We couldn’t be more excited about the 2017 NBA Playoffs. The Golden State Warriors are healthy once again and eyeing their third straight trip to the NBA Finals. The Spurs are flying under the radar, as always. And the Cleveland Cavaliers fell apart in the East, letting the Boston Celtics grab the No. 1 seed. There’s slightly more parity in each conference than normal, with probably three legitimate Finals contenders in each conference, as well as some potential first-round upsets.
That could make for some fun, with the possibility that an underdog could come away with the championship. But what should you spend your time watching? With eight playoff matchups in the first round, it’s not always easy to pick which games to dedicate to your precious free time. We dove into all eight, breaking down each series and ranking them from the least to the most intriguing.
8. San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies
The No. 2-seeded San Antonio Spurs were quietly the second-best team in the NBA this season, finishing with a 61-21 record. The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA but also one of the top defensive teams. So, this series might feel like watching paint dry. Seriously, we all know that the playoffs slow down the pace quite a bit; games end up being a bit more low-scoring. However, with two of the best defensive teams matching up, we might get a bunch of “92-86” type of scores.
The main Grizzlies to know: center Marc Gasol, point guard Mike Conley, and forward Zach Randolph. Oh, and they also have the ghost of Vince Carter playing 25 minutes per game, too. If people thought the Spurs were too old to be interesting, here comes Memphis as a challenger. The average age of Gasol, Conley, Randolph, Carter, Tony Allen, JaMychal Green, and James Ennis — the seven Grizzlies players with the most minutes per game — is an astounding 31.9.
After a 17-8 start to the season, Memphis is just 27-30. They’re mostly healthy, with Ennis nursing a knee injury but expected to be able to play against the Spurs. Chandler Parsons, the Grizzlies’ ill-advised free-agent signing, has mercifully ended his brutal season after tearing his meniscus. It’s hard to see this team keeping pace with the Spurs throughout a seven-game series. However, there is a silver lining for the older, worn down Grizzlies: This one isn’t expected to go much more than four or five games.
The Spurs are in the first year of the post-Tim Duncan era, and it really couldn’t go much better so far. The core is built around Kawhi Leonard — a legitimate MVP candidate — and LaMarcus Aldridge, with older veterans such as Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, and Manu Ginobili playing their roles on the team as well.
Speaking of old, the only important players on the good side of 30 are Leonard (25) and three-point specialist Danny Green (29); the latter athlete will be 30 shortly after the season ends. Leonard has raised his game to a new level, which is something intriguing to watch in the first round against Memphis. He’s averaging 25.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.8 steals per game this year in just 33.5 minutes per game.
From San Antonio’s perspective, this is all gravy. They’re pretty familiar with the Grizzlies, having swept them in the first round of the playoffs last season (winning each game by an average of 22 points). The Grizzlies averaged 81 points per game and shot just 39.4% from the field, so we expect to see more of that.
It would make sense that the Grizzlies would put Allen on Leonard, matching one of the best defenders in the NBA with one of the best scorers. But in reality, talent wins out in this league, and Leonard has talent in spades. Watching him have to work slightly harder to put up his numbers before resting in the majority of the fourth quarter doesn’t make this matchup any more interesting.
7. Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trail Blazers
Of course, this one has little intrigue; it’s a matchup of teams that finished 26 games apart in the standings. This would be like doing a playoff series between the Phoenix Suns and the Oklahoma City Thunder. But it’s still the playoffs, so there are reasons to watch even if the predetermined outcome is that the Portland Trail Blazers get smoked.
Heading into March, the Blazers had a 24-35 record. Because of the Western Conference’s weak bottom, however, they were still only 2.5 games behind the Denver Nuggets for the eighth seed. A surprising 17-6 finish to the year helped them get to 41-41 and leapfrog the Nuggets into the postseason. But what helped bolster Portland at the end of the year?
The trade for Jusuf Nurkic certainly didn’t hurt. He’s averaged 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game in 20 games for the Blazers after averaging just eight points and 5.8 rebounds for the same Nuggets team that find themselves dwelling in the lottery. Denver also sent a 2017 first-round pick to Portland in the deal, receiving back only Mason Plumlee and a future second-round pick. Ouch.
Unfortunately, Nurkic sustained a fractured right leg and has been out for a few weeks, with only a chance of returning in the first round of the playoffs. The injury report for the Blazers also includes forward Ed Davis and center Festus Ezeli, who are both done for the year. Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and all the other important players on the Blazers’ roster will be ready for the series.
On the Warriors side, there is the well-known quartet of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. These four players average 83 points per game between them, which is somewhat absurd. There was a time in the NBA when whole teams didn’t average 83 points per game. The Warriors are No. 1 in just about every offensive category, including points per game (116).
Durant is back on the court after missing 19 consecutive games, and he’s still working his way back into a good rhythm. In two games on the court, he’s played 31.8 minutes per game with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists per game on 44.4% shooting. The concern all season was that the Warriors would struggle to make their offense work with so many alpha-scorers. In reality, they’ve finished with a 67-15 record — the best in the NBA. At least for their series against the Blazers, it’s hard to consider that they might be in trouble.
What little intrigue exists in this series comes from last season. The Warriors and Blazers matched up in the Western Conference Semifinals, with Portland actually playing Golden State tough but losing the series in five games. You could make a case, based on that alone, that we could be in for at least a competitive series yet again. But Curry missed the first three games of that series with an ankle injury, and the Blazers were still only able to steal one game.
Optimistically, you should watch this series because it features two of the best backcourts in the NBA. Lillard and McCollum may not hold a candle next to Curry and Thompson, but they’re both dynamic and exciting to watch. The Blazers will probably get crushed on a handful of occasions, but there will be some good, close games. And the crowds in both Portland and Golden State are always great, which really gets the playoff atmosphere pumping.
6. Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks
You’d think a matchup that — on paper — has the ability to go either way would have more intrigue, but really this one doesn’t. The Washington Wizards are having one of the best seasons in franchise history, winning 50 games for the first time since 1978–79. They started the season 2-8 but have gone 48-24 since, rising to become one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Atlanta Hawks, on the other hand, started the year 9-2 but finished out 34-37 to end at 43-39. These teams are going in opposite directions. While it wouldn’t be that shocking to see the Hawks pull off an upset, this is the Wizards’ series to lose.
Washington comes into the series pretty much at full strength. Point guard John Wall is dealing with a sore hamstring, but on the whole nobody thinks it will be serious enough to hold him out of any games. Wall is the best player on the team and half of a loaded backcourt that also features Bradley Beal, who had the best season of his young career with 23.1 points per game in 2016–17.
The Wizards guards, in addition to athletic forwards such as Kelly Oubre and Otto Potter, are really what the Hawks will have difficulty dealing with. Washington can score points and get out and run with the ball, coming in fifth in the league in points as a team and 11th in pace factor.
The Hawks’ poor record over the majority of the season — not taking into account their first 11 games — is a bit misleading. It’s not just that Atlanta is a bad team, but they’ve made strategic moves to recognize their inability to contend for a championship as currently constructed and improve their standing in the future. The Hawks traded three-point specialist Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers in January to open up more minutes for younger players such as Tim Hardaway Jr. and Taurean Waller-Prince.
The backcourt of Dennis Schroder and Hardaway can’t even compare with Wall and Beal, but they’ll do their best to hold their own. Where the Hawks may have an advantage against Washington is in the frontcourt, where they pair up All-Star forward Paul Millsap with center Dwight Howard. Marcin Gortat struggled to hold down Howard in their four matchups this season, with the Hawks center averaging 14.3 points and 14.8 rebounds in those games.
These two teams did meet in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2014–15, with the higher-seeded Hawks winning the series in six games. But that series was much closer than it appears on the surface. The Wizards actually took a 2-1 series lead before the Hawks won the final three games by a total of nine points. A wrist injury limited Wall to just three games, and that certainly played a role in Washington’s disappointing exit from the playoffs that year.
But the final nail in the coffin for this series is that there are no legitimate contenders involved. While you could certainly argue that there are few of those in the NBA, period, the Eastern Conference is especially weak in the contender category. For example, the fifth-seeded Hawks are just barely a few games over .500 and finished two games ahead of the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls. If Atlanta does pull an upset on the Wizards, they’ll merely be another weak opponent for the top-seeded Celtics to steamroll in the semifinals.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers
This one wasn’t even determined until the final day of the regular season, with the Indiana Pacers pulling out a 104-86 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. This series doesn’t come with a ton of intrigue, as the Cavs are expected to dispatch Indiana in four or five games. But Cleveland didn’t exactly finish the year strong.
After sitting at 40-16 on February 23 with a win over the New York Knicks, the Cavaliers closed out the season by going 11-15. You can’t blame LeBron James, who played in 21 of those 26 games and averaged 28.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 8.1 assists on 56.6% shooting. Kevin Love only played in 14 of those games, but Kyrie Irving played 23 and averaged 27 points on 49.2% shooting from the field.
The Cavaliers’ defense really sunk in the latter half of the season — and we’re not talking about “bad, but for a reining champion” here. We’re just talking “bad.” Here’s what Kristian Winfield of SBNation had to say about the Cavs’ porous defense:
The Cavaliers drop down to the second-worst team in defensive efficiency with a god-awful 113.5 rating since mid-February. The visibly tanking Los Angeles Lakers have been the only team with a worse defensive efficiency in that span, and that rating would be the worst in the NBA by a long shot if Cleveland sustained it for the entire season.
This is an issue they must figure out if LeBron is going to make an NBA-record seven consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, much less win back-to-back championships. The good news: Bad defense or not, they should have enough to dispatch the Pacers.
But on that note, Indiana is entering the postseason on a high. They’ve won five games in a row, but had an admittedly up-and-down regular season. They started 4-6, were 16-18 to start the new year, ran their record to 29-22 in the first week of February, then promptly lost six in a row. Paul George has been rejuvenated since the beginning of March, averaging 28.3 points and 7.4 rebounds in 21 games.
The Pacers have extensive experience with James in the playoffs, losing to the Miami Heat in three consecutive seasons after LeBron took his talents to South Beach. Familiarity hasn’t helped them, either. James played in three matchups with the Pacers this season, averaging 32.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and eight assists — and the Cavs won all three games.
If there’s something actually interesting about this series, it might be the return of the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson and whatever role he might play for them in the 2017 NBA Playoffs. Don’t forget it was just three years ago that Stephenson attempted to blow in LeBron’s ear to get in his head during a playoff game. Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.
4. Boston Celtics vs. Chicago Bulls
There are two pretty big surprises in this matchup between the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls. The first is that the Celtics actually took the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, despite their 53-29 record not even cracking the top three in the West. But all things considered, this could be a really fun series.
The last time the Bulls and Celtics met in a playoff series, the NBA was the beneficiary of one of the best first-round series in the history of the game. Back in 2008–09, the reining champion Celtics were the No. 2 seed and the Bulls were 41-41 and rolling into the playoffs behind rookie point guard Derrick Rose. The series went all seven games, with some absolutely classic games involved — including a three-overtime effort that Chicago won in Game 6.
Boston point guard Isaiah Thomas has absolutely blown up this year, averaging 29.1 points and 5.9 assists in 34 minutes per game. After the team started a solid 26-18, Thomas and star center Al Horford led the team on a 27-11 run to finish the year. The 2016–17 season was the first 50-plus win season for the Celtics since 2010–11, but that was a completely different time in Celtics history. These aren’t your Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo Boston Celtics.
In fact, Rondo now plays for the Bulls. Just another wrinkle of intrigue for this series, right? The Celtics have built up a strong core around Thomas, Horford, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder. On top of all this, their 2012 trade to send Pierce and Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets brought them draft pick assets that could really set them up as one of the premier teams in the league for the next decade.
On the Chicago end of things, there’s Jimmy Butler. If you believe the rumors, the Bulls superstar could very well have ended up with the Celtics at midseason. The Bulls didn’t make a deal, and now Butler suits up to attempt to take down the Celtics in the first round. Eighth-seeded NBA teams don’t often take down a No. 1 seed in the first round. But the 12-game gap in the standings between the Celtics and Bulls is the smallest such gap between one and eight seeds in the East since 2003. Could the Bulls actually upset the Celtics?
Probably not, but it’s a real discussion. Chicago has been maddeningly inconsistent all year, but they do have talent. Butler developed into one of the top NBA players this season, averaging career-highs in 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.8 assists. Dwyane Wade played his first year with the Bulls — and first not in a Miami Heat uniform — in 2016–17, averaging 18.5 points on 43.4% shooting in 59 games. Wade is no longer the player he once was, but you can’t put a premium on the experience he brings to the court.
But the Bulls were never more than four games over and five games under .500 during the season, showing a penchant for not bothering to show up for games they should easily win against lesser opponents. At the same time, Chicago frequently stepped up and took down better teams. Against the Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, and San Antonio Spurs, the Bulls were an exceptional 8-4.
That record includes a 2-2 split of their four games against Boston, despite below-average performances in those games from the Bulls’ “Three Alphas” of Butler, Wade, and Rondo. Will the Bulls continue that level of play? Will the Celtics continue their rise in the Eastern Conference as the dark-horse pick to head to the NBA Finals? There are a lot of questions about this series, and that just adds to the overall intrigue.
3. Los Angeles Clippers vs. Utah Jazz
The Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz provide a fun series of evenly-matched teams. Determining the home-court advantage came down to the final day of the season, with both the Clippers and Jazz winning and ending with the exact same record, 51-31. But the tiebreaker goes to Los Angeles, which means the series will start at the Staples Center before heading to Utah for two. From there? We’ll see.
The Jazz are in the playoffs for the first time since 2011–12, when the San Antonio Spurs swept them in the opening round. The last time Utah won 50-plus games and actually won a game — and a series — in the playoffs was the 2009–10 season. A refresher: Jerry Sloan coached that team, which featured a 25-year-old Deron Williams with Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap, and Kyle Korver. This team has none of that leftover, with Quin Snyder coaching and Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, and George Hill serving as leading players.
Hayward had a breakout year in 2016–17, his seventh in the NBA. He made his first All-Star team, setting career-highs in points (22) and rebounds (5.4) while shooting 46.9% from the field. The Jazz did a phenomenal job as an organization collecting young talent, even if none of their good young players are in the top-10 category of best NBA players. It’ll still be fun keeping tabs on their core, which didn’t receive much national attention throughout the season.
A team that’s more used to the spotlight is the Clippers. They boast several of the best players in the NBA with point guard Chris Paul, forward Blake Griffin, and center DeAndre Jordan. They also have J.J. Redick — who has developed into one of the most deadly shooters in the NBA — and the ageless Jamal Crawford. When you look at their rosters side-by-side, it’s kind of curious how the Clippers ended up so close to the Jazz in the standings.
Make no mistake, Utah is good, but the Clippers beat them in three of their four regular-season meetings this season with an average margin of victory of nine points. Los Angeles was particularly difficult for Hayward to solve throughout the season, averaging just 15.7 points on 38.1% shooting.
But an interesting note: The Jazz haven’t all been healthy at the same time all year, and the Clippers didn’t ever catch Utah at full health. According to NBA.com, the Jazz had Hayward, Gobert, Hill, Rodney Hood, and Derrick Favors all in the lineup together only 14 times, winning 12 of those games.
Spoiler alert, but all five of those guys finished the regular season healthy and ready to go for the 2017 NBA Playoffs. Although the Clippers, themselves, have a secret weapon: experience. Doc Rivers is one of the best NBA coaches, and this franchise has won 50 or more games per season five consecutive years.
Both the Jazz and the Clippers draw a lot of interest; for Utah with their young, exciting core and for Los Angeles with their high-flying dunks and style of play. This matchup involves one of the highest-scoring teams in the NBA (Clippers) versus the stingiest defense in the NBA (Jazz). What more could you ask for?
2. Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks
The 51-31 Toronto Raptors got pretty close to grabbing the No. 1 or 2 seed in the East, but things may work out just fine for them in the No. 3 spot. They face the 42-40 Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. Should everything go as planned they’ll face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, this is a pretty fun playoff series in and of itself. Toronto tried to upgrade their roster for the better part of two seasons, and they finally were able to do it prior to the trade deadline this season. The Raptors added forward Serge Ibaka in a deal with the Orlando Magic, and he’s averaged 14.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks in 23 games with the team.
But Ibaka is just a role player on this team. The Raptors are led by point guard Kyle Lowry, who missed a stretch of 22 games before returning to the court with just four games remaining in the regular season. Shooting guard DeMar Derozan had a breakout year, averaging career-highs in points (27.3) and rebounds (5.2). Center Jonas Valanciunas had yet another solid season, with 12 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
The Raptors made their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in franchise history last year, losing to the Cavaliers in six games. They improved their roster with the addition of Ibaka, which makes the Raptors one of the more interesting teams in the Eastern Conference.
But there’s also the Bucks, who are pretty interesting, too. Giannis Antetokounmpo is an absolute breakout star for Milwaukee, making his first All-Star game this season and averaging career-highs in points (22.9), rebounds (8.7), assists (5.4), steals (1.6), and blocks (1.9). He’s still only 22 years old, which qualifies him as one of the best, young, rising stars in the game. This won’t be his first playoff series, but it’ll definitely be his first as the leader of the team.
And he’s not alone on this Bucks roster. Jabari Parker unfortunately can’t play after tearing his left ACL (for the second time in three years) earlier this season. But Khris Middleton, Malcom Brogdon, and Tony Snell are all 25 and under and play a role on the team. The Parker injury hurts, but the way the Bucks played after losing him says a lot about the team’s resiliency. The day Parker tore his ACL, Milwaukee was just 22-29 on the season. Without him, they finished 20-12.
The Bucks only made the playoffs four times in the last 11 years, and they haven’t won a playoff series since their trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000–01. This will be the first time they’ve played against the Raptors in the postseason, but they won’t be scared. Even if they did go 1-3 against Toronto during the regular season, their one win came during the final stretch of the year where Milwaukee finished 16-7.
For two teams that finished relatively far apart in the standings, this series will be a blast. Neither of them are probably serious title contenders, although fans in Toronto would probably take issue with that sentiment. The Bucks are just happy to be in the playoffs. Why not live it up and see if they can take a few games while they’re at it?
1. Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
This is the main event. The Houston Rockets versus the Oklahoma City Thunder. James Harden versus Russell Westbrook. Bearded MVP candidate versus triple-double machine MVP candidate. Houston has the homecourt advantage, finishing eight games better in the standings than the Thunder and coming away with the No. 3 seed. In fact, the Rockets surprised a lot of people this season by pulling out the third-best record in the NBA, behind only the Warriors and Spurs.
A brief reminder: Last season Kevin McHale and then Bernie Bickerstaff only led the Rockets to a 41-41 record, making the playoffs as the eighth-seed but losing to the Golden State Warriors. Dwight Howard left, Bickerstaff was let go, and Mike D’Antoni came in to reshape the direction of the team on the court. Not everyone was on board with the move, but D’Antoni made Harden the point guard and the result was one of the better seasons in NBA history.
The Rockets improved by 14 games in the standings as Harden scored 29.1 points per game (a career-high) while leading the NBA in assists at 11.2 (also a career-high). Eric Gordon had a resurgent year, actually staying healthy and playing in 75 games. The Rockets acquired guard Lou Williams from the Los Angeles Lakers late in the season, and he was excellent off the bench in 23 games (14.9 points per game). They’re a true masterpiece of a D’Antoni team, scoring 115.3 points per game during the regular season (second overall) but also allowing 109.6 (26th).
Houston rolls into the 2017 NBA Playoffs fairly healthy and with title aspirations, missing only forward Sam Dekker to a broken hand. They’re relatively familiar with the Thunder, having played them four times this season and winning the last three matchups after losing the first game by two points on the road.
But there stands the Thunder, led by a Westbrook and desperately wanting to show that they can be good without Kevin Durant. After sitting at 35-29, they finished 12-6 over their last 18 games — good for the second-best record in the West during that final stretch. They did finish sixth in their conference, but we should point out that the Thunder might actually be serious contenders if they were in the East. Not too bad for a team whose second-best player is… Victor Oladipo? Steven Adams? It’s hard to tell.
Oklahoma City made a deal at midseason with the Chicago Bulls to bring in trustworthy forward Taj Gibson and shooter Doug McDermott, and this helps with their overall depth. But OKC is all about Westbrook, who is the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961–62 to average a triple-double for the year. Westbrook put up video-game numbers, scoring 31.6 points with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game.
Not only that, but Westbrook has been clutch all year. Currently, he and Harden are leading the charge for a serious MVP discussion — probably the most split debate on the topic in recent memory. He has a strong case, setting the NBA record for triple-doubles in a season and leading a team that would be in the lottery without him to the 11th-best NBA record.
Potentially seeing seven games between these two teams going at each other, head-to-head, is what makes the NBA right. Anybody who claims that seeing some tiny college getting destroyed by a more prominent school in March is the best that basketball can offer is kidding themselves. The 2017 NBA Playoffs are where it’s at, and the Rockets and Thunder matchup are just further proof of what a joy the first round can be.