Every NBA title contender’s dream is to get to, and more importantly, win the NBA Finals. However, this road is obviously not easy whatsoever, and there are plenty of obstacles that will inevitably display themselves as serious red flags in an NBA team’s pursuit of a championship.
The normal concerns range from injuries to possibly choking a lead in a playoff series (*cough, 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, cough*). However, one frequently overlooked issue in a team’s run at a title is their first-round opponent.
In every postseason, no matter what sport, there’s always that lower-seeded or wild card team that can give a higher-seeded team some trouble. This happens often in the NCAA Tournament and this has happened more than once in both the NFL and NBA Playoffs.
Today, I’m going over which first-round opponents every NBA title contender would hate to play in this year’s upcoming playoffs.
Golden State Warriors
Opponent: Houston Rockets
If anyone watched the Western Conference Finals last year (which, like, everyone did), this one is somewhat obvious, in my opinion. The Rockets almost beat the Warriors, the offensive and defensive juggernaut Warriors, the spectacularly-coached and chemistry-rich Warriors, in seven games and advanced to the NBA Finals.
I think the Rockets are completely capable of giving the Dubs trouble in Round 1 as the 7 or 8 seed. Even though it doesn’t feel like that will be the case on paper, I think it is possible for Houston to put up a very legitimate fight against Golden State.
Even though the Rockets’ season has been plagued by injuries (most notably to Chris Paul and Clint Capela), I think when Houston gets back to full strength, they will be able to extend the series to six or seven games and maybe even win the series. With the way James Harden is playing, when this Rockets team gets their stars back off the sidelines and onto the hardwood, this team can give the Warriors some trouble.
Opponent: San Antonio Spurs
One word really defines how the Spurs can get to the Denver Nuggets and force them out of their rhythm and possibly get to the second round: Experience. On one hand, the Spurs are significantly more experienced and NBA-playoff-tested than the Nuggets. San Antonio has one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time in Gregg Popovich, who just so happens to have five championships under his belt.
Besides a fantastic coach, the Spurs have a proven veteran leader in LaMarcus Aldridge, who is playing arguably the best basketball of his career. San Antonio has an extremely deep bench, consisting of excellent veterans such as Aldridge, Dante Cunningham, Pau Gasol, and Rudy Gay. The Spurs also have some promising youngsters that will surely flourish under the coaching of Gregg Popovich, such as Derrick White, Davis Bertans, Jakob Poeltl, and (once he gets healthy) Dejounte Murray.
And, of course, we can’t forget about DeMar DeRozan. Traded from Toronto in the offseason, DeMar has fit extremely well into the Spurs’ offensive system, and he is scoring and contributing at the highest rate he’s ever produced at. DeRozan has always been great, but this year he’s especially superb, and he will provide a massive scoring boost to the San Antonio offense in the postseason.
The Nuggets, on the other hand, are practically untested in the playoffs. Their arguably three best players, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray, have never made the playoffs in their entire careers. Their starting power forward, Paul Millsap, is the only one in the entire starting lineup for Denver that has made the playoffs more than once.
I believe the Spurs are poised to make a run to at least the second round of the playoffs this season, and I think they will be able to test the Nuggets’ confidence and playoff demeanor and push the series to six or seven games. Even better for Spurs fans, I think it’s more than possible that San Antonio can beat Denver in Round 1 and advance to the Western Conference Semifinals.
Opponent: Detroit Pistons
This one is a bit tricky, because this is only assuming the Pistons make the playoffs this year. Detroit currently holds the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference as of today, and if they hold on to that spot, I think they can give the top-seeded Bucks a run for their money in the postseason. The Pistons have very solid mix of knockdown three-point shooters and some very excellent rebounders.
Reggie Jackson, who can be streaky at times, is an excellent long-distance shooter when hot. Luke Kennard, Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington, and Glenn Robinson III are all extremely capable three-point shooters. On the other hand, Detriot’s arguably best player, Andre Drummond, is one of the best rebounders in the entire league, if not the best. His frontcourt running mate, Blake Griffin, is a very solid rebounder and he can definitely shoot the rock, especially from mid-range.
While the Bucks are a very athletic team and can play excellent defense on all five positions, Detroit will be able to hurt Milwaukee from three-point range. Also, the Bucks aren’t the best rebounding team in the league, so I think the Pistons will give the heavily favored Bucks some issues in Round 1 as the seventh or eighth seed.
Opponent: Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets are one of the biggest surprises of the NBA season; the fact that they’ve gone from one of the bottom teams in the East to holding the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference is just amazing to both me and more than a few involved with the NBA.
The Raptors, meanwhile, are led by superstar small forward Kawhi Leonard, who has bounced back nicely from his quad injury a year earlier to put up All-Star numbers in 2019, and the offense is run by point guard Kyle Lowry, who is averaging an otherworldly number of assists this year. Toronto currently stands in second place in the Eastern Conference, and if the Nets slip down a spot in the standings, it could make for a very intriguing matchup.
The Nets’ star point guard, D’Angelo Russell, is breaking out and having a career year in Brooklyn, and the Nets have a very solid second unit led by Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, and rebounding specialist Ed Davis. The Nets have several impressive three-point shooters in Dinwiddie, Russell, Allen Crabbe, and the 2019 three-point-contest winner in Harris.
The Nets are also extremely superb at working as a team and putting in maximum effort every single game, which may hurt Toronto if their starters like Leonard or Lowry get gassed late in the game. I think the Nets can definitely give the Raps some trouble in Round 1, using their all-in-this-together style of play to hurt Toronto and stretch the series to six or seven games, and maybe even win the series and advance to the conference semifinals.
Opponent: Philadelphia 76ers
Oh man, this series would be on nearly everyone’s mind if it were to happen in real life. I think this series could go down to whoever wants it more, as both teams are evenly matched and the Sixers have gained some more shooting and floor-spacing with the Tobias Harris trade.
However, the Celtics are as deep as any other team in the league, and have the best clutch-time player in Kyrie Irving. The Celtics played the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year, and Boston won the series 4-1 without their two best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Granted, Hayward hasn’t been playing like himself this season, and I believe Philadelphia can take advantage of that if the two were to meet in the postseason.
I think the Sixers are completely capable of testing the Celtics’ chemistry and confidence in each other, and I also think it’s entirely possible for Philly to win the series and make some serious noise in the East.
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