With things so subject to change in both NBA conferences, it is hard to analyze first-round matchups. With just over a week remaining in the regular season, I’ll do my best to give a glance into what we might expect from the first round.
Whomever Atlanta faces—whether it be Boston, Brooklyn or Miami—will be demolished, probably 4-1. Atlanta simply moves the ball too well; just as the Spurs bought into Coach Pop’s system, the Hawks are buying into Coach Bud’s (despite it being the same system). Their selfless play and lack of a star that needs to be perpetually fed creates a very hard team to match up with—let alone beat—in a series.
While Cleveland employs a different strategy, it is unlikely that they’ll drop out in the first round. The team relies heavily on its shooters connecting from range, but with the amount of talent imported to this team, they should be able to counteract a cold night for J.R. Smith or even Kevin Love. While I would love to see a depleted Miami take down the stacked Cavaliers, the odds are very much against it.
Chicago—if they can hold onto their third seed—will likely face the Bucks, which is a pretty interesting matchup. People might be quick to pick the Bulls since their record and name hold more weight, but Milwaukee is a feisty bunch and will surely put up a fight. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this went to a game six.
I see Chicago eventually taking it for two reasons. First, Coach Thibodeau’s experience trumping Jason Kidd’s lack thereof: Thibodeau employs a strong, defensive-minded strategy which should shut down the Bucks’ slash-and-kick offense. Second, the veteran players on Chicago, like Gasol and Noah, know how to close out games down the stretch and definitely know how to wrap up a series.
Last, we have Toronto against Washington, which should be one of the best first-round matchups in the East. The teams are currently battling for home-court advantage, sitting a mere game apart in the standings.
With these two talented, and relatively evenly-matched teams facing off, home court advantage may very well be the determining factor. Toronto’s Air Canada Center is deafening, making it one of the hardest places to play in the league. Though the backcourt of Wall and Beal are forces to be reckoned with, they aren’t enough to overcome both the Raptors and their fanbase: I have Toronto taking the matchup in six games if Toronto has home court. If Washington secures the fourth seed, the series will be a game seven toss-up.
The West is dominated by the baby-faced assassin, Stephen Curry, and his unbelievable cast of Warriors. While the Dubs may face Westbrook and the Thunder in the first round, the key to a Golden State victory is depth. Even if—by some anomaly—the Thunder can fend off the Warriors starters, there’s no way they can match up with the incredibly talented bench.
With players like David Lee and Andre Iguodala coming off the bench to face players like Kyle Singler and Jeremy Lamb, there is a clear swing of momentum when the second teams enter the game. Golden State will either sweep the series or lose a single game.
While much can change in the Western Conference between now and the start of the playoffs, I will take the current matchups as given.
Houston will take on Dallas in a Texas duel. Despite the Mavs making a lot of trades and lineup changes this year, they simply cannot match up with the Rockets. James Harden and Dwight Howard headline a very talented and explosive Rockets team. Dallas will give them a fight for sure, but they don’t have the firepower or consistency to match the Rockets intensity: the series might get pushed to six games before Houston closes it out.
Next we have one of my favorite potential matchups: Memphis versus the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. The powerful paint presence of Z-Bo and Marc Gasol face the most experienced group of players in the league. While the Grizzlies come into the matchup with the stronger season, the Spurs refuse to get blown out. Closing off their 16th consecutive season with 50+ wins, San Antonio is the constant contender. I see this series easily going to seven games, with the last a toss up. However it concludes, this should be an unbelievable matchup and a thrilling series.
Lastly, I have to mention Portland facing the Clippers. With CP3 facing off with Dame, Blake Griffin taking on Aldridge, this will be a showdown for sure. These teams not only have similar casts, but also play a similar fast-paced style of basketball. I would see this matchup go to seven games and have Damian Lillard take the deja vu shot to win the series.
All that we know for sure is that it will be a great first round of basketball. For many teams, the regular season is just preparation for the true show. With many extremely talented teams laying it all on the line, we will see who can come up big in the clutch moments and who can make the necessary runs to go deep into the playoffs.
Eber is a member of the class of 2017.