The NBA is not a Black Mirror episode. Of the four major pro sports leagues in North America, it is the most predictable (including the NBA playoffs). Remember last year when we wasted our time watching each team play 82 games for an entire season knowing full well that in the end, it was going to be the Golden State Warriors playing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals?
If a friend told you before that season that the Warriors were going to win in the Finals, you would probably have had the same reaction to it as to that of someone trying to spoil your movie viewing experience by saying that a major character would get shot in JFK.
Relatively speaking, upsets seldom occur in the NBA Playoffs. Having said that, it happens. It has happened in the first round more often than most people think. In fact, in each year since 2007, there has been at least one upset in the initial round of the playoffs.
Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from looking at the list of first-round upsets over the past 11 seasons is that the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Oklahoma City Thunder should be sweating bullets right now.
Well, not really, but out of the 22 favorites that struck out in the first round during that span, 14 were No. 4 seeds getting steamrolled by No. 5 teams. In addition to that (this won’t sound comforting for Cavs and Thunder fans), there has not been a year since 2007 that both No. 4 seeds have made it past the first round.
Cue a suspense thriller musical score here, please: In 2012, 2013, and 2014, all the No. 4 seeds during those years faltered in the first round.
The frequency with which this scenario has happened over the past several years can’t be ignored, even though it’s hard to wrap our minds around the plausibility of a second round commencing sans either LeBron James or Russell Westbrook – or worse, both.
It remains to be seen whether any of that would happen, so for now, let’s just have short overviews of each of these first-round matchups.
No. 5 Utah Jazz vs. No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder
The Jazz lost three of their four meetings in the regular season with Oklahoma City. Utah took the first one on Oct. 21 with a 96-87 win at home in which Donovan Mitchell scored just two points.
The next three dates with the Thunder had Utah losing by an average margin of 16.0 points. Based on that, it could be tempting to say that the Thunder have this in the bag. However, all of those four games happened in 2017, meaning the Thunder have not dealt with the best the Jazz could offer this season.
See, Utah has turned into a different animal since the season flipped to its second half. From the All-Star break on, the Jazz managed to go 18-6 – the third-best post All-Star record in the NBA behind the Houston Rockets and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Utah owns the league’s best defense with only 99.8 points allowed per game, but the Jazz have been even better in the second half in which teams bled for 95.4 points per contest. Speaking of defense, Rudy Gobert has played in only two matchups with Oklahoma City because of a knee injury, and the Jazz went 1-1 in those games.
Russell Westbrook is flanked this time by Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, but how much of a difference can that really make against a seemingly fearless Jazz unit?
No. 5 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers
It’s been a while since the last time we saw LeBron James not reach the second round of the playoffs. We don’t even need to bother checking that one on Basketball Reference. We all know that was a long time ago, as much as we know without verifying that Boobie Gibson has not appeared in an NBA game in years.
In fact, LeBron has never lost a first-round series. The two times he failed to make the second round were his first two seasons in the NBA, with Cleveland failing to even reach the postseason.
Here’s also something that you probably did not know until now: The Pacers are 3-1 against the Cavs this season. Or how about this: The Pacers are 2-0 against the Golden State Warriors.
Indiana can definitely play and is extremely motivated. The Pacers have a chip on their shoulders because they were turned into a laughing stock when they made that much-maligned offseason trade with the Thunder.
No one is laughing at them now because the guffaws stopped as soon as Victor Oladipo started churning out one great game after another on his way to becoming an All-Star. The Cavs have LeBron James, but Cleveland, with its inconsistency and personnel issues, has not looked more vulnerable since King James’ return than they do now. Before you know it, the Pacers could be playing the role of UMBC to the Cavaliers’…uhm… Cavaliers.
Apart from the No. 5 seeds crashing out early, there have also been instances since 2007 in which a No. 6 seed has toppled a No. 3 seed (four times), a No. 7 seed shooting down a No. 2 seed (once), and a No. 8 seed embarrassing a No. 1 seed (two times).
No. 6 Miami Heat vs. No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers are the more exciting team in this matchup, but the NBA title is never won based on who’s the most watchable. The Heat are gritty and they also have Hassan Whiteside, who surely could give Joel Embiid a run for his own money.
Miami has the edge in experience. Head coach Erik Spoelstra has gone deep in the playoffs a number of times with Dwyane Wade, who could play the role of the team’s stabilizer during high-pressure moments.
The Sixers don’t have a D-Wade. They don’t have Embiid for at least Game 1, as the big man continues to recover from a head injury. If the Heat steal the series opener, it could rattle a Sixers team that has not lost in over a month.
No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans vs. No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers
The last time Anthony Davis went to the playoffs, it ended in a crushing loss at the hands of the Warriors. More mature and surrounded with better talent this time around (even without DeMarcus Cousins), Davis will look to pass the first-round test against the Blazers.
Portland knows that the key to beating New Orleans is to contain The Brow, so expect them to throw everything at Davis in the playoffs, even if that meant sacrificing the life of Meyers Leonard. Nikola Mirotic has also given the Pellies different points of attack on offense with his ability to spread the floor that puts opponents in a defensive quandary.
In any case, this series is going to be fun to watch.
No. 7 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 2 Boston Celtics
Do you smell the what Bucks are cooking? That could be an upset.
The Celtics are the favorites in this matchup, but how well are they going to play under pressure without Kyrie Irving, who is ranked second in the league in “clutch points” per 36 minutes? Apart from Irving, Boston will also not have Marcus Smart; he is expected to be back by Apr. 27, though.
There are more foolish ways to spend money than on betting on the Bucks to win this series.
No. 7 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 2 Golden State Warriors
Regardless of if Stephen Curry plays or not, the Warriors are undeniably the favorites in this matchup. Things could be a little fairer to San Antonio if they have Kawhi Leonard, but the Spurs without Kawhi are far worse off than a Warriors team that is missing Curry while still enjoying the presence of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
The Spurs, however, will not just lay their weapons down. LaMarcus Aldridge is capable of dominating his man on offense and Gregg Popovich has some tricks in his bag he could use. Will that be enough, though, to shock the Warriors? (It wasn’t in Game 1).
No. 8 Washington Wizards vs. No. 1 Toronto Raptors
The Raptors have always been taken lightly in the playoffs despite being terrific in the regular season, but that’s what postseason collapses do to a team’s image. With that in mind, the Wizards look to be the latest team to prove that Toronto is more Barney in the playoffs than a Raptor.
That’s going to be easier said than done, but if John Wall and Bradley Beal can outplay DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowy, that’ll be a huge plus for Washington. The regular-season series between these two teams was close, too, as they split the four games, 2-2.
No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 1 Houston Rockets
The Timberwolves are making a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, and in their first series back in the postseason, they are getting the Rockets, a team Minnesota has not beaten since January of last year. Yikes.
This season alone, Minnesota is 0-4 against the Rockets, and in each of those games, Houston covered the point spread as the betting chalk, suggesting it clearly has the Timberwolves’ number.
Still, Minnesota could punch their way into a win or two at least with Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns , Jeff Teague, and Andrew Wiggins all needing to be in their best forms.