Not all playoff series are created equally, especially in the first round. With that in mind, here’s a ranking of how much fun each series will be to watch for the unbiased observer.
8. (8) Brooklyn Nets vs. (1) Atlanta Hawks
Meh. The Nets snuck into the playoffs on the back of a resurgent Brook Lopez and Deron Williams, but that doesn’t mean they’re any fun to watch. Atlanta will eventually pass their way around the aging Brooklyn roster, and then we can all wake up in time for the 2nd round.
7. (5) Washington Wizards vs. (4) Toronto Raptors
This is a matchup of two teams who were much, much better earlier in the season. Injuries and general poor play have hampered them since, and this series could either end up being surprisingly entertaining or just sad depending on how things break. The Wizards will bring John Wall and Bradley Beal to the table, which is something to watch regardless of the quality of play of the rest of the team, and Kyle Lowry is a delight when he’s going as well, so it’s not all bad here, but this would have been a lot more fun to watch a few months ago.
6. (4) Portland Trailblazers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies
The other 4-5 matchup is hamstrung by teams that have fallen off over the course of the season as well. Portland’s demise has been precipitated by a rash of injuries, including to Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and LaMarcus Aldridge. Only Matthews will be completely unavailable, but that’s still a pretty big hit to the Blazers’ chances of going somewhere in the playoffs.
Memphis has struggled of late as well, though without quite so many injuries. Add it all up and you get a series that will likely fall short of its tremendous entertainment potential. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol battling Damian Lillard and Aldridge will keep it from being boring though, and the ever-present threat of Lillard doing something ridiculous in crunch time keeps this one from being too bad of an option.
5. (7) Boston Celtics vs. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers
After the sadness of the 4-5 matchups, here’s a series in which the teams are actually trending up. Cleveland’s appeal is both easy to understand and a little complex: they face huge expectations, and not hitting them would be entertaining as hell if for no other reason than watching the blame get thrown around (probably at Kevin Love). The raw talent on the team and the huge offensive potential of a LeBron James-Kyrie Irving-J.R. Smith-Love group is absolutely riveting. Whether they play well or not, it’s a win-win.
Their opponent, the Boston Celtics, would have been a laughingstock in the postseason only a couple of months ago, but they’ve come on strong, and their backcourt is very exciting to watch thanks to Isaiah Thomas’s entire offensive game and the potential for Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart to pressure ballhandlers over the entire court. The lack of good defensive options in the middle will also help the Cavs make a few highlights. This one probably won’t last long, but it will be fun while it’s still going.
4. (8) New Orleans Pelicans vs. (1) Golden State Warriors
Another series that should be short-lived, the main value of Warriors-Pelicans is going to be watching Anthony Davis try to carry his team to a couple of wins against the absolute buzzsaw that is this Stephen Curry-led Golden State team. Curry will rain fire from deep, Draymond Green will do Draymond Green stuff, and Davis will probably have to single-handedly counteract all of that. It won’t be the last time we’ll see him here, and seeing how he starts his playoff career will be great.
3. (6) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (3) Chicago Bulls
The highest-ranked Eastern Conference series (which is about like being the friendliest mountain lion) features two geographically close teams on very different trajectories. Milwaukee is coming up with a significant amount of young, lengthy talent, a group led by the ultra-long and athletic Giannis Antetokounmpo, who can create highlights on a whim. Meanwhile the Bulls are trying to see if Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, the current edition of Joakim Noah, and a hopefully rehabilitated Derrick Rose are actually enough to win a few series. The youth of the Bucks and the question marks on the Bulls should combine with a relatively close series to provide some of the only real intrigue in the East.
2. (7) Dallas Mavericks vs. (2) Houston Rockets
Finally, the good stuff. The playoffs in the West are always good, but due to seeding and injuries some of the sting has been taken out of Round 1. Not to worry though, this rivalry has our collective backs. Marc Cuban and Daryl Morey love to snipe at each other, Dwight Howard and James Harden are both available, and Dallas always makes for a surprisingly tough series thanks to Dirk Nowitzki, their vets, and the brilliant work of Rick Carlisle. Expect at least one massive tactical shift in this series as a result. The only thing dragging this one down is the fact that Houston will take 278 free throws and the games will last 7 hours each.
1. (6) San Antonio Spurs vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers
The Grizzlies’ last gift of the regular season was beating Indiana to pit the two most worthy challengers to the Warriors against each other in the 1st round. This series could have legitimately been a conference finals matchup if the seeding had broken differently, but there are a few perks to it coming about now.
First off, both teams are about as healthy as they can be, and both are playing well heading into the series. There’s also the added benefit of no other series having this much impact on who the eventual champs will be this early, a rare 1st rounder with legitimate implications on who will come out the West. The series should feature a lot of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard on Chris Paul, and the inside-out battle between Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Boris Diaw, and DeAndre Jordan will be a treat. All in all, no other series is going to be able to hold a candle to this Spurs-Clippers tilt.