Written by: Jordan Vitkauskas (@Lower_Merion33)
We are almost there. The home stretch of the 2017-18 NBA regular season is upon us, and we inch ever so close to postseason play every night. Come playoff time, everything intensifies. Pace slows down, there is a commitment to defense on every possession, and execution is at a premium.
As each team plays it's final 20 games, the playoff seeds are starting to align and matchups are soon to be set. With that being said, let us talk about some hypothetical and extremely fun matchups that we would love to see past game 82.
To save time for the readers out there, I am skipping discussing the potential Warriors-Rockets matchup in the western conference finals. It’s clearly the number one choice for best playoff matchup by a long shot and would provide a 6/7 game series full of amazing moments, but let’s just wait to preview that at another time. Anyways, here we go…
(Image courtesy of Slam Online)
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Grade - 8.6/10
This would be another exciting matchup of young versus old, this time with James’ Cavs battling some young Bucks (Pun intended). Cleveland has won two of three against Milwaukee this year, with all three games coming down to the final minutes in the fourth quarter. Each team has similar strengths and weaknesses, with the obvious positive being strong play from the forwards, while each team has struggled to get stops on defense all year long.
Matchup to watch - Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. LeBron James
Were you expecting any other two people to be named here? The mouth-watering matchup between two of the top eight players in the game would be great for an entire series.
Giannis is on an elite list of players in the league who can truly give LeBron trouble on both ends. No defender in the league is equipped to deal with the Greek Freak’s length and athleticism, while the 23-year-old can use that same skill set to force James away from the basket and into contested jumpers. He is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and assists, and is nearly identical to James in many categories.
(Image courtesy of ESPN)
Meanwhile, LeBron obviously likes to coast towards the end of the season to conserve as much energy for the postseason, so expect him to give 110% against someone that people consider next in line to claim his throne as the leader of the league. His numbers are on par or better than his career averages, and his knowledge of the game is at an all-time high.
This battle would highlight peak athleticism, skilled shot making in-and-around the paint and otherworldly big plays.
Hypothetical Winner - Cavs in 6
The Greek Freak would probably come as close to matching LeBron as anyone in this league, and Bledsoe would give the Cavs’ point guards fits, but at the end of the day it comes down to the mental factor, and that’s where Cleveland has the edge.
They have been in the postseason and tested every year since James’ return, and they simply know how to grind out series and execute when it matters most. Milwaukee will give them a run for their money, and may soon be running the East, but they seem a year away from putting the pieces together.
Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Denver Nuggets
Grade - 8.4/10
These two teams might seem random off the grid as a peak matchup to watch, but trust me when I saw both squads are must-see television every night. Between Denver’s high-flying offense led by Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, these two rosters have enough talent to put on a show for the fans. The Wolves have won two close contests over the Nuggets this season, but the two teams still have two more matchups over the final two weeks of the season in April.
Matchup to watch - Nikola Jokic vs. Karl-Anthony Towns
Two of the best big men in the game, Jokic and Towns fill the stat sheet every night and wow fans with highlight plays each game. Jokic is a top-3 passer when it comes too me, using his height and intelligence to find the open man for easy buckets. He can grab a rebound and go coast-to-coast like a guard, which benefits Denver tremendously. Jokic’s three-point shooting is as high as it has ever been (37.2%) and is 10th in the league with 10.6 board per night.
(Image courtesy of theringer.com)
Meanwhile, Towns has improved almost all of his numbers in each of his first three seasons, and his player efficiency rating (PER) of 24.85 is 10th-best in the league, ahead of guys like Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and Jokic. Towns has the key ability to stretch the floor out to 24 feet, and is acquiring a bevy of post moves that make him a matchup nightmare for opposing centers. The 22-year-old from Kentucky needs to improve his defense and improve on ball rotations, but his length and athleticism help him recover from mistakes faster than most big men.
Hypothetical Winner - Timberwolves in 6
Jokic and company can light up the scoreboard with flashy passing and hot shooting streaks. However, they do not play enough defense to give themselves a chance right now. If Millsap is able to get back into a rhythm on both ends of the floor, he could be a player who changes the tide of the series in Denver’s favor.
On the other side, Minnesota plays hard on defense all game, and head coach Tom Thibodeau will keep his best players on the court as much as physically possible in order to give his team the best chance to win. Even with the loss of Jimmy Butler, the Wolves still have enough grit and discipline to grind their way to a series win.
Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Grade - 8.8/10
This would be a juicy matchup of the old guard versus the upstart kids. LeBron James’ Cavs are one of the oldest teams in the league, even after making several trades at the deadline. They have also been to three straight finals and have more playoff experience of any team not named the Warriors or Raptors.
Meanwhile, three of head coach Brad Stevens’ four best players are 25 or younger. Throw in the storyline of Kyrie facing the team he was drafted by and won a title with, and you have the perfect recipe for possibly the most intense series of basketball we have seen in two years.
Matchup to watch - Kyrie vs. Cavs Backcourt
Its cliché and boring to just say Kyrie vs. LeBron. We get it. That will be what everyone is watching. Can Irving, who essentially forced his way out of Cleveland and did not want to play with James, now take down his former teammate in his new colors. However, LeBron is not going to be guarding Irving. That would be the jobs of George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and J.R. Smith, to name a few.
(Image courtesy of USA Today)
Irving is one of the best ball-handlers and pure scorers in the last decade, always thinking three steps ahead of his opponents and finding amazing ways to score the ball. However, his 17/7/5 (PPG/APG/RPG) splits on 44% shooting (29% from deep) in three games against his former team this season have been underwhelming to say the least. With that said, Irving is a bonafide stud in the playoffs, making major plays when it counts for his team. I would not expect anything short of All-NBA play from Kyrie when the playoffs start.
Boston is 1-2 on the season against their Eastern Conference foe, but has plenty of defensive bodies (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morri to name a few) to throw at James throughout a game. They can constantly keep fresh defenders hounding LeBron and wearing him down throughout all four quarters.
Hypothetical Winner - Celtics in 7
This could honestly go either way, as both teams have playoff experience from meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. This year however, I would take Boston with a slight edge in overall talent, and given the holes in Cleveland’s defense, it would be hard for them to stop Irving and company enough to advance in the playoffs.
Golden State Warriors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Grade - 9/10
This may or may not be the matchup we all want, but it is definitely the one that needs to happen. The amount of historic talent on these rosters is almost unprecedented (Save for some Celtics-Lakers-Pistons matchups in the last 80’s), with four guaranteed Hall-of-Famers (Durant, Curry, Westbrook, Anthony) and two-to-three other possible HOF’s (George, Thompson, Green) in the lineup.
The Dubs slept-walked through the first few months, as most teams who’ve played in three straight finals do, but are starting to round into peak form as we enter the home stretch of the season. Curry is posting almost career numbers in every category, and is still a threat to score 50 on any given night, while Thompson and Green are excelling in their respecting roles as per usual.
Matchup to watch - Kevin Durant vs. Paul George
Plenty of fun matchups to choose from here, and Durant versus Westbrook is the obvious fun choice given their pasts, but the fact is, they do not play the same position. PG-13 is one of the few defenders in the league capable of making KD work hard for his points on every possession, and his phenomenal play on the defensive side of the ball this year has him close to the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.
George is possibly playing some of the best ball of his career, shooting a career-high 42% from three-point range, and is second in the NBA with over two steals per game. His shot-creation has improved each season, and he seems to have meshed much better with Russell Westbrook than Carmelo Anthony.
Durant remains one of the three most lethal scorers in the game, capable of getting his shot off from anywhere at any time. He is a few made free throws away from posting his second-career 50-40-90 (FG/3PT/FT) season, and has improved strongly on the defensive end, averaging almost two blocks a game. KD has had three solid games against his former team this year, but has yet to unleash his full arsenal against OKC. Expect that to change if the two rosters meet in the postseason.
(Image courtesy of Sporting News)
Hypothetical Winner - Warriors in 5
It seems boring to say that Golden State would win in five short games, but at the end of the day, they can go to another level that teams like the Thunder just cannot match. With that being said, I would expect pretty much all five contests to have 100% energy and go down to the wire, with mind-boggling plays and shot-making, plus a little dram sprinkled in.
What fun group of hypothetical (and very possible) playoff matchups. There are so many talented teams in the league this season, and almost every matchup will be entertaining regardless of who the two teams are. Now, we just have to sit back and relax, and wait for the seeds to be determined over the final 20 games.
Get your popcorn ready.
*All stats are courtesy of espn.com unless otherwise stated.*