Best Individual Matchups in the First Round of 2014 NBA Playoffs

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 17, 2014

Best Individual Matchups in the First Round of 2014 NBA Playoffs

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    LM Otero

    From the historically significant battles to the bouts of the up-and-comers, the opening round of the 2014 NBA playoffs is littered with intoxicating individual matchups.

    Point-guard play predictably rules the roost. This is the "Golden Age" of the position after all, and this postseason field offers some of the best of the best.

    But don't sleep on some of these interior clashes. Between the assaults of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap on Eastern Conference frontcourts to the Western Conference tilt of two all-time greats, there's a little something for everyone underneath the basket.

    Out on the wings, it's more about survival mode. Several top-tier talents (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden) enter their respective series unmatched in the head-to-head department, leaving their opponents hoping for containment and desperately needing victories in the one-on-one wars seen here.

    It took nearly six months and a total of 2,460 games to get this far, but the playoffs are here now. The field is officially set—it's both real and spectacular.

    And it's highlighted by these eight individual showdowns, each a can't-miss collision.

    These could all be series-changing clashes. The underdogs won't have upset potential without major contributions from their players here, but the favorites can't afford for their guys to lay an egg, either.

    You won't find all of the opening round's biggest names here, but each head-to-head battle that made the cut features two hungry fighters with knockout power. If one player hits, the other will hit back—hard.

    Whether feature stars or X-factors, everyone on this list is crucial to their teams' postseason health. Short of a crystal ball in hand, these will be our best indicators of how each series will play out.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

Bradley Beal vs. Jimmy Butler

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    USA TODAY Sports

    No, Jimmy Butler and Bradley Beal aren't the biggest stars in this Chicago Bulls-Washington Wizards series. Neither holds that title inside his own locker room.

    They won't try to play that role here, either.

    Joakim Noah will continue anchoring both ends for the Windy City's finest, while John Wall's premier physical gifts will demand constant attention at Washington's end. The two All-Stars will likely get theirs, meaning this series could come down to supporting casts.

    Butler's offense comes and goes (11 games with 18-plus points, 13 games in single digits), but his defense is as good as advertised. Regardless where coach Tom Thibodeau employed his perimeter stopper, Butler yielded sub-11.5 player efficiency ratings to his matchup, via 82games.com.

    Beal is still getting the consistency part down (10 games in single digits), but his good days are terrific (22 games with 20-plus points). He can play the floor-spacing role for Wall to attack (40.2 three-point percentage) or run the offense creating shots for himself (17.1 points per game) or his teammates (3.3 assists).

    Either Beal or Wall could change the outcome of a game with his scoring alone. Butler's job is to make sure Beal stays in check—the rest of the Bulls can worry about Wall.

Paul Millsap vs. David West

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    The biggest appeal of this Atlanta Hawks-Indiana Pacers series is that of the train-wreck variety. Might the crashing, burning, top-seeded Pacers actually crash and burn their way to a first-round exit?

    Probably not, but anything is possible in the NBA's second season.

    For Atlanta to give itself a puncher's chance—Indiana is certainly the favorite, but it looks a bit wobbly—Paul Millsap needs to control his matchup with David West.

    West intimidates with toughness and tenacity. He's also a skilled scorer from mid-range in (14.0 points on 48.8 percent shooting) and a relentless rebounder (7.9 per 36 minutes).

    Millsap, though, has the bigger bag of tricks. With the addition of a three-point stroke (35.8 percent) and a larger offensive role than he's ever had (14.1 field-goal attempts), the first-time All-Star is the perfect leader for the Al Horford-less Hawks.

    With high motors and loads of talent on both sides of the coin, this matchup should pass both the eye test and the box-score check. The Pacers don't need West to win this showdown, but they could have a fight on their hands if he's dominated by Millsap.

Damian Lillard vs. Patrick Beverley

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    Associated Press

    What good would a Houston Rockets playoff series be without a Patrick Beverley battle infused with some bad blood? Given his intentionally uncomfortable brand of basketball, maybe that's a question we'll never have to answer.

    Safe to say Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard is not a fan of Beverley's work. 

    "You’ve got somebody out there that want to try to be bumping and doing little slick stuff," Lillard said after the teams last met in early March, via Chris Haynes of Comcast SportsNet. "... That’s not basketball."

    Well, it is Patrick Beverley basketball, always high-energy and always in the neighborhood of recklessness. Not a real surprise here, but Beverley isn't a big Lillard fan, either.

    "Damian Lillard whines," Beverley said during an appearance on The Matt Thomas Show on SportsTalk790. "I'm not a big fan of that."

    Apparent animosity aside, this will be a great battle for basketball reasons.

    Lillard is one of the NBA's premier scoring guards (20.7 points) and an underrated playmaker (5.6 assists). Beverley lives to defend such players.

    "When you play me, I'm going to get right up in your grill and let you know it's going to be a long day," Beverley said, via Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated. "It's going to be physical. It's going to be something you don't like. It's going to be hell."

    It's going to be basketball bliss for anyone who tunes in.

Al Jefferson vs. Chris Bosh

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    J Pat Carter

    The Charlotte Bobcats-Miami Heat series itself might not be all that compelling, but there's some generational attraction to the battle of the bigs.

    Al Jefferson is a throwback scoring force, transplanted from an era of grounded post games and wildly effective ball fakes. He's as unlikely an MVP candidate as you're going to find in today's league, but his resume (21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds) speaks for itself.

    Chris Bosh had a similar arsenal of post moves and countermoves in his past life, but times have changed. The big man moved himself from the inside out, taking more shots this season beyond 16 feet from the basket (481) than within it (472).

    Jefferson, like the Bobcats as a whole, can make Miami uncomfortable. He shredded this frontcourt in three meetings this season (25.3 points, 15.3 rebounds) and has no plans of backing off now.

    "It’s gonna be a dog fight playing against the defending champions,” Jefferson said, via Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. “We’ve been underdogs ever since I’ve been here and it’s worked so far.”

    If Miami comes in unprepared, Charlotte can give it a shock. Even if the Heat handle this series, Bosh will feel Jefferson's presence throughout.

Mike Conley vs. Russell Westbrook

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Russell Westbrook never takes his foot off the gas. Mike Conley plays at a more controlled tempo, but his top gear is close to his counterpart's in this series.

    The Memphis Grizzlies needed just five games to dispatch the Oklahoma City Thunder in their 2013 conference-semifinal meeting. Westbrook, of course, missed the festivities with the torn meniscus he suffered in the opening round.

    Well, the 25-year-old is back, and some might say he's better than ever (career-high 24.7 player efficiency rating). Conley himself might actually say that. Westbrook has gotten the better of him in each of their two head-to-head battles this season (24.0 points on 58.3 percent shooting, 7.5 assists for Westbrook; 13 points on 34.8 percent shooting, 9.0 assists for Conley).

    At the same time, Conley is without question having the best campaign of his seven-year career. He added more than two points to his previous personal best in scoring (17.2, up from 14.6) and nearly another two to his high mark in efficiency (20.0 PER, up from 18.3).

    Both floor generals will need to put their fingerprints and those of their respective teams on this series early. With two teams of such different styles—OKC's run-and-gun athleticism vs. Memphis' grit-and-grind—it's imperative to be the one dictating tempo.

    That job falls on the shoulders of Westbrook and Conley, two of the rising stars at the position.

     

Deron Williams vs. Kyle Lowry

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Either the Brooklyn Nets collapsed at the most inopportune time or they not-so-subtly set their own playoff path by dropping to the No. 6 seed.

    If the Toronto Raptors were in fact Brooklyn's desired opponent, this move may have as much savvy as Jason Kidd's costly soda spill.

    "Don't let the name recognition fool you," Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb cautioned. "These Raptors are much better than advertised."

    What Toronto lacks in experience it makes up for with effort and intensity. No one embodies that more than tough-as-nails point guard Kyle Lowry (17.9 points, 7.4 assists), who enters this matchup with a reputation-defying, on-paper edge over Deron Williams (14.3 points, 6.1 assists).

    Williams hasn't looked healthy for a while, spending a chunk of this season battling the same ankle problems that limited him at the start of 2012-13. He's had some moments of brilliance (nine games with at least 20 points and six assists) and some duds too (18 games with single-digit scoring).

    If he's the slightest step slow, Lowry will blow right past him. The Raptors are hungry and not the least bit intimidated by the trendy upset special.

Dirk Nowitzki vs. Tim Duncan

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    This Dallas Mavericks-San Antonio Spurs series won't produce game recaps, but rather, historical archives.

    Both Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan enter the contest with Hall of Fame-ready resumes in hand. Their work is already done, yet both continue to produce at top-shelf levels.

    Under the careful watch of coach Gregg Popovich, Duncan has been easing his way to this moment (29.2 minutes a night). He's still unleashing nightly assaults on the stat sheet (15.1 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists), but there's another gear he'll have to reach if he wants to add a fifth championship ring to his collection.

    Nowitzki can't afford to think that far ahead. He hasn't been able to ease off the accelerator, as the Mavs would've collapsed without him. The 35-year-old leads the team in scoring (21.7 points) and has been on a dead sprint since the start of April (36.8 minutes, 24.3 points, 7.1 rebounds).

    All of that work was to get to this stage. Nowitzki's Mavs now face a steep uphill climb, but they're ready for the fight.

    "We’ll just let it all hang out,” he said, via Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News. “But they’re a great team. After the All-Star break, they’ve been rolling. They’re definitely the favorites in the series. ... But we’re going in there to compete and we’ll see what happens."

    History has shown us that Nowitzki alone can turn the tide of a series. Then again, we've seen Duncan do the same thing.

    Can someone get the popcorn ready?

Stephen Curry vs. Chris Paul

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    The basketball gods have done more taking than giving this season, but putting this Golden State Warriors-Los Angeles Clippers matchup on the board was a welcome sign of generosity.

    Now, this isn't the same series we hoped we would get. The Warriors limp into the matchup minus interior anchor Andrew Bogut, who's out indefinitely with a rib fracture and may be done for the postseason.

    In a way, though, it might be even better than what we imagined.

    At least we'll still have two of today's top point guards in Stephen Curry and Chris Paul. Curry has ripped the Clippers for 22.0 points and 9.5 assists in the teams' four meetings, while Paul posted 28.0 points and 12.7 assists in the three games he played.

    The bar is unbelievably high for these two, yet they just might pass it.

    Without Bogut, the Dubs will run more of a small-ball look, giving Curry even more room to operate. His driving lanes will be wider and help defenders will have more ground to cover should the sharpshooter (42.4 three-point percentage) shake loose on the perimeter.

    The Clippers don't have to go small to match, though. This frontcourt oozes athleticism, and anything it loses defensively it should pick up in droves at the opposite end. Look for Doc Rivers to increase Lob City's flight schedule and for Paul to make even more of his own trips down the runway.

    Curry is going to have to be special to keep the Warriors alive. If he can make that kind of impact, though, Paul will have to follow suit to avoid another premature playoff exit.