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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
After an electric All-Star Weekend in Chicago, the NBA returns Thursday with just under two months until the playoffs begin.
While playoff contenders may begin resting players more frequently to prepare for the postseason, these next eight weeks are just as important as the preceding four months, in large part because of playoff seeding.
As we rediscover each April, every game matters when it comes to seeding. The difference between a premature playoff exit and a conference finals appearance can be as simple as one extra loss that dropped a team into a first-round battle with its particular archrival opponent.
With all this in mind, here’s a sampling of first-round opponents each of the NBA’s premier contenders may want to avoid come mid-April. Here, we define “contender” as the 11 teams with championship-winning odds below +3,000 with Caesars Palace. They are ranked by conference in order from best to worst odds.
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This is a cheat.
The Bucks are entrenched as the East’s top team, and neither the Magic nor Nets, the two likely contenders for the eighth seed, stand a chance against them. But there is more of a case for Orlando, so let’s try to make it.
It’s not like Orlando has been successful this season against the Bucks, as Milwaukee swept the four-game season series. But if we use Toronto’s series victory against them last year as a template, then there’s a possibility that the Magic make the first round a tough one.
Last year, the Raptors packed the paint against the Bucks with long-armed defenders, eliminating driving lanes for Giannis Antetokounmpo and forcing him to rely more on his teammates. The Magic have famously been stockpiling lanky, versatile big men for years now, almost unconsciously building toward a moment like this. With Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Mo Bamba and/or Wesley Iwundu, Orlando may be able to mount a similar defensive attack against Milwaukee this year.
Whether or not the Magic could score against a transcendent Bucks defense is another conversation, but a length-first approach could be an intriguing way to bother Milwaukee.
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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
When comparing the respective 2019-20 campaigns of the Celtics and 76ers, it is no contest. The Celtics have exceeded preseason expectations, whereas the Sixers are one of the Association’s most disappointing teams.
Nonetheless, Philly has had Boston’s number in head-to-head matchups.
These two teams have concluded their season series, with the Sixers winning three of the four games. It’s easy to excuse Boston’s three losses, as the Celtics won the final matchup by 21 points and Philly has struggled badly over the last 20 games. But the Sixers’ success against Boston makes a lot of sense.
While Philly has mostly underperformed, the preseason hype surrounding the team was warranted, and numerous times against the Celtics, the Sixers rose to the occasion. They twice limited the Celtics to fewer than 100 points and generally came closer to realizing their elite defensive potential against Boston than they have at any other point this year.
It doesn’t hurt that the Celtics’ frontcourt is their greatest weakness and Philly’s frontcourt, with Joel Embiid and Al Horford, is one of its greatest strengths.
If someone predicted this matchup as a first-round series before the season, it would have likely been with the Sixers as the higher seed, which is unlikely now. But they remain just as talented as the Celtics, and if they get hot over the next eight weeks, they could throw a wrench into Boston’s postseason plans.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
For a team that’s been on such a roll recently, the Raptors have struggled against the Miami Heat this season. Miami has won both matchups, including an overtime battle in December and a throwback slugfest in early January that featured an 84-76 final score.
If the Raptors start regressing in the standings over these final weeks, they better hope they don’t end up facing the Heat.
Even without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, it’s natural to take the Raptors more seriously than the Heat, given Toronto’s recent championship pedigree. But this season, the Heat are emerging as nearly a mirror image to the Raptors.
In Nick Nurse and Erik Spoelstra, each club has an elite coach at its helm. Both teams have two All-Stars (Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry against Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo). Both teams also play no-name role players significant minutes (Terence Davis and Chris Boucher against Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson).
Examined this way, Miami doesn’t look much worse than Toronto at all. In fact, the two squads seem level.
If these two teams play in the first round, the Raptors will likely have home-court advantage, which, if you remember last year’s postseason, is a point in their favor. But Miami won a game in Toronto earlier this year and has beaten the Sixers, Mavericks and Bucks on the road as well. Scotiabank Arena may not prove the same ferocious place to them as it does to most other opponents.
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Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Let’s keep talking about the Miami Heat.
For as reliably entertaining as the Heat are, they aren’t the most modern basketball team. Meyers Leonard and Bam Adebayo, two centers, start nearly every game together. A combination of Jimmy Butler and Kendrick Nunn often handle point guard duties, and neither is a point guard. In most situations, this kind of oddity is fine, because Miami has good enough shooting and perimeter defense to get by most teams.
But against a hyper-modern NBA team like the Celtics, their luck may run out.
Boston was built to combat the small-ball, wing-heavy style of the Golden State Warriors, and even though the Warriors are temporarily dead and small ball no longer seems to be as en vogue as it once was, the Celtics have still found great success.
In both of their games this season, Boston has dispatched Miami with relative ease thanks to its fleet of big wings—particularly Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. In those matchups, the Heat’s lack of broad-shouldered, 6’8″ defenders became evidently clear, and thus they were ruthlessly exploited by Boston’s All-Star-caliber scorers.
It seems Miami is aware of its roster flaw and the team did try to address it at the trade deadline, bringing in Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. But Iguodala is 36 and sat out the first half of the year, while Crowder is an inconsistent defender as well. It may be too little, too late in a first-round battle with the Celtics.
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Michael Reaves/Getty Images
If the season ended today, this would be a first-round matchup, with Miami holding the fourth seed and home-court advantage. And yes, while these two teams would make for an entertaining series, it might not be a long one.
After an early-season beatdown by Philly, the Heat owned the rest of their matchups, punctuating their dominance over the Sixers with a 31-point annihilation that sent their opponent into a state of near-existential despair. That win served as a neat symbol for the divide between these two clubs.
The Sixers, while exceptionally talented, have only lived up to their potential in fits and starts this season, which has led to some grouchy quotes from several of the team’s stars. The Heat, on the other hand, rely on several players who were anonymous to casual NBA fans before the season—and are a classic example of a club whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Sixers have the second-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, per Tankathon, with the five worst teams all among their upcoming opponents. That’s as good an opportunity as any for them to start playing their best basketball of the season. But against a Heat team that plays hard every night and boasts former Sixer Jimmy Butler, who’s likely to bring some extra hustle and motivation against his friend Joel Embiid and other former teammates, Philly might be facing an insurmountable task no matter what.
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Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press
The Lakers have beaten the Thunder in each of their three matchups this season, and could be an overpowering foe in the first round for them. But look a little more closely, and a longer series between these two teams is possible.
First, despite their 3-0 record against Oklahoma City, the Lakers have won two of those games by five or fewer points, so it’s not like they’ve wiped the Thunder off the map. Secondly, on a position-by-position basis, Oklahoma City is quietly well-equipped to battle the Lakers.
Los Angeles’ backcourt isn’t the team’s greatest strength, but in any case, Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander give the Thunder a decisive advantage there. As for a LeBron James stopper, no single player can really do that job, but Oklahoma City boasts three forwards—Terrance Ferguson, Abdel Nader and Mike Muscala—with positive defensive plus-minus ratings, so maybe a collection of players could handle the King.
The Thunder don’t have a lot of center depth, but Steven Adams is one of the strongest players in the NBA. If he can’t handle the bulk and power of Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, then nobody can.
It’s highly unlikely that the Thunder would beat the Lakers in a first-round series, but they might make the Purple and Gold work harder than anticipated, which could cause them to slip up in later playoff rounds.
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Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press
Both of these teams have had plenty of roster turnover this season, so it’s possible that their three previous matchups will be irrelevant come playoff time. But considering their two rosters, it’s surprising how often the Jazz have outpaced the Clippers this year.
Utah won two of those three games, all of which occurred in 2019 and none of which featured the Clippers at perfect health. Paul George missed two of the matchups, while Kawhi Leonard and Montrezl Harrell each sat out one.
But regardless of all that, the Jazz’s strengths may still turn out to be Clippers weaknesses.
The big roster hole for the Clippers throughout this season has been the center position. A combination of Harrell, Ivica Zubac, Patrick Patterson and JaMychal Green plays most of the team’s minutes at the 5, and none of them besides Zubac stands above 6’8″. Facing a team with the 7’1″ Rudy Gobert could exacerbate that issue even more.
Plus, outside of Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles doesn’t have a lot of great guard defenders, an issue that the Jazz have exploited previously. Donovan Mitchell, for instance, has torched the Clippers this year, averaging 30.0 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game on 55.7 percent overall shooting.
Similarly to the Celtics, the Clippers have built themselves for the so-called modern NBA, with Leonard, George and other two-way wings headlining the roster. But when faced with a team that operates differently, will they be able to adapt?
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Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
One thing has been clear since the Rockets went all in on small ball: To win games, they will need to play as fast as possible to minimize the fact that nobody taller than 6’7″ plays rotation minutes.
But what if they run into a team that is both big and plays fast?
The Mavericks and Rockets have faced off twice this season, with each team winning one game. However, though Houston may have a more talented roster given its top-line talent, Dallas may have just the right recipe to exploit its I-45 rivals.
It’s not hard to be better than this version of the Rockets at rebounding, but the Mavericks are primed to be especially dominant on the boards in this potential matchup. Since the trade deadline, Houston is 28th in the league in rebound percentage, while Dallas is tied for 10th in the same metric. But even the Rockets’ strengths could be imperiled against the Mavericks.
Ever since GM Daryl Morey’s arrival in Houston over a decade ago, the Rockets have loved to talk about being an efficient basketball team, and indeed, they usually are one. But even they are being outpaced by Dallas’ offense this season, which remains the best in NBA history by offensive rating.
It’s admirable that the Rockets are taking a big risk by omitting centers almost entirely from their rotation. But if they aren’t note-perfect everywhere else, they could fall victim to a well-balanced roster like the Mavericks’ much earlier than expected.
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While the Mavericks are a less talented team that is uniquely constructed to give the Rockets problems, the Denver Nuggets are arguably just as talented as Houston but have a few flaws that could be unforgivable in a long series.
While their 15-9 record against teams over .500 is surprising and bodes well for them in the playoffs, another stat puts those good feelings in question. The Nuggets only have six losses by double digits this season, but two of those defeats have come against the Rockets—by 26 and 16 points.
Now, we may not be giving Denver enough credit, as it has also beaten Houston twice this year. But the Nuggets aren’t as consistently efficient on offense as a team like Dallas, and they run their offense from the perimeter so much that Houston’s lack of interior defense isn’t as much a fatal flaw as it would be against the Mavericks or numerous other teams. Plus, the Rockets are known for switching screens and surgically attacking their opponent’s greatest weakness.
Can you imagine the carnage of James Harden and Russell Westbrook burning Nikola Jokic on pick-and-rolls over and over again for the course of six or seven games?
After coming minutes away from the Western Conference Finals last year, the Nuggets are primed to build upon last year’s encouraging postseason results. But if they get a first-round matchup with Houston, they should be prepared for a potential step back (no pun intended).
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The Jazz have won both of their matchups with the Mavericks this season, but only by a total of nine points, and Luka Doncic didn’t play in the second game.
Nevertheless, Dallas should be worried about facing Utah in the first round.
First off, though the Mavericks offense was its usual sterling self in those first two outings, their defense was gashed by the Jazz. Rudy Gobert is a perfect 15-of-15 against Dallas this season, and Donovan Mitchell is averaging 24.0 points per game while shooting 45.9 percent overall and 47.1 percent from deep. That’s without even mentioning a 25-point bench performance from Jordan Clarkson in the team’s second meeting or stellar two-way play from Utah’s trio of wings—Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale.
Now, maybe these flashy offensive showings are a bit abnormal. Gobert is bound to miss a shot against the Mavericks at some point this year, and perhaps the Jazz will come back to earth once the Mavs get used to them over the course of a series. But perhaps it’s also possible that against this team (and perhaps only this team, for some reason), the Mavericks’ lack of talent behind Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis really shows itself.
These clubs have one final meeting in Dallas on March 26. That will give us the best clue yet about how they match up with each another.
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
Against 28 NBA teams, being so high above sea level in Salt Lake City theoretically adds to the Jazz’s home-court advantage. But against the Denver Nuggets, their Mountain Time Zone brothers, it barely matters at all.
Denver has won both matchups this season, one in each locale, and despite winning by just nine total points over the two games, it may have zeroed in on Utah’s key weaknesses.
Long ago, basketball analytics pioneer Dean Oliver derived what he called the Four Factors of Basketball Success: shooting, turnovers, rebounding and free throws. While that may seem obvious in retrospect, let’s apply Oliver’s theory to the two Denver-Utah games this season.
Denver has not only beaten Utah in most of these categories, but it has won handily. While the Nuggets have barely turned the ball over against the Jazz, Utah has committed turnovers at an above-average rate against Denver. Similar patterns track with the teams’ respective free-throw rates and rebounding percentages. In fact, the only area in which the Jazz have bested the Nuggets this season is in shooting efficiency, though that has clearly not mattered one iota to the game’s outcome.
Now, perhaps that last point is the most instructive one. Maybe the Nuggets just got lucky in those two games, considering their margins of victory and the fact that the Jazz clearly shot the ball better.
But Denver’s near-universal superiority in other areas of the games should put Utah on high alert heading into mid-April.