(Photo Courtesy of Sports Talk Florida)
With the regular season wrapping up, and playoff seeding starting to become slightly more concrete, here is a look at a few potential dream first-round matchups.
Golden State Warriors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
If this turns out to be the 1-8 matchup in the West, and Kevin Durant is back healthy, then I feel absolutely awful for the Warriors. I’d reckon they would rather play any team in the East (even my beloved Hawks!) than OKC in the first round. Russell Westbrook and Durant just win playoff series. The only series they have lost together (Grizzlies series doesn’t count because Westbrook was out after Patrick Beverley took out his knee), the team that beat them has won the finals (Lakers, Mavs, Heat, Spurs) so I guess if GSW wins, we can pencil their name on the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The Oracle is probably the biggest home court advantage for the playoffs, with Toronto a close second, but I just can’t see OKC losing in the first round if they’re healthy. Westbrook won’t allow it. Durant won’t allow it. However, GSW has enough quality perimeter defenders to keep a fresh body on both. Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green will probably get the grunt of the Durant work (Green when OKC goes small, which the Thunder might not roll as often now that they have Enes Kanter), and although Curry has improved drastically as a pick and roll defender, I can’t imagine Steve Kerr would leave him on Russ.
This is a make or break year for Scott Brooks, and he needs to make quick rotation adjustments in the playoffs which is something he’s failed to do in the past. Some of those potential problems are already removed with guys like the overextended Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha gone, but OKC has interesting pieces now and it’s up to Brooks to find the right blend. Andre Roberson, though he’s a great rebounder and a good defender, cannot play in the playoffs. Nobody bothers to guard him at all and Brooks needs to be quick with the hook on him. Starting Dion Waiters isn’t ideal, and neither is extended minutes of D.J. Augustin and Westbrook together (Even though I love it!) because it’s been getting torched defensively thus far. Kyle Singler has gotten the yips since he came over from Detroit and has completely lost his jumper. Anthony Morrow might be the best bet for extended minutes, but he is a minus defender and there aren’t many places to hide against GSW.
As far as the Warriors go, the road can only get easier after this potential first-round matchup. They’re the most talented team in the league in terms of players one through nine, and it will be interesting to see who gets squeezed out of the playoff rotation (Most likely David Lee, Leandro Barbosa, and Justin Holiday).
Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Clippers
This isn’t a dream match up, but it’s a battle of the two most annoying teams in the league. Houston is easily the least visually appealing contender in the league with their barrage of free throws and arm raking, and I am super sick of the Clippers bitching about everything.
Chris Paul’s (who is playing out of his mind right now) little man syndrome shtick is finally making its way to public opinion, although it is about five years too late. STOP RIPPING THE BALL OUT OF PLAYERS HANDS RIGHT AFTER THE WHISTLE! STOP SHOOTING HALF COURT SHOTS WHEN YOU GET BUMPED 60 FEET FROM THE HOOP! YOU’RE NOT GOING TO GET CONTINUATION CHRIS! Even media darling Doc Rivers has gotten tiresome, and nepotism is never really a good look.
The best thing about this series is that we won’t have to watch one of these teams anymore after round one if these two teams play one another.
The Clippers offense is still elite with DeAndre Jordan/Chris Paul pick and rolls surrounded by shooters, but it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when Blake Griffin returns and bunches up their spacing. Spencer “Man Bun” Hawes is pretty awful at most basketball-related things, but he has opened up the floor since stepping into the starting lineup. The Clippers really don’t have anybody who can guard Harden. Paul would probably be their best bet, but if he gets into foul trouble their fucked so I don’t think they want him on Harden too much (Did you know the Harden likes to draw fouls?). Realistically this will probably be an awesome seven-game series that gets super chippy and is very entertaining, but I just hate watching the Rockets and the Clippers are incredibly annoying. How’s that for objective analysis?
Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks
This has the making of the NBA TV series (Unless we are miraculously graced with another Hawks/Pacers series), but I think it will be fun! Toronto has to hold off Chicago for the third seed, but if they do, this will be a nice matchup of teams that have no chance of winning it all.
Toronto has fallen off a cliff since their hot start, and it’s becoming more and more apparent that’s it’s really hard to win in the NBA by taking tough midrange jumpers and playing average defense. Lou Williams, Kyle Lowry, and DeMar DeRozan are probably three of the top 20 players in the NBA at getting their own shot, which is a great skill to have, but it’s tough to live solely on that diet. Valanciunas never took the leap forward this year that many were expecting, and you can’t really dump it inside to Amir Johnson or Patrick Patterson for an easy bucket, especially if they’re forced to deal with Milwaukee’s length.
The Bucks on the other hand, are still trying to figure things out since the Brandon Knight/Michael Carter-Williams trade. They are missing Knight’s shooting big time, and they are probably too reliant on the Jerryd Bayless/O.J. Mayo/Jared Dudley trio, but they’re going to need a lot of minutes from all of them to space the floor. Giannis Antetokounmpo has given up on jump shots this year, which is fine since he’s playing a lot of power forward now in their hybrid defense of arms and legs. Khris Middleton might be the best player from the Knight and Middleton/Brandon Jennings trade. He’s been a real treat, shooting 40% from three and playing consistently awesome defense. Toronto should win their home games because they are “The North,” but Milwaukee is going to be frisky.
Atlanta Hawks vs. Boston Celtics
A potential matchup of two of the top five coaches in the NBA. Brad Stevens is so good, he’s going to magically fuck up Danny Ainge’s lottery pick this year because he might sneak this overachieving team of misfits into the playoffs!
I don’t know if any coach could do a better job with the Celtics roster, especially after their fire sale trades of Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, Brandan Wright and Jared Sullinger’s injury. Isaiah Thomas is playing with a somehow bigger chip on his shoulder than usual, and although he’s technically not their starting point guard, he’s their alpha dog now. Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley might actually be the same person. Undersized two guards who struggle playing the point, are great on ball defenders (Smart not as much as Bradley) and better 3-point shooters than expected. I can’t imagine Boston could steal more than one game from the Hawks, but it would be fun to watch a team that has no business being in the playoffs get some quality experience. Plus Brad Stevens is good for at least one awesome inbounds play a game.
As for the Hawks, there’s a good chance they can avoid playing Chicago/Cleveland until the Conference Finals, which means if you bet the Hawks 75/1 to win it all this year, things are looking up! Everyone’s asking the same question about this Hawks team: “Yeah they’re a good regular season team, but what happens in the playoffs when the game slows down?” Well seeing as their system is essentially a carbon copy of the San Antonio Spurs, I’d go out on a limb and say they should be OK. Their only problem is Cleveland and attempting to stop LeBron. Besides that, they should be the favorites against every other Eastern Conference team.