The NBA Playoffs begin this Saturday. Late season drama was limited, with the Detroit Pistons holding onto the eight seed in the East. We have known the Western Conference playoffs for a while, but the seedings altered in the final days of the regular season, changing the first-round matchups.
We take a look at all eight first round series in this piece, ranking them below…
1) Boston Celtics (4) v Indiana Pacers (5)
The Eastern Conference’s ‘big four’ were all desperate to avoid Indiana in the first round. The Pacers, even without Victor Oladipo, have been hard to beat, playing tough defence and finding enough offence thanks to a deep roster.
Boston finished the regular season in good form. Marcus Smart’s injury forces Brad Stevens to change his plans. They still have a wealth of talent and will get their first glimpse of Kyrie Irving in the playoffs. Winning this series is the bare minimum for the Celtics, failing to do so could change the shape of the NBA.
Getting homecourt advantage could turn out to be pivotal for the Celtics. Who knows what being knocked out in the first round could mean for the Celtics, Irving, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and the New York Knicks.
2) Denver Nuggets (2) v San Antonio Spurs (7)
Mike Malone juggled Denver’s roster in the closing games of the season to land a favourable path to the Conference Finals. It worked, with the Nuggets facing either Portland or Oklahoma City if they make it past San Antonio.
That’s a big if. The season series ended 2-2, including the Spurs winning in Colorado just after Christmas. Betting against Gregg Popovich is a risky business, and the inexperienced Nuggets are very dependent on the limited, but brilliant, Nikola Jokic.
This series has as good a chance as any of going seven games. The result does not have the same implications as Boston being eliminated, so it misses out on top spot here.
3) Portland Trail Blazers (3) v Oklahoma City Thunder (6)
Jusuf Nurkic’s injury changes the dynamic of this series. Portland are looking to make up for their humiliating first-round sweep to the Pelicans last year, but Nurkic’s absence makes them underdogs against a Thunder team that won their last five regular season games to avoid the eight seed.
The Thunder are a hard team to predict as we head into the playoffs. Their margin of error is tiny, needing Russell Westbrook and Paul George to be at their very best if they are to make any sort of run. Their peak performances are capable of carrying them into the Conference Finals, though, as they sit on the easier side of the bracket away from Houston and Golden State.
There’s no shortage of star power here. The Thunder have the edge, but it’d be no surprise to see this go to seven games. If Nurkic was available it would have pipped Denver and San Antonio on our list.
4) Houston Rockets (4) v Utah Jazz (5)
Assuming a healthy Chris Paul, this is relatively one-sided for a four versus five matchup.
Houston have looked like their 2017/18 selves with a fit Paul and Clint Capela. James Harden isn’t having to do quite as much heavy lifting, hopefully meaning he has plenty in the tank for a playoff run.
Utah finished the season strongly. Donovan Mitchell picked up after a slow start to the season and the supporting cast chipped in with enough points. Rudy Gobert is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year again – how he defends the Houston pick and roll will be key.
Jazz will make Houston work for it, though Utah winning the series would be a major shock.
5) Philadelphia 76ers (3) v Brooklyn Nets (6)
Philadelphia had the luxury of resting Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid at the end of the regular season. The Sixers tied up the third seed with time to spare, avoiding Boston and Indiana in the first round.
Brooklyn are a more favourable opponent than the Pacers or Celtics, but they have troubled the Sixers this season. Philadelphia have had issues defending guards, and the Nets have several that can take advantage of that.
This isn’t set to be as one-sided as some of the other matchups, which is why it slots in at sixth on this list. The Sixers will almost certainly progress, though.
6) Milwaukee Bucks (1) v Detroit Pistons (8)
Detroit clung onto the eighth seed despite a disastrous first half against Memphis on Tuesday. Their prize is a clash against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks.
Milwaukee swept the season series 4-0. The absences of Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic weaken Mike Budenholzer’s 60-win team, but they are still overwhelming favourites. Blake Griffin has been hampered by injury of late, too, which contributed to Detroit’s shaky run late in the regular season.
The Bucks have been dominant all season. That’s not going to end here.
7) Golden State Warriors (1) v Los Angeles Clippers (8)
Plucky often feels like a backhanded compliment. It isn’t for the Clippers, who have overcome roster turnover to outperform their Los Angeles rivals and return to the postseason.
Doc Rivers is a frontrunner for Coach of the Year, and rightly so.
The Clippers are the ‘least talented’ in the West but have overachieved all season and could have easily upset Denver or Portland. Avoiding Golden State would have earned them a higher position on this list.
The Warriors got a favourable first round matchup and this will probably end in four or five games.
8) Toronto Raptors (2) v Orlando Magic (7)
Orlando’s late-season surge has been a great story. Nikola Vucevic has been brilliant, and Steve Clifford worked wonders to secure a postseason berth with games to spare.
Hosting playoff games is huge for the Magic, and the city of Orlando. Their hopes of making this competitive are slim, though, as they face a Toronto team with a superstar in Kawhi Leonard and plenty of depth.
It feels harsh having Orlando eighth on this list, but few tipped them to make the playoffs this year and getting this far is a success – winning a game or two would be a bonus.