The NBA playoffs are just around the corner, and the first-round matchups are starting to come into clear view as well. While the Golden State Warriors are fighting to best the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ all-time regular season record of 72-10 and the San Antonio Spurs continue the best season ever that few people are talking about, there are interesting battles happening in both conferences for playoff seeding.
The Bulls, Indiana Pacers, and Detroit Pistons are all within two games of each other, fighting for the final two spots in the East. The No. 3 and No. 6 seeds in the East are held by the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, and Charlotte Hornets — all currently separated by just one game. The Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, and Utah Jazz are battling over last two spots in the West. So what are the best matchups for a mix of good basketball and entertainment value? Here are the best potential first-round storylines that are, at this point, pretty realistic.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Chicago Bulls
For this to happen the Bulls need to nudge the Pacers — who have a one-game lead — out of the final spot in the Eastern Conference. The Cavs knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs last season in the second round in six games, but it was a hard-fought series. The Bulls held a 2-1 series edge after Derrick Rose banked a three-pointer at the buzzer in Game 3, nearly stealing the win.
The Bulls and LeBron James have some history, too. Chicago saw their season end in the playoffs to a team led by James four times in the last six seasons. But the Bulls always seem to play him tough, even when they’re overmatched, which they certainly are. It would be fun, at the very least, for the Bulls to sneak into the playoffs and give the fans another entertaining series against LeBron.
Miami Heat vs. anyone on the Cavs’ side of the bracket
The Heat’s potential first-round matchups aren’t particularly interesting — or at least, not any more interesting than one another. But if the Heat earn the fourth or fifth seed and are able to move on to the second round, they’ll match up with the Cleveland Cavaliers — and that would certainly be interesting for NBA fans.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — if the latter player can recover from his blood clot issues — would face James in the playoffs for the first time since he left them high and dry two offseasons ago to return to Cleveland. Heading into the season, many thought that the revamped Heat, with combo guard Goran Dragic and defensive stalwarts Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside, could be the team in the East that challenges the Cavs. If everyone is healthy, it would be fun to actually see what might happen.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Dallas Mavericks
There are a few fun angles for a Spurs versus Mavs matchup. Dirk Nowitzki versus Tim Duncan is a fun battle of two of the best big men in the history of the NBA, and the two teams have matched up six times in the playoffs since Nowitzki came into the league (Spurs have won four series). There’s also LaMarcus Aldridge, who was wooed by both teams last offseason.
The Spurs are clearly the superior team, sitting a massive 26 games ahead of the Mavs in the standings. What’s worse is that the Mavs are 14-20 in their last 34 games, while the Spurs have gone 24-4 over their last 28. This series may be quick, but it would provide some intrigue for fans in the Lone Star State and for those who want to see Nowitzki and Duncan match up in the playoffs — possibly for the last time.
Golden State Warriors vs. Utah Jazz
The Jazz are one of the fun surprises of the NBA season, battling for one of the last playoff spots in the Western Conference after not making the playoffs for the last three seasons. The young core of the team has an average age of around 24, and the oldest players on the team are just 28 years old. The playoff experience, even in a first-round exit, would be good for Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, and Rodney Hood.
Of course, on the other side of things are the Warriors, who would likely sweep the Jazz in four games. The two teams may be able to make it entertaining, at least. In their two home games against the Warriors, the Jazz lost by three points and seven points — with the second game going into overtime. Of course, much like the rest of the league, the Warriors dominated Utah in their two matchups in California, winning by an average of 18.5 points.
The NBA playoffs are always intriguing, and while there are generally only a small handful of teams with a real shot of winning a championship, there are still fun and exciting matchups in the first round, with young prospects, aging stars, and up-and-coming teams on display. For NBA fans, it’s only a few weeks away.
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