The One 2017 1st-Round Opponent Each Playoff Team Matches Up with Best

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2017

The One 2017 1st-Round Opponent Each Playoff Team Matches Up with Best

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    Legend has it that if we talk about the NBA playoffs ad nauseam, it'll get here exponentially quicker than if we were to remain silent. It's like when a groundhog doesn't see its shadow Feb. 2 and spring gets here sooner, only completely different and not at all related.

    On the off chance any of this is true (or makes sense), we have a moral obligation to talk about the best possible first-round matchup for every projected postseason team.

    Playoff-bound squads will be selected and seeded based on the standings ahead of games on March 23. And though we're looking for each championship hopeful's most ideal opponent, these challengers must be within realistic proximity of the bracket.

    The Golden State Warriors would of course prefer to tip off postseason play against the Sacramento Kings, but the latter, while mathematically alive, isn't getting the Western Conference's No. 8 seed.

    Suggested opponents will be limited to rivals also slated to partake in the Association's springtime extravaganza. First-place squads, in this case the Cleveland Cavaliers and Warriors, will be the lone exceptions. As of now, they're set to tango with whichever team secures eighth place in their respective conference.

    It makes sense to open the door to outsiders on the verge of looking in.

Those Still in the Hunt

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    Chicago Bulls (No. 9 East): Not the Cleveland Cavaliers

    The Chicago Bulls' playoff hopes are slipping further away. Dwyane Wade's season-ending elbow injury doesn't make them worse, but his absence doesn't unlock a floor-spacing offense, either.

    Less than two games separate the Bulls from the eighth-place Miami Heat. This is technically good, but it's mostly pointless. A first-round clash with the Cavaliers will end in Game 5, after LeBron James rests in Game 4.

    There's still time for the Bulls to position themselves for a better, albeit not great, matchup with the Boston Celtics or Washington Wizards. They have the easiest remaining schedule in the East, according to PlayoffStatus.com, and three games in the loss column stand between them and sixth or seventh place.

    Detroit Pistons (No. 10 East): Washington Wizards

    Process of elimination time!

    Should the Detroit Pistons, who are two games in the loss column back of eighth place in the East, want to play the Cavaliers? Stanley Johnson may still own a timeshare somewhere in James' head, but no.

    How about the rangy Celtics, who have the potential to run Andre Drummond out of the game? Yeah, no.

    Well, this means the Wizards. The Pistons are three games back in the loss column of the six seed it would take to play them. Their remaining schedule isn't hard, but they also haven't done anything to earn the slightest bit of confidence.

    Portland Trail Blazers (No. 9 West): San Antonio Spurs

    Default pick!

    Eighth place is all the Portland Trail Blazers have left to chase. The seventh-place Memphis Grizzlies are seven games ahead in the loss column and totally out of reach. And given the option of playing the San Antonio Spurs or the Warriors, your best (inevitably losing) bet is to square off with the former.

Miami Heat (No. 8 East): Washington Wizards

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    Season Series: 2-0

    Remaining Games: April 8 (in Washington), April 12 (in Miami)

    Point Differential: +14

    At some point, reality will set in for the scorching-hot Miami Heat, and they'll move past "Just happy to be here" playoff status and enter "Please, oh please, let us avoid the Cavaliers in the first round" territory.

    They won't be favorites in a series against the Washington Wizards. Their first two meetings came before Markieff Morris remembered he was good at basketball and Washington staged its post-Christmas takeover.

    But the Heat are a different team, too. They're an NBA-best 24-6 over their last 30 games, with top five offensive and defensive ratings. We're beyond this being a fluke streak. They've been one of the most dangerous squads for almost half the season. That's not fortuitous. It's stasis.

    Goran Dragic vs. John Wall is a point guard battle the first round deserves. The Heat don't have a Bradley Beal stopper with Justise Winslow on the sidelines, and they'll have a tough time countering his offensive punch if Dion Waiters' ankle still isn't right. But the Hassan Whiteside-Marcin Gortat matchup will tilt in their favor most nights, and James Johnson's Draymond Green impression neutralizes at least one of Markieff Morris and Otto Porter.

    Even with Bojan Bogdanovic and Ian Mahinmi coming off Washington's bench, Miami is deeper. No second unit has been better during its 30-game tear. Rotations shorten in the playoffs, but having almost equal backup for any fathomable slump is a big deal.

    If the Heat want a crack at the Wizards, they have work to do. The Celtics are two games up in the loss column for second place, so Washington will probably finish third. Miami needs to make up a one-game gap on the Indiana Pacers or Milwaukee Bucks to keep this scenario alive.

Indiana Pacers (No. 7 East): Toronto Raptors

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    Season Series: 0-1

    Remaining Games: March 31 (in Toronto), April 4 (in Indiana)

    Point Differential: -25

    It's hard to pick an ideal first-round foe for the Pacers because they're so hard to figure out themselves. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote:

    They fired [Frank] Vogel and exchanged [George] Hill for [Jeff] Teague with the stated goal of playing faster. They're playing a hair slower than they did last season. They promoted [Nate] McMillan even though he had almost no history of pushing the pace. That's not to say McMillan was a bad choice; he's a smart basketball mind with a good track record.

    Regardless of who succeeded Vogel, Teague would ignite a drive-and-kick machine and free George to work more off the ball. Nope. Their shot-selection profile hasn't budged: They're 19th in total drives, 28th in shots within the restricted area, 27th in threes and toward the top in mid-range jumpers. They're 15th in offensive efficiency and 17th on defense. They might be the most average team in the league.

    One game separates the Pacers from the eighth-place Heat. Roughly half of their remaining games come on the road, where they are 11-25, with a net rating identical to the Sacramento Kings. Their foremost priority is avoiding the wrath of LeBron James out of the gate.

    Still, the Pacers are in equal proximity to fifth place. One game stands between them and the Atlanta Hawks. And though the Toronto Raptors obliterated them in their lone meeting so far, they're a team the Pacers would be thankful to pull.

    Kyle Lowry should be back from his right wrist injury by then, but we've seen both him and DeMar DeRozan disappear in prior postseasons. The Pacers gave the Raptors trouble in last year's first round, pushing the series a full seven games before bowing out.

    Toronto doesn't have Paul George Kryptonite. DeMarre Carroll isn't the same player, and Norman Powell is still inexperienced. Indiana can throw a bunch of different looks at DeMar DeRozan, with C.J. Miles and George, while a Myles Turner-Thaddeus Young frontcourt has the ability to render Jonas Valanciunas unplayable.

Milwaukee Bucks (No. 6 East): Washington Wizards

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    Season Series: 1-3

    Remaining Games: None

    Point Differential: +11

    The Bucks' 1-3 record against the Wizards doesn't do this non-rivalry justice. Three of the four games were decided by six points or fewer. Milwaukee won the one that wasn't by 27 points, on Dec. 23, just before Washington reinvented the wheel.

    Close games haven't favored the Bucks for most of this season. They went 13-17 in contests that entered crunch time through February—defined as the final five minutes of games in which no team leads or trails by more than five points. 

    But Giannis Antetokounmpo and friends are getting their act together. They're 5-0 since the start of March in such situations. The offense still gets bogged down by too many one-on-ones, but the defense is getting enough stops to help the Bucks control the clock.

    There isn't a top-four seed that should want to face them in the first round—not when they're posting top-10 offensive and defensive marks in March, through which they're 10-3. The Wizards will get the benefit of the doubt in any series, but their defense has slipped in recent weeks. They don't have the length to combat Milwaukee's most lanky lineups, which are terrifying when Thon Maker doesn't look lost.

    Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova will make life difficult on Beal and Wall every possession. Antetokounmpo will exhaust one or both of Morris and Porter. Washington's pick-and-roll chemistry may never capture regular-season form.

    These teams would be paired off if the playoffs started today. There's a lot of basketball left to go, but the Wizards have an ironclad grip on third place. It falls on the Bucks to stave off whatever surges the Heat and Pacers might have left in them.

Atlanta Hawks (No. 5 East): Boston Celtics

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    Season Series: 1-1

    Remaining Games: April 6 (in Atlanta)

    Point Differential: +14

    We're resting heavily on mind-game appeal here, because the Hawks are the Pacers of top-five seeds. They don't really have an ideal first-round foe.

    Atlanta has the worst point differential of any playoff squad (minus-83). Indiana is the only other one with a negative plus-minus. But there's this hostility between Atlanta and Boston, dating back to the first round of last year's playoffs, that brings out a fiery consistency in the NBA's most turbulent roller coaster.

    Dennis Schroder and Isaiah Thomas don't like each other. The former claims the latter talked trash to his parents. Schroder once bounced Thomas to the ground. Thomas returned the favor with a karate-chop thing.

    This is what a contemporary rivalry looks like. Last year, the Hawks were the better team. This season, the Celtics are superior, in large part because Al Horford switched sides and they have better spacing. But the individual matchups are even in enough places to make this a series.

    Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap, assuming he's healthy, can cater to whatever frontcourt Celtics head coach Brad Stevens tilts toward: more traditional with Amir Johnson and Horford; spacier with Kelly Olynyk and Horford; or smaller with Jae Crowder at the 4.

    Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha can be series-changers against Boston's wings. Kent Bazemore is a good counter to Avery Bradley if his three-point shot is finding nylon. Atlanta runs into trouble with a dearth of backup playmaking, but Hardaway can win a game or two by catching fire as the primary second-unit ball-handler.

    And then there's the Schroder-Thomas beef. Thomas is clearly better, and Schroder has yet to hit a three versus Boston this season. But the chippiness is infectious—in a good way. The Hawks might be best served if they drop to sixth or seventh place for an encore dance with their foremost rival.

Toronto Raptors (No. 4 East): Atlanta Hawks

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    Season Series: 1-2

    Remaining Games: None

    Point Differential: +34

    Lowry's absence pigeonholes the Raptors to the four seed. Just a game separates them from the third-place Wizards, but the season series is done, and the offense has been average at best without its quarterback.

    While Lowry has a target date in mind for his return from wrist surgery, per the Toronto Sun's Mike Ganter, nothing exact has been confirmed. And it doesn't need to be. There aren't enough games left on Toronto's schedule, inside 12 to play, for it to matter beyond reasonable doubt.

    The Raptors have to ask themselves: Which opponent can we beat with what might be a beta version of Lowry? The Hawks fit that bill, even though they won the season series.

    Two of the three games were decided by six points or fewer, the most recent of which, on March 10, didn't feature Lowry. In the lone game Millsap didn't play against Toronto, on Dec. 3, Atlanta lost by 44.

    At full strength, the Raptors win almost every position battle. Serge Ibaka vs. Millsap will often bend the Hawks' way, but it's close enough. Sefolosha can pester DeMar DeRozan or Lowry, not both. Atlanta will have to use Bazemore, Hardaway and Schroder to make up the difference, none of whom are good matches for Toronto's best playmakers.

    Defense is the Hawks' sole constant, and they're not locks to wrap up that department. The Raptors have so many capable bodies in Cory Joseph, P.J. Tucker, Ibaka, Powell and sometimes Carroll. They are fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions since the All-Star break, and Lowry's return shouldn't muck up that groove.

    This is the four-five sparring we'll get if the East's tippy-top standings hold serve, and that bodes well for the Raptors—even if Lowry isn't ready to rock or completely back to normal.

Washington Wizards (No. 3 East): Indiana Pacers

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    Season Series: 3-1

    Remaining Games: None

    Point Differential: +22

    Nothing sinister stands out from this regular-season sample. Washington fell in Indiana, 107-105, prior to setting the Association ablaze and then rattled off three straight victories over the blue and gold, only one of which came by more than six points.

    Both teams are more shallow than not. The Wizards are a little deeper overall, and much deeper when Kelly Oubre Jr. brings defensive hustle, but the two sides will revel in compacted rotations.

    That's a problem for the Pacers. The Wizards' starting five is a plus-51 through 72 minutes of action against them. They'll get killed on defense when subbing in Bogdanovic for Morris (if that's still a thing), but the Pacers don't have the offense to make them pay.

    Indiana's own starting lineup is its best weapon, and that group has barely played against Washington (19 minutes). But the unknown, in this case, is not an advantage.

    Peak Morris and Porter will drastically diminish the number of times Paul George vs. The World sets are successful. Teague is a lateral match for a defensively engaged Wall at best. Turner isn't featured enough to displace Gortat and Mahinmi from their comfort zones. And the Pacers typically have at least one player in the lineup who the Wizards can stash Beal.

    Does a series between the Pacers and Wizards last longer than five games? Asking for a friend.

Boston Celtics (No. 2 East): Indiana Pacers

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Season Series: 3-0

    Remaining Games: None

    Point Differential: +22

    By George's own admission, per NESN.com's Darren Hartwell, the Celtics are who the Pacers strive to be:

    If you look at their roster, everybody knows what to expect out of everybody. There's never a moment where a guy is like, 'What kind of shot are you taking?' or 'What are you doing?' They are beyond that.

    And that's the chemistry we're trying to make. To where, when guys are playing, we're comfortable with their play style and we know what they're going to do within our offense. We've got a little way to go.

    The Celtics haven't obliterated the Pacers in their three regular-season victories. But they've stymied some of their best units and swallowed most of their shooters.

    George will see so many different defensive looks it'll be a wonder if he's able to shoot 40 percent from the field for the series. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Bradley and Crowder will all get time on him, and each one is scrappy enough to save the Celtics from collapsing every other half-court possession.

    Indiana is one of the few teams against which Boston might be able to control the defensive glass. Horford can make all of the enemy bigs uncomfortable, Thomas can be stashed on Monta Ellis or Miles depending on the lineup, and George won't be able to take nights off on defense.

    Add in a fortress that's third in points allowed per 100 possessions since the All-Star break, and a full-strength Celtics squad has the depth and versatility to make quick work of a Pacers squad that features postseason Paul George.

Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 1 East): Atlanta Hawks

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Season Series: 1-1

    Remaining Games: April 7 (in Cleveland), April 9 (in Atlanta)

    Point Differential: +1

    Since the 2015 postseason, Cleveland is 12-1 against Atlanta. Two playoff meetings are included in that tally, through which the Cavaliers are a perfect 8-0 and winning games by an average of 12.9 points.

    The Hawks' single victory against James and crew came Nov. 8 this season, when the Cavaliers went 9-of-35 (25.7 percent) on open and wide-open threes. And they still only won by four after building an 18-point lead.

    Cleveland's defense is a concern. Only the Los Angeles Lakers are allowing more points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break. But this cannot be presented without acknowledging the revolving door of injuries and rest nights permeating the reigning champs' roster. 

    Besides, the Cavaliers flattened a better version of the Hawks in 2015 without Kevin Love and with just two games' worth of Kyrie Irving. Their defense doesn't need to be in ship-shape to own this series.

    First-round opponents won't matter much to the Cavaliers, who have a one-game lead on first place. But they should absolutely be rooting for the eighth-place Heat to close the two-game gap sitting between them and the Hawks.

Denver Nuggets (No. 8 West): Golden State Warriors

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Season Series: 1-2

    Remaining Games: None

    Point Differential: -10

    This is a pick-your-deadly-poison situation for the Denver Nuggets: Do they want to exit the first round at the hands of the Spurs or Warriors?

    Most teams would roll with the Spurs, the lesser of two indomitable superpowers. The Nuggets are different. For one, they've been absolutely crushed by Old Reliable. San Antonio has outscored them by 66 points through three meetings. Mostly, though, Golden State is the better—translation: less horrific—matchup for how they play.

    Think of the Nuggets as Houston Rockets Jr. Their three-point rate (32.6) isn't nearly as high (46.4), but they steer themselves, willingly, into the Warriors' path. They want to get into a shootout. They go for quickish half-court decisions while running the offense through Nikola Jokic and blitz opponents with full-floor speed when he takes a seat—a model that's propped up the NBA's best offense since the Serbian savior rejoined the starting five Dec. 15.

    Trying to beat the Warriors at their own game is a bad idea, especially when you're not built to mirror them to perfection. But the Nuggets aren't hoping to mimic them or the Rockets. They blend aspects of both while attempting to unleash hell on the offensive and defensive glass.

    Golden State is more likely to be thrown off by the way Denver plays than San Antonio.

Memphis Grizzlies (No. 7 West): San Antonio Spurs

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Season Series: 2-0

    Remaining Games: March 23 (in San Antonio), April 4 (in San Antonio)

    Point Differential: +23

    Earning a first-round date with the Utah Jazz, their actual ideal opponent, is out of the question for the Grizzlies. They'll be lucky to get the No. 6 seed after beginning March with five straight losses. They followed that up with a four-game winning streak, but if you give the Oklahoma City Thunder an inch, Russell Westbrook isn't one to return the favor.

    The Spurs are the next natural fit, because they play a similar style. But as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe reiterated on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast, the Grizzlies want no part of them. The Spurs swept them in the 2013 Western Conference Finals and then dispatched them again in four games last season. They'd rather meet the Warriors.

    Except, screw that.

    Funny things can happen when you drive a team out of its element. Golden State has encountered problems in the past against Memphis; Houston might, too. But the Grizzlies are no longer built to contend with the anti-Grizzlies. Their transition defense is bland, and they allow 35.7 percent of their opponents' shots to come from beyond the arc—third-highest rate in the league.

    That defense won't work against Houston. Memphis will inherently drive down possession totals with its own cold, calculating pace, but that doesn't offset three-point volume over the course of a seven-game set.

    San Antonio isn't looking to shoot threes in bunches. Head coach Gregg Popovich has his team grinding down games to a slow halt. That suits Memphis, whereas, under the current circumstances, incurring Houston is a (quicker) postseason death sentence.

Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 6 West): Utah Jazz

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Season Series: 3-1

    Remaining Games: None

    Point Differential: -7

    Playing the Jazz has to be the Thunder's goal. Why else would they take on Taj Gibson, a potential rental, at the trade deadline? Yeah, the price for him and Doug McDermott was right, but his arrival was too perfect for this scenario.

    Between Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Gibson, Oklahoma City's frontcourt is stocked with bullies. And the perimeter ranks aren't forgiving, either. Russell Westbrook will punish defenses with endless drives and boundless energy. Andre Roberson will work the toughest defensive assignment to exhaustion.

    This is the personnel you need against the Jazz, human bulldozers in their own right. Rudy Gobert will destroy anyone who comes into his domain, while Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles and often George Hill take pleasure in suffocating opposing ball-handlers.

    Oklahoma City isn't able to unlock all the lineups Utah can—mainly the Gobert-plus-four-shooters combinations that can be so effective. But the new starting five, featuring Gibson instead of Domantas Sabonis, is outscoring opponents by 20.8 points per 100 possessions, with rebounding rates that'll make even Utah swoon.

    Plus, when the alternative is the Rockets or Spurs, the decision isn't hard. The Thunder are 1.5 games back of the fifth-place Los Angeles Clippers and should view surpassing them as a priority, not a bonus. 

Los Angeles Clippers (No. 5 West): Utah Jazz

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Season Series: 2-1

    Remaining Games: March 25 (in Los Angeles)

    Point Differential: +23

    The Clippers can fall to sixth or seventh place, setting up first-round battles with the Rockets or Spurs, respectively. Or they can tread water in the war for fourth, guaranteeing a dalliance with the Jazz no matter what.

    Once again, this is not a difficult choice.

    Utah has lost more value to injuries than any other squad, according to NBA Man Games Lost, and still has a top-six record and top-four net rating. This isn't a team to be trifled with at full bore. Then again, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote, this matchup suits Los Angeles in so many ways:

    Strong defense and comfort with a slow pace should suit the Jazz to the playoff environment, but it's tough to trust in so little experience from their key pieces. Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson and George Hill have been there before, but Rudy Gobert and Rodney Hood will be newbies, while Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors have only experienced getting swept in four games.

    And say what you want about Paul not getting out of the second round, but he's at least made it there in four of his eight postseason trips.

    Through three regular-season scuffles—only two of which included all members of the Big Three—the Clippers have survived playing the Jazz's style:

    Clippers:Off. Rtg.Def. Rtg.Net Rtg.PaceeFG%
    Overall109.5106.13.498.3653.4
    vs. Jazz103.495.87.591.1850.6

    Three-game sample sizes are nothing, but the Clippers have shown they can win slow and ugly. And contrary to playing the Rockets, they don't need to worry about one of DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin being forced off the floor by hyper-small lineups.

    Not one of the Jazz's playmaking 4s will overwhelm Griffin, and the Clippers' two bigs are a plus-41 in 89 minutes of action against their most likely first-round opponent. 

Utah Jazz (No. 4 West): Los Angeles Clippers

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Season Series: 1-2

    Remaining Games: March 25 (in Los Angeles)

    Point Differential: -23

    Isn't it great when things work out like this? The Clippers should want the Jazz. The Jazz should want the Clippers to want them. 

    Despite trailing the season series and getting torched 88-72 on Feb. 13 against a Chris Paul-less unit, Utah has dictated the terms of this contentious relationship. Every game is a slog—Utah's bread and butter. Los Angeles is shooting under 33 percent from three. During March 13's meeting, a Jazz win, Gobert "accidentally" whacked J.J. Redick in the face and coaxed Paul into losing his cool.

    "It was just a little tussle," Paul said afterward, per the Deseret NewsJody Genessy. "I'm not worried about him. He can play, but he just talks a lot."

    "It's going to be a physical series, a hostile series," Austin Rivers added of a potential first-round romance. "They're a really good team. They got good players. I would imagine it would be a physical, really physical series."

    Nightly floggings should favor the Jazz, but the Clippers have, to date, pushed back. Head coach Quin Snyder can and should deploy four-out lineups around Gobert, with Joe Johnson or Gordon Hayward at the 4, in an effort to get one of Griffin or Jordan yanked from the game. He can also stay the course, hope his team gets healthy and ditch his musical-chairs rotation.

    Just two of Utah's lineups have eclipsed 10 total minutes against Los Angeles this season. Four of the Clippers' units, by comparison, have cleared 10, and three have tallied 20 or more. A little continuity and good health will go a long way in a series that, stylistically, is exactly what the Jazz want it to be.

Houston Rockets (No. 3 West): Los Angeles Clippers

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    Season Series: 2-0

    Remaining Games: April 10 (in Los Angeles)

    Point Differential: +43

    Caveat alert: The Rockets' point differential against the Clippers is skewed. Neither Griffin nor Paul played during their 140-116 takedown Dec. 30.

    Caveat to the caveat: Houston thumped Los Angeles on March 1, at Staples Center, by 19 points with the Big Three fully intact.

    No, the Rockets probably aren't going to swish 20 three-pointers every time they step foot on the court. But they hoist enough treys that it's in the realm of possibility. More importantly, though, they're just a bad draw for the team formerly known as Lob City.

    This shouldn't come as a surprise. The Clippers get slaughtered every time they play the Warriors. Quarter-strength, half-strength, full strength—it doesn't matter. The Warriors create mismatches they cannot overcome. Houston, as Golden State-light, can have a similar effect, albeit to a lesser degree. 

    Both Griffin and Jordan cannot be on the floor when Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni sticks Patrick Beverley, Eric Gordon, James Harden and Lou Williams around Clint Capela. Jordan specifically becomes impossible to play when Ryan Anderson soaks up time at center.

    The Rockets don't need a Draymond Green to anchor the defense if the Clippers' lone big is Griffin. They can run fast and free almost without consequence. They can't say that about other potential opponents. The Grizzlies and Thunder are more likely to disturb their dynamic by forcing reversions—something the Clippers aren't built to do.

San Antonio Spurs (No. 2 West): Memphis Grizzlies

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    Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    Season Series: 0-2

    Remaining Games: March 23 (in San Antonio), April 4 (in San Antonio)

    Point Differential: -23

    Sure, the Grizzlies should, logistically speaking, be crossing their fingers for a shot at the Spurs. But that says more about their dim playoff stock.

    Kawhi Leonard didn't play in San Antonio's first loss, an 89-74 shellacking Feb. 6. And during the second-go round, a 104-96 loss March 18, the Spurs ran into a streaking Grizzlies faction, on the road, while forgetting it's totally OK not to turn the ball over.

    Here's the skinny: Between 2011-12 and last season, including playoff games, San Antonio was 24-4 against Memphis. Both rosters have changed over that time, but the on-court approaches remain roughly the same. And if you go up against the Spurs playing their brand of meticulously paced basketball, you're more often than not going to lose.

    Maybe the Grizzlies will be a tougher out than in years past. Marc Gasol is playing career basketball, at 32, when locked in, and Mike Conley is doing the same.

    Guarantee the best versions of both players, and the pick doesn't change. The Spurs were clobbered by a more athletic and explosive Thunder team in the second round last year. They haven't added enough bounce to cruise past Oklahoma City or even Denver in the same way they can Memphis.

Golden State Warriors (No. 1 West): Portland Trail Blazers

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Season Series: 4-0

    Remaining Games: None

    Point Differential: +78

    At long last, we journey outside the projected playoff picture.

    The Warriors should want no part of the Grizzlies, if only to spare Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Green some unnecessary bumps, bruises and aches. And the Nuggets are too much of an unknown, in a harrowing sort of way, as NBA.com's Sekou Smith wrote:

    As rugged as the Grizzlies can be, I think the Nuggets could cause more problems for the Warriors or whoever they might see were they to make the playoffs. They have an unpredictable bunch, when you consider their collective lack of playoff experience.

    But with young and hungry talents like Nikola Jokic, Will Barton, Gary Harris and the like, the Nuggets would be playing with house money against a Warriors team under extreme pressure to handle their business quickly in a first-round series. Styles make fights in the playoffs, and the Nuggets would bring a completely unpredictable style to this fight.

    That brings us to the Blazers. They're 1.5 games back of the Nuggets for the West's final playoff slot, with one of the easiest remaining schedules in the conference on deck, according to PlayoffStatus.com.

    Last season's shine has worn off. The Blazers don't hold up to the Warriors. Even the pluckier edition of themselves, from last year, fell in five games as Curry sat out for three. They don't have the individual defenders to frustrate Durant, and the Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum backcourt is an untenable defensive nightmare when facing Curry and Thompson.

    Perhaps the Warriors do that thing where they self-destruct their way to unnecessarily close games. And maybe Durant won't have worked off all the rust from his MCL injury. This series still wouldn't make it past five games. Golden State just can't say the same about its most likely alternatives.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com and accurate leading into games on March 23. Team salary information via Basketball Insiders.

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