2019 NBA Playoffs: The 1st-Round Opponent Each Contender Wants to Avoid
Cruising through the first round of the NBA playoffs is supposed to be a title contender's well-earned right. It doesn't always work out that way.
Another limited championship pool makes it hard to envision a consequential upset, but first-round matchups aren't just about favorites emerging victorious. Advancing without a scare or trace of drama is equally important. Energy needs to be saved for later series against what should be more dangerous opponents.
That thought process dictates the choices we make here. We're looking for the teams best suited to challenge each contender out of the gate. Some instances meet the upset criteria, but when that's wearing thin, we default to the most problematic matchups—teams that will make the league's best squads really feel their opening series.
Every selection is based on feasible postseason scenarios. The Milwaukee Bucks don't have to worry about playing the Boston Celtics in the first round because the C's are not falling to seventh or eighth in the East. The Golden State Warriors won't be meeting the Oklahoma City Thunder. And so on and so forth.
Golden State Warriors: Houston Rockets
And now, we break for your bi-minutely reminder that the Western Conference is out of control.
Indeed, in all likelihood, the Warriors and Houston Rockets aren't going toe-to-toe in the first round. At least one of them will have to fall from their current spot to make it happen, and neither is a good option to cede ground to the teams behind them.
Still, the Rockets are close enough to eighth place for this to be a thing.
Even as the Thunder and Denver Nuggets turn heads, the Warriors look unbeatable. The Rockets are far more inconsistent and fragile. They don't have the luxury of surviving on cruise control.
Maybe James Harden starts to play like less of a deity. Maybe Chris Paul misses some more time. Maybe the defense starts to feel the ramifications of Clint Capela's absence. Maybe it becomes impossible to get by on 30-plus minutes of Eric Gordon's crummy shooting.
With the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, plucky Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Tamperers all behind them, the Rockets have a path back down to eighth place. And while they're not the team that nearly upended the Warriors last year, Harden's step-back threes coupled with general long-range volume make for a possible obstacle.
Golden State's three-peat bid would be much easier if left free from a semi-real test in the opening round. And to anyone who still thinks avoiding LeBron James should be the priority, please rewatch the 2017 and 2018 NBA Finals.
The BEST of the REST in the WEST
Put some respect on the Warriors dynasty. The Western Conference no longer has a clear challenger for their throne.
Yes, the Nuggets and Thunder are great teams. The Rockets will become a major problem if James Harden keeps going bonkers and Chris Paul starts looking more like last year's Chris Paul. The postseason bracket will not include an easy out because the West remains deep.
But the 2017-18 Rockets aren't walking through that door. And without them, that genuine threat to the Warriors doesn't exist. Pretending it does is pointless. Any scare Golden State might receive will be completely unexpected.
All of that aside, the West remains home to a few dangerous postseason locks and near-locks. They deserve to be acknowledged, just not in a "The NBA Finals are totally within reach" kind of way.
Here's every first-round matchup the best of the rest will want to avoid:
- Denver Nuggets: Houston. Picking a rough matchup for the Nuggets is tough. They won't be thrown off by the bruising styles in San Antonio and Utah or the gut-punch aggression in Sacramento. Avoiding LeBron James would be nice, but a full-strength Denver group shouldn't fall to the Lakers GOAT-plus-trade-assets ensemble. The Rockets are infinitely scarier right now. Like, imagine winning 55-plus games, finishing second or third in the West and ending a five-year playoff drought only to...earn the right to square off against mutant-ninja James Harden and his three-point barrage. No thanks.
- Oklahoma City Thunder: Sacramento. Trap series! The Kings never stop coming. They already have two wins over the Thunder in three tries. To be clear: They wouldn't take this best-of-seven set. But they have the offensive firepower to make Oklahoma City work for it.
- Portland Trail Blazers: Houston. Making up the gap that separates the Blazers from the West's top-three teams is a tall order so late into the season. They're better off hoping Utah or San Antonio finagles its way into fifth place—or even that they drop out of the No. 4 vs. No. 5 running.
- Houston Rockets: Oklahoma City. This is actually a compliment! It means we shouldn't expect the Rockets to lose much clout in the standings, even though they're uncomfortably close to the eighth seed.
- Utah Jazz: Golden State. Every team in the West has a puncher's chance of winning a first-round series so long as it avoids the Warriors. The Jazz probably aren't dropping down to eighth place, but they're close enough to that Clippers-Kings-Lakers fracas for this to be a concern.
- San Antonio Spurs: Golden State. Same story, different team. The Spurs don't have an ideal first-round opponent, but facing the Warriors would be the evilest evil.
Philadelphia 76ers: Boston Celtics
This would be an easy choice even if the Philadelphia 76ers weren't 0-3 against the Celtics so far. The drop-off between Beantown and each of Philly's other possible first-round opponents is that monstrous.
But, yeah, those three losses don't help the Sixers. Their Feb. 12 letdown is particularly damning. They scrapped and clawed their way back from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter but still fell, at home, to a Celtics squad without Kyrie Irving.
Al Horford is a problematic matchup for Joel Embiid even if the Sixers won't cop to it. JoJo put on a show in the fourth quarter of their most recent matchup, but the returns are otherwise underwhelming. He's shooting 42.5 percent this season, including 25 percent from three, on possessions in which he's guarded by Horford. Philly's offensive rating in these situations is a not-so-robust 104.9.
"He's not doing anything," Embiid said after the Feb. 12 loss, per ESPN.com's Tim Bontemps. "I was sleep-walking for three quarters, and that's on me."
Perhaps his 15-point final frame is a sign of what's to come. He did a better job of maneuvering around Horford inside the arc. And with the exception of that game, Embiid hasn't looked as out of sorts on defense when Horford pulls him outside the paint.
Philly is also running out a new team that should have cleaner chemistry entering the postseason. The size and bullish dribbles of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris will make it harder for Boston to stay home on shooters even when Embiid isn't lighting up Horford or when Celtics defenders are playing off Ben Simmons.
That's hardly a silver lining. For as much as the Sixers have changed, they're still 2-10 against the Celtics dating back to last year including the playoffs. They'll have to topple really good teams to make the NBA Finals no matter what, but it'd be more convenient for them if they began their trek against an opponent they'll be favored over.
Boston Celtics: Philadelphia 76ers
Anyone reading too much into the Celtics' dominance over the 76ers since last season needs a reality check. The Sixers are not a preferred first-round opponent. They have four All-Stars by Eastern Conference standards. Avoiding that level of star power is always better than leaning into it.
Plus, the Sixers' extra size should eventually turn them into a half-court headache for the Celtics defense. They'll have mismatches galore, and it'll be even easier to find them with Kyrie Irving in the lineup. As The Ringer's Dan Devine contemplated during an episode of The Lowe Post podcast:
"The size advantages didn't seem as pronounced for Philly when it's [Marcus] Smart in the backcourt—when they're playing Smart and [Jaylen] Brown and [Jayson] Tatum and [Marcus] Morris and [Al] Horford. The size advantages are still there, but they don't seem as pronounced, and there's no one to hunt.
"And so then that brings the big question of: Obviously the Celtics are not better without Kyrie, but are they a better matchup for Philly? Or are they a tougher matchup for Philly to figure out when it's not "Who's Kyrie going to guard?" and "Is he going to chase around [JJ] Redick for 35 possessions or 45 possessions a game?"
Dismiss this dilemma, and the pick doesn't change. Process of elimination makes this decision for us—including you, Completely Unbothered By The Sixers, Celtics fans.
The Indiana Pacers are not an ideal first-round pull, but they don't stand up to the Eastern Conference's alphas without Victor Oladipo. The Brooklyn Nets are spunky and could cause some problems, but they're not potential-upset scary. The Detroit Pistons are perking up, but trust Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson in a high-stakes postseason setting at your own risk.
Clone Kemba Walker once or twice, and the Charlotte Hornets wedge their way into the discussion. Please don't cape for the Washington Wizards. It's over. The Miami Heat don't have the offensive talent to realistically hang. Godspeed to whoever thinks the Orlando Magic are cracking the postseason.
Poof! Just like that, we're left with the Sixers.
Toronto Raptors: Detroit Pistons
Finding a precarious first-round matchup for the East's top two teams is a lot like looking for threats to the Warriors: Some opponents will cause more issues than others, but no team poses a genuine dilemma.
Keep that in mind here. The Pistons aren't edging out the Toronto Raptors in a seven-game set. But they're equipped to deliver a little shock and awe.
Detroit has quietly pieced together a top-10 defense. Plenty of luck is at play—opponents continue to shoot a low percentage on wide-open threes—but the Pistons are not a complete mirage. They fight to limit those open opportunities from behind the rainbow (they allow the second-fewest open looks per game), which could rattle a Raptors offense that ranks 25th in long-range accuracy since Dec. 1.
Reggie Jackson's offensive resurgence only adds to Detroit's finite playoff ceiling. He's averaging 15.7 points and 5.0 assists over the last month or so while slashing 45.9/47.4/90.3 and beating dudes off the dribble again. The Pistons are plus-14.1 points per 100 possessions since Jan. 1 when he shares the floor with Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin, and that net rating climbs to plus-30.7 when adding on Langston Galloway.
Toronto can tailor its rotation to increase Detroit's awkwardness. Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam all have the offensive range to pull Drummond outside the paint, and drives from Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry will wreak havoc on a shoddy interior defense.
At the same time, everyone's wondering whether Gasol's arrival will push the Raptors to play big for longer spurts. It hasn't happened yet. Running out one big with or without Siakam remains their M.O., and the Pistons aren't loading up enough on the offensive glass to incite wholesale adjustments.
This would still be something to watch. The Raptors could be tempted to fight size with size, which plays right into the Pistons' wheelhouse. Turn this series into a more traditional frontcourt battle, and, well, Toronto wins anyway. But the road to the second round would be a helluva lot more favorable if it went through someone else.
Miami doesn't have the consistent shot creation to deliver a meaningful scare. Brooklyn has played Toronto into some close games, but—spoiler!—using the Nets more than once is tired. Charlotte's all-Kemba, all-the-time approach isn't catching the Raptors off-guard. Washington doesn't have the defensive tools for this matchup after dealing Otto Porter Jr. Orlando needs Markelle Fultz to get healthy and develop into an insta-star to have a prayer.
Milwaukee Bucks: Brooklyn Nets
Survey the Milwaukee Bucks' potential first-round opponents, and a legitimate threat fails to emerge.
They're that kind of dominant.
Just look at the Bucks' net rating against their most likely first-round foes:
- Brooklyn Nets: 16.2 (two games)
- Charlotte Hornets: 2.3 (three games)
- Detroit Pistons: 15.3 (four games)
- Miami Heat: 15.5 (two games)
- Orlando Magic: 4.3 (three games)
- Washington Wizards: 9.6 (three games)
Good luck finding a single good option from this list.
Milwaukee has played some close games with the Hornets, but eh. Orlando's net rating benefits from the Feb. 9 trouncing they delivered a Bucks team without Giannis Antetokounmpo. Washington looks worse this side of the trade deadline. Miami is uninspiring even when factoring in head coach Erik Spoelstra. Detroit would be lucky if Andre Drummond isn't played off the floor.
When in doubt, it's best to go with the team that tries hard, jacks plenty of threes and won't get mismatch-shock from the Bucks' five-out lineups. (Giannis Antetokounmpo is shooting 34.5 percent from deep over his past 21 games!)
In this case, that amounts to a vote of confidence for the Nets. They've earned it.