2019 NBA Playoff Matchups Every Fan Should Hope For
Are you ready for a comprehensive NBA postseason breakdown that ranks the best potential matchups based on the level of prospective competition?
Hopefully not. Because if so, you're in the wrong place.
Hard-fought series are part of this latest trip down Hypothetical Highway, but they aren't everything. While, we want tightly contested matchups, we need player beefs, NBA Twitter cacophony, select rematches, rumor-mill triggers and inclusions that pull at our heart strings.
These potential clashes provide a mix of everything. They are general and specific, player-focused and team-centric. They don't cover every squad, but they feature some the most emotionally and mentally satisfying possibilities out there.
Paul George vs. Joe Ingles
Joe Ingles had Paul George's number during the Utah Jazz's first-round victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in last year's playoffs.
George shot only 33.3 percent overall (19-of-57) and 24 percent from beyond the arc (6-of-25) during the 231 possessions in which Ingles served as his primary defender. On a related note, the Thunder offense averaged a mere 0.94 points per possession whenever Ingles matched up with PG13.
We need a Round 2.
It doesn't have to end the same way. George is shooting 55.6 percent overall and 35.7 percent from long range against Ingles this season across a similar sample size (173 possessions). His efficiency has plunged since the All-Star break, but George remains a top-four MVP candidate and the best version of himself we've ever seen.
Regardless of whether he torches Ingles or comes off worse for the wear this time around, we win. After what transpired last year, George will undoubtedly play with a little extra oomph.
Ingles, meanwhile, needn't be the Paul George whisperer to make this a worthwhile rematch. He's turned into one of the NBA's best trash talkers over the past few seasons. There will be fireworks no matter who's besting the other.
Our best hope for seeing Jinglin' Joe vs. Playoff P is yet again in the first round. It's risky to count on any Western Conference team other than the Golden State Warriors to make the semifinals.
Both teams have some ground to make up in the standings. The Jazz and Thunder enter Wednesday as the sixth and seventh seeds, respectively.
The third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers are three games ahead of the Jazz in the loss column and four in front of the Thunder, who face a tough closing stretch. But Portland center Jusuf Nurkic suffered season-ending compound fractures in his left leg Monday night. Anything could happen.
Kevin Durant vs. Russell Westbrook
"Hate? No," he told Kevin Hart of himself and Durant (h/t the Oklahoman's Erik Horne). "Anything having to do with me or Kevin, they want to put hate because they want a story. They want to talk about something. They want something the fans can hold onto. It’s not hate."
Go ahead and take Westbrook at his word. Durant is almost three seasons removed from his time with the Thunder. People move on. He has two Finals MVPs and two championships. Westbrook has Paul George and an indelible standing within the Thunder organization.
But, like, come on.
Westbrook vs. anyone is must-see TV in the playoffs. Pitting him against Durant is a combustible cocktail—in a good way. They already have a history as opponents, and no matter how friendly or indifferent toward one another they are now, tensions won't dissipate on the NBA's most important stage.
And as an added bonus, this matchup would feature Steven Adams' groin vs. Draymond Green's leg.
Golden State and Oklahoma City could meet in any round given how fluid the West's seeds remain. The Thunder are only a half-game out of eighth, which would result in a first-round matchup between the two.
LeBron James vs. Warriors, Part 5
Oh, damn, never mind.
Dwyane Wade vs. Anyone
It's on the latter to keep that streak going—but, you know, no promises.
LeBron's Los Angeles Lakers are already eliminated from postseason contention. Carmelo Anthony isn't in the NBA. Wade's Miami Heat currently sit at ninth in the Eastern Conference. They'll have to overtake the eighth-place Orlando Magic—who won the season series against them, 3-1—and fend off the Charlotte Hornets, who sit only one game behind them.
Wade needs to make the playoffs. Having a few more memorable moments on the league's biggest stage would be a fitting cap to his career.
Also: It just so happens the Heat are the best option to round out the East's bottom-three seeds.
Their chances won't be great whether they're facing against the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers or Toronto Raptors. But they have a top-five defense and top-seven net rating since the start of March, and head coach Erik Spoelstra can figure out any Eastern Conference team over the course of a seven-game series.
Mostly, though, it's about sending Flash off in style.
Rockets vs. Warriors
Some of the luster has worn off a potential Houston-Golden State matchup. The Rockets defense doesn't have the depth or switchability to invite the drama of last season's Western Conference Finals. They're 21st in points allowed per 100 possessions, down from seventh last season.
Then again, teams won't topple the Warriors with stingy defense. Their offense is neither solvable nor containable, especially when they flip their postseason switch.
Houston's offense is a match for Golden State's attack. James Harden has gone wild since the middle of December, Chris Paul looks (somewhat) more like himself after returning from a hamstring injury and Eric Gordon is hitting threes again (42.4 percent since the All-Star break).
On a more macro level, the Rockets just plain shoot enough triples. They're winning the deep-ball battle by nearly six made threes per 100 possessions on average. That outside volume helps reduce the not-insignificant talent deficit they'd face against the Warriors.
And what if Paul stays healthy throughout the series? He isn't the same player that nuked set defenses and switches last year, but he remains an exhaustive defender and an offensive star.
Looking to the regular-season series between these two teams is almost meaningless knowing the Warriors turn on the jets for the playoffs, and the Rockets are 3-1 under weird circumstances. Golden State didn't have Stephen Curry for Houston's first victory, but the Rockets didn't have Paul for their second or Harden for their third. They lost by two in the fourth and final meeting, when the Warriors were without Kevin Durant.
Maybe the caveats favor the Rockets. It doesn't matter. They won't be favorites, and they're no longer the league's biggest threat to the Warriors' throne. That honor belongs to one of the Eastern Conference powers. The Rockets are, however, the best upset candidate of all Western Conference teams.
Oklahoma City has faded. The Denver Nuggets are impressive but lack postseason experience. The Jazz are schemeable until they get a second player with an elite floor game on offense. The San Antonio Spurs have not come that far.
That leaves the Rockets, who likely won't have to face the Warriors until a Western Conference Finals rematch.
Joel Embiid vs. Al Horford
Is Al Horford the kryptonite to Joel Embiid? It sure seemed that way prior to the most recent clash between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
ESPN.com's Tim Bontemps wrote the following after their Feb. 12 matchup, which Boston won 112-109:
"In the eight games these two teams have played since the start of last year's Eastern Conference semifinals, Embiid has shot just 25-for-70 (36 percent) against Horford, including 5-for-16 (31 percent) Tuesday, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Against all other defenders, Embiid has gone 48-for-52 (52 percent), including 4-for-6 Tuesday."
Embiid didn't flip the script during Philly's March 20 victory over Boston. He dropped 37 points on 8-of-17 shooting, but he went 1-of-5 when Horford served as his primary defender. Granted, the Sixers offense played better overall, averaging 1.14 points per possession in those situations. But Embiid needs to rise above the Horford bugaboo for a longer period of time before declaring it a non-factor.
And even if he does, the Sixers have not fared well against the Celtics. They're 3-10 since last season, including playoff games, with a sub-104 offensive rating.
Root for Boston-Philly in the first round. Otherwise, if the Sixers don't fall from third to fourth in the Eastern Conference standings, they couldn't meet the Celtics until the Eastern Conference Finals. That's asking too much given the way both teams have played since the All-Star break.
Celtics vs. Warriors
Anyone who wants to see the Warriors face the Bucks or Raptors in the NBA Finals is forgiven. A potential Raptors-Warriors showdown has been enthralling for months.
But we must root for chaos. And Boston promises the most potential twists and turns of the Eastern Conference's four most likely Finals representatives (shouts to Philly).
To the bullet points!
- Stephen Curry vs. Kyrie Irving: Imagine not wanting to see two of the game's best ball-handlers and shooters exchange haymakers in a best-of-seven series. Irving deprived us of a farewell head-to-head by forcing a trade to the Celtics before last season. So, really, we're owed another one.
- Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving: Future members of the New York Knicks! Free-agency rumors are bound to run wild regardless of which teams play in the Finals, but the memes, captions and speculation we'd get during a Celtics-Warriors tussle would be off the charts.
- Klay Thompson and Jayson Tatum: We should all be here for the battle of "Who has the thinner mustache?"
- Al Horford vs. Draymond Green vs. DeMarcus Cousins: The Warriors have the capacity to play just about any big man off the floor. Horford is the closest they might come to an exception. Green-at-the-5 remains a cheat code, per Cleaning the Glass. Does that become a crutch to force Boston's hand? Does it not matter? Might they try to use Cousins' brute force more? Inquiring minds need to know.
- Anthony Davis Trade Watch: Do the Celtics still try to trade for Davis if they win a title? Could Tatum play his way out of trade negotiations?
- The Numbers: The Celtics are a solid 3-3 versus the Warriors in the Durant era, with a plus-4.4 net rating. Houston (6-5), San Antonio (5-5) and Utah (5-5) are the only other teams with a .500 or better regular-season record against Golden State during this time, and not one of them matches Boston's net rating. Utah comes closest with a plus-3.0.
This is all an inexact science. The Celtics have to reach the NBA Finals first, and if we're being honest, they haven't played consistently enough to be favored over all three of Milwaukee, Philly and Toronto.
Still, crossing our fingers is harmless.