As the NBA’s regular season closed with a bang this week, the eyes of the basketball world turned towards the 16 teams that made the playoffs. There’s a lot to see there. From Portland to Miami, Houston to Minneapolis, the best teams in basketball have all have compelling stars and don’t-know-what’s-coming narratives. That’s great for die-hard NBA fans, but it’s a bit tough for casual viewers, the busy folks who don’t follow NBA Twitter or keep track of DeMarcus Cousins’s various beefs. What do those folks need to know? They need to know what to watch that isn’t the Golden State Warriors.
There’s plenty. Even if a repeat feels a bit inevitable, the field is tough this year and there are a lot of unpredictable teams. The Rockets and the Raptors have surprised and over-performed. The 76ers haven’t embarrassed themselves. The Celtics are basically starless, but still aggressive.
While the Warriors and Cavaliers should both advance with relative ease into the second round, there are a handful of showdowns across both conferences that are less predictable. The Eastern Conference had one of its strongest years of the millennium, and one specific showdown should go the distance along the East Coast. On the flip side, the West was as competitive as ever, and both its 3-6 and 4-5 matchups could go down to the wire.
Since no one has time to watch all eight first-round series, we’ve picked the three that you will not want to miss over the next two weeks.
#3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. #6 Miami Heat
While the Sixers are the hottest team in basketball right now – they won a staggering 16 games in a row to close out the season – they could not have gotten more unlucky with their first-round matchup. Miami has the best coach in the Eastern Conference in Erik Spoelstra, and while lacking in star power, the Heat have the tools to make Philly’s life a living hell for seven tough games.
Hassan Whiteside is one of the few centers in the league that can match up with Joel Embiid, who might not even be back by game 1 of this series. The pair have also engaged in some legendary trash-talk throughout the season. The Heat can also throw about 4 different defenders at Sixers rookie star Ben Simmons to slow him down. The teams split their season series 2-2, with the first three games being decided by a combined 9 points.
That being said, Philadelphia is still the more talented team, and they might be peaking at the exact right time. Rookie Markelle Fultz – who missed most of the season with a bizarre shoulder injury – has had his moments since returning last month, including a season-ending triple-double for the Sixers. Embiid can’t be stopped; he can only be slowed, even by Whiteside, so he’ll likely play a huge role in this series. The Sixers are well-coached, fast, young, and not afraid of anyone; Miami will put up a tough fight, but you need stars to win in the playoffs. The Heat have none, while Philadelphia has two.
Prediction: Sixers in 7
#4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #5 Utah Jazz
This season was a wild ride for the Oklahoma City Thunder. After last year’s Russell Westbrook Show netted them a first-round exit at the hands of the Rockets, OKC rebooted their team by trading for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. While Anthony has been terrible, George gave Westbrook a secondary star of the kind that he had not had since Kevin Durant up and left to the Warriors in the summer of 2016. The Thunder’s reward for their creative team-building? Another brutal matchup, this time against the stalwart Utah Jazz.
Despite getting swept by the Golden State juggernaut last season, the Jazz have to be feeling confident heading into the playoffs this year. Utah spent a large part of the season outside of the playoff picture, despite putting together a handful of hot streaks. However, as the rest of the Western Conference’s pack of good-not-great teams began to falter down the stretch, the Jazz kept on going strong, bolstered by Ricky Rubio’s stellar work and the return of prime Rudy Gobert.
This might be the hardest series to call in the entire playoffs, because it pits two pieces of conventional playoff wisdom against each other. The first, favoring the Thunder, is that stars win playoff series. As the games slow down, having the ability to create your own shot and score is what separates title contenders from also-rans. However, the second favors the Jazz: defense is key. Because as those games slow down, being able to shut down your opponent and forcing them into hero ball is a key to success Utah finished with the second-best defense in the NBA, after the Boston Celtics. Unfortunately for Utah, the Thunder’s defense isn’t too shabby either, finishing in the top 10 in defensive rating for the year. That plus a dose of the Westbrook and George Show should carry Oklahoma City on.
Prediction: Thunder in 7
#3 Portland Trailblazers vs. #6 New Orleans Pelicans
While the rest of the league was focusing on James Harden’s march towards the MVP, or the Rookie of the Year battle between Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, two young stars in the West took The Leap into superstardom. Portland’s Damian Lillard and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis have been in the second tier of stars for years, but both players finally put it together in 2018, and now have to be considered leading candidates for the coveted All-NBA First Team slots that they deserve.
Davis’ path to the top of the league has been preordained since before he was even drafted in 2012. He’s everything a modern big man needs to be: mobile, long, can score from pretty much everywhere, and is a great defender. After DeMarcus Cousins’ season-ending injury in January, Davis went above and beyond his usual elite levels into a new stratosphere, leading the Pelicans to their best regular season record since 2009, when they were the New Orleans Hornets. There are few players that can stop Davis, and he should feast on Portland’s front court of Jusuf Nurkic and Al-Farouq Aminu.
Unfortunately for Davis, however, the Blazers’ star player is one of the few in the West who performed better than him this year. Lillard has been the physical embodiment of a Super Mario star this season. He posted the best offensive rating of his career this season, but perhaps more impressively, his defensive turnaround has helped propel Portland from 21st in defensive rating last season to a stout 8th this year. Lillard’s biggest Achilles heel has always been stopping the man in front of him. He’ll have a tough test in the resurgent Jrue Holiday, who is also one of the few point guards in the league that can have a prayer of stopping Lillard on the other side of the floor.
That prayer should go unanswered however, and Portland will ride its home-court advantage and Lillard’s fearless leadership to the second round.
Prediction: Trailblazers in 6