The Ideal 1st-Round Matchup for Each Projected NBA Playoff Team

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 3, 2018

The Ideal 1st-Round Matchup for Each Projected NBA Playoff Team

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    Nobody gets to pick who they play in the first round of the NBA playoffs, but every team has its preferences.

    Even if they'd never admit it.

    Here, we'll break down who every projected playoff team should be hoping to see in the first round. Critically, we'll only select from a pool of realistic foes. That'll be based on the standings as of Monday, April 2, and it'll keep our discussion anchored to reality.

    There's no point in saying the Utah Jazz's ideal opponent is the New Orleans Pelicans if there's no way that can happen.

    Also, it'd be too easy to just tag the Denver Nuggets, who still have a sliver of a shot to make the postseason, as the most preferable matchup for any of the West's top seeds. Throw the Los Angeles Clippers in there, too. Those clubs probably won't make it, and that's reason enough to label them as ideal matchups.

    We're not copping out like that. So while we reserve the right to keep those clubs in the mix, we're going to look a little harder for specific matchup advantages by scanning season records, advanced stats and possible personnel advantages. That way, maybe we'll all learn something. At the very least, it'll give us something to watch for if any of these matchups actually materialize.

Houston Rockets

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    Ideal Opponent: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Though the Thunder own a 1-1 split with the Rockets this season (they'll meet for the third and final time on Saturday), this is still a matchup Houston should be hoping it gets.

    No potential Western Conference playoff team allows a higher percentage of opponents' shots to come from beyond the arc than the Thunder, according to Cleaning the Glass. And if you've paid attention to the 2017-18 season for more than five seconds, you're probably aware that the Rockets like to get those threes up.

    Houston is on pace to set an NBA record by taking more than half of its attempts from deep.

    Maybe Paul George gives the Thunder a fighting chance against James Harden in one-on-one matchups, and maybe Steven Adams can help slow down Clint Capela's roll game. But the Thunder have been horrible at defending the exact shots the Rockets love.

    Unless OKC completely changes its personnel and schemes—a list of to-do items would include playing smaller, removing Carmelo Anthony from the starting and closing units, and convincing Russell Westbrook to defend more than once every five possessions—this feels like a three-fest Houston is destined to win easily.

    We won't do this for everyone, but there are sure to be "why not Team X?!" cries in light of Houston's excellent marks against just about everybody in the West. The Rockets are 4-0 against both the Jazz and Wolves, for example.

    But three of those wins against the Jazz came before Rudy Gobert spurred Utah's dominant run in late January, so we can't fairly judge Houston against this version of the Jazz. And we're going to say some bleak things about the Wolves in a bit, so they catch a break by ducking mention here.

    From a pure matchup perspective, there are lots of pushover opponents for the Rockets. That's what happens when you're the best team in the league. Oklahoma City just happens to feature a particular weakness that plays into the Rockets' hands.

Golden State Warriors

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    Ideal Opponent: Denver Nuggets

    I swear this is the only time Denver will come up. That's the least I can do after spending so much time in the intro explaining why using the Nuggets for every team would be a cheap move.

    The Warriors need a break, though, which is not something you'd expect to hear about a defending champ.

    Golden State is in rough shape with Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green all working themselves back into form following injuries. Patrick McCaw's scary fall puts his playoff future in doubt, Jordan Bell is always an ankle sprain away from a few weeks off and the David West/Shaun Livingston/Andre Iguodala vet trio may not be fit enough to absorb bigger minutes for an injury-hit team.

    Oh, and Stephen Curry won't play at all in the first round, according to comments coach Steve Kerr made to reporters.

    Without him on the floor, the Warriors' net rating is just plus-2.8, per Cleaning the Glass. That's why the Dubs need to see a first-round foe with the second-worst defense in the league since the All-Star break.

    Denver and Golden State both have 5-5 records over their last 10 games, so even copping out and giving the Warriors the easiest possible matchup doesn't guarantee they'll advance. Better Denver than the Thunder Jazz, Timberwolves or Clippers, though.

    If this title defense is going to last longer than one round, the Warriors need the easiest possible path until Curry gets back. Sorry, Nuggets, but that's you.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Ideal Opponent: Oklahoma City Thunder (Again!)

    Portland is a perfect 4-0 against OKC, boasting a 6.7 net rating. The Kings, Mavs and Suns are the only West foes against whom the Blazers have a higher differential. Barring a sweeping last-minute change to the playoff format, it seems unlikely anyone from that trio will be in line to face Portland in the first round.

    The Blazers have had their way with OKC for several reasons, but the main justification for pegging the Thunder as Portland's most favorable first-round opponent stems from what the Blazers haven't done well against OKC. Portland shot just 33.6 percent from long range against the Thunder, well below its season average of 37.1 percent.

    We should expect Portland's threes to fall at a better clip—particularly because Andre Roberson, OKC's best defender, played in the Nov. 5 meeting Portland won despite shooting just 7-of-20 from deep. That Blazers performance dragged the numbers down, and it's reasonable to assume Portland will perform more like it did over the final three meetings with the Thunder (sans Roberson). In those games, the Blazers won by an average of 7.3 points per game.

    Not to pick on Westbrook any more than we already have, but he's got nowhere to hide against Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Both Portland guards are nightmares to guard when they have the ball, and snoozing for a second means off-ball death because both are snipers on catch-and-shoot looks.

    Westbrook loves to lose track of his assignment and hunt steals in the passing lanes. He won't get away with that against this team.

San Antonio Spurs

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    Ideal Opponent: Minnesota Timberwolves

    It's tempting to toss the Clippers into this slot and be done with it. Much like Denver, L.A. would be the obvious pick for almost anyone because it's least likely to make the dance and doesn't have a star capable of taking over a series against a superior team.

    But there's another club San Antonio might like to see—one much more likely to actually reach the playoffs.

    Jimmy Butler is trying to make it back before the end of the regular season and has been cleared for contact in his return from meniscus surgery, according to Wolves announcer Alan Horton. Even if Butler's back for this series, it'd be foolish to assume he'll play at exactly his pre-injury levels. With Jeff Teague's sore knee keeping him out of action in Sunday's loss to the Utah Jazz, Minnesota is a Tyus Jones injury away from giving serious playoff minutes to Derrick Rose or major decision-making responsibilities to Andrew Wiggins.

    It's hard to say which would be worse.

    Throw in the general fatigue Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns will tote into the postseason after running up top-five totals in minutes played, and you've got a Wolves team with some real vulnerabilities. And if Butler can't play at all...well, just keep in mind the Wolves are 10-12 in games he's missed.

    The Spurs went 2-1 against Minnesota this season, and LaMarcus Aldridge went for 39 points when he saw the Wolves' 26th-ranked defense on March 17.

    The Timberwolves have talent, and Towns could take over a series. But Minnesota, likely to hit the playoffs worn down and happy to be there (cheers on ending that 13-year drought!), profiles as the kind of young team the battle-tested Spurs outthink and out-execute in a "learning experience" series.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Ideal Opponent: Portland Trail Blazers

    The New Orleans Pelicans would be the best option for Minnesota, but that matchup's not happening because one or the other would have to jump all the way to third, while the other climbed to sixth. And if we hadn't already used the Thunder twice, they'd be a savvy pick here as well; Minnesota went 3-1 against OKC this year.

    In the realm of more realistic options (and ones that don't continue piling onto the Thunder) the Timberwolves should probably hope to get the Blazers in Round 1.

    Minnesota split the season series with Portland at two games apiece, and Towns' perimeter game could pull Jusuf Nurkic away from the bucket. Nobody holds opponents to a lower field-goal percentage at the rim than Portland (by a significant margin), so anything that gets Nurkic out of the lane disrupts much of what the Blazers like to do on that end.

    Honestly, it's difficult to say any team is ideal for Minnesota. Butler's fitness and the team's general inexperience make a first-round win difficult to imagine—even in perfect circumstances.

    But the Blazers may be without Maurice Harkless, whose knee surgery comes with an unknown return timeline. If Minnesota ignores Evan Turner beyond the three-point arc, gets a heroic effort from Butler and can somehow prevent Lillard and McCollum from averaging a combined 50 points per game, it's got a shot.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Ideal Opponent: Golden State Warriors

    Rudy Gobert played in only two of Utah's four meetings with the Thunder, and the season series, which OKC won 3-1, was over by Dec. 23.

    So even if Oklahoma City owns a shocking plus-10.0 net rating against Utah, complete with an elite 95.7 defensive rating, we can't pretend four matchups in the first two months of the season tell us anything about how these two teams would square off in a playoff series. In fact, you could make the case that Utah (26-7, No. 2 net rating since Gobert returned) should be hoping it faces OKC (20-13, No. 11 net rating in that same span).

    Besides, neither team is getting to the third seed, which means this matchup won't happen anyway.

    That leaves the Warriors, whom the Thunder whipped twice this season—once on Nov. 22 and once on Feb. 6.

    George gives OKC a good option to guard Durant, and who knows what Russell Westbrook might get up to if he doesn't have to spend any energy guarding Curry, who probably won't play in the first round.

    Adams will almost always get to go up against a conventional center if these teams meet, which is a plus for Oklahoma City. And if the Warriors opt to go smaller with Draymond Green at center for significant minutes, it probably won't force Adams off the floor. Because Green is shooting just 30.7 percent from deep this season, Adams can comfortably lay back in the lane and dare Green to fire.

Utah Jazz

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    Ideal Opponent: Portland Trail Blazers

    More than likely, the Jazz will finish the season with a 3-1 mark against the Blazers—but only because they meet on the final day of the regular season, and Portland won't have anything to play for at that point.

    The Jazz and Blazers traded blowout wins against each other in a two-week span this past February, indicating the volatility we might expect to see in a playoff matchup.

    Schematically, Gobert's presence in the lane should disrupt the Blazers' drive-and-kick game. When he's in there, help defense doesn't have to come off shooters in the corners, and that means Portland's guards will either have to finish over the league's most fearsome paint protector or fling up floaters. Few guards are more adept at navigating that in-between space than McCollum, whose repertoire of creative mid-range finishes will test Gobert.

    If they're smart, the Blazers will involve Gobert in as much high pick-and-roll action as possible. But Utah's bevy of smart wing defenders will stay home and force Nurkic, Gobert's man, to finish. He shot just 43.2 percent against Utah this season.

    With Harkless likely out, the Jazz could opportunistically send Turner's defender into the action, further compacting Nurkic's space and sight lines.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Ideal Opponent: San Antonio Spurs

    This isn't all about Anthony Davis, who has averaged "just" 25.3 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 50.9 percent shooting in three games against the Spurs (with one left to play) this season. Other than the glasswork, those figures are all at or below Davis' full-year averages.

    It's also about Kawhi Leonard's uncertain future and the Pelicans' strong overall play. They're 2-1 with a 6.1 net rating against San Antonio.

    This isn't a perfect matchup for the Pels because LaMarcus Aldridge will force Davis to work on defense. It's entirely possible Aldridge is dominant enough to wear AD down or get him in foul trouble, which would be just as good.

    But Davis is even more problematic for the Spurs, who simply don't have a big man with enough foot speed to handle him.

    Aldridge is serviceable defensively, but not on the move. And Pau Gasol is like an aging shortstop whose range extends to the length he can dive in either direction. Dude straight up cannot move laterally anymore.

    Note, too, that DeMarcus Cousins only played in the first of these team's three meetings so far. The Pels didn't perform well against the Spurs because of their two bigs; they were tough because Davis did most of the damage alone in a spread-out offense.

    Jrue Holiday is probably salivating at the chance to go at Tony Parker. Though Dejounte Murray has clear defensive potential and played well against the Pels this season, he may not be ready to handle a physical two-way guard like Holiday for heavy minutes.

    Nobody's predicting an upset if these two tangle (probably as a 4-5 matchup), but the Pels have what it takes to make this very interesting.

Toronto Raptors

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    Ideal Opponent: Washington Wizards

    It had to come down to the Heat, Bucks or Wizards here. Toronto is guaranteed to finish with one of the top two seeds, and one of those three will finish seventh or eighth.

    It would have been fun to pick the Cavs here, as the Raps have a higher net rating against LeBron James' team than any other East foe, but that matchup isn't coming until later in the postseason.

    Even though they split the four-game series with Washington this season, the Raptors have to be hoping for a date with the Wizards. There's just no way John Wall returns from knee surgery looking like the player he was last year. And if he's no better than the version we saw pre-surgery this season, that won't be enough to upset Toronto.

    It's true the Wizards' excellent first unit becomes more valuable in the playoffs when rotations shorten. But that hinges partially on Wall's health and more broadly ignores how shaky Washington has looked in general lately. The Wizards have lost five of their last seven and somehow fell by 19 to the tanking Chicago Bulls on Sunday.

    Toronto had better get a handle on Bradley Beal, who scored 32.5 points per game in Washington's two wins this year. But trusting the Raptors to do that is easier than suggesting the Bucks or Heat are easier matchups. There's no scenario where facing Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round sounds enticing, and Miami played Toronto close in both meetings.

Boston Celtics

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    Ideal Opponent: Milwaukee Bucks

    Like the Raps, Boston is going to finish first or second, which limits its opponent pool to the Wizards, Bucks and Heat.

    Considering both the Heat and Wizards own winning records against the Celtics, the Bucks are a pretty easy pick.

    If there's an East coach capable of exploiting Antetokounmpo's unwillingness to take jumpers and Milwaukee's hyperactive, jumpy defensive scheme, it's Brad Stevens. The Bucks may be the most objectively talented team Boston could face in the first round, but they're profoundly disorganized and self-defeating on D while also looking aimless far too often on offense. Nobody allows opponents a higher frequency of looks at the rim than the Bucks.

    Stevens is going to capitalize on all of that.

    Milwaukee's vulnerability isn't all on interim coach Joe Prunty (or even former coach Jason Kidd) because the issues with this team have persisted through the coaching change. It feels like the Bucks need an offseason and a new voice to get this thing in order.

    Kyrie Irving's health remains a pivotal issue. He almost certainly won't be back in the first round, and neither will Marcus Smart. Boston has won six in a row with a skeleton crew, which speaks to its resiliency. But it's hard to be confident that dominance will continue.

    Somehow, this is an ideal opponent with a decent chance of pulling an upset. That's a good indication of how weird it might get in the East.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Ideal Opponent: Washington Wizards

    LeBron James averaged more points and shot attempts per game against Washington than anyone else this season. That statistical split, along with the fact that the Wizards do not have Ben Simmons or Giannis Antetokounmpo available to guard James, makes Washington the clear pick.

    If James can average 36.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 10 assists on 58.7 percent shooting against the Wizards in the regular season, what's he going to do when he starts trying?

    Throw in Wall's health, Washington's recently crummy play and Tomas Satoransky telling the world he doesn't want to see the Cavs in the first round, and you've got sufficient justification for making the Wizards the ideal opponent for two of our first three East teams.

    Cleveland hasn't lost a first-round game since James returned, so we've probably spent more time thinking about this than is necessary. The Cavs aren't losing a playoff series in April—regardless of whom they play.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Ideal Opponent: Indiana Pacers

    I know, I know: Indy took two of three from the Sixers this season, and Joel Embiid played in every game. Not only that, but the Sixers are the sloppiest team in the league as measured by turnover percentage, and Indy is No. 2 in forcing giveaways.

    That seems more like a recipe for a Sixers loss than anything else.

    But Indiana has survived all year on a strange shot profile that relies heavily on two-point jumpers, and outside of Victor Oladipo, there aren't many shot-creators in its offense. With Simmons and Robert Covington more than equipped to hassle Oladipo, it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which the only decent looks Indiana produces are low-expected-value jumpers. It's possible the Pacers keep making those shots.

    If they don't, Philadelphia will leverage its league-best rebound rate (Indiana is 19th, another key distinction) and hold the Pacers to consistently low scoring totals.

    Indiana has the lowest free-throw rate of any playoff team, while the Sixers rank in the top 10. The Pacers only attempt 30.1 percent of their shots from deep, while Philadelphia devotes 36.4 percent of its looks to shots from beyond the arc. And while the Pacers are mid-pack in at-the-rim finishing efficiency, the 76ers are third-best in the league.

    That's a roundabout way of suggesting that Indiana's margin for error is razor thin. It has to hit lots of bad shots to win. To the Pacers' credit, they've done that (and defended well) in producing this surprisingly excellent season. It's just hard to believe it'll continue against a rising Sixers squad that can rely on superior talent and key statistical advantages.

    ***It should go without saying, but if Embiid isn't recovered from surgery to repair a facial fracture in time for the first round, it's curtains for Philly.

Indiana Pacers

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    Ideal Opponent: Cleveland Cavaliers

    The Cavs that have lost one first-round game with LeBron James since 2008? The Cavs that everyone, if forced to reveal the truth they harbor hidden away in the darkest corners of their hearts, would pick to win the East?

    Yes, those Cavs. And why not?

    Indiana went 3-1 against Cleveland this year. Though all four meetings came before the Cavs' deadline reconstruction, this is really about Oladipo and his outsized confidence. He got up for Indy's games against Cleveland, running wild to the tune of 25 points, five assists and 4.3 rebounds. He fired off nine threes per game, drilled critical late-stage daggers and announced his breakout against the Cavs at peak volume.

    Cleveland doesn't have anyone to go wrangle Oladipo, and Myles Turner can give Kevin Love just as big of a floor-spacing, pick-and-pop runaround as he'll get in return.

    It's a stretch to say anyone should be favored against the Cavs in the first round while LeBron is still upright and breathing. But you can't deny the trouble Indiana gave Cleveland this year, and you can't overlook the potential damage Oladipo could do against a team bereft of quality wing defenders (outside of James).

Washington Wizards

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    Ideal Opponent: Boston Celtics

    At 2-1 against Boston (with one double-overtime win and one overtime loss), it's not like the record advertises Washington's superiority.

    But Irving's injury (and to a lesser extent, the ones afflicting Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis) mean the Celtics will rely on an inexperienced core around Al Horford come playoff time. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have performed well in larger roles since Irving went down, but trusting them to sustain their high-level play in the postseason hothouse is tough.

    And while Terry Rozier has also turned it up without Irving around, perhaps he'll struggle against Wall—especially if the Wizards point guard views the opening series as a proving ground, one in which he aims to shut up everyone who wondered if Washington was better without him.

    Plus, the Wizards and Celtics hate each other. If nothing else, this is an ideal matchup for the viewers. That's not part of the analysis here, but it's worth mentioning.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Ideal Opponent: Philadelphia 76ers

    Let's take a second to remember that Antetokounmpo has actually been in the playoffs before—something we can't say about Simmons, Embiid or Robert Covington.

    We've also ignored the Sixers' turnover problems for too long. Their league-worst cough-up rate could cost them dearly in a playoff setting. Lose one game because you give the ball away 25 times, and suddenly, you might have just squandered a whole series. It's a stretch, but what if Milwaukee's overaggressive, turnover-hunting, trap-heavy scheme actually achieves its intended result once or twice against Philadelphia?

    If there's any team out there that might be susceptible to the Bucks' unprincipled swarming, it could be the Sixers.

    There's a possible perfect-storm scenario here.

    Simmons has been terrific in 2017-18, a deserving rookie of the year. But is he really ready for a series in which his reluctance to shoot becomes the opponent's key defensive focus? And what if he's the victim of a hack-a strategy and has to shoot 25 free throws a game while being primarily responsible for guarding Antetokounmpo?

    That's just...a lot.

    The Bucks have looked shaky for a few weeks, and the Sixers are on a 10-game run. But the playoffs are different.

Miami Heat

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    Ideal Opponent: Cleveland Cavaliers

    The Heat have won four straight home games against the Cavs since James left Miami, with the most recent success a 98-79 drubbing on March 27.

    Maybe it doesn't mean anything, but it just seems like Miami isn't afraid of James.

    The Heat are .500 or worse against everyone they could conceivably play in the first round (1-2 vs. the Cavs, for the record), so there's really no good choice here. So why not go with a telling recent performance and give head coach Erik Spoelstra credit for knowing James better than anyone else?

    I mean, the Cavaliers have to lose a first-round game during James' second stint at some point, right? And if that loss comes in Cleveland, the Cavs have to go to Miami knowing they haven't won there in a long time. Perhaps then the juicy narrative of Wade returning home to spark a surprising playoff run takes hold and things get interesting.

    Don't bet on the Heat, but at least be ready for the possibility of some intrigue in this one.


    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Monday, April 2. 

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