clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Biggest Question for Every NBA First-Round Series

Which versions of the Clippers and the Suns will we see? How healthy is James Harden? And will Donovan Mitchell make the Knicks pay? We preview the biggest story lines in each series.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With the play-in tournament nearing its end and the NBA playoffs tipping off Saturday, it’s time to preview the first round (even if we maybe, sort of still don’t know the no. 8 seeds). To wrap our heads around the eight opening matchups, the Ringer NBA staff teamed up to answer the biggest question of each first-round series.

L.A. Clippers–Phoenix Suns: Which Version of Both Teams Will We Get?

Rob Mahoney: The Clippers are so deep that it can be difficult to know exactly who will be in the playing rotation from night to night, and so uneven that who is playing tells us only part of the story. So it goes for one of the league’s great hypothetical contenders—they could compete with the best in the league, if only they knew what kind of team they were. On balance, the Clippers have been below average on both sides of the ball. Yet on the right night, they can keep pace in one of the highest-scoring games in NBA history or lock down elite competition with a rangy, versatile defense. These Clippers were never very good at being any one particular thing, which makes it impossible to pinpoint how they might match up with a first-round opponent like the Suns.

Will Paul George, who has been nursing a knee strain, be available for the Clippers at all? That question alone splits the immediate future of the team into all sorts of variant paths, depending on whether (and to what extent) the do-it-all forward will be able to return. And if L.A. is forced to make do without George, would that mean more minutes for the wings we know will be in the rotation (Eric Gordon, Nicolas Batum, Norm Powell) or more for those who have been on the outside looking in (Marcus Morris, Robert Covington)? Would the absence of George continue to give an outsized role to Russell Westbrook? Or would the possession economy of the playoffs just encourage even more of the offense to run through Kawhi Leonard? There isn’t one question to ask with the Clippers, but dozens—all because they’ve given us no clear idea of what to expect. Part of the fun of the first round will be tuning in just to see what team will show up.

Denver Nuggets–Minnesota Timberwolves/Oklahoma City Thunder: Can Denver Regain Its Swagger?

Justin Verrier: The Nuggets spared themselves the late hand-wringing most of their in-conference competition had to suffer through by wrestling away the 1-seed before Christmas, but the final leg of one of the best seasons in franchise history was hardly drama-free. When was Denver’s last signature win? It’s hard to remember after a month-plus of .500 ball, rest days, and grousing from Michael Malone and about him.

A loss to whoever will emerge from the play-in would be shocking—especially with the oft-injured Nugs healthy and able to trim the fat off a strikingly shallow rotation. But last postseason the Suns showed the type of damage a prolonged rough start and one untimely injury can have on even the most dominant teams. Making quick work of Anthony Edwards or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in Round 1 would both reassert Denver as the big, swinging contender in the West field and prove that its 15th-ranked defense may have a playoff gear capable of keeping up against Kevin Durant in the conference semis.

Sacramento Kings–Golden State Warriors: How Far Can Vibes Carry Sacramento?

Logan Murdock: The Kings’ resurgence has reintegrated a whole region back into the NBA fold this season. And the addition of head coach Mike Brown has maximized the play of All-Stars DeAaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. After the team won 48 games and finished third place in the Western Conference, the vibes are back in Sac. But even in their ascent back to the postseason after a 16-year drought, the Kings have occasionally shown signs of inexperience, looking like they’re benefiting from a weak Western Conference.

Meanwhile, with the midseason addition of Gary Payton II and expected return of Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors seem to be getting all they need at just the right time. The Kings’ speed will give the Warriors challenges defensively, but Golden State’s experience will eventually put a stranglehold on the series. I’m picking the Warriors in six.

Memphis Grizzlies–Los Angeles Lakers: Who Will Win the Big-Man Matchup?

Kellen Becoats: My editor said that “Will Dillon Brooks get the Grizzlies swept by continuing to dress like a WWE superstar?” wasn’t an actual question, so I’ll go with my second choice. Midway through the season, Lakers fans—admittedly a mercurial bunch—were asking whether Anthony Davis was tanking the Lakers’ chemistry. But that was before AD dropped 37-plus points four times in his last nine games. And the task of slowing him down got even harder for Memphis after it lost Steven Adams and backup big Brandon Clarke for the season, which means the job will fall almost entirely to Jaren Jackson Jr.

The potential Defensive Player of the Year’s battle with Davis in the post will look like a fight from Pacific Rim more than an NBA matchup. AD has put up video-game numbers against Memphis this season, averaging 29 points, 20.5 (!) rebounds, and 3.5 blocks in the two games he’s played, while JJJ has averaged 18 points, seven boards, and 3.3 blocks. Ja Morant is going to get loose, LeBron James will continue defying Father Time, and Dillon Brooks is going to … do whatever the hell Dillon Brooks does. But this series will hinge on whether the Grizzlies can stop one of the most dominant big men of this generation.

Milwaukee Bucks–Miami Heat/Chicago Bulls: Will Khris Middleton Look Like His Best Self?

Isaac Levy-Rubinett: Milwaukee enters the playoffs as the top overall seed and Vegas favorites to win the Finals—but Middleton’s health looms as one of the postseason’s most important X factors. Middleton missed much of the season because of a right knee injury, and just when it seemed like he’d rediscovered something approximating his peak form, he re-aggravated his knee and missed the Bucks’ final two games. Head coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters that Middleton was limited in Tuesday’s practice but that the team hopes he will participate fully on Thursday and be available for Milwaukee’s playoff opener on Sunday.

The Bucks won’t rush Middleton’s return—they will be heavy favorites in this series regardless of Middleton’s status or whether the Heat or Bulls snag the 8-seed. But in potential later-round matchups, Milwaukee will not only need Middleton in the lineup, but also need him playing at close to full strength. The 31-year-old forward is critical to unlocking the Bucks’ sometimes stagnant half-court offense, and the pick-and-roll partnership between him and Giannis Antetokounmpo has proved to be a potent game breaker against even the best defenses. The Bucks are plenty formidable even without him, but Middleton’s shot- and playmaking elevate this team to another level—and the first round will offer some clues about whether they will reach those heights this time around.

Brooklyn Nets–Philadelphia 76ers: How Healthy Is James Harden?

Michael Pina: After a four-point loss against the Bulls on March 20—when James Harden played 47 minutes and finished 2-for-14 from the floor, with five points, five turnovers, and a postgame comment from Sixers head coach Doc Rivers that included the line “I thought he was hurting a little bit”—Harden missed six of Philadelphia’s final 11 games. In the ones he suited up for, Harden was up and down (by the extremely high standards he’s previously set) while reportedly dealing with a sore Achilles that, per Rivers, is now all better.

The question from there is straightforward. How healthy is Harden? And if he’s not, are the Sixers in trouble? The Nets have a swarming defense that’s full of long, physical on-ball defenders who will do their damnedest to neutralize a Harden–Joel Embiid pick-and-roll by switching, helping, blitzing, and executing a diverse game plan. Brooklyn also has the personnel to stay in front and bother Harden in isolation. Mikal Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith, Cam Johnson, and Nic Claxton are all more than capable of surviving on an island, especially during minutes when Embiid is on the bench.

Philadelphia has enough supplementary offensive options (Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris) to complement its own stifling defense and win this series, but if Harden can’t explode to the rim, get to the free throw line, or do anything on defense except impersonate a traffic cone, this matchup could be more competitive than people think.

Boston Celtics–Atlanta Hawks: Will Atlanta Win a Game?

Zach Kram: This question might seem impertinent and slightly rude, but the Celtics are such a terrible matchup for Atlanta that it’s unfortunately relevant. Boston has the best eight-man rotation in the league, full of perimeter players capable of scoring themselves or creating for others. Where does Trae Young hide on defense? And on the other end, the Celtics have waves of All-Defense-caliber defenders capable of harrying Atlanta’s guards. Maybe the Hawks will get hot from 3 one night and steal a game—but Boston should advance to the next round without much trouble.

New York Knicks–Cleveland Cavaliers: Will Donovan Mitchell Make the Knicks Pay?

Matt Dollinger: The Knicks weren’t willing to pay for Mitchell this summer. Now he has a chance to make them pay in the playoffs. Mitchell was thisclose to being traded to the blue and orange last offseason. Hell, the New York native even wanted to be a Knick. But New York’s brass ultimately wasn’t willing to meet Utah’s asking price, and the All-Star was shipped to Cleveland. The Knicks made out all right, signing Jalen Brunson, who put up a career year and led the Knicks to their winningest season since 2012-13. But comparison is the thief of joy, and it’ll be awfully hard for Knicks fans not to imagine what it would look like if Mitchell were on their team this series.

It’s hard to fault the Knicks for not anteing up given the regular season they just had. But if Mitchell drops 40 in Game 1 or lights up Madison Square Garden later in the series, Knicks fans will probably fully relitigate this summer and find themselves as miserable as ever. But New York went 3-1 against Mitchell and the Cavs during the regular season, including in two double-digit wins. In their last meeting, Mitchell poured in 42 points, only to be outdone by Brunson’s 48. As motivated as Mitchell may be to seize some type of revenge, Brunson might be just as amped to prove that New York made the right call.