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NBA Playoffs First Round Matchups Ranked

Giannis Antetokounmpo by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

NBA Playoffs First Round Matchups Ranked

Estimated Reading Time: 13 Minutes

The NBA Playoffs are here, bringing with them the normal spring dosages of joy, elysium, rapture, and flame emojis. Oh baby I’m pumped.

Here are my rankings of the first round matchups, from least compelling to must-see-tv. I’m also including what conventional wisdom will say to look for in each series as well as what I’m looking for in each series.

It bares mentioning that even the least compelling NBA Playoff series is about 1,000% more exciting than an NFL Wild Card game or like 98% of college bowl games. Unnecessary and out-of-context shots fired? You bet.

Number 8 Most Compelling

Western Conference – 2. Golden State Warriors vs. 7. San Antonio Spurs

What conventional wisdom will look for: Can Durant lead the Warriors without Curry?

What Matty will look for: Greg Popovich interviews.

Golden State is gonna win this series. It’s probably not gonna be all that close.

This season for San Antonio has been tough. They over achieved because Pop is a great coach. The whole Kawhi thing is super weird. Now rumors are putting him in a trade to the Celtics in the offseason. So weird.

Sure Steph Curry is injured, and that could definitely have ramifications on Golden State’s chances down the line. I don’t think it’ll be this series. They are huge favorites in Vegas, and I always trust the sports books.

One advantage for the Spurs – Greg Popovich is the best mid-game sideline interview in professional sports.

No one is more comfortable in an uncomfortable silence than Greg Popovich.

Prediction: Golden State in 5.

Number 7 Most Compelling

Eastern Conference – 4. Cleveland Cavaliers vs 5. Indiana Pacers

What conventional wisdom will look for: Will the Cavs “turn it on?”

What Matty will look for: How freaking good is Victor Oladipo?

Is it a very hacky thing to refer to a professional team as their best player’s name instead of the team’s actual name? Yes. Am I going to call the Cleveland Cavaliers the Cleveland LeBrons for the next paragraph? Sure am. 

The Cleveland LeBrons are definitely gonna “turn it on” in the playoffs so just shut the hell up about all of that. LeBron is still LeBron and the King gonna stay King. Their defense has been putrid this year, but LBJ will not let his squad get bounced in the first round.  Dude has single-handedly led the team to two 20 points comebacks in the past two weeks – when he wants to turn it on, he can still turn it on. I truly think you could put me as the Cleveland Shooting Guard and Lebron would make it work, and I would probably drop a respectable 8 points because you know I’ve got some pretty solid fundamentals just saying.

Does the rest of his team kinda stink? Yes. Are J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver sorta very much over? Oh yeah. Are the post-trade deadline Cavs totally untested in a playoff environment and have no idea what it’s like to play in an important game? Yeah pretty much. I mean the most pressure Jordan Clarkson or Larry Nance Jr. has had on them to this point was probably washed-up Kobe Bryant screaming to give him more shots during Lakers practice a few years ago.

Does any of that matter? Probably not – at least not for this round.

More interesting to me is Victor Oladipo. Dude has been a beast this season. When the Pacers traded Paul George to OKC in the offseason everyone was all “Omg the Pacers got nothing in return! What a disaster!” Well peep the records at the end of the season – each team ended up with 48 wins. That shit is maybe 30% the West being way better than the East, but 70% Oladipo being way better than anyone expected. Dude balls hard and plays great defense.

I’m fired up to see Vic be the man in a playoff series. I don’t think this will happen, but I’m very much rooting for him to win a game and then immediately launch into a soulful ballad. 

Prediction: The LeBrons don’t like to waste time in the first round of the playoffs. Pacers snag one at home, but this feels like a gentleman’s sweep. Cavs in 5.

Number 6 Most Compelling

Eastern Conference – 2. Boston Celtics vs. 7. Milwaukee Bucks

What conventional wisdom will look for: Greek Freak Carrying the Squad

What Matty will look for: Greg Monroe Revenge Series

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in this series. Like by a lot. He’s incredible. Enough has been written about him all over the internet, but there’s literally never enough words or emojis to say just how incredible he is. So like I definitely understand how he would be the story against the super depleted Celtics squad.

BUT HOLD ON JUST ONE SECOND. Back in the summer of 2015, Greg Monroe was a free agent looking to sign a contract. He had choices. He could’ve gone to the Knicks. He could’ve gone to the Lakers. But he said “nah” to New York and L.A. and “you betcha” to Milwaukee, embarking on a legendary career as a Buck that would see him amass a crazy amount of success and… wait… what’s that? Oh Monroe only played for the Bucks for two years and wasn’t really that major of a contributor? His brand of basketball is sorta fading out of the NBA and it’s unclear how effective he can be in a seven game series? Oh. Whoops. Cool cool.

Facts be damned, I’m holding out for the Greg Monroe revenge tour in Milwaukee. I wanna see him point to the Bucks management box after a big dunk or a nice assist or at least after a well-set screen. I wanna see big Greg waving his arms and getting the crowd involved. I wanna see the look of regret on Bucks fans’ faces when they realize they had big Greg and decided to let him go.

But none of that is probably gonna happen, so more realistically I wanna see Al Horford play really solid ball, Terry Rozier stay within himself, and Brad Stevens out-coach the shit out of Joe Prunty, who looks more like a solid level of middle management at a big firm than an NBA head coach.

Prediction: Obviously the Kyrie Irving news put a bit of a damper on this Celtics season, about 6 months after the Gordon Hayward put the first damper on the season. Very damp in Boston.

This Bucks team is a mess. I watched them in a tight game against the Lakers a few weeks back. Game was on the line and Giannis didn’t touch the ball in the last few possessions of regulation. I’m not an NBA head coach, but it seems pretty freaking obvious that you should just generally give the ball to your best player when the game is on the line, no? With all due respect to Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe, that is not you.

Celtics in 6.

Number 5 Most Compelling

Western Conference – 1. Houston Rockets vs. 8. Minnesota Timberwolves

What conventional wisdom will look for: Can James Harden and Chris Paul do it in the playoffs?

What Matty will look for: Will Ryan Anderson take a three-pointer anywhere near the three-point line?

James Harden will be the league’s MVP this year. He deserves it. Even though the way he draws fouls is utterly ridiculous.

Chris Paul is the Point God. He’s one of the best of all time.

Mike D’Antoni is a good basketball coach.

All three of those dudes have struggled in the playoffs. Whether or not they can get over the hump and make a serious run in these playoffs is definitely a huge storyline in the macro.

But I mean, that’s also some annoying, takey nonsense, and there’s nothing sillier than analyzing someone’s legacy while they’re still doing what they do.

Of more immediate concern to me – will Ryan Anderson take any three-pointers that are remotely near the three-point line?

Look how far away this dude is from the three-point line!

I’ve watched a bunch of Rockets games over the past few years and I don’t think I’ve seen Ryan Anderson take a non-baseline three-pointer anywhere near the three-point line. What would happen if he moved in the extra four feet? He is a super respectable 38% shooter from three. But you gotta imagine that if he moved in like two baby steps each time he’d be at least 42% no?

Prediction: The Wolves fought like hell to make the playoffs and are probably out of gas. NBA intelligentsia is starting to turn on Tom Thibodeau as a head coach. He doesn’t use his bench and he runs players into the ground. I’m genuinely concerned for the longevity of Karl Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler. Too many minutes.

Rockets sweep.

Number 4 Most Compelling

Eastern Conference – 1. Toronto vs. 8. Washington

What conventional wisdom will look for: Battle of the Backcourts

What Matty will look for: Battle of the Bearded Bigs

If this matchup appeared on paper in like October of 2017, you’d be like “Oh shit! That’s fire! DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry vs John Wall and Bradley Beal should be a fire matchup.” And you would be justified in thinking that because those are some talented dudes. Lotta star power, lotta talent.

But this matchup is coming in April of 2018 and it’s a little less exciting.

I hate to say it and I hope I am jinxing it out of existence, but there is a real chance that one of the Raptors guards will shoot about 12% for the first three or four games of the series. That’s been the most frustrating part of the Raptors playoff woes the past few years – Lowry and DeRozan are dope in the regular season but can’t seem to click at the same time in the playoffs.

On the flip side, the entire Wizards team hates John Wall. Gortat can’t stop talking about it, and the team was sorta oddly better when Wall was hurt for a big chunk in the middle of the season.

So yeah, there’s talent on paper, but you can keep your all-star backcourts, conventional wisdom. Give me the Battle of the Bearded Bigs.

We’re talking Marcin Gortat vs. Jonas Valanciunas. Polish Hammer vs. Big Science. Both of these dudes offer maximum beard effort and minimal scalp effort. Both of these dudes are sorta relics of a past NBA where big men were pretty oafish and couldn’t hit a shot from outside 15 feet. Both are from Eastern Europe. In fact, they are from neighboring countries! That’s right – Poland and Lithuania share a little bit of a border. Most importantly, both look like they could be extras in Game of Thrones.

I can’t wait to watch these dudes just bruise each other.

Prediction: Toronto gets over the first game of the series hump. They’ve looked a bit sluggish over the past month, but I think they’re gonna be fired up and ready to roll for this. Give me a gentleman’s sweep. Toronto in 5.

Number 3 Most Compelling

Western Conference – 4. OKC Thunder vs. 5. Utah Jazz

What conventional wisdom will look for: Will the Thunder live up to their potential?

What Matty will look for: Spida Mitchell

The Thunder are so weird. Like I definitely can see a world where Westbrook goes nuts, Paul George gets hot, and Carmelo only shoots when he’s wide open where the Thunder make a crazy run and push Houston to seven in the second round.

I can just as easily see a world where Westbrook takes every shot, George decides he’s definitely going to LA in the offseason, and Carmelo takes every shot that Westbrook doesn’t take where the Thunder lose to the Jazz in the first round.

So obviously this series is gonna be fun to watch to see how OKC plays.

BUT I’m tuning in to see the True Rookie of the Year, Donovan Mitchell.

What a beast. I am not an NBA historian, but I don’t remember any rookie taking over a team’s offense midway through the season and leading them to the playoffs. Even LeBron didn’t make the playoffs in his first season (though his team was hot garbage).

I feel like Mitchell has the type of confidence that will irk Westbrook somehow. This series is gonna be very fun and very tight.

Prediction: Mitchell gets some dope experience but ultimately is a little too green to lead the Jazz out of the first round. Still, super exciting future for a team that was devastated when Gordon Hayward left last season.

Thunder in 6.

Number 2 Most Compelling Series

Eastern Conference: 3. Philadelphia vs 6. Miami

What conventional wisdom will look for: Will Philly’s inexperience effect them in the playoffs?

What Matty will look for: Whiteside vs. Embiid Instagram BEEF

The Sixers are the hottest team in the NBA. They are dope as hell to watch. Almost every player on the court is like 10 feet tall, and everyone can shoot – except Red Shirt Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons, who is 6’10” and the most important player on the team. They’re fun as hell, and assuming Embiid can come back and be healthy, I think they have a legit shot to make the finals. A week and a half ago someone-I-know-who-is-definitely-not-me grabbed them at +700 to make the Finals. Those odds are now down to +500. Vegas is starting to believe.

Experts are worried that the more experienced Heat team will be able to throw different looks at the Sixers to mess with them a little. D-Wade is out there being D-Wade in Miami again and yes he’s old af, but he’s still D-Wade and he’s gotten a little bit of that Miami fountain of youth look back in him over the past month or so.

The Sixers could definitely get some playoff jitters and succumb to the experienced Heat. But that’s not what I’m excited to see.

I wanna see Hassan Whiteside and Joel Embiid go at it. Hopefully on the court. Definitely on Instagram.

Their pre-season insta battle was tremendous. It was literally half a year ago, but basically Embiid called out Whiteside for being unable to guard him in a preseason game. They went back and forth a bit over Twitter and insta, and Embiid landed probably my favorite advanced metrics insult of all time, saying Whiteside’s +/- was ass. Which is so silly and I love it.

Whiteside has tried to bury the hatchet and say he’s not interested in beefing anymore, probably because Embiid is a social media savant and it’s hard to come at the king. And there’s a precedent for NBA players to log off of social media for the playoffs.

But damn I am gonna be fired up to keep an eye on these accounts during these games, and really hope they get chippy on the court and weird off the court.

Prediction: Know what’s overrated? Experience. Know what’s underrated? Having a line-up of athletic ass Monstars who can do crazy ass shit all over the court. Assuming Embiid plays most of these games and Kelly Olynk doesn’t turn into last year’s playoff Kelly Olynk again, I think the Sixers in six-er seven-ty sixers. Woah. Stuk in a loop. Philly in Six.

Number 1  Most Compelling Series

Western Conference – 3. Portland Trail Blazers vs. 6. New Orleans Pelicans

What conventional wisdom will look for: Can Anthony Davis single-handedly get past Portland?

What Matty will look for: Dame D.O.L.L.A.

I am so fired up for this matchup. Davis has been absolutely incredible in the last month, averaging around 30 points and 12 rebound a game. Rajon Rondo even looks a little bit like his former self, playing a smidge of defense here and there. Last season, playoff Rondo showed up for the Bulls and really helped them take a couple of games off the Celtics in the first round.

On the other side, Damian Lillard heard all that shit you talked about him being picked last at the All-Star Game. He’s been cooking for a lot of the last few months, and just has the look of one of those dudes who loves the big stage. I know that’s cliche. But I’ve been rambling for 2500 words and dammit it’s the truth.

I will be locked into this series as I think it gives us a super fun contrast of styles. Who stops Davis? Who stops Portland’s backcourt? Who eats too much gumbo in New Orleans and comes out of a game with cramps? Who drinks too much Stumptown in Portland and is too buzzy to focus?

Prediction: AD steals a few games, but is punished by the basketball gods for that stupid unibrow prank. Portland in 6.


Actor. Celts and Sox fan. NBA League Pass enthusiast.

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