Every NBA Title Contender's Nightmare First-Round Matchup

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 18, 2013

Every NBA Title Contender's Nightmare First-Round Matchup

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    When the Golden State Warriors stomped out the Houston Rockets by a final score of 108-78 on March 17, the Dubs didn't just send a message in one of the league's most intriguing new rivalries, they also positioned themselves as a potential nightmare first-round matchup for the title-seeking L.A. Clippers.

    The Clips aren't the surest bet to win a ring, but they're in the conversation. And the Warriors are a team they don't want to see in the postseason.

    But like L.A., the rest of the NBA's super teams have their own versions of kryptonite. LeBron James and the Miami Heat would probably rather face the pushover Atlanta Hawks than the salty Boston Celtics in the first round, and you can bet that the San Antonio Spurs would love to avoid the L.A. Lakers.

    Look, most title contenders are labeled as such for a reason: They're the league's best teams. But every club in the hunt has a worst-case first-round scenario.

    As we go through the least favorable opponents for each contender, keep in mind that things can change down the stretch, but right now, all of these potential pairings are at least reasonably plausible based on the current standings.

    The NBA's top contenders are all dreaming of a Larry O'Brien trophy in June, except when they're waking up in a cold sweat thinking about the following nightmare matchups.

Indiana Pacers vs. Atlanta Hawks

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    The Indiana Pacers currently have a pretty firm grip on the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed, which means they've probably got an eye on the shoving match going on for the seventh spot down below them in the standings.

    Though Indy knocked the Hawks off by a convincing 114-103 score in the teams' most recent meeting on Feb. 5, the Hawks actually hold a 2-1 advantage in the season series.

    Atlanta is currently in the fifth slot, but it's just a half-game ahead of the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics, meaning the slightest misstep could result in a dip to the No. 7 position. If that happens, the Pacers could be in for a rough first-round tussle.

    The Hawks have plenty of size on the front line, and Al Horford has been playing as well as any big man in the league since the All-Star Break. His ability to butt heads with David West—along with Josh Smith's solid chances of making Paul George and Danny Granger work—gives the Hawks more than a fighting chance against the bruising Pacers.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets

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    Perhaps you've heard: The Houston Rockets' best player once suited up for the Oklahoma City Thunder. So there might be a little extra motivation for James Harden if the current Western Conference standings hold true down the stretch and OKC meets Houston in Round 1.

    Potential personal vendettas aside, the Rockets are a dangerous foe for the high-octane Thunder. That's mostly because Oklahoma City's preferred fast-paced style plays right into the Rockets' hands. For reference, OKC plays at the NBA's eighth-fastest pace, using 96.3 offensive possessions per game.

    The Rockets are No. 1 with a bullet, racking up 98.7 possessions per contest.

    To be fair, the Thunder dropped a pair of pretty severe beatings against the Rockets, winning the teams' first two meetings by a combined total of 52 points. But Harden threw a hell of a counter punch in the third matchup, firing off 46 points in a 122-119 Rockets win.

    OKC is a tough team to beat under any circumstances, but Houston's style and Harden's motivation could make for a scary opening round.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Obviously, any discussion of the Lakers posing a threat to a title contender has to start with the requisite "if they're healthy" caveat. If Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol aren't in prime form, you can forget everything you're about to read.

    But if they're healthy (See, there it was), the Lakers could give the Spurs some first-round fits.

    For starters, L.A. is the last team that's going to be intimidated by San Antonio's notoriously dominant playoff record over the past 15 years. Bryant has seen the Spurs in the postseason before, and of his five rings, two of them (2000-01 and 2001-02) required a postseason series win over San Antonio.

    On the year, San Antonio has defeated the Lakers twice, but by a combined total of just five points.

    With the Lakers looking like a different team since February, those early-season victories don't really feel like they came against the same L.A. team we're seeing lately.

    The Spurs are a machine; nobody's questioning their surgical execution and singular focus. But every machine malfunctions once in a while.

    The Lakers could be the team that throws a wrench in the works if these clubs meet as a "one vs. eight" matchup this spring.

Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics

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    In the interest of full disclosure, it's a hard sell to say any team constitutes a "nightmare" matchup for the seemingly indestructible Miami Heat. Chances are LeBron James sleeps pretty soundly these days.

    But the Boston Celtics provide a bigger challenge to Miami than any other potential first-round opponent. As recently as last year, the crusty old Celtics took the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron and Co. prevailed in that series, but it took a superhuman effort from the King to get the job done.

    Currently locked into the No. 1 spot, Miami won't square off against the Celtics in the first round unless Boston drops three games in the standings over the season's final few weeks. That's hard to envision, as the Celtics have won 7-of-10, but stranger things have happened.

    Miami's two games against the Celtics this year have resulted in a split, and the two clubs will square off on March 18 with the Heat's 22-game winning streak on the line. Regardless of the outcome in that contest, rest assured that the Heat would much prefer to see the Milwaukee Bucks, who they just thumped by double digits on March 15.

L.A. Clippers vs. Golden State Warriors

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    Currently slated to face one another in the first round, the Golden State Warriors and L.A. Clippers have had a pretty chippy regular-season history this season.

    David Lee famously screamed at Blake Griffin to "stop flopping" in one matchup, and flagrant fouls have been commonplace in all four California meetings of the 2012-13 campaign.

    Unfortunately for the Clips, they've put up plenty of sound and fury against the Dubs this year, but haven't had any significant results to speak of. Put simply, Golden State has owned the Clippers this year, winning three out of four, including a pretty impressive 21-point blowout on Jan. 2.

    Stephen Curry's deadly sniping forces Chris Paul to stay engaged on defense, and the frontcourt tandem of David Lee and Andrew Bogut are a handful for the more athletic, but less skilled L.A. duo of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

    Of all the potential nightmare matchups contenders are facing in the first round, this one is definitely the most likely to become a frightening reality for L.A.

    If the Dubs hold onto the No. 6 seed, the third-seeded Clips had better hope the Memphis Grizzlies get hot so they don't have to face the Warriors in what could turn out to be a pretty foreseeable upset in the first round.