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The Three Best Playoff Matchups If the NBA Weren’t Ruled by Conferences

Adam Silver offered hope that the postseason seeding may soon be changing—we imagined what that could look like this year

Damian Lillard drives the ball against the Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine the NBA’s top two teams meeting in the Finals, regardless of conference. LeBron James has done his damnedest for years to keep the East side competitive, but the current playoff format forces us into an East-vs.-West showdown, even when one conference is inferior.

In Adam Silver’s All-Star press conference on Saturday, the NBA commissioner said the league wasn’t opposed to switching the traditional postseason format to create a more even field. The idea he outlined would still draw eight teams from each conference, but seed them 1 to 16 regardless of whether they belong to the East or West.

That change wouldn’t take place this season, but let’s entertain the commissioner’s idea: Using the current records from each conference, what would be the best crossover first-round matchups this season?

No. 4 Celtics vs. No. 13 Trail Blazers

The lone Celtics-Blazers contest so far this season came on Super Bowl Sunday, and, in this game, New England’s team did not fumble it away late in the fourth. Instead, Al Horford hit a buzzer-beating, turnaround fadeaway from 19 feet out:

Brad Stevens said postgame that “Al feels a lot like Tom Brady today.” Unless Horford had money on the Pats, he felt much, much better than Brady that day.

Kyrie Irving didn’t play Super Bowl Sunday, but Irving vs. Damian Lillard is the platonic ideal for a first-round point guard matchup. They’re high-scoring aces, similar in every statistical category. Both have middle-child syndrome. (LeBron made Irving feel underappreciated; Dame is sharing bunk beds with a slate of Western Conference point guards.) Both are, as of this season, engaged defensively.

The pair have only seven career head-to-heads. In those games, Lillard has dropped 40 and 36 points on Irving, while Irving has scored 55 and 31 against Lillard.

An added bonus of this series is the other, store-brand battle of the PGs: two overperforming, undersized reserve guards — Terry Rozier and Shabazz Napier — going at it. It will feel like March Madness never ended.

No. 7 Timberwolves vs. No. 10 Bucks

A seven-game series between unicorns Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns is the Who Would You Rather Build a Team Around? Bowl.

Giannis tops Towns in that debate, but Minnesota evens the playing field with Jimmy Butler, an occasionally focused Andrew Wiggins, and a head coach. (No offense to Joe Prunty and his career 9–3 record.) The Wolves execute a top-three offense even without many 3s and with questionable half-court set decision-making. (Towns leads the team in 3-pointers made; he and fellow power forward Nemanja Bjelica are the best deep shooters on this season’s roster.)

Milwaukee is also defective from deep, but Minnesota evens that up too with its weak frontcourt defense. And what more can one ask of a series than the guarantee of Giannis butchering the lane?

No. 5 Cavaliers vs. No. 12 Nuggets

Even if Cleveland’s roster changes put a Band-Aid on its defense, a series against the Nuggets would rip it right off. What would Tyronn Lue do about Nikola Jokic if the Cavs are decidedly better on offense with Kevin Love over Tristan Thompson at the 5?

Their strengths and weaknesses align: Both Denver and Cleveland can run up the score, but can’t stop their opponents from doing the same. They have identical net ratings (0.3); picturing them pitted against each other feels like a refined and upgraded Cheesecake Factory version of the All-Star Game.