Ranking the Most Exciting First Round Playoff Matchups in the East

Charles Krumsiek ‘20

Sports Editor

With the NBA playoffs around the corner, let’s look at potential matchups in the Eastern Conference we are most looking forward to.

5. Philadelphia 76ers vs Brooklyn Nets

This matchup would make for a very interesting first round series, despite that, on paper, Philly looks like it has the clear edge. However, the season series between these two youthful squads is even at 2-2. There is, however, a surprising +13 point differential in Brooklyn’s favor, so despite splitting the series, the Nets have played the Sixers exceptionally well. This suggests that the series could be much closer than many would expect. Each of these four games was a blowout, with each side taking one game on their opponent’s home court.

However, the Sixers’ starting lineup has changed drastically since October, and these teams have only faced off once since “Philly Five” starting lineup has taken the floor. The Nets have played well above their preseason expectations while the Sixers have about matched theirs, despite adding two All Star caliber players: Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler. The Nets are a very scrappy team that plays hard just about every night, and this has been a coming out year for D’Angelo Russell, acquired from the Lakers in 2017. He, combined with Joe Harris’ deadly three-point range, would make for an exceptionally challenging defensive assignment for Philly’s Ben Simmons and JJ Redick. The Nets also have their Most Improved Player of the Year candidate, Caris Levert, returning to his pre-injury form at the perfect time. They also have a center in Jarrett Allen who could create problems for Joel Embiid on the defensive end, as all year he has put up highlight reel blocks.

All that said, the Sixers would still be the overwhelming favorite in this series and rightly so. They may be the first team to ever have five players averaging fifteen or more points per game in a season and have pulled away with the three seed in the East. They are 7-3 over their last ten games with only one matchup with a playoff team remaining, so they should be able to give some of their stars a rest down the stretch, while the Nets will still be fighting for their best possible seed to the last day of the season.

4. Boston Celtics vs Indiana Pacers

This is the only matchup in this article that as of today has actually lined up for the first round. These two teams match up twice within the last fifteen games of the season which should give a solid idea of how they will play each other during the postseason. The Celtics stole a win with Kyrie Irving’s last second shot on Indiana’s home court. Two of the three games have been decided by less than three points, but the Celtics had a dominant performance in January, where they won by twenty seven.

The Pacers of this year have been compared often to last year’s Celtics, charmingly nicknamed the “Hospital Celtics” as their two huge acquisitions went down with season-ending injuries. Indiana’s breakout star Victor Oladipo’s ruptured quadriceps will keep him sidelined for the rest of the season. They were able to hang onto a top three seed for weeks, only slipping recently as they faced daunting road-trips and nearly a month of meetings with playoff bound teams. They win just as ugly as the Celtics of last year did and boast great chemistry, something that the Celtics have been struggling to find today.

These two teams are locked in a battle for home court in the first round against each other, with Boston currently holding the tie breaker. The Pacers are 3-7 over their last ten while the Celtics are a scarcely more impressive 5-5, so both of these teams will probably struggle to find their playoff identity as they go down the stretch. This matchup will likely be an exciting one and it appears very likely to play out.

3. Brooklyn Nets vs. Milwaukee Bucks

This matchup looks like even more of a mismatch than the Nets vs Sixers, but the Bucks have been struggling with injuries up and down their roster heading into the playoffs. They have lost their first round pick Donte DiVincenzo for the season, starting point guard Malcolm Brogdon for over a month, recent acquisition Pau Gasol for a month, and MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo has been in and out of the line up. Blessed with good health and dominant play by Giannis throughout the season, the Bucks are the best team in the East with a historic point differential, but these injuries have struck at the worst possible time for them. This scrappy Nets team could be able to capitalize on these injuries and pull off a stunning first round upset.

2. Detroit Pistons vs. Toronto Raptors

This was a tight race for the most exciting match up of the first round for me. The Raptors have been dominant on both ends of the floor and have their own Most Improved Player candidate to boast of in Pascal Siakam. They made a strong run to steal the top seed in the East from the Bucks but appear to be locked into the 2 seed, barring anything very unlikely happening to end the season. They are led by rookie head coach Nick Nurse since firing the current Pistons head coach Dwane Casey, who won Coach of the Year that same year.

Casey has shown to care deeply about beating his old team, winning all three of their matchups this season. This matchup would promise quite a bit of heat as Casey will likely have the Pistons maintaining their fervor against his former team. While the Pistons have swept the Raptors, each of these games have been decided by five points or less. Even though most 2-7 matchups in the playoffs lack much excitement, there is quite a bit to be excited about if these two teams face off in the first round.

1. Boston Celtics vs Philadelphia 76ers

What else is there to say about these two teams, bitter rivals in the making (or not rivals at all, if you ask Joel Embiid). Sam Hinkie’s Process would face off against Danny Ainge’s shrewd trades and drafting for the second consecutive postseason. The Celtics have acted as the Sixers’ older brother for the past three seasons, dominating them every time they played. Embiid has had some of his worst games of the year facing Al Horford, and Ben Simmons managed to put up a single point in a playoff game against them last year. However, the little brother has now grown a foot and a half as the Sixers boast the most impressive starting lineup in all of basketball outside of the Bay Area.

The season series is 3-1 in Boston’s favor, but the Sixers’ have the most recent win and a demoralizing one at that, as the Celtics choked up a double digit lead during the second half. Marcus Smart was ejected for shoving Joel Embiid after a dirty screen which turned out to be the game’s turning point. Jimmy Butler iced the game with a few seconds left with an unbelievable bucket after nearly turning it over.

These two young cores have had some intense moments in the past and the future appears to be no different. This matchup would be without a doubt the most exciting for the first round but unless the Sixers cool off over the next two weeks, it appears unlikely. As it stands right now, unfortunately, the earliest we could see this matchup would be in the Eastern Conference Finals.

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