world, this is what we will get.
#1 Utah Jazz vs. #8 Golden State Warriors
The talk about Rudy Gobert getting played off the court has largely been overstated but Jazz fans would be lying if they said they didn’t have nightmares of seeing Steph Curry in the playoffs. And if they double Curry and force the rest of the Warriors to beat them Draymond Green showed them in their last meeting in March that he could take advantage; getting a triple double in a win as the Warriors evened the season series to 1-1. Of the four teams in the play-in tournament (including the defending champion Lakers) I believe the Warriors pose the greatest risk to Utah losing after having such a strong regular season.
Not all hope is lost though. The Utah Jazz are the #1 seed in the superior conference for a reason; their three point shooting as a team can sometimes almost rival the supernova that is Steph Curry and having that balanced attack benefits them in case someone has an off night. The Jazz have 4 players who can dominate a game on offense for stretches in Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanović, and Jordan Clarkson while Rudy Gobert continues to anchor the defense. While the Warriors are having to fight for their playoff lives, the Jazz see wounded Lakers and Nuggets teams and see this as their best chance at making the Finals in years. They’ve been the better team all year.
But it’s Steph Curry and the Warriors while Rudy Gobert and the Jazz have a reputation for struggling against point guards who can drag Gobert to the perimeter and make him pay. The Jazz could put the entire league on notice with a win over the Warriors about Gobert’s effectiveness or Steph Curry might go nuclear. But how fun would it be to get to find out?
#2 Phoenix Suns vs #7 LA Lakers
After finally getting all the pieces to come together last year and then adding Chris Paul to elevate the team to championship contender status only to see the defending champions with the best player in the world on the other side of the floor. Chris Paul has been the cherry on top for a team that was coming into its own last season and pushed them from very good to great.
With Jamal Murray being out, the Suns could very well be the favorite to come out of the West but this matchup would immediately put that to the test.
The Suns don’t have much size other than Ayton to compete with the Lakers length, preferring to have Jae Crowder have their 4 man with their best lineup. Have the Suns reached the level the regular season would suggest and be able to vanquish the defending champions as they look to be coming into the playoffs in a less than ideal state? Chris Paul and Devin Booker would be able to take advantage of the fact the Lakers talent is in the bigger positions and Deandre Ayton has shown to be able to hold his own against some of the best centers in the game.
The Lakers could play Anthony Davis at the 4 like he prefers and try to get him posted on smaller players as he doesn’t like to play the 5 and save that for a ‘break in case of an emergency’ situation. Mikal Bridges would have his chance to shine against LeBron James after his coming out party as one of the games best perimeter defenders in the bubble but I expect playoff LeBron to be able to take advantage even if he is hobbled. The Suns, much like the Jazz before, would have the chance to immediately shut the doubters up and prove to the league they are here to stay.
#3 LA Clippers vs. #6 Dallas Mavericks
Our only rematch in the West from last year, these two teams had a great series last year that the Clippers were lucky to escape before falling in the next round. Seeing Luka Dončić and company is not what the Clippers are hoping for (the Trail Blazers are the most likely to end up in the spot, a better matchup in my opinion) after losing the season series 2-1 to the Mavericks this shortened season.
The Clippers will be getting Serge Ibaka back “very soon” according to Serge’s Instagram account which will be a big boost. Another boost is the chemistry that their two stars have been able to develop after sharing the court for another year saw their net rating when they share the floor jump from +12 to +18 per 100 possessions; one of the best marks in the league for a duo.
Even with things trending right for the Clippers, the Mavericks have played them extremely well and after a rough start have won 64% of their games (31-17) since February and are currently on a 10-2 run their last 12 games. Luka Dončić has proven to be a legitimate MVP caliber player and his teammates have been filling their roles well. This matchup would do wonders for the Clippers confidence if they could put the Mavericks out while it would give Luka the chance to paint a masterpiece in a playoff rematch that put him out last year.
#4 Denver Nuggets vs. #5 Portland Trail Blazers
Nikola Jokić has proven to be the league’s most valuable player throughout the year, showing his value as an offensive juggernaut all his own even more with Murray being sidelined while continuing to improve into an average defender. Michael Porter Jr has also stepped up in Murray’s absence; averaging 25 points on 57/50/84 shooting with 6 rebounds as well.
The Nuggets were going to be my Finals pick if Murray hadn’t gotten hurt. But sometimes it’s just about being healthy at the right time. That’s what the Trail Blazers are counting on after years of bad luck with injuries come playoff time. But with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, and Jusuf Nurkić all playing this will be the healthiest team that Dame has had come playoff time in years. His reward? The likely league MVP in the first round.
And Jokic has earned that MVP trophy he’s going to be taking home not just because he’s played every game so far but because of how dominant he has been on the offensive end. The greatest passing big man we’ve ever seen, Jokic takes advantage on the passing lines his size gives him that other players don’t have better than any big in the history of the game and with the Trail Blazers giving up the second most points per 100 possessions this year is a recipe for the MVP to shine.
But the offensive firepower from Dame, CJ, and Powell could make for an interesting matchup in what is probably the least marketable first round matchup in this scenario. Two teams battling it out in these offensive explosions would be exciting for any fan to watch and would give Jokic the national stage against a subpar defense to show exactly why he is the deserving MVP this year.
#1 Philadelphia 76ers vs. #8 Boston Celtics
“It’s not a rivalry…They always kick our ass” – Joel Embiid was quoted as saying as the Celtics eliminated the 76ers 4-1 in 2018. That was before the Celtics swept the 76ers out of the playoffs in the first round last year and had the NBA world wondering if that was the end of the Simmons/Embiid duo in Philadelphia. Instead it was Brett Brown who was chased out of town for “vibes only” coach Doc Rivers.
But “good vibes” along with surrounding Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid with shooters (something the team hasn’t done since the JJ Redick days) have propelled the 76ers to the best record in the East and if not for missed games Embiid would have likely won MVP this year. Doc Rivers might not be the best coach on the floor but there is no denying his effectiveness at uniting teams around star players and maximizing his talent that way. But even with the series sweep this year (3-0, 1-0 when Tatum played) against the team that swept them last year the 76ers have to be worried about seeing a team that has had their number for decades.
This would be the best case scenario for the Boston Celtics after a year of missing more games played due to due Covid restrictions than any other team. In a season that most teams have written off as a learning year for the Jay’s as well as an evaluation year on the cast around them with a few bright spots in Timelord (Robert Williams), FastPP (Payton Pritchard) , and 3Smith (Aaron Nesmith) have all proven to be quality players in the league but overall this season hasn’t went the way anyone thought it would. But if they could beat their rivals in the first round and then would get a series against the winner of Knicks/Hawks it’s not hard to see the Celtics making their 4th conference finals appearance in the last 5 years.
#2 Brooklyn Nets vs. #7 Washington Wizards
Getting to watch the whirlwind that is Russell Westbrook go up against former teammates Kevin Durant and James Harden in the playoffs. Add in Bradley Beal and Kyrie Irving and you’ve got a fun series that’s going to see teams racing to see who can reach 130 points first. In terms of narratives, seeing Westbrook try to be a force of nature strong enough to dispose of the latest super team before the trio of Durant, Harden, and Kyrie are able to get fully comfortable playing together after logging only 393 possessions together so far.
Add in the fact that one weakness the Nets have is in rebounding while Westbrook has shown that he has the ability to swing a game by grabbing 15+ boards and limiting the Nets to single shot possessions. With such potent offensive firepower any team that hopes to beat the Nets is going to have the rebound the ball against them and that’s one thing the Wizards can do in bunches from time to time. And while they don’t have a dominant defense, neither do the Nets.
What the Nets do have though is the best offense in the league. Averaging 119 points per 100 possessions, having a combination of two of the big three to have available for most of their games this year shows just how talented this group is wounded. What happens if all three guys are healthy in the playoffs? An absolutely unstoppable force; so what is more fun then seeing if they can channel that force against the immovable object that is Russell Westbrook who just won’t go away.
#3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. #6 Miami Heat
Another rematch from last year’s bubble playoffs, the favorite in the East last year in Milwaukee met their worst possible matchup in the Heat last year before losing in 6 games and sending the franchise into a mini-tailspin with Mike Budenholzer’s job security in question. A Giannis Antetokounmpo extension and Jrue Holiday trade later though (along with a botched Bogdan Bogdanović trade that would have really made this team a title favorite) to go along with a coaching staff that is finally going to start switching on defense have the Bucks franchise more confident going into this postseason than they have been before even if they don’t have the #1 seed.
The Heat don’t give a fuck about any of that. Led by the biggest alpha in the league in Jimmy Butler, the Miami Heat go into every game believing they are going to win the game and act accordingly. That’s why even though this year has been a bit of a disappointment when the Heat get to focus on one opponent they have a history of playing up to their competition and being able to beat those teams as we saw last year.
Even so, I’d expect the Bucks to be able to exercise those demons given all the adjustments they’ve made from players to style of play. Not only have they started switching on the defensive end (which was the key factor the Heat exploited in last year’s playoffs) but instead of forcing Giannis as the ball handler they’ve embraced his talents as the screener in the pick and roll and found massive success with it. But it would still put a lot of the doubt to rest about Giannis and the Bucks if they could vanquish the team that upset them and sent them home early.
#4 New York Knicks vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks
In what has been the biggest surprise of the season, Leon Rose hiring Tom Thibodeau to go along with the leaps forward from Julius Randle and RJ Barrett have turned the Knicks from a laughingstock into one of the most respected franchises in just one year. While the hire was largely looked at with side eyes after Minnesota didn’t go as smoothly as people expected but those concerns have been quieted after seeing the results.
Thibs has shown that he has learned from his mistakes in Minnesota (switching was frowned upon while he was there) and has a team built to maximize the system he wants to run. Switch, recover, contest threes hard and force the ball into the paint where Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel can force tough shots. The system has worked as the Knicks have had the best defense in the league from start to finish and what has been key to that is the entire tram sells out to contest three point shots. No group of centers contest more three point shots per game than the Knicks and it shows both when you watch and in the stats. The Knicks have been the best team in the league at holding teams to low three point percentages both above the break and overall while 6th in corner threes.
The Hawks don’t lean as much on three point shots as most people think, shooting about 35% of their shots behind the arc which is 17th in the league. Their offense comes from the Trae Young and Clint Capela pick and roll with the actions off the ball with shooters around them and Young using his playmaking ability to break down defenses. It’s been effective as they have the 9th best offense in the league in points per 100 possessions at 115.2 even if you can’t point to any specific area they dominate.
I have more faith in the Knicks defense than the Hawks offense so I think the Knicks would prevail if these two teams meet in the playoffs. Clint Capela playing the role of Rudy Gobert in the defensive end could swing thing but most improved player candidate Julius Randle and company have been suffocating teams all year and look to be in place to win their first playoff series in seven years.
With four or more games remaining for each team in the regular season, the jury’s still out on what the actual playoff seeding will look like. No matter what first round matchups we end up with, we’re in for a wild finish to what has been one the more unique seasons in the history of the NBA. Buckle up.