It’s the most wonderful time of the year. We’re months away from December, sure, but for basketball fans, Christmas is here: The NBA Playoffs is about to begin this weekend—where you’re treated with only the best hoop wars for breakfast, snack, and lunch every single day.
The first-round matchups are set for both Eastern and Western Conferences, but before we proceed, join us in a moment of silence for the things we will sorely miss this post-season. From the East: The Miami Heat's rabid fans; Larry Bird closeups when the Indiana Pacers go scoreless for more than 10 minutes; Al Jefferson, landlord of the left block; and Stan Van Gundy soundbites that are NSFW. (Sorry, Magic, 76ers, and Knicks, we won’t miss you.)
Now if you’re looking for textbook-thick stats breakdowns and predictions for the first round of the playoffs, this might be the place. But what this preview really serves is to save your precious time. We ranked each matchup according to watchability, in turn answering this very important question: Should you set aside all things you’re doing to watch the game, or just read about it online (here on this site, of course)?
Let’s begin, starting from the least watchable out of the Eastern Conference contenders.
Not that it matters but: The Hawks swept the regular season series, 4-0. Average margin: 14.75 points. The Nets were in disarray from October to mid-March, you say, when Brook Lopez started tearing up the paint and they won 11 out of their last 16 games to claim the 8th seed. Well, 2 of the 5 losses were at the hands of, you can probably guess by now.
The stats that count: The Hawks, aka Spurs-East, rank in the Top 10 in points per game (102.8, 10th) and points allowed (97.2, 5th). The only other team to do that? The real San Antonio Spurs. The Nets rank 21st in offense and 19th in defense. In other words, an efficient scoring team that’s deadlier on defense meets one that relies mostly on isolation and post-ups to score while offering the 5th worst rim protection in the league. The big names are in Brooklyn, and there are those saying the series will be tight because of the talent disparity. But barring a major injury to the Hawks, this is murder on the basketball court, with the Hawks playing the butchers.
Watchability: Like watching an orchestra live. You know you’ll be treated to good music. You can also choose to check it online and enjoy at your convenience. Here, the Hawks play beautiful basketball. Too beautiful that if the Nets can’t keep up, the game could get mechanical, methodical, boring.
At the very least, watch for: Deron Williams or Joe Johnson crossovers, Kyle Korver and the screens he goes through to get open looks, and the underrated brilliance of Al Horford
If you like underdogs…you should’ve rooted for the Indiana Pacers, not the Nets, to get in.
Chance of an upset: As slim as a supermodel
Not that it matters but: Both teams started the season well, with a combined 46-15 record up to December 30. Once 2015 kicked in, they finished the season hobbling into the Playoffs with a tally of 49-54. While the Raps swept the Wiz, 3-0, in the regular season, that paints a different picture since both teams had to deal with injuries to their stars (DeMar DeRozan early then Kyle Lowry late for Toronto, Bradley Beal and Nene for Washington). They say it’s a whole new ballgame come Playoffs, and both teams are just glad to have full lineups entering the second season.
The stats that count: It’s a classic tale of offense versus defense. The Raptors, 4th-best offense (104 points a game), tries to find holes in the Wizards’ surprisingly stingy defense (97.8 points allowed, rank 10th; 43.3 FG percent allowed, rank 2nd). Both teams are tough to beat at home, but the significant stat here is that out of the East’s playoff teams, the Wizards have the worst road record. Advantage: Toronto, in this case.
Watchability: As enticing as vanilla ice cream—refreshing on a hot summer day, but basically bland. This could go the full route. A Wiz fan would hope that Paul Pierce brings his dinosaur slaying ways to Washington, while a Raps fan should wish Lowry already learned his lesson (see: Game 7 of the Toronto-Brooklyn series last year).
At the very least, watch for: The All-Star point guard duel between Wall and Lowry; Raptor Terrence Ross skywalking; how Wiz coach Randy Wittman will cost his team a game or two just because he’s the coach; and pre-game rallies and post-game interviews
If you like underdogs… Both teams are equals in talent, but if you believe the basketball gods owe the Toronto Drakes for last year’s heartbreak, root for the North.
Chance of an upset: the same as Manny Pacquiao becoming president. You never know.
HOLD ON TO YOUR KNEES: CHICAGO BULLS (3) VS MILWAUKEE BUCKS (6)
Not that it matters but: Save for one 16-point blowout won by Chicago, the regular season matchup between the two teams have been fairly close, the average gap being only seven points. The Bulls, though, took the series, 3-1. What could work for the Bucks isn’t something within their control, which we’ll expound on later.
The stats that count: Defense, bruising and scrappy defense is the name of this matchup. The Bucks and Bulls are both well-coached defensive machines (ranked 8th and 9th in points allowed, 5th and 3rd in FG percent allowed). But Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau has new tools in Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, and Nikola Mirotic that took a once paltry offense to league-average rate.
Meanwhile, Bucks coach Jason Kidd has done a master class, transforming the league’s worst squad last year into a playoff team. Then again, when your best scorer averages 13.4 a game, you’re stepping inside the Bulls trap so conveniently.
Watchability: Has the charm of torture porn. It has its fans, like defensive basketball has its lovers. Then again, another watchability factor: Derrick Rose's knees every time he drives to the basket. Here’s where the aforementioned chance the Bucks make it out of this thing alive. The Bulls are banged up right now, with Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Kirk Hinrich nursing injuries.
At the very least, watch for: Budding studs on both sides. For the Bucks, it’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s now becoming Dark Giannis with a Kobe-like scowl. And for the Bulls, watch Mirotic closely, and marvel at the man they call Niko Suave.
If you like underdogs… The Bucks are heavy underdogs. But they’re fun to watch, even if they throw bricks all the time. Chuck away, Michael Carter-Williams.
Chance of an upset: Skinny, like the body fat percentage of the young, inexperienced Bucks. Welcome to the Playoffs. Now off you go.
Not that it matters but: They have a 2-2 regular season split. Yes, the Celtics, who traded their two best players in mid-season, managed to beat a consensus championship contender twice AND get to the Playoffs. It’s the East, but hey, let’s just give maestro coach Brad Stevens and his rag-tag team (quick, name their starting five) credit for the accomplishment.
The stats that count: This is the complete opposite of the Bulls-Bucks series. There will be scoring in this one, lots of it. Anyone from the Cavs gunners—LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and JR Smith—can drop 25 or more on any given night. The C’s, well, it’s a group effort. One night, it’s Avery Bradley, the next it’s Isiah Thomas, the other it’s Jae Crowder or even Kelly Olynyk. (Yes, even some hoop junkies are scratching their heads, thinking “who are these bums?”)
Both teams have offensive geniuses manning the sidelines—confounding defenses in different ways (watch the many tweaks both teams have with their “horns” or double high screen play). If the Celtics can keep the score close up to the final ticks—improbable but not impossible—Stevens always has a game-winning play up his sleeves. The Cavs, though, went on a roll since James took a two-week break and are close to unbeatable at home since January 7—losing only once in Quicken Loans Arena to the, wait for it, Celtics last April 10.
At the very least, watch for: Kyrie Irving heat check; JR Smith heat check; LeBron’s post-game Instagram posts; Love and his body language; Olynyk’s hair
If you like underdogs… The Boston Celtics is your jam. The apple to your pie.
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