The NBA playoff matchups are officially set after the Portland Trail Blazers eliminated the Memphis Grizzlies in the first game of the West’s play-in series to secure the No. 8 seed on Saturday. Portland will face the top-seeded Lakers in the first round, and let the upset energy begin in earnest. As usual, the Western Conference field is stacked top to bottom and every series has its own kind of intrigue. The East, as a whole, feels like it won’t get really interesting until round two.
With that in mind, below is a ranking of the four most intriguing first-round matchups.
1. Blazers vs. Lakers
If you have Damian Lillard, you have a chance. It’s as simple as that. With the way he’s playing, the scrambling, double-teaming attention he’s going to demand from a Lakers team missing a primary perimeter defender in Avery Bradley is going to open up a lot of shots. And Portland has guys who can make those shots. Carmelo Anthony. Gary Trent Jr. We’ll see if CJ McCollum can play at a high clip with a fractured back (he was terrific in the play-in game vs. Memphis), but if he can, again, Portland is going to score a ton of points.
At the very least, that should make this series exciting, and indeed Portland’s offensive exploits are the foundation of what will surely be a bubbling of upset talk as Game 1 of this series looms on Tuesday.
The Blazers’ defense, however, is a MASSIVE problem. They don’t have anyone that can reasonably matchup with LeBron James with Trevor Ariza having opted out of the bubble. Carmelo Anthony and Jusuf Nurkic are going to get put on an island as LeBron likely switch hunts them to death.
You can bet the Blazers will play drop coverage as much as possible and force the Lakers to make 3-pointers, and there’s a reasonable chance they won’t. They’re not a great shooting team, and if the ball is taken out of LeBron’s hands, their secondary creators are minimal beyond Anthony Davis and, dare I say, Dion Waiters.
So we’ll see. The Lakers almost always have the two best players anytime they step on the floor, but right now Lillard is capable of being better than both LeBron and A.D. Can he be better than both of them combined? Almost certainly not. But it’ll be a hell of a good show to watch him try.
2. Thunder vs. Rockets
We all need to send a collective prayer to the basketball gods that Russell Westbrook is able to not just play in this series but play a close enough to 100 percent that we truly get to see the potential of this Rockets experiment. This is a dangerous team when at full strength, but without Westbrook attacking the space created by the extended double teams begin thrown at Harden, the whole thing feels a little hollow.
That’s not to say he Rockets would be sunk in this series. Frankly, I sill think they’ll win. Harden has enough shooters around him to still punish double teams. But there’s a clear ceiling on Houston without Westbrook.
If Westbrook plays, the intrigue of this particular series is obvious. The Thunder traded him to Houston last summer for Chris Paul, who in turn was effectively written off before he proceeded to put together yet another ALL-NBA season. James Harden wanted CP3 out of Houston. Westbrook’s critics are as loud as any group on the NBA landscape. The shoulder chips in this series are going to be, shall we say, significant.
But Westbrook has to play to get that full dynamic. I’m going to assume he will at some point. Or maybe I’m just hoping.
3. Mavericks vs. Clippers
Like the Blazers, the Mavericks can beat anyone on any given night because of an unstoppable offense orchestrated by one of the five most gifted creators in the world. In a series with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Luka Doncic is great enough to be the best player on the floor. He’ll have to be for Dallas to have a chance against an incredibly deep Clippers team that feels like the favorite to win it all, a least in my book.
And it’s not just Doncic — who averaged just under a triple-double in Dallas’ eight seeding games (9.7 AST) — that’s rocking right now for the Mavs. Kristaps Porzingis averaged over 30 points and nine rebounds in Dallas’ seeding games while shooting 38 percent from three. Dallas has shooters — Seth Curry, Maxi Kleber, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Trey Burke, etc. — and secondary creators. Boban can give the Clippers some problems in shot stretches when they go small, which they do a lot with Montrezl Harrell a the five.
The Clippers are the better, more rounded team. I presume that will ultimately prevail. But Dallas is a real threat to make this very interesting.
4. 76ers vs. Celtics
Ben Simmons being out for the Sixers takes a lot of steam out of this series, but it’s also what makes it kind of interesting. There is a perpetual undercurrent of questioning whether the Sixers, and particularly Joel Embiid, can function more naturally and efficiently without Simmons bogging down the half-court offense. We were going to see Brett Brown use Simmons more at the four spot, but he was still occupying a lot of the same spaces (there’s only so much you can do with a guy who poses no threat outside the paint as a scorer).
If this was last year’s Sixers team and you had a Jimmy Butler to handle the offense and a shooter like JJ Redick to optimize floor spacing for Embiid, I think there would be a real question as to whether the Sixers would be able to beat Boston without Simmons. I don’t think they can with this year’s team. Simmons’ defense alone is going to be a catastrophic loss for the Sixers against a Boston team loaded with perimeter options.
But I just wonder. If Shake Milton and Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson all get it cooking, and the Sixers can finally just give the ball to Embiid and let him have all the paint space he wants to go to work, can Philly actually be fine, if not better, without Simmons? It’s at least enough to make me want to watch.
Plus, Jayson Tatum is super fun. And I’d like to see Kemba Walker turn back into the monster we know he can be.