Ranking Every First-Round Matchup in the 2014 NBA Playoffs

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2014

Ranking Every First-Round Matchup in the 2014 NBA Playoffs

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The NBA playoffs start this Saturday, and it's time to start thinking about which series should draw the most attention.

    Excitement is in the eye of the beholder, but let's do our best to rank this season's first round in terms of which series are most likely to keep your eyes glued to the television. On a scale of 1-10, 10 is the most exciting.

    A couple of caveats are in order.

    First, this is playoff basketball. Every series will be exciting, especially to fans of the respective teams. Having a series ranked low on this list is a relative measurement, not an indication that there's no reason to watch.

    Second, this is admittedly a subjective endeavor. Different fans look for different things in a basketball game. We're working with the assumption that tempo and high scores tend to be more exciting for the average fan. That's certainly not true so far as everyone's concerned.

    Now, let's decide which series we're looking forward to most. It's no easy choice.

8. Atlanta Hawks vs. Indiana Pacers

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Season Series: Tied, 2-2

    Excitement Meter: 4

    This could shape up to be a very competitive series, and that's the scary thing. It shouldn't. The Pacers should be able to take this in four games with their eyes closed.

    But we don't know who the Pacers are anymore. Their identity crisis has made them an interesting side-show without much to show for it. If you think psychological dramas are compelling material, this may be the most interesting series of all.

    But this is not the place to find entertaining basketball. Most games will be defensive struggles. Paul George hasn't been playing like much of a superstar. This is going to be an ugly mess, and not many will be watching (at least by NBA playoff standards).

    Still, we should probably concede that every series is worth watching. This one could go a long way in rectifying whatever's wrong with the Pacers. It could also go a long way in defining them as one of the most disappointing No. 1 seeds in recent memory.

    Besides a tied season series, there are plenty of reasons to keep an eye on this one. As shaky as the Pacers have been, even the eighth-seeded Hawks could push this series to six or seven games.

    The Hawks may not boast many household names, but they match up well with the Pacers—even against prized center Roy Hibbert, according to IndyStar's Michael Pointer:

    The Atlanta Hawks' 31-year-old rookie center from Macedonia [Pero Antic] averaged 17 points, shot 72 percent from the field — including 60 percent from 3-point range — in two games against Indiana this year. The Hawks won both games. He's been something of a nightmare for Pacers 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, who has been forced to guard Antic on the perimeter instead of Hibbert's preferred spot near the basket.

    That's right, Pero Antic may be the series X-factor. Maybe this could be more entertaining than we thought. 

7. Washington Wizards vs. Chicago Bulls

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Season Series: Wizards lead, 2-1

    Excitement Meter: 4

    Where you rank this series likely depends on how you define excitement. By some metrics, any series featuring Joakim Noah is by definition exciting. 

    But the problem is John Wall is the only other big star in this series, and he doesn't get nearly enough attention. Nor will he, no matter what happens against the Bulls. We all assume this series will go six games—wake us up when it's over.

    For basketball purists, there will be plenty to enjoy—system basketball at its best for the Bulls, a young up-and-coming team in the Wizards. There will be a clash of tempos and playing styles, a battle of wills to control the games' paces.

    For those looking for star power and compelling subplots, look elsewhere. This series will be all about basketball.

    Though the Wizards lead the season series, many will give the more experienced Bulls the advantage. They boast one of the best coaches in the game and a philosophy that was cut out for playoff basketball. 

    ESPN Chicago's Michael Wilbon makes the case for Chicago:

    No doubt, the Wizards have the personnel to score, inside (Nene and Marcin Gortat), from the backcourt (Wall and Beal) and from the wings (Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster). But team defense -- the Bulls rank No. 1 in that department among playoff teams in games against other playoff teams -- ought to slow the Wizards enough for the Bulls to win in six games.

    The devil's advocate courtesy of USA Today's Adi Joseph:

    [Washington] can score, which simply isn't true for the Bulls. The Wizards have a decided talent advantage on the Bulls, with Wall and Beal being the most gifted scorers in the series. Also, Gortat and Nene give them size to keep Noah and Gibson occupied.

    Carlos Boozer will need to score early and often to set the right tone for Chicago. Jimmy Butler will need to be the team's best all-around player.

    The Wizards will need John Wall to make a postseason name for himself.

    This has all the makings of a better-than-advertised series. You don't have to get excited about it. It'll still be a winner.

6. Charlotte Bobcats vs. Miami Heat

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Season Series: Miami leads, 4-0

    Excitement Meter: 5

    Excitement isn't always about a close series. That's a good thing for those watching the Heat take on the Charlotte Bobcats. This one will probably be over in four or five, and that's no disrespect to the much-improved Bobcats. 

    While the series won't be uncontested, the primary draw will be that the Miami Heat are playing. They won't be playing just to get through the first round, either. They'll be looking to re-establish rhythm that at times seemed lost near season's end, particularly with Dwyane Wade so often out of the lineup.

    Watching this series will be as much about scouting the Heat's progress as it is seeing who wins or loses.

    According to Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling, the series will also be a rare opportunity to actually see the Bobcats—and centerpiece Al Jefferson—get some attention:

    You might just overlook the Bobcats' success because they never appear on national television—a result of Charlotte's smaller-market status, the team's previous disastrous seasons and its lack of a high-flying, inside-out scoring superstar. But Jefferson, as a down-low anchor, has single-handedly brought back to relevance a team that needed a franchise player on both ends of the court.

    Jefferson's story is a good one, and it would be exponentially better if his team finds a way to somehow upset Miami. He could be a tough matchup for the Heat, too. If Miami is guilty of one vulnerability, it's lacking a meaty body to throw up against post-scorers like Jefferson.

    There's also the very real possibility that the Bobcats have stumbled upon a formula that could give Miami trouble over the course of a seven-game series.

    Consider what NBA TV's Dennis Scott had to say about beating the Heat (per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick): 

    You need two things at the same time. A point guard who has quickness who can get into the paint, and then I would play big, meaning that I'd have to have one of my two big men, whether it's the power forward or the center, has to be dominant on the block.

    In point guard Kemba Walker and Jefferson, the Bobcats seem to have both of those things.

    Unfortunately, they don't have the depth of playoff experience to really do business with Miami. Even if this looks like it could become a competitive series on paper, we all know better.


5. Dallas Mavericks vs. San Antonio Spurs

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Season Series: San Antonio leads, 4-0

    Excitement Meter: 6

    Don't let the regular-season meetings fool you. This will be a tightly contested series. It always is when these two rivals meet, and being swept in the season series might actually serve as a little motivation for the Dallas Mavericks.

    They know Dirk Nowitzki deserves better than that in what promises to be one of his few remaining tours of duty.

    Of course the San Antonio Spurs have an agenda of their own. After coming within a rebound of winning the 2013 NBA Finals, this team will be as determined as ever. They also boast improved depth and the best coach in the game.

    Until Tim Duncan slows to a crawl or retires, this team will be a title contender. 

    It's also had the upper hand for quite some time against these Mavericks. ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon puts the dominance in perspective:

    The Mavs might not fear the Spurs, but it feels like forever since Dallas defeated its Interstate 35 rival. Heck, Jason Kidd, the Brooklyn Nets' head coach with a streak of gray in his beard, had a double-double for Dallas the last time the Mavs beat the Spurs. That was way back on St. Patrick's Day of 2012. There's nothing lucky about the Mavs being matched up in the first round with a foe that has nine straight wins over Dallas.

    Regular-season wins to be sure.

    All of that goes out the window when the playoffs come around. As Mavs owner Mark Cuban said, (per McMahon), "I don't think anybody is afraid of anybody."

    The Mavericks can ill-afford to overthink this one. The Spurs match up well with them—that much has become undeniable. But Nowitzki is a matchup nightmare for any team, and there's no sure way to keep him from going off, even at this late stage of his career. 

    The Spurs will take the series, but not before Dallas has its say.

4. Brooklyn Nets vs. Toronto Raptors

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Season Series: Tied, 2-2

    Excitement Meter: 7

    With the downfall of the Indiana Pacers, these are the two teams they may stand the best chance of upsetting the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference. The winner of this series will face the Heat in the semifinals, potentially establishing a somewhat early litmus test for the two-time defending champs.

    But let's not get ahead of ourselves. This is going to be a great series, too.

    The Nets have looked reinvigorated since opting for more of a small-ball approach, giving Paul Pierce minutes at the 4-spot instead of relying on a more traditional power forward like Kevin Garnett. That's opened up the floor and given Brooklyn a far more dangerous scoring attack.

    Meanwhile, the Raptors are young, athletic and seemingly have nothing to lose despite being the third seed. No one expected this team to perform like it has, so there's a sense that everything from here on out is just the cherry on top.

    The big subplot here is that Brooklyn appeared to tank their final game of the regular season in an effort to face these Raptors, assuring a Toronto team that will be abundantly motivated to prove that was a mistake.

    Also expect a tightly-contested series. Sports Illustrated's Ben Eagle makes the case:

    If the regular season was any indication, this should be one of the most evenly matched first-round series. The Raptors and Nets met four times, and while each team took two games, three of the four were decided by four points or fewer. The last meeting, in particular, had a postseason vibe, with Brooklyn forward Paul Pierce calling the Nets' 101-97 victory on March 10 "one of our biggest games of the year."

    The key for Toronto will be exploiting its youth. Swingmen DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross have quick first steps that could give guys like Joe Johnson some fits. 

    The key for Brooklyn will be working previously injured players like Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko back into the rotation without disrupting the team's rhythm. On that front, head coach Jason Kidd doesn't sound too worried (per ESPN New York's Scott Sargent):

    I like right where we are. We are in a good place and playing some pretty good basketball as of late. We’ve rested and guys have gotten their work in at the same time of getting some of the injuries they’ve had -- some of the nicks and bruises -- healed. Now it’s time to figure out how to get a win on the road.

    That road win will be all-important as the Nets will be facing Toronto without home-court advantage.

3. Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Season Series: OKC leads, 3-1

    Excitement Meter: 7

    We are in store for a classic battle of styles and tempos. 

    The Oklahoma City Thunder will look to dictate pace with a fast and furious approach spearheaded by point guard Russell Westbook. The Memphis Grizzlies will look to counter with their patented defense, always a threat as playoff games are oft to slow down and privilege half-court ball.

    OKC lives and dies based on how their one-two punch of Kevin Durant and Westbrook performs. The team goes as they go. Memphis instead relies on more of an ensemble approach headlined by Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley.

    It's hard to find two teams more fundamentally different from one another.

    On paper, the Thunder seem to have the clear advantage. When healthy, they're as favored as any to make it all the way to the NBA Finals. Students of the game will watch this series closely, though. The Grizzlies were built for playoff basketball, and they know that defense can win championships.

    The two teams have also built quite the playoff rapport, facing each other twice in the last three postseasons. The Thunder got the better of a seven-game series in 2011 but faltered last season when Westbrook was sidelined.

    The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater expands on recent history:

    This season, the Thunder handled Memphis well, winning three of the four games in relatively easy fashion. But stretching the series history of these two back to that initial postseason meeting in 2011, it’s a nearly even split. The Thunder has won 12 games, the Grizzlies 11.

    Could this be an upset in the making? Per Slater, OKC head coach Scott Brooks certainly isn't taking anything for granted: "It’s not going to be easy. Two (verse) seven, that means zero. It’s us against them. They’re a very good basketball team."

2. Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Season Series: Houston leads, 3-1

    Excitement Meter: 8

    If it's offense you want, it's offense you got. Consider the regular-season series between these two.

    Nov. 5 at Portland: Rockets 116, Trail Blazers 101

    Dec. 12 at Portland: Trail Blazers 111, Rockets 104

    Jan. 20 at Houston: Rockets 126, Trail Blazers 113

    March 9 at Houston: Rockets 118, Trail Blazers 113 (OT)

    That's a lot of points.

    Both of these teams have incredibly well-rounded scoring attacks. The Rockets are led by James Harden, who averaged 25.4 points per game this season, but they have quite the supporting cast in Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lin. Thanks to their tempo and philosophy, the ball touches a lot of those hands throughout the course of games.

    Meanwhile, Portland has one of the best starting fives in the business, led by LaMarcus Aldridge and point guard Damian Lillard

    The Blazers' real X-factor may be coming off the bench, though. Mo Williams will look to provide a spark as he's so often done over the course of his 11 NBA seasons. He was largely responsible for making Terry Stotts' bench look respectable this season, averaging 9.7 points and 4.3 assists.

    Another matchup to watch is how the defensively-inclined Robin Lopez handles Dwight Howard in the post. You don't hear Lopez's name much, but he's a big body with which Howard will have to contend.

    This will be one series where you don't have to think to hard about Xs and Os. There will be a lot of running and quick shots on both sides. Many of those shots will go in. That should be enough to get even the most casual NBA fan a little excited.

1. Golden State Warriors vs. L.A. Clippers

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    Danny Moloshok

    Season Series: Tied, 2-2

    Excitement Meter: 10

    We'll all miss seeing Andrew Bogut throw his burly body at Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but this will still be quite the series in his absence.

    It will be physical and high-scoring in one fell swoop, everything a playoff series should be. And it's already generating more talk than any other first-round meeting.

    Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala talked up the physicality (per the San Jose Mercury News' Diamond Leung):

    We've had some pretty intense matchups against the Clippers, so I'm sure guys are really going to lock in. It'll be physical. They have a chippiness about them. They try to get you out of your game. We've got a group of guys, we aren't going to back down, but we won't let it affect our psyche.

    Earlier, Warriors guard Klay Thompson called Blake Griffin out for the wrong kind of physicality (again according to Leung):

    "He flops a little bit," Thompson told 95.7 The Game. "He flails his arms around, so you might catch a random elbow or something, and that doesn't rub off too well on guys, you know? He's kind of like a bull in a china shop, kind of out of control sometimes. And then you just do see him flop sometimes. Like how can a guy that big and strong flop that much?"

    Unsurprisingly, Griffin has not returned an explanation for his reputed flopping. He'll likely look to provide all his answers on the floor, building upon what's been his best all-around season yet. Griffin averaged an efficient 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists during the regular season.

    With or without the flopping, Griffin and Co. walk into this series with an advantage. USA Today's Adi Joseph explained it succinctly, writing,

    The Clippers arguably have two of the five best players in the NBA, making them a legitimate threat to beat anyone. And unlike last season, they have surrounded Griffin and Paul with sharpshooting, defensive-oriented role players who can get the job done.

    One of the better sub-plots will be who gets the better of the matchup between Chris Paul and Stephen Curry. Paul has long been considered the standard-bearer for point guards in the NBA, but Curry has had an MVP-caliber season averaging 24.0 points and 8.5 assists per game.

    He always seems to give the Warriors a chance, and that's reason enough to see if they can bring an early halt to the Clippers' title ambitions. Golden State upset the No. 3 seed Denver Nuggets a season ago and will look for similar results this time around.