Best and Worst First Round Matchups: Eastern Conference
by Adam Spinella
Division III Assistant Coach
Less than two weeks remain in the regular season, and the Eastern Conference Playoffs appear to have eight teams that are clear favorites to make the postseason. What order these teams will arrange themselves in largely remains unknown. The two top teams all season long, the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics, have maintained enough distance between them and everyone else that almost all precincts are reporting at this point: these will be the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference.
Beyond that, everything is up for grabs. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers are neck-and-neck for the three seed, with the Indiana Pacers hovering right behind. The Washington Wizards, Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks make up the final three teams, while the Detroit Pistons still have a mathematical chance of sneaking in.
From the vantage points in Boston and Toronto, there are some teams they’d like to see in the first round, and others they’d like to avoid. Barring unforeseen collapses from Cleveland and Philadelphia, these would be the best and worst matchups for the top seeds in the Eastern Conference:
Best Matchup: Milwaukee Bucks
Two of the three contests between the Raptors and Bucks this season went to overtime, but that shouldn’t be enough to scare the ‘We The North’ faithful through a seven-game series. The Bucks are currently in between identities, with the vast majority of their makeup attributed to former coach Jason Kidd, while interim coach Joe Prunty has toned down their defensive aggressiveness. Milwaukee’s most dangerous attribute is superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, a legitimate MVP candidate that can take over games on both ends of the floor.
The issue for Milwaukee is what surrounds Giannis: a bevy of non-elite shooters. Malcolm Brogdon, who has been hurt since early February, could be available for the series, but his absence would really hurt Milwaukee’s depth in the backcourt. They are also working to inculcate Jabari Parker back into the lineup next to Giannis, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. Parker’s lack of defensive acumen makes him a bright target for the Raptors to attack, and it’s hard for the Bucks to get the requisite offense from Jabari to make up for that weakness when he shares the ball with other primary threats, many of whom aren’t players that provide adequate spacing.
Spacing is the million-dollar word for the Bucks, who have struggled all season long to open up the lane on offense or discourage opponents from taking the shots they want on the other end. There’s a ton of talent in Milwaukee, but the Bucks are 7-9 since the All-Star Break and have more questions about fit and style than a team should heading into the postseason.
Worst Matchup: Washington Wizards
Only one Eastern Conference playoff team has multiple victories over the Toronto Raptors this season, and they hail in our nation’s capital. The Wizards are going to be aided by the return of superstar-caliber point guard John Wall, and that would make them a dangerous group to face in the postseason. A fresh Wall would be explosive for the Wizards and could wear down the Raptors quickly.
Wall and Beal shoulder the heavy-lifting for Washington’s offense, which means a greater burden defensively on Toronto’s top stars, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. That in itself is a recipe for taking down the Raptors. If we’ve learned anything about watching their postseason effectiveness the last few seasons it’s that if those two are cold from the field, Toronto is in trouble. This Raptors team is much more potent on offense and has more balance than in prior seasons, so it’s not to say the Raptors are ripe for an upset. With two rounds to go before qualifying for the NBA Finals, including potential matchups with Cleveland, Philadelphia or Boston, the Raps would like to avoid tiring out their superstars in the first round.
Washington’s strength on defense all season has been how opponents fare against them from deep. The Wizards have the third-best defensive three-point percentage in the league – a metric that is, in large part, influenced by luck as much as scheme. If those numbers hold up in the postseason and Toronto struggles to knock down open treys, the Wizards could have a case for pushing this series deep to seven games.
Best Matchup: Milwaukee Bucks
For many of the same reasons as Toronto, the Boston Celtics should be crossing their fingers hoping for a duel with the Bucks later this month. The Celts have played well against the Bucks all season long, in particular finding a great way to stymie Milwaukee’s aggressive, trapping and strong-side helping defense.
The Celtics have solved Milwaukee’s scheme by playing a ball movement-heavy, weak side cutting offense in their matchups with the Bucks. Because Boston plays a positionless style of basketball, their personnel is able to attack Milwaukee by putting shooters in the right spots and manipulating the patterns with which the Bucks rotate.
On the defensive end, the Celtics have multiple long wings and pugnacious defenders that can give the litany of wings for the Bucks fits. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart are some of the best defenders in the conference, while Jayson Tatum can use his length to collapse driving lanes from the weak-side. The Celtics weakness has long thought to be on the glass: Milwaukee is the worst rebounding team in the NBA. The only way an upset happens over the course of a long series is if the underdog can consistently exploit a weakness shown by the favorite. Since the Bucks fail to capitalize on one of Boston’s vulnerabilities, it’s hard to envision Milwaukee pulling off the upset.
Worst Matchup: Miami Heat
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Bucks are the Miami Heat, a balanced offensive group with immaculate spacing, several good shooters and a strong defensive identity. Defensively the Heat can protect the rim with Hassan Whiteside while maintaining flexibility to switch other defensive assignments and actions. The Heat took two of the three regular-season matchups between them, while none of the games have come since the team re-acquired their franchise’s leader and postseason hero Dwyane Wade.
A staggering nine players on Miami’s active roster are averaging double-digit points this season, signifying the tremendous offensive balance that lies at Erik Spoelstra’s arsenal. Brad Stevens has earned a reputation as a great defensive tactician that can take away opponent’s top strengths. But when a team like Miami has so many points of attack and such balance, it would be intriguing to watch how the Celtics plan on stifling their offense.
The Celtics haven’t topped the 100-point mark in any of their three meetings against Miami this year, due in part to Miami’s excellent team defense. Miami features the eighth-best defensive rating in the league, a rare and high number for a group on the tail end of the playoff chase. Mainly the Heat are aggressive at running players off the three-point line, forcing them to either finish in the mid-range or over the length of prowling shot blocker Hassan Whiteside. It’s an interesting clash with the Celtics, who are one of the best three-point shooting teams, both in terms of volume (sixth-most attempts) and accuracy (third-highest percentage).
A first-round matchup between the two sides would be a treat for all involved. Boston’s postseason success largely hinges on the health of Kyrie Irving and if he can recover from the knee troubles he’s faced of late. Even with Kyrie in the lineup, a best-of-seven series with Miami would be no walk in the park.
Best and Worst First Round Matchups: Western Conference
For the first time since Steve Kerr took the job in the Bay Area the Golden State Warriors appear vulnerable. Limping to the finish line with injuries while trailing the Houston Rockets for home-court, first-round matchups could be more important than ever for the two elite teams that look to run through the Western Conference. Each team has a defined identity and certain opponents that would be matchup nightmares if they saw them in the first round.
Today we dive into some of the best and worst matchups for the top two teams in the West, examining just what situations they should be rooting for and against. The playoff race out West is fluid, with five teams more than two games apart, and another two that are within striking distance of a postseason berth but on the outside looking in. From the perspective of the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, we look at just how these juggernauts might fare if they draw certain matchups.
Due to the overall uncertainty surrounding Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs, their team has been omitted from this list. Either the Rockets or Warriors would dread a matchup with San Antonio and a healthy Kawhi, but that possibility cannot be counted on.
Best Matchup: Denver Nuggets
The Rockets were the NBA’s first to reach the 60-win plateau, and they feature the best offense in basketball. Chris Paul and James Harden are offensive juggernauts, and the spacing the Rockets provide around them make for an incredibly difficult defensive matchup for whoever sneaks into the playoffs at the 8 seed.
Frankly, the Rockets won’t be scared of any team they draw, but the Nuggets would be an ideal choice for the organization. Houston has averaged nearly 125 points per game against Denver this season, sweeping the season series 3-0 with an average margin of victory over 20. The Nuggets are in the bottom-third of the NBA in defensive rating, an area they’ve struggled all season long. Denver big man Nikola Jokic has seen his effort and conditioning fall short late in the season; if Houston can push the pace and attack the Nuggets’ lack of rim protection, they should be able to get plenty of easy buckets.
Denver is currently on the outside looking in for a playoff berth, but are limping towards the finish line. The Nuggets’ final eight games are against teams currently slated to make the postseason, so there will be no easy wins on their schedule. It would be an uphill climb for Denver to make the playoffs, but that would be a welcome ascent from Houston’s perspective.
Worst Matchup: Utah Jazz
If pace is what’s most important to the Rockets, the defensive juggernaut that’s taken shape in Utah is a matchup nightmare for Houston. The Jazz are one of three teams to hold the Rockets below 100 points per game, and the only team in the Western Conference playoff picture to do so. While Houston swept the Jazz in their regular season meetings, the two teams have only met once in 2018 since the ascent of Donovan Mitchell and the healthy return of Rudy Gobert. That game was a 96-85 win for the Rockets in which they trailed at the half and only had 15 assists.
Utah, on the other hand, got one of their worst performances from Donovan Mitchell on the night: the rookie was 1-of-9 from three and had eight turnovers. With a more regular performance from Mitchell, the Jazz become a formidable foe for the Houston. The frontcourt pairings that Utah can throw on the floor could change the speed that the Rockets like to play with. Jazz coach Quin Snyder could force the Rockets to match their size with a Rudy Gobert-Derrick Favors frontcourt tandem. Those two have been a force over the Jazz’ ascent into the playoff picture.
Utah also has a great deal of multi-positional defenders on the wings that can match Houston’s wing-heavy lineups. Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Royce O’Neale and Jonas Jerebko are all plus defenders that can not only win their individual matchups, but could survive for smaller stretches if they must switch onto Harden or Paul. Because of Utah’s defensive potential and ability to force the Rockets to play at a slower pace, the Jazz are a team Mike D’Antoni and company should hope to avoid in the opening round.
Golden State Warriors
Best Matchup: New Orleans Pelicans
While the Warriors are likely without superstar Steph Curry for the first round of the postseason, a series against the New Orleans Pelicans could lighten that blow. New Orleans is without All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, a potent inside-outside threat that combined with Anthony Davis to form the scariest frontcourt in the league. Now Davis is on his own, and while flanked by the sharpshooting Nikola Mirotic up front, the Pelicans are simply missing enough offensive balance to contend with the defensive greatness that the Warriors are capable of.
Golden State has several players they can throw at Davis, ranging from Kevin Durant to Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala to Jordan Bell. With length, athleticism and strong individual defenders at all frontcourt spots, the Warriors can devote a lot of attention to Davis, sagging off others on the perimeter and forcing The Brow to become a jump shooter. Because New Orleans plays two point guards and several non-shooters, Golden State’s switching could be a great attribute against an offense that isn’t known as highly dynamic.
Of course, the Warriors need their starting lineup to get healthy, as all four All-Stars are currently banged up. If all but Curry are healthy for the playoffs, as expected, then the Warriors should have a comfortable series against New Orleans.
Worst Matchup: Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have plenty of issues in their own right. Carmelo Anthony has been struggling of late and isn’t fitting into a complementary role, their best defender Andre Roberson is done for the year and they’re relying on late-season acquisition Corey Brewer to fill his absence in the starting lineup. But Oklahoma City has taken two of their first three games against Golden State this year, and the Warriors may struggle to find an answer for Steven Adams on the glass.
Simply the raw emotion of a postseason series between these two rivals would be enough to wear down Golden State as they seek a fourth-straight NBA Finals appearance. Think about it: many of the Warriors’ players have logged heavy minutes in over 100 games for three years running, have battled a long and injury-filled regular season this year and would face a potential juggernaut in the Western Conference Finals in the Houston Rockets. The mental anguish of facing a motivated Russell Westbrook and hostile Thunder team would wear on this group.
If Curry is out for the series, his absence compounds those issues. Now the Warriors are down one of their elite spacing and shooting options, while Klay Thompson draws the unenviable assignment of checking Russell Westbrook for most of the series. Paul George is as good of an individual defender on the wing as Durant could face in this wing, while the poor shooting of Draymond Green gives Carmelo Anthony a comfortable defensive matchup. No team that a top-seed could face in the first round has as much star power as Oklahoma City, and if that’s something to be feared in April, the Warriors would hope to avoid a potential series with the Thunder.