NBA Shootaround: Picking Our Dream First-Round Playoff Matchups

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So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is back to help you keep track of it all. You’ll find takes on moments you might’ve missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever. This week, we got a little impatient waiting for the regular season to wrap up. So here are our dream matchups for the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Chicago Bulls

Andrew Sharp: Michael Jordan owned the Knicks. From 1989 to 1996, he was the Grim Reaper. He was the destroyer of dreams. How many Finals would Pat Riley and Patrick Ewing have made if not for Jordan? Knicks seasons were fun, and then they usually ended with Madison Square Garden fans cursing their nemesis one more time.

That’s LeBron and the Bulls now. Except it’s bigger than basketball. There’s real antipathy here. Remember when Derrick Rose refused to recruit LeBron in 2010? Bulls fans loved him for it. The players, the fans, probably even Thibs — everyone feels the same way. No matter how many titles he wins, LeBron will always be considered Hollywood as hell in Chicago. Then LeBron wins in May, and the knife gets twisted a little deeper. It’s a better rivalry than anything else in the NBA. Even you, Clippers-Warriors.

That’s the series I want to see. That’s the series we all need.

Also, the Bulls are flying under the radar right now. Last night’s loss aside, they’ve looked better with Jimmy Butler back, and they’re getting healthy at the perfect time. There are pieces here that will matter in a playoff series. Nikola Mirotic is awesome. Joakim Noah has had a rough year, but Pau Gasol helps them in ways Noah never has. Rose played last night, and he had his moments. I don’t know whether any of them can beat LeBron, but I’m so ready to watch them try.

“It would be great to play them in the playoffs,” Noah said of the Cavs this weekend. “It would be very, very exciting, something that I really hope happens.”

“You think Cleveland’s cool?” he said in 2010. “I never heard anybody say, ‘I’m going to Cleveland on vacation.’”

Can we start this tonight?

Houston Rockets vs. Dallas Mavericks

Houston Rockets v Dallas MavericksRonald Martinez/Getty Images

Jason Concepcion: Perhaps you’ve heard the well-worn aphorism “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Maybe you’ve heard it used so many times in relation to playoff basketball that the phrase itself has become contemptuous — a room-temperature harbinger that you’re about to spend some nonrefundable, albeit small, portion of your life consuming a tepid-ass dishwater take about how rivalries are good and stuff. As if that were something — rapacious and cultured devourer of sports edutainment that you are — you didn’t already know. Kids learn as much from Mario Kart before they can tie their shoes.

I would never do that to you.

Except … there’s this other oft-used saying: “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” Which is why I’m hoping for Rockets-Mavs in the first round. Because my Lone Star dudes Daryl Morey and Marky Cubes are mad familiar with the cut of each other’s jibs.

It’s not a familiarity based upon the kind of postseason acrimony that ends up being passed down from one generation of fans to another. The teams have met in the playoffs only twice, with the Mavericks winning both series.

This latest iteration of the Rockets-Mavericks rivalry is a border war. It’s two swaggering egos standing on the edge of each other’s properties and pissing over the fence.

You’ve got Morey calling Cuban about acquiring Dirk in 2013. And Morey crafting an intricate plan to execute a web of precisely timed deals aimed at landing a third star while preserving the ability to go over the cap to sign Chandler Parsons, only for Cuban to blow the whole thing up, and then walk away in slow motion waving double finger-bombs. Then there’s former Maverick Jason Terry, currently playing the role of “Replaceable Guard Substance With an Annoying Big-Shot Celebration” in Houston.

How badly do you think Cuban wants to take Dirk’s “MVP Winner Who Lost in the First Round” dunce cap and put it on James Harden? How badly do you think Morey wants to see tears welling in Parsons’s angelic eyes?

That’s how badly I want to see this series.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Miami Heat

Chris Ryan: This one looked really tasty on February 19, when the Heat traded for Goran Dragic. Two days later, when it was announced that Chris Bosh would miss the rest of the season because of blood clots in his lung, it was a little less enticing. So maybe this is more about what could have been. After all, Miami has been dragging lately (3-7 in its last 10), Dwyane Wade is going through one of his “just a flesh wound” periods, and you never know when Hassan Whiteside is going to (a) forget how to play team defense (Erik Spoelstra benched him for the final 4:48 of the Heat’s win over the Hornets on Tuesday after some particularly egregious defense), or (b) tackle an Eastern European dude just for living.

But what could have been, right? Two incredible starting fives, Miami fans booing LeBron, Cleveland fans booing Wade, a J.R. Smith–LIV night, Dragic vs. Kyrie, Bosh vs. Love, and Whiteside vs. Mozgov (oh man, Timofey is Hassan’s type). Even without Bosh, I’d still rather see Cleveland face Miami over Boston or Brooklyn. It would be a great early postseason test for the Cavs. There’s no way the Heat could win the series, but how fun would that first LeBron-brushes-past-Blatt moment be if Cleveland lost Game 3 in Miami?

Atlanta Hawks vs. Indiana Pacers

Miami Heat v Indiana PacersRon Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Dave Schilling: I was all set to pick Hawks-Pacers for the mushy, feel-good reason that it would mean Frank Vogel & Co. had pulled off the unthinkable task of salvaging a disastrous season after the free-agent departure of Lance Stephenson and the horrific injury to Paul George. Then Chris Copeland got stabbed at a nightclub in New York and this turned into West Side Story. What the hell were Thabo Sefolosha and Pero Antic doing at that club, and what were they doing to be arrested? Would this series still end up on NBA TV?

I’m really rooting for Indiana because of how inspiring it is that George worked hard enough to play this season. Seeing him suit up in the playoffs would be a great story. But now this whole situation has taken a dark, surreal turn. My dream series might have become a nightmare.

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Memphis Grizzlies

Danny Chau: These teams are a half-game apart in the standings. I can’t believe this is a possibility. But it is, and, thus, you should accept no substitutes. The all-time playoff record is 7-6 in favor of Memphis. The two teams’ 2012 first-round series might be the greatest collection of moments in the Clippers’ sad, sad history. The Grizzlies have won four of the six games these teams have played against each other since the beginning of last season, but the point differential of those six games was only nine total points, in favor of the Clippers. This series would be close to deadlocked.

Warriors-Clippers is the fresher rivalry, and it has grown nuanced this season after the exhilarating high of last year’s first-round matchup. But it’s a little like high-end interpretations of fried chicken — the essence is there, but the balance is off. Clips-Grizz is the comforting fried chicken you long for. It’s rooted in something deep; it has a past that guarantees a future.

As a first-round series, it would be the perfect starter course and the perfect litmus test going forward. These are not particularly deep teams; both the Clippers and Grizzlies land in the league’s bottom 10 in bench points. That’s a somewhat important tidbit, because it’s inevitable that both sides would lose at least one key player to an ejection. Zach Randolph cost his team the series last year against the Thunder by getting suspended, and you know the Clippers would unleash their entire repertoire of antics to make sure the same thing happens again.

This is the round to get the ya-yas out, and this is the matchup that allows these two teams to be their truest selves. There would be mental jujitsu and, if we’re lucky, actual jujitsu from Z-Bo and Blake Griffin. Fingers crossed.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Chicago Bulls


Jason Gallagher: Bucks-Bulls isn’t just the dream playoff matchup — it’s the dream playoff rivalry for the next two decades.

When I was in elementary school, everyone knew I hated a kid named Clark. First off, he went by “Clarky,” which, come on. Also, we both liked a girl named Rachel, because she was pretty and the fastest girl in our grade. So Clark and I decided to have it out one day after school. The buzz around this fight was electric. Seriously, the MGM Grand had nothing on Butler Elementary School that afternoon. And you know why the playground was packed out for two third-graders rolling around on the ground for 12 seconds? It wasn’t because of Rachel, or the fact that I’d bought my black MJ jersey WEEKS before he did because Clark was a copycat piece of shit.

It’s because Clark and I were NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBORS.

That’s why a Bucks-Bulls rivalry needs to be a thing. Because nothing beats neighboring rivals.

Bulls Bucks

A 90-minute car ride. That’s how long it takes to go from Chicago to Milwaukee. Throw in a quick stop to Mars Cheese Castle and you could make the trip in less than two hours. It’s a crime these teams have played only 12 playoff games against each other. That’s absurd. Even more absurd: Milwaukee has the upper hand on Chicago, winning eight of the 12.

These fans hate each other, too. This isn’t a theory — it’s scientific fact proven by years of mutual enmity between Bears and Packers fans. Now imagine that same level of anger and hostility, but on a basketball court. Spectacular, right? Joakim Noah calling Giannis Antetokounmpo soft in the playoffs could create our first Internet civil war. Now imagine future battles between Chicago South Side natives and Simeon’s own Jabari Parker and Derrick Rose. I can’t take it.


Los Angeles Clippers v Chicago BullsJoe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images


Los Angeles Clippers v Milwaukee BucksGary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

We have to start somewhere, and I pray to God it’s with these playoffs. Bucks in six.

Golden State Warriors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Kirk Goldsberry: There are two reasons I really want to see the Warriors play the Thunder in the first round. The first is that I want to keep watching Russell Westbrook play basketball. The campaign he just ran should get him elected into the playoffs. But such is life in the Western Conference. The second reason is, I want to see the tire fire that is the OKC defense try to stop the greatest show on earth, a.k.a. the Warriors offense. The Warriors might score 200 points in one of these games.

Golden State Warriors vs. New Orleans Pelicans

Golden State Warriors v New Orleans PelicansLayne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Ben Detrick: Before New Orleans beat Golden State on Tuesday night, an unnamed Warrior (read: probably Draymond Green) snickered that the evening’s festivities were nothing more than a scrimmage for the league’s top team. Afterward, Anthony Davis said his Crescent City cohort took the dig personally. So this potential first-round matchup already has some bad blood.

Fine, let’s be real. A prospective Warriors-Pelicans series won’t be about mondo-competitive hoops or frosty glares between Andrew Bogut and Alexis Ajinca. Golden State’s mettle would be tested later. This series would be all about The Brow.

Davis turned 22 last month. He is a man-child whose abilities have burgeoned with the frightening rapidity of alien cell tissue metastasizing behind laboratory glass (and there’s no fat red button that a panicking scientist can punch to engulf the room in cleansing fire). Here, in his third season, he’s averaging 24.5 points and 10.3 rebounds a game and leads the league in PER and blocks. He’s already bloomed into a top-five player and a second-tier MVP candidate. But to casual fans, Davis remains somewhat anonymous — an overlooked gift from the roundball deities whose most notable moments as a professional occurred during last summer’s little-watched FIBA World Cup, when the United States dutifully stomped every international challenger and Shmoney Danced on the podium.

A nationally televised series against the best team in basketball (and one with a soaring collective Q rating) is precisely what Davis needs. His condor wingspan must spread wide enough for all to gaze upon its magnificence. In his 2006 playoff debut series, LeBron dropped a pair of 40-point bombs on the Wizards and whispered deconstructive criticism in Gilbert Arenas’s ear before two crucial free throws. Four years later, Kevin Durant averaged 25 points a night as the precocious Thunder pushed the eventual champion Lakers to an unexpectedly adrenalized six games. The Pelicans don’t need to win — and they wouldn’t — but it’s time for Davis to trumpet his arrival as the inevitable heir to the throne.

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Shootaround, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James, Danny Chau, Chris Ryan, Dallas Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki, Daryl Morey, Mark Cuban, Houston Rockets, Jason Concepcion, Ben Detrick, Andrew Sharp, Jason Gallagher, Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, Dwyane Wade, Hassan Whiteside