2018 NBA Playoffs: The 1st-Round Opponent Each Contender Wants to Avoid
The Golden State Warriors would love to see the Houston Rockets in the first round of the 2018 NBA playoffs...because the only way that'd happen is if James Harden got suspended for excessive Eurostepping, Chris Paul gave up his basketball career to pursue employment at State Farm, the Rockets dropped all 25 of their remaining regular-season games and slipped to eighth in the West.
That isn't how this exercise will work, though.
The idea is to plot out realistic first-round meetings and isolate which pairing the serious contenders should want to avoid. Pegging matchups is tough right now, as four-and-a-half games separate the third and 10th seeds in the West, while the margin is five games between seeds No. 3 and No. 8 in the East.
Based on the upset-seeker's objective quality and matchup potential with the true contenders they might face, we'll make the case for why each top seed should harbor appropriate fear. Where the numbers don't complete the argument, we'll rely on creeping intuition to fill the gaps.
Every team with a realistic crack at a title is awash with earned confidence. They'll all claim not to care about their early-round opponent, that they'll take whoever's in front of them.
But they should have a preference.
Team to Avoid: Miami Heat
The real story here is that the Boston Celtics are included as contenders at all.
Based on their title odds at FiveThirtyEight, they have only a 1 percent chance to win a ring. Everyone else on this list has at least a 7 percent chance. But the Celts have proven playoff monster Kyrie Irving, an excellent coach in Brad Stevens and a defense that has spent most of the season ranked first overall.
That's enough to be part of this conversation.
As for the opponent they should hope to duck, it's the Miami Heat.
A first-round meeting is plausible, as Boston's 4.5-game cushion on the Cleveland Cavaliers suggests it'll stay in either the East's first or second slot. The lower reaches of the playoff picture are fluid, but Miami occupies the No. 8 spot at the moment.
The Celtics beat the Heat back in October, when they were stomping everybody as part of their 16-game winning streak. But Miami took the other two meetings, building an 18-point advantage in the 104-98 win on Nov. 22 that snapped Boston's 16-game run. The second Heat victory was the Kelly Olynyk Revenge Game, in which the former Celtic scored 32 points to help the Heat get over the top without Goran Dragic.
Boston has had less trouble with the Philadelphia 76ers (3-1 with a plus-5.4 net rating) and the Milwaukee Bucks (2-1 with a plus-2.2). Even if those two clubs are objectively scarier than Miami, there's an argument that the Celtics shouldn't be as concerned with them.
If you want to make some logical leaps, perhaps Stevens' ingenious scheming and demonstrated defensive acumen is better deployed against stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ben Simmons. Those guys are great, but they have exploitable flaws—namely an inability to shoot. It's easy for Stevens to focus his game plans against Milwaukee and Philly.
But the Heat, who are essentially star-less, come at you from all angles and scrap their way to well-coached wins, which perhaps makes it more difficult to draw up a plan. A matchup with Miami turns the whiteboard bullet points into cliches: Don't get outworked, get back in transition and win the 50/50 balls.
Erik Spoelstra is no coaching slouch, either. He's Stevens' equal in most respects, so it's unsurprising that the Heat have given Boston such trouble this year.
Team to Avoid: Indiana Pacers
There are far more options in play for the Cavs who, despite getting a trade-deadline rejuvenation, remain embroiled in the close quarters of the 3-9 mix in the East. Still, given the renewed vigor we've seen from LeBron James since the deadline shakeup and the more sensible personnel mix, we'll assume Cleveland falls no farther than third.
That could easily set up a first-round meeting with the Indiana Pacers, who happen to be 3-1 against the Cavs this year.
To be fair, Indy went 3-1 against those Cavs—the ones who couldn't defend, couldn't surround James with enough shooting, couldn't find a secondary playmaker on offense and, perhaps most importantly, didn't seem to like each other.
How Indiana might fare against these Cavs is a tougher question.
Victor Oladipo may find it harder to average 25 points per game or shoot 47.2 percent from deep if Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade aren't the ones generously permitting so many open looks. George Hill is a solid defender, and Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson at least put forth the effort once in a while.
All the same, Indiana remains the pick for another reason. It's called "default."
Of the other realistic early matchups, none profile as threats. The Cavs are 2-0 against the Sixers with an average margin of victory of 14.5 points. They're 2-1 against Milwaukee and 2-0 versus the Heat. The Wizards are 0-of-2 in their attempts to beat Cleveland, and the Pistons have lost two of three in blowout fashion.
And again, those records all came against a weaker version of the Cavaliers that no longer exists.
These remade Cavs are suddenly in a familiar position, one in which a loss before the conference finals seems unlikely.
Team to Avoid: San Antonio Spurs
It's difficult to imagine the San Antonio Spurs slipping all the way to seventh or eighth, which they'd have to do to put this matchup in play. Even when they reached the postseason as a sixth seed in 2015, it was only because of outdated rules that rewarded division winners; they tied for the West's fourth-best record that year.
But the Spurs are hurting, which is another way of saying Kawhi Leonard is still hurt. That's why they're three games out of the No. 8 spot, and that's why it's possible they could face the Rockets in the first round.
Houston should be terrified of that.
It isn't just that the Spurs bounced the Rockets from last year's playoffs. It's that they did it in such demoralizing (for Houston) fashion. San Antonio dared the Rockets to shoot mid-rangers, running gunners off the three-point line and walling off the paint. The series was basically over in five, because what's the point of even acknowledging Game 6? It was a 39-point Spurs demolition in which James Harden called it quits, shooting 2-of-11 from the field.
The Rockets are different now. They have Chris Paul and a gaggle of defensive-minded wings ideally suited for switchy basketball. Clint Capela is better, and Harden may not wear down so easily. Paul, in particular, has made a career out of taking the exact in-between shots San Antonio likes to concede.
But Houston is still the team that would have to adjust. San Antonio is the one with the most recently successful gambit; it's up to the Rockets to prove they have a counter.
Oh, and Leonard might actually play at some point, which would help the Spurs' chances against Harden.
Final fun fact: Gregg Popovich owns Mike D'Antoni, having booted him from the playoffs in 2005, 2007, 2008, 2013 and 2017.
Golden State Warriors
Team to Avoid: Oklahoma City Thunder
Andre Roberson's season-ending injury means the Oklahoma City Thunder don't have the roster they built this past summer—the one that so many lauded as like-sized, long and tenacious enough to give the Warriors fits.
No matter. OKC is still the no-brainer selection here.
Everybody has the blueprint for beating the Warriors, but the Thunder remain the team best equipped to execute it: overplay Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the perimeter. Grab, hold and pressure them relentlessly. Deny handoffs up top. Dare the gaggle of non-shooters occupying Golden State's support roles to fire away from deep.
Those tenets have resulted in two double-digit Thunder wins against the Warriors this year, and they portend an exceptionally difficult playoff series.
Paul George is as good an option against Kevin Durant as there is in the league, and he's capable of hounding Stephen Curry on switches. He dominated in Oklahoma City's 125-105 win in Oakland on Feb. 6.
Zoom out to compare broader team tendencies, and you see the Thunder ranking first in the league in turnovers forced. From the Warriors' perspective, that's a recipe for disaster, as they cough up the rock on a higher percentage of their possessions than anyone but the Sixers.
Giveaways—born of complacency and the compulsion to walk the tightrope between confident and reckless—have been Golden State's greatest weakness during the Steve Kerr era. OKC is purpose-built to capitalize on that vulnerability.
Add all that up, and it almost doesn't matter that the Thunder's offense is suspect. If they use the boards and turnovers to create more offensive possessions for themselves, they don't have to be as efficient as Golden State is.
The caveat, as always, is that the Dubs could find their elusive extra gear and blow anyone away in four games. Even in light of everything we've discussed, that's still in play against OKC.
That doesn't change the fact that it's still easy to imagine how the Thunder could pull off this upset. We've seen two regular-season examples already.
Team to Avoid: Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers
The mere thought of seeing Cleveland in the first round should send chills down Toronto's collective spine, but fortunately, an early meeting with the team that eliminated the Raptors in each of the last two postseasons (via a sweep in 2017, no less) is all but off the table.
Toronto profiles as the safest bet to finish first in the East, and Cleveland isn't falling to eighth. Nightmare scenario averted.
The numbers say the Raptors should be most worried about the Washington Wizards, who swept them in the 4-5 matchup during the 2015 playoffs and who've played them closer than anyone else in the East but the Pacers.
Washington is 2-1 against Toronto this year with a minus-0.2 net rating. That isn't great, but it's about as much success as any potential matchup has had against a weakness-free Raptors team that ranks among the top five in both offensive and defensive rating.
However, John Wall's fitness will be in question when he returns from knee surgery, and we've ignored two other objectively fearsome options.
Against a team this good, you have to scrap regular-season matchups and trust in talent.
Milwaukee and Philadelphia have the star power, and they rank second and fourth, respectively, in defensive efficiency over the last calendar month. Transcendent talent and demonstrated D can get you a long way in the playoffs, and the Bucks and Sixers have both. Who cares if Toronto is 2-0 against the Bucks and 3-1 against Philly?
Though we can't know for certain, the Raptors likely would rather face a suspect Wizards team than a motivated Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid in the first round. For a team that has become a footnote to James' greatness in recent postseasons, one can only assume Toronto would like to avoid being on the wrong end of another ascending star's narrative.