In the first round of the NBA playoffs, six of the eight series were done in five games or fewer.
The Celtics and Bucks swept the Pacers and Pistons while the Raptors, 76ers, Rockets and Blazers rolled to respective 4-1 series wins over the Magic, Nets, Jazz and Thunder.
To make matters worse — i.e. more boring — of the 28 games played over the course of the six series, only 10 were decided by 10 points or fewer, meaning nearly two-thirds of them were double-digit blowouts.
The other two series, the Warriors vs. the Clippers and Nuggets vs. Spurs, are headed to their six and seventh games as of this writing, but that doesn’t make up for a lackluster first round that was downright sleep-inducing compared to the historically upset-heavy first round of the NHL playoffs.
But, as much of a letdown as the first round turned out to be, we’re cautiously optimistic the NBA postseason’s second round is going to be so epic the league will totally redeem itself like Lloyd Christmas once did.
In the Eastern Conference, the Bucks and Celtics will face off in the playoffs for the second straight year. With Boston having home-court advantage, last year’s series went seven games with the Celtics ultimately prevailing and moving on to the conference finals.
This year’s matchup promises to be a close one as well as the Bucks now have the home-court advantage, but unlike last year, they are taking on a healthy Boston team that will have both Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving available (both of whom were injured last season).
Will a healthy Irving and revitalized Hayward be enough to overcome presumptive MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and a roster filled with 3-point sharpshooters? They weren’t in the regular season as Milwaukee won two of the three meetings between the two teams.
But those victories only came by an average of seven points, indicating this second-round series also has the potential to go seven games the way last year’s did. It’ll also be fascinating to see a dominating inside scorer like Antetokounmpo go head-to-head with an all-around-threat like Irving as their games are vastly different but can both be dominating at times especially late. (Both players ranked in the top 10 in fourth quarter scoring in the regular season.)
On the other side of the eastern bracket, the top-heavy 76ers will be taking on the well-rounded Raptors. The teams aren’t coming off a previous playoff meeting (the last time they met in the playoffs it was Vince Carter vs. Allen Iverson) but they did have fairly close regular seasons with Philadelphia averaging 115.2 points per game compared to 114.2 for Toronto.
Head-to-head this season, the Raptors took three of four games from the 76ers, but two of those games were played before Philadelphia acquired Jimmy Butler and all of them were played before Tobias Harris was in the fold for Philly. That means Toronto has yet to take the court against the 76ers and their current starting five, which may be the second-best opening unit in the league behind Golden State.
The anchor of that unit, Joel Embiid, has been playing like man possessed when healthy this postseason and is averaging more than 24 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks per game. He’s also had some time off to rest and should be healthier in the second round than he was in the first.
On the opposite side, Kawhi Leonard has been a bad man all season for Toronto and, on the verge of becoming a free agent, is extremely motivated to put all of his wares on display for the league to see. And, if Toronto wants to have any shot of keeping him, the team is probably going to need to advance past this round so Leonard’s teammates will have all the motivation in the world to play well in the hopes of making that happen.
On the whole, the two remaining series in the East boast four of the 10 starters in the NBA All-Star game, not too shabby.
As for the Western Conference, there’s still much to be determined (once again, as of this writing) thanks to the Clippers hanging on vs. Golden State and the resilient Spurs refusing to submit to the young-gun Nuggets.
What we do know for sure is the Rockets and Blazers, both of whom will be well-rested and ready to go, await the winners of the Warriors/Clippers and Spurs/Nuggets.
No matter who advances out of the first round, we already know the Western Conference Finals will have a different look than last season as either the Spurs, Blazers or Nuggets will be participating. That’s great news for the league as having some fresh blood in there, especially if it is a younger team like Portland or Denver, will make the third round compelling.
As for the yet-to-be-determined second-round matchups out West, they will be good no matter which teams are involved based purely on reigning MVP James Harden being involved for the Rockets and the most under-appreciated player in the league, Damian Lillard, being involved for the Blazers. Lillard in particular, who would be a much bigger star if he played somewhere besides Portland, should shine on the national stage and is looking at his best opportunity yet to get the Blazers past the conference semifinals and into the third round.
And make no mistake, there is a reason to watch since the Warriors winning it all is no longer a foregone conclusion.
Though currently favored to win it all — FiveThirtyEight gives Golden State a 35 percent chance of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy — the Warriors are no longer the overwhelming favorites they once were after losing DeMarcus Cousins and multiple games to the Clippers. Now, the Raptors, Bucks and Rockets all have double-digit odds at winning it all with Toronto being the closest to Golden State at 30 percent.
Long story short: the first round was a boring bummer, but get your popcorn ready for the second and beyond.