Finally. After grinding through the brutal regular season, during which even the truest fan is tested in the dog days of late March and early April, the NBA Playoffs start April 19. Finally. In the words of Chris Webber, “It’s time for playoff basketball.” This is what fans spend all 82 games waiting and hoping for — when the intensity gets turned up, the Marv Albert gets louder, and the Jeff Van Gundy gets feistier. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014 NBA Playoffs.
But which match-ups are going to be the best ones to watch? There are eight series all happening almost simultaneously, and sometimes real life gets in the way of being able to watch basketball — especially if you’ve used all your vacation time up on March Madness. It happens to everyone.
Usually, the scheduling helps with this — the really bad or unexciting on paper match-ups get exiled to NBA TV. No one really wanted to watch Heat-Bucks last year (especially not the Bucks). Sometimes, though, NBA TV gets a gem in the making, like the Pacers/Hawks matchup from last year, which was awesome if you dig defense. As a general rule of thumb, unless you’re a fan of one of the two teams, NBA TV games are skippable. That is, unless the network is broadcasting one of following six match-ups.
1. Los Angeles Clippers (3 seed) vs. Golden State Warriors (6 seed), Western Conference
Possibly the most overtly hostile first round series in the entire playoffs, as the Warriors and the Clippers share a genuine distaste for each other. Over the course of this season, we’ve seen Warriors center Andrew Bogut get into it with DeAndre Jordan, and really get into it with Blake Griffin (video below). Not that fighting Blake Griffin is particularly rare — check out this great article from The Big Lead’s Stephen Douglas on Griffin and his knack for drawing physical attention on the court — but DeAndre? No one gets into fights DeAndre.
Sacramento Kings head coach Mike Malone, who was an assistant in New Orleans while Paul was there and was an assistant coach for the Warriors over the past two seasons, when both teams (L.A. and Golden State) ascended the Western Conference ranks. “I don’t know if you guys know this, but Chris [Paul] has a unique ability of getting under people’s skin. I don’t know if you guys know that about him,” Malone told ESPN. ”You have two power forwards in David [Lee] and Blake [Griffin], and David is trying prove he’s an All-Star, which he is. You have Steph[en] Curry, who is emerging and no longer wants to be under Chris Paul’s shadow. He wants to show people what he can do.”
2. Toronto Raptors (3 seed) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6 seed), Eastern Conference
Another 3 seed-6 seed matchup, this one will probably take some dedication to watch: It’s a prime candidate for being shunted aside in favor of the more boutique match0ups. And that’s a shame, because both Toronto has quietly evolved into a really fun team to watch, and the Nets represent (another) last stand for two All-Time Greats.
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could, feasibly, be called ring-chasers. Ignoring the fact that the Boston Celtics’ window had very firmly closed after Rajon Rondo went down with a torn ACL in the 2013 season, and that once manager Danny Ainge had decided to blow it up there was no way Paul Pierce was going to retire in green. KG had a no-trade clause, but it made little sense for him to stay with what was destined to be a lottery squad. So, instead, they’ve teamed up with Deron Williams and Joe Johnson in order to make some noise with the Brooklyn Nets.
Toronto, on the other half of the court, may be the best ball-moving club in the league after a midseason trade that sent swingman (and arguable black hole) Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings. Remember the super-fun Denver Nuggets from last year (RIP Mile High and Running)? The Raptors are the East Coast, purple-black-and-red version of that. Think that’s a joke? Check ’em out:
Update: When this post was originally written, the Raptors were slated to play the Washington Wizards. As of The Wizard’s win over the Boston Celtics on 4/16/2014, they are now the 5th seed (as they own the tiebreaker over Brooklyn). This preview section has been modified accordingly.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (2 seed) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7 seed), Western Conference
What a difference three years makes. Ever since the Memphis Grizzlies lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a must see Western Conference Semifinal back in 2011, the Thunder have made it to the NBA Finals (2012) and been upended by Memphis in the semis the year after that. For the Grizz, they’ve made the Western Conference Finals (2013), only to be definitively stomped by the San Antonio Spurs.
While the Grizzlies are still focused around Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, this year’s Thunder squad is … almost a veteran team? It seems strange to suggest that about the Thunder, who have been shorthand for “youth” ever since they built their Westbrook-Durant-Ibaka nucleus, but it’s time for the team to step it up and make it back to the Finals. They’re too old for anything less and too young for anything less, too. We’re rooting for the Grizzlies, though — Tony Allen and Mike Conley deserve to make a deep run in the playoffs after saving the Grizzlies from the 8th seed. You can catch highlights of the Grizzlies/Mavericks game below.
Update: When this post was originally written, the Thunder were seeded to play the Dallas Mavericks. As of the Mavericks’ loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on 4/16/2014, the Mavs are now the 8th seed in the Western Conference, and will play the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. This preview section has been modified accordingly.
4. Houston Rockets (4 seed) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (5 seed), Western Conference
Another squad making a long overdue return to the postseason, the Portland Trail Blazers have successfully rebuilt enough to make it back to the playoffs with a 50-plus win season for the first time since 2010. After the disastrous fragility of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, the team has retooled around power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and sophomore point guard Damian Lillard with a pair of solid wings in Nicholas Batum and Wes Matthews. Plus, they have Robin Lopez. You already know how we feel about Robin Lopez.
On the other half of the arena are the Houston Rockets, a remarkably talented team that can play some of the most boring basketball imaginable. Not boring in the slow-it-down, pound-the-rock style of half-court play that most people think of when someone says “playoffs,” but boring because their entire modus operandi is shooting three-point shots and driving to the rim.
Which, on the face of it, is fine. They play fast. They move the ball. They take smart shots. That’s great. The fact that they go to the line constantly — and we mean constantly — is a tempo killer. Between James Harden and Dwight Howard, the Rockets attempt almost 20 free throws per game. And that’s just between two players. With the other 12 guys on the roster, you’re looking at the team that takes the most free throws in the league. It gets real old real quick.
5. Indiana Pacers (1 seed) vs. Atlanta Hawks (8 seed), Eastern Conference
This is really just a barometer for the rest of the Eastern Conference. It’s no secret that the Indiana Pacers are going through a rough patch right now. A really rough patch. Widely predicted to be meeting Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals before the year began and for much of the regular season, the Pacers are now playing so badly that even escaping the first round looks to be far from a certainty. While the most sensible answer for this is probably fatigue, their first-round opponent, Atlanta, are more than just a speed bump.
Atlanta, after all, was the team that decimated the Pacers so hard that the Indiana squad got booed off the court by their own fans at halftime (video of the blowout below). While ATL were fighting for the No. 8 spot on account of the injuries to their team, they’ve responded nicely and look set to possibly make the second round if Indiana can’t shake their funk.
6. Miami Heat (2 seed) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7 seed), Eastern Conference
No, that’s not a joke. No, it’s not just a lame “It’s LeBron and he’s the best player so you should watch him” inclusion, even though that’s true. It’s actually because the Charlotte Bobcats, two years out from being the worst team in NBA history, are a great matchup against Miami. Seriously.
Miami’s always had a hard time against point guards who can penetrate, and skilled big men — it’s the downside of their terrifyingly good small-ball lineups with LeBron at the 4. Charlotte, believe it or not, has both of those in Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. Jefferson, an honest-to-goodness All-Star snub, has carved up the Heat every time the two clubs have met (full disclosure: the Bobcats have lost every one of those games), averaging 25 points and 15 rebounds a contest. The Bobcats have also snuck into the top five defenses in the NBA, allowing opposing teams just 97.3 points per game. That’s only one-tenth of a point more than the Miami Heat, who allow 97.2. This has the potential to be a really fun series. Seriously.