Instant NBA Playoff Rivalries Heating Up
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Most rivalries are forged from decades of tradition and animosity, but sometimes a single spark can ignite a powder keg and send two teams flying at each other's throat on every loose ball.
And in the postseason, there are sparks flying everywhere.
These are the instant playoff rivalries, the new seedlings in the history of the sport when two opponents continuously run afoul of one another in the postseason bracketing.
A few ingredients are necessary to form an instant rivalry: star power, parity, drama and aggression.
Fans want to see the stars butt heads. It recalls the glory days of playoff basketball, when Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis or when Jeff Van Gundy clung to Alonzo Mourning's shin during a brawl.
Of course, no one wants to see a player (or coach) get hurt, but a little conflict adds plenty of spice to a matchup. And it's nice to see everyone playing with fire and full effort for a change.
In this year's postseason, some of the meetings are long-established rivalries, while others are merely lopsided blowouts and speed bumps before the conference semifinals. But some of them have evolved into knock-down, drag-out clashes worthy of a DVD box set.
Among the eight first-round matchups, four of them qualify as instant playoff rivalries. The only pity is that these epic clashes won't last more than seven games, because they are downright scintillating.
Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Houston Rockets did more than just give the Oklahoma City Thunder a scare in Game 2, they took down one-half of their dynamic duo.
Russell Westbrook suffered a torn meniscus and will have no timetable for a return until he undergoes surgery. He sustained the injury when Houston's Patrick Beverley attempted to poke the ball away from him. Beverley bumped into Westbrook and spun him around awkwardly.
It was hardly a "dirty" play, but it was indeed injurious. The two players had scuffled earlier in the game, and when Beverley offered his hand to help Westbrook up, the Olympian slapped it away. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported Friday that a source told him Westbrook is "irate" with Beverley.
He will miss the first game of his career, ending a streak of 394 consecutive regular-season games played. Coincidentally, Rockets center Omer Asik takes over the ironman mantle with 230 straight games played.
So OKC heads for Houston up 2-0 in the series, but minus Westbrook. This sets up a marquee matchup between Kevin Durant and James Harden. Both players can score at will, but Durant's game is more complete (see defense) and he's a more consistent shooter (51 percent to 44 percent).
Still, Harden will be motivated to prove that the Thunder should've paid him what he wanted. He's raised the Rockets to new heights this season, along with Asik, Jeremy Lin and a handful of jump-shooting forwards.
Westbrook's absence puts a lot of pressure on Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka to score in addition to Durant. In this series, however, OKC's vastly superior defense will carry it past Houston.
The Rockets used a mix of schemes to impressively erase a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit as part of a 21-2 run in Wednesday's game, but the numbers don't lie: OKC finished the season ranked third in defensive efficiency, and Houston was 16th (via ESPN.com).
The Thunder will still take the series in five or six, but the Westbrook injury has created more than enough bad blood to go around. With Houston only poised to improve going forward, this could be a rivalry to watch for years to come.
Chicago Bulls vs. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets hosted two playoff games at Barclays Center, and they could not have played out more differently.
In Game 1, they opened a 60-35 halftime lead over the Chicago Bulls and laughed their way to a 17-point victory. They shot 56 percent from the field, and six Nets scored in double figures.
In Game 2, the Bulls beat Brooklyn like it stole something. Joakim Noah played twice as many minutes and provided a formidable force with Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer.
The Nets scored just 11 points in the third quarter, while Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace combined for all of two field goals. The 90-82 loss marked a 24-point drop from Brooklyn's Game 1 production. The Bulls became the first team to win a road game in this year's playoffs, and they did it with bruising physical play.
Game 3 in Chicago was somewhat akin to the street fight with Tommy Gunn in Rocky V. Neither team shot better than 40 percent from the field as Chicago slogged to a 79-76 victory. At one stage, the Nets shot 1-of-26 from the field, and they still almost won.
This has become a gritty series hearkening back to the brutal playoff basketball of the 90s. While Brooklyn's pedigree of toughness remains in question, Chicago's is well established. With the Nets still groping for a consistent team identity, this series with the Bulls could very well galvanize it.
Both teams have ailing stars, as Joe Johnson and Joakim Noah have each been limited by foot injuries. Brook Lopez continued his fantastic play in Game 3 with 22 points, nine boards and seven blocks, but he can't beat Chicago's three-headed monster in the frontcourt by himself.
This has become an epic battle of wills between two offensively-challenged teams. Both squads rely heavily on their respective "big threes," but the rosters are scant after that. Chicago's defense tops Brooklyn's, however—the Bulls ranked fourth in defensive efficiency and Brooklyn was 18th—and the Nets will have a hard time evening up the series if they can't shoot better than 36 percent.
Whoever loses the series will savor the bitter aftertaste and seek revenge next season. This has become a hard-nosed matchup complete with bubbling animosity, and it will be a pleasure to watch them spar again.
Golden State Warriors vs. Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets won 38 of their 41 home games this year, and it seemed unlikely that the Golden State Warriors would be able to steal a road win. After David Lee went down in the Dubs' Game 1 loss, evening the series seemed impossible with a sweep being much more likely.
I had the Nuggets in the conference finals all the way back in August, and my prediction was looking pretty decent.
Then Mark Jackson showed his coaching chops and went small for Game 2. Instead of inserting Carl Landry into the starting lineup to replace Lee, Jackson started his sixth man, shooting guard Jarrett Jack. Rookie Harrison Barnes slid from the 3 to the 4, and the game plan was clear: shoot early and often.
And it worked. Golden State shot 65 percent from the field and hung 131 points on Denver in the thin air of the Pepsi Center. Stephen Curry, who had one of the best shooting seasons in NBA history this year, led the way with 30 points. Jack, Barnes and Klay Thompson each score more than 20 apiece.
It wasn't exactly Buster Douglas' knockout of Mike Tyson, but it was a heck of an upset for the Warriors. After all, they aren't called the Warriors for nothing. Denver had risen to take the No. 3 seed in the West and had been pegged by some as a title contender.
For Game 3 in Oakland, Denver tried to go with its own small squad, as George Karl removed center Kosta Koufos from the starting lineup and played Kenneth Faried at the 5. Yet again, Denver got out-rebounded and lost a heartbreaker this time, 110-108.
From seemingly being in complete control to facing a 2-1 series deficit, it's been quite a fall for Denver in the space of four days. This has turned into a great battle between two young and athletic teams, but it's also become a great battle between a veteran coach and a relative neophyte.
In his second year as head coach, Mark Jackson has his team playing with fiery determination. However the series turns out, the players and coaches will be eager to prove something in every subsequent meeting.
Memphis Grizzlies vs. Los Angeles Clippers
This rivalry comes with an asterisk, as these two teams already treated us to a rollicking first-round slugfest in last year's playoffs.
In Game 1 of last year's matchup, the Los Angeles Clippers erased a 27-points deficit and nipped the Memphis Grizzlies. L.A. took a 3-1 lead only to see Memphis force a Game 7. The Clippers prevailed, but it was clear that the squads played to each other's strengths.
Entering the series, the Clippers seemed to pose a matchup problem for the Grizz. Lob City is more than just acrobatics, as it rebounds proficiently and plays well in the half court.
The team's depth and athleticism figured to counteract the Grizzlies' ferocious defense. Memphis' erratic offense looked unlikely to keep pace with Chris Paul and company.
These conventional wisdom projections held up in Game 1, as L.A. cruised 112-91. But Game 2 proved a different story entirely, as Memphis' prowess on D became glowingly evident. Only CP3's last-second bank shot over a pair of defenders avoided a split at home for L.A.
The Grizzlies' progressive dominance continued in Game 3, as they held L.A. to 39 percent shooting and came away 94-82 winners. They held Paul to six points, and forced him to commit five turnovers with just four assists. They regained their dominance on the glass and pulled down 17 offensive boards to L.A.'s five.
One gets the sense watching these teams that if they played 100 times, they'd end up tied 50-50. On the face of it, the Clippers' depth and talent in the backcourt should carry them through, but never underestimate the value of toughness and stout defense in the playoffs.
Zach Randolph has flashed the caliber of play he demonstrated early in the season, and Marc Gasol has continued his excellent play on both ends of the floor. They anchor Memphis' defense, but unsung players like Tony Allen are also impressing on center stage.
Being in Tennessee, the Grizzlies don't get as much publicity as Lob City from Hollywood. But their annual meetings in the playoffs are becoming sure-fire barn burners, and together they embody everything that playoff basketball is all about.