Postseason excitement is arriving with a frenzy this season. That’s not just because of the controversial new play-in round—though that’s a significant factor—but because the first round looks like an absolute blast.
With just one weekend left in the regular season, all 20 seedings are still up for grabs. But the combination of a deep and talented player pool plus a strange schedule wracked by COVID-19 absences and injuries ensures a tantalizing set of playoff matchups no matter where teams land. For instance, last season’s Eastern Conference finalists enter Thursday’s games in the fifth and seventh slots, respectively, while the defending champion Lakers are in the bottom half of the Western bracket as well, setting up surefire marquee showdowns between title contenders early on.
Let’s run down the 10 most exciting—and realistic—potential first-round matchups. They can’t all happen, of course—the Lakers can play only one team in the first round, or none at all if they falter in the play-in—but they offer ample reason for enthusiasm for the competition to come.
10. Nets vs. Celtics (49 percent chance of happening, per The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine)
This possible series lost some of its luster after Jaylen Brown’s season-ending wrist injury, but the story lines still ooze from this pairing eight years after their franchise-altering blockbuster trade. In the first seven seasons after that deal, the Celtics reached three conference finals while the Nets won just one total playoff series. But now Brooklyn is the Finals contender, while Boston is almost certainly scrapping in the play-in round.
The Celtics still have the injured Brown and Jayson Tatum, the jewels of the draft-pick haul from that trade—but they don’t have Kyrie Irving, whom they subsequently acquired with their final Nets draft pick. Now, of course, Irving plays for the Nets, alongside two other superstars, and it’s hard to imagine the turmoil for Celtics fans should they see their team fall to their former point guard, playing for a franchise Boston thought it had left for dead years ago.
9. 76ers vs. Wizards (18 percent)
The Wizards wouldn’t win this series, but I’d sure like to watch them try. The pairing of Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook gives the Wizards much more star power than a typical no. 8 seed, and the team’s momentum from its rampage over the last month could provide just enough of a spark to potentially push the series longer than a (gentleman’s) sweep.
Note that this excitement holds only as long as Beal’s health does the same, as the 31-points-per-game scorer has missed the Wizards’ last two contests with a hamstring injury. He scored a career-high 60 points in a loss to Philadelphia earlier this season, and a matchup between Beal and Ben Simmons would be enough of a reason to tune in alone.
8. Nuggets vs. Mavericks (52 percent)
The most likely 4-5 pairing in the West offers two teams with similar rosters. They each orbit around one luminescent superstar with a bevy of capable role players spreading the floor. And even if Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic wouldn’t actually guard each other, they’re so stylistically unique, so supremely entertaining, that their mano a mano duel would automatically elevate every game in this series. Depending on this summer’s results, each player could grab the reins as the leader of the next generation of NBA icons.
7. Suns vs. Trail Blazers (15 percent)
Suns vs. Lakers is more likely than Suns vs. Trail Blazers, but the latter offers a more compelling positional matchup, pitting perhaps the two most talented backcourts in the league (non–healthy Brooklyn edition). Paul vs. Lillard, Booker vs. McCollum—the narrative practically writes itself.
Jokic and Joel Embiid, the likely top two finishers in MVP voting, are reinvigorating the center position. But it’s clear that in the pace-and-space era, the NBA as a whole is more guard-oriented than ever before. A Suns vs. Blazers series would epitomize that evolution like no other.
6. Bucks vs. Heat (49 percent)
The Bucks hold the tiebreaker over the Nets, but Brooklyn owns a 1.5-game lead for the no. 2 seed and its final two games come against the Bulls and Cavaliers. So Milwaukee will probably land at no. 3, which means a potential matchup with Miami—the very team that so effectively gummed up the Bucks machine in the bubble.
A 2021 rematch would bring different circumstances, with somewhat different rosters, than last year’s upset. Jrue Holiday and Bucks defensive switches are here now; Tyler Herro’s jump shot and Jae Crowder are not. And the Bucks would hold home-court advantage, without the socioemotional strain of the bubble from last season. But even with those distinctions, the matchup wouldn’t be a comfortable playoff start for Milwaukee.
This position also creates the possibility of some shenanigans in the final weekend of the regular season: The Bucks host the Heat on Saturday, in the first game of a back-to-back, and could strategically rest starters to try to boost Miami to the 4-5 matchup. Milwaukee wouldn’t be the first team to engage in such chicanery for seeding advantages.
Bucks vs. Heat isn’t even the most tantalizing potential first-round matchup involving Miami, however, which takes us to the next item on the list …
5. Knicks vs. Heat (3 percent)
This is the least likely of any possible matchup in this top 10, mainly because the Hawks end the season with games against the Magic and Rockets, and are thus exceedingly likely to land in the no. 4 or 5 slots.
But if the Hawks tumble to no. 6 and the Heat and Knicks meet, the first round will feature at least one series that bucks the league’s offensive explosion. The Heat and Knicks rank 25th and 26th in points per game, respectively, ahead of only four non-playoff teams (the Pistons, Thunder, Magic, and Cavaliers). But they rank fifth and first, respectively, in fewest opponent points per game.
Those two stats combined mean that these two teams’ games involve the fewest- and second-fewest combined points, on average, for any playoff teams this season. Only the Lakers come close.
To wit: Only one of the three meetings between New York and Miami this season saw a team score in triple digits. So while the Nuggets and Mavericks race to 140, the Heat and Knicks would be stuck in the 90s—incidentally, an homage to the decade during which the franchises’ rivalry was forged.
4. Clippers vs. Trail Blazers (35 percent)
These two teams simply don’t like each other. Damian Lillard waved Paul George—then a member of the Thunder—home in 2019. Patrick Beverley famously clowned Lillard when he missed two critical free throws in the bubble last summer. Then Lillard and CJ McCollum cracked copious jokes about the Clippers’ 3-1 collapse.
So a Clippers vs. Trail Blazers series would have all that peripheral drama on top of all the natural excitement from a crew of All-NBA talents facing off. Sign me up. (Or don’t, because there’s an even more mouthwatering Clippers possibility in the first round. Hold that thought.)
3. Jazz vs. Warriors (31 percent)
Jazz vs. Warriors brings all of the appeal of 76ers vs. Wizards—along with the intrigue of recent three-time champions taking the underdog spot. The last time Golden State lost in a playoff round before the Finals, Mark Jackson was the head coach, the Warriors were still starting David Lee, and analysts were still arguing that jump-shooting teams can’t win championships.
That factoid will almost certainly come to an end this season; the Odds Machine gives the Warriors only a 0.7 percent chance to reach the Finals. But could Steph Curry and friends put a scare into the West’s likely top seed early, especially with the uncertain status of Donovan Mitchell’s ankle and Mike Conley’s hamstring? Given Curry’s performance over the last few months, and really over the last seven years, there’s every reason to—here’s that word, Warriors fans—believe.
2. Jazz vs. Lakers (22 percent)
The Warriors aren’t the scariest first-round opponent for Utah, however. Consider that the Jazz are one of the best regular-season teams in NBA history, with a plus-8.97 point differential per game that ranks 23rd all time. It’s worlds better than any other team’s this season—and that gap is even wider when stripping away garbage time at the end of blowouts, per Cleaning the Glass.
And then consider that their reward for that regular-season excellence might well be a first-round date with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The clash is only three steps away. First, the Lakers need to land in the no. 7 slot to be thrust into the play-in round. Then, they need to lose the 7 vs. 8 play-in game. Finally, they need to win the final play-in game, which determines the no. 8 seed—and voila, Jazz vs. Lakers, Round 1.
Every metric suggests that Utah would be favored in this series because of its home-court advantage and statistical dominance this season—but would anyone actually pick the Jazz to dethrone the champs?
1. Clippers vs. Lakers (24 percent)
Even possible Jazz-Lakers fireworks don’t quite measure up to the chance at an early battle for Staples Center supremacy. Ever since the summer of 2019, when the Lakers added Davis and the Clippers added George and Kawhi Leonard, basketball fans have waited for a matchup with real stakes. The NBA has leaned into it, too: Lakers-Clippers games were scheduled last season for opening night, Christmas, and opening night in the bubble, and this season they squared off on opening night, too.
But the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets last postseason, depriving viewers of the expected conference finals clash between the two Los Angeles teams. And after uneven regular seasons for both teams, they could meet much earlier this time around. The only first-round series in recent memory that compares pitted the Clippers and Spurs in 2015, when they were two of the best teams in the league. That showdown ended with a Chris Paul series-winner over Tim Duncan in literally the final second of Game 7. Not bad for the first round.
There’s no way to predict that Clippers vs. Lakers in 2021 would finish in such thrilling fashion. But entering the series, if it happens, anticipation would be just as high.