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 — in theory. I hope they become real, because these 8 first-round series would be incredibly entertaining.
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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 — OKC is 3-1 this season against L.A., and wins by an average of 12.6 points — 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 — 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 — 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.