Familiarity breeds contempt in the NBA playoffs. When two teams play each other for a potential seven straight games with their seasons on the line, they grow to know each other inside and out. That goes double for the players themselves. One-on-one matchups aren’t quite as important as they were in the ’90s or in the early 2000s, when everyone played isolation basketball, but even in the pace-and-space era, the game still eventually breaks down to one player trying to score on the other. If enough of the players on your team outplay their counterparts, your team is going to win the series. It’s basketball at its most basic.
There’s nowhere to hide in a playoff series. If a player cannot guard his position, his coach has to scramble defensive assignments, which puts everyone else on the team at a disadvantage. When people talk about one team posing “matchup problems” for another, they generally mean that there are no weak links in the lineup for the opponent to hide a poor defender on. One reason that the Warriors have historically been so tough in the playoffs is that opposing point guards who don’t guard Steph Curry end up being an even bigger liability when they are guarding Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes (and now Kevin Durant). If you go back to 2013, before they were a historically great juggernaut, they pulled off the upset of the Nuggets in the first round in large part because there was no one the 5-foot-11 Ty Lawson was capable of guarding.
The beauty of the NBA playoffs is that any weakness a team possesses will be exposed. This isn’t like the NCAA tournament, where one hot shooting night or an overeager set of officials can help a team cover up its flaws. Winning an NBA championship means winning four consecutive seven-game series against the best teams in the NBA, who are often built around radically different types of players. Everyone in your rotation is going to be tested at some point. Basketball is not an individual sport like tennis or boxing, but individuals can still have a much bigger impact on the outcome of a game than in baseball or football. There’s a fascinating game within a game that occurs in the playoffs, even if the outcome of the larger game is never really in doubt. With that in mind, here are the five best individual matchups to watch in the first round:
LeBron James vs. Paul George
The main event. The last time these two faced each other, on April 2, LeBron had 41 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists, while George had 43 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists. The Cavs won 135–130 in 2OT, but all anyone could talk about after was the epic one-on-one duel between the two stars, à la Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins in the 1988 playoffs. LeBron had the edge in size, while George had the edge in quickness, and they went back and forth for a full 48 minutes. Just look at the plays these two were making against each other. This is as good as it gets:
The way the Cavs and Pacers are built means LeBron and George have no choice but to guard each other. Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, and Kevin Love have no chance against George, while Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis, and Thaddeus Young are similarly hopeless against LeBron. Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson will come off the bench and get their cracks against George, and Lance Stephenson (thank the basketball gods) and C.J. Miles will do the same with LeBron, but each team’s respective star is just too skilled for a smaller defender to hang with them for long. Foul trouble will be huge in this series — LeBron had four in that last game, while George had five — as will the substitution patterns. How much of the game will LeBron play without George on the floor, and vice versa?
In last season’s playoffs, George nearly single-handedly knocked out a 56-win team in the first round. He averaged 27.3 points (on 45.5 percent shooting), 7.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists against the Raptors, taking his game to a completely different level than in the regular season. George has gotten the better of LeBron at points in their three playoff matchups when James was in Miami, but he has never been able to get past him in a series. While the Pacers almost certainly aren’t good enough to knock off the Cavs, George can make a statement about his place in the NBA hierarchy with a strong showing against LeBron. Barring an unlikely playoff run by Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jimmy Butler, George is the best wing LeBron will face until a possible Finals series against Kevin Durant. That alone should get his competitive juices flowing. There’s no more rationing energy or saving himself. The best player in the world is squaring off against a legitimate challenger to the throne.
Steph Curry vs. Damian Lillard
This matchup isn’t quite as exciting as George vs. LeBron since Steph has rarely guarded Lillard in the past (and both are far better at offense than defense), but the stretches in this series where they trade off-the-dribble 3s will be worth the price of admission. Klay Thompson, as he does in a lot of games against elite point guards, usually starts on Lillard. Curry still has to guard C.J. McCollum, so he isn’t getting much of a breather on defense. However, Steph won’t be asked to do as much on both ends as Dame, who has to initiate most of the offense for the Blazers and try to stay in front of Curry and chase him through screens. Defense has been the biggest hole in Lillard’s game since he came into the league, and he’s going to have to improve at that end of the floor for the Blazers to take the next step as a franchise.
Steph missed the first three games of the second-round series between these two teams last season while recovering from a knee injury, but he showed no ill effects upon his return, averaging 34.5 points on 50 percent shooting, seven rebounds, and 9.5 assists a game to close out Portland in Games 4 and 5. Lillard scored a bunch of points in the series (averaging 31.8 points on 36.2 percent shooting, 4.4 rebounds, and 7.6 assists a game), but he had to work to get them against the Warriors’ stifling perimeter defense and the waves of long and athletic players they threw at him. It was the least efficient series of his playoff career, and he will have to play much better for the Blazers to even match their one win against the Warriors from last season.
With Jusuf Nurkic’s health up in the air, it’s unlikely that any of the games at Oracle will be very competitive. However, when the series returns to Moda Center, the always-intense Portland crowd should at least be able to keep things interesting. And if the game is close late, Dame has shown the ability to steal it with clutch shot-making. An Oakland native who always gets up for games against his childhood team, Lillard will do everything in his power to stir up some magic. It won’t be enough, but it should be fun to watch.
Rudy Gobert vs. DeAndre Jordan
A matchup between two of the best centers in the league looks a lot different in 2017 than it would have in the 1990s. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Jordan gets only 10.6 percent of his offense out of the post, while Gobert checks in at 4.2 percent. They are both primarily used as screeners and roll men in the half court, and they probably won’t spend too much time facing each other one-on-one. The individual battle between them will primarily come on the offensive boards: Jordan has 20 pounds on Gobert, but Gobert has a 3-inch advantage in reach. Jordan had the advantage on the boards in those four games, but not by much.
Gobert will have more pressure on offense than Jordan, since he’s not playing with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The Jazz aren’t nearly as explosive as the Clippers, and L.A. has an elite defender it can throw on Gordon Hayward (Luc Mbah a Moute) and George Hill (Chris Paul). Gobert has made tremendous strides offensively this season, and it will be interesting to see if he can carry some of the burden and potentially get Jordan in foul trouble. The Clippers’ backup centers aren’t nearly as good as the bigs on the Jazz bench are, and Gobert could feast on Marreese Speights and Griffin when he plays at the 5. He can short-roll on his way to the rim and make plays at the free throw line, and he’s developing some moves around the basket. Jordan probably isn’t going to get much better on offense, but Gobert, who’s only 24, has a chance to develop into a shot creator.
The last time Jordan faced an elite center in the playoffs, Dwight Howard got the better of him. While everyone focuses on the insane comeback the Rockets made in Game 6 of their second-round series with the Clippers in 2015, not enough is said about the way Howard dominated his younger counterpart in the game. Howard had 20 points and 21 rebounds in that game, compared with only eight points and nine rebounds for DeAndre. Gobert isn’t nearly as physical as Howard, but he’s much more skilled, and Utah’s best chance in this series is for him to similarly dominate the individual matchup upfront.
Russell Westbrook vs. Patrick Beverley
If Beverley doesn’t dive toward Westbrook for a steal in Game 2 of the Rockets’ first-round series with the Thunder back in 2013, and Westbrook doesn’t tear his meniscus, the course of NBA history might have changed. Even if there weren’t any history with these two, the playoff matchup between two of the most intense players in the league will be a bloodbath. Westbrook doesn’t change his game for anyone, and neither does Beverley. The only way the Thunder beat the Rockets is if Westbrook continues, if not improves on, what he did in the regular season. Beverley will draw the unenviable assignment of slowing him down.
In the three games that Beverley played against Oklahoma City this season, Westbrook averaged 38.3 points (on 41.2 percent shooting), 9.7 rebounds, and eight assists. Guarding Westbrook is a team effort, and he’s just too good and the ball is in his hand too much for him not to put up ridiculous numbers. The best a defender can do is try to impact Westbrook’s efficiency by making him work for his points. That’s one of the strengths of Beverley’s game: He plays like a guy from inner-city Chicago who started his career in Europe and had to earn his way into the NBA because he is that guy. He has already gotten the better of Westbrook once this season, when he forced Russ into an air ball with five seconds left in the game and the Rockets up three:
Defending Westbrook takes its toll on a body, and it’s clear when his defender switches to offense. Russ wasn’t exactly locked in defensively this season, but the guy who guards him is often so worn out it doesn’t matter. Beverley averaged 4.7 points on 25 percent shooting in his three games against the Thunder, and the Rockets will need more from him on offense in this series, if only to make Westbrook expend some energy on defense. What Mike D’Antoni will have to decide is how much he alters his rotation pattern so that Beverley’s minutes match Westbrook’s, and how much he throws his hands up and goes all-offense by playing Eric Gordon and Lou Williams with Harden. Oklahoma City doesn’t have a lot of other options on the perimeter, so D’Antoni could slide Trevor Ariza on Westbrook and hide one of his scorers on Andre Roberson in those lineups.
Jimmy [Butler] vs. World
Everything probably isn’t going to be just fine for the Bulls, who snuck into the playoffs as the no. 8 seed with a 41–41 record and a point differential (plus-0.4) barely above zero. But don’t write them off just yet. If they are going to upset the Celtics, it’s going to be on the back of Butler, who has had a great season amid the chaos in Chicago, averaging 23.9 points (on 45.5 percent shooting), 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.9 steals a game. He’s probably going to have to bulldoze his way through double teams in this series and hope someone in supporting cast will knock down some open 3s.
The player who will get the first crack at Butler is Jae Crowder, who can’t be too happy about all the rumors linking Butler to the Celtics, a move that would send him back to the bench. The two share an origin story (junior-college product who starred for Buzz Williams at Marquette and then slipped in the draft) as well as a hard-nosed style of basketball, although Butler is the bigger, more athletic, and more skilled player. Avery Bradley and rookie Jaylen Brown will probably spend some time on Butler as well, but the real fireworks could spark when Marcus Smart gets his turn: He’s one of the best defenders in the NBA and his willingness to get physical and then fall to the ground at the slightest amount of contact has gotten under the skin of a lot of players.
Butler averaged 20.3 points (on 36.2 percent shooting), 6.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists in four games against the Celtics this season, although his numbers are held down by a miserable five-point performance in a 100–80 loss to the Celtics in March. He can match up with anyone on the Celtics roster, so Fred Hoiberg might want to play him at small-ball power forward in order to place more shooters on the floor and open up the offense. Butler is arguably the best player in this series, and the team with the biggest star always has a chance, no matter what the seedings say. The shame of the whole thing is that Butler trying to win with the Celtics would have been a lot more interesting than him trying to beat them nearly single-handedly.