Basketball is a game defined by matchups. A certain team might be better than its opponent. But when there are specific individual mismatches, that doesn’t amount to much. This is only magnified when it comes to the playoffs, where the game’s best players take on one another.
From Rajon Rondo leading the streaking Bulls against his former Boston Celtics squad and Isaiah Thomas to Stephen Curry taking on fellow sharpshooter Damian Lillard, there are a ton of matchups to pay attention to as the NBA Playoffs get going.
Though, those don’t compare in any way to two MVP contenders in Russell Westbrook and James Harden squaring off. That’s going to be a dynamite battle between Oklahoma City and Houston. Meanwhile, back east, LeBron James takes on long-time conference rival Paul George in what promises to be a tremendously competitive series between Cleveland an Indiana.
These are among the top-10 matchups for the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs.
Pau Gasol vs Marc Gasol
Sibling rivalry. Two brothers going at it with a shot at the NBA title. Really, who could ask for more here? As Pau enters the twilight of his career, he is no longer the face of a franchise. Instead, that honor goes to Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio.
Meanwhile in Memphis, where Gasol started his career before being traded for his brother, Marc is leading a surprising Grizzlies squad into the playoffs. Memphis wasn’t expected to do much after missing out on the playoffs last season.
Instead, the younger Gasol led his team to 43 regular season wins and a spot in the postseason. For his part, Gasol averaged a career-best 19.6 points to go along with 6.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists while expanding his game to the three-point line. That’s represented by the fact that he hit 104 threes in 2016-17 alone compared to 12 in his first eight season combined.
That’s definitely going to be big in this individual matchup. While the older Gasol has proven he has a lethal intermediate jump shot, he hasn’t necessarily found a way to expand it beyond the three-point arc. Defensively, he’s also a liability in that aspect of the game. This is where Marc could take advantage.
In looking at their regular season matchups, Memphis split the season series with one of the Spurs’ wins coming in overtime. The older Gasol got the better of his brother here.
Gasol brothers against one another this season.
Marc: 13.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 40 percent FG
Pau: 9.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 57 percent FG pic.twitter.com/zengCy3fIO
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) April 13, 2017
Surely, Memphis relies more on its Gasol than the Spurs do. That’s where Marc will have to step up in comparison to what we saw from him against San Antonio during the regular season. Should this not happen, look for a relatively short series here.
Isaiah Thomas vs Rajon Rondo
Rondo taking on the team that he led to a championship many moons ago. He will be doing so against the new darling of Boston, someone that deserves consideration for the NBA MVP award.
Not too often throughout his basketball playing career has Thomas been seen as a favorite. The last pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, it’s been an uphill battle for the namesake of a former Hall of Famer. Meanwhile, Rondo entered the NBA playing for a Celtics team that would ultimately win the NBA title within a year.
The tide has certainly shifted since then. Coming off a regular season that saw him average 29.1 points while shooting at a solid 46 percent from the field, Thomas is looking to make his name known on the game’s grandest stage. It will come against a hot Chicago Bulls team that needed to win seven of its final nine games to squeak into the playoffs.
We’re not expecting a watered-down version of Rondo to go toe-to-toe with Thomas. That would be foolhardy. Instead, we’re looking for him to hold his own while finding a way to penetrate what was a tremendous Celtics defense throughout the regular season. For Rondo, it continues to be all about pass distribution and finding open shots for his teammates.
With Avery Bradley slated to guard a combination of Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, this will be even more important for the Bulls. Should that happen, there’s a decent chance Chicago could pull the stunner here.
Klay Thompson vs C.J. McCollum
Matchup 1A in what promises to be an entertaining first-round series between Golden State and Portland. We know the Warriors can win without Thompson going bananas from the perimeter. The same really can’t be said about Portland, especially against the highest-scoring team in the NBA. That’s where McCollum and his 23.0 point per game average in the regular season comes into play.
More than anything, Klay’s role will be to lock on to McCollum when he’s not switched on to Lillard. As one of the top-three perimeter defenders in the NBA, this will likely be where he plays the largest role in the outcome of the series.
Again, that’s only magnified with both Curry and Kevin Durant able to pick up the scoring slack in Golden State. This is something the Warriors didn’t have afforded to them the past two playoff runs.
For his part, McCollum performed well against Golden State during the regular season, averaging 22.3 points while shooting at a 48 percent mark from the field. If he repeats this level of productivity, the Blazers will be in a good spot.
On the other hand, Klay failed to take advantage of a weak Portland defensive backcourt, putting up just 17.8 points while shooting 17 percent from distance. This should give McCollum and Co. hope that at least one of the big matchups in this series will go in their favor. Then again, Thompson’s presence is more about his perimeter defense in this one. That’s where he should be a major factor, even if he struggles shooting.
Kevin Love vs Myles Turner
This matchup is interesting in that Cleveland will only play Love at center when it goes small. Whether the Pacers match with a small-ball lineup of their own or try to pound it inside remains to be seen. So in reality, we might not see a whole heck of a lot of it.
But there’s two different things that leads us to believe this could be a determining factor in the outcome of what promises to be a highly-competitive series.
Love is all about the perimeter. While he does have some low-post moves, most of his damage is done outside. Conversely, the 21-year-old Turner is all about the block. He shot at a 51 percent clip from the field while averaging 14.5 points and 7.2 rebounds as a sophomore during the regular year.
Again, most of his damage was done inside.
As to where Love is most comfortable out on the perimeter, Turner might struggle guarding him that far from the hoop. This is why Cleveland loves to use the small-ball lineup. On the other hand, Turner should be able to take advantage of Love’s substandard low-post defense.
Whoever comes out on top in this matchup will surely play a large role in the winner of the series, no matter how rare this specific matchup might end up being.
DeAndre Jordan vs Rudy Gobert
Two of the top defensive big men in the game, Jordan and Gobert combined to average 26.6 points and 4.3 blocks per game. Jordan has been a Defensive Player of the Year candidate multiple times in the past, while Gobert could very well take home that award this season.
More than anything, it’s going to be about what they provide from a defensive standpoint here. Whatever Jordan and Gobert offer their teams on offense will be just icing on the cake.
For Gobert, it’s all about acting as the second line of defense against Chris Paul’s penetrating ability. If he can close off the inside, it will enable the Jazz’ perimeter defenders to key on J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers on the outside. If Gobert struggles in this aspect of the game, Paul will be ready to pounce.
To a lesser extent, we’re interested in seeing if Utah decides to utilize Shelvin Mack and his driving ability more than the team did during the regular season. He caused mismatches throughout the year, especially when going up against the likes of Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry. While Mack is not a perimeter threat himself, drive and dish could be the name of the game here.
More than anything, it will be fun to watch these two elite-level centers banging bodies on the inside. How they perform from a rebounding standpoint on both ends of the court will be a huge determining factor in what should be a competitive series.
John Wall vs Dennis Schroder
This isn’t as much about Schroder keeping up with Wall from a scoring and distribution standpoint. Instead, it’s all about the Hawks’ starting point guard making sure that it’s not a mismatch of epic proportions.
Despite a suspension and some other drama, Schroder had a tremendous first season as Atlanta’s starter, averaging 17.9 points and 6.3 assists per game. He was also up to par with Wall on the other end of the court, posting a 2.5 defensive wins share throughout the regular year.
If Schroder can find a way to meet his regular season average while continuing to prove himself to be a plus-level defender, that will go a long way in the Hawks pulling the upset here.
From a Wizards perspective, here’s a team that posted a 42-20 record after a 7-13 start to the season. We can focus on Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. stepping up their games big time, but that would be analyzing this team’s performance a bit too much.
A legit MVP candidate, Wall averaged 23.1 points, 10.7 assists and an NBA-best 2.1 steals per game. He’s legitimately one of the top-five two-way guards in the entire Association. Should Wall play at that level in the first round, Washington will likely come out on top here.
Giannis Antetokounmpo vs DeMar DeRozan
We’re surely going to see the Greek Freak guard DeRozan throughout a majority of this series. Giannis’ length could force DeRozan into shooting at a much lower clip from the intermediate range, which is the All-Star’s bread and butter. Remember, DeRozan shot at a 48 percent mark from inside the three-point line during the regular season. He also shot at a 58 percent clip on uncontested mid-range shots.
That’s the crux of the matchup here. DeRozan will not be going up against Antetokounmpo on the defensive end of the floor. That will be left up to more physically imposing front-court players such as P.J. Tucker and DeMarre Carroll. He, however, will likely have to find a way to beat Milwaukee’s best player offensively.
Antetokounmpo put up a defensive wins share of 4.5 while averaging 1.6 steals and 1.9 blocks per game. To put this into perspective, leading Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green had a defensive wins share of 5.4 while putting up 2.0 steals and 1.4 blocks per game himself.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the first player in @NBAHistory to finish in the top 20 in total:
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) April 13, 2017
DeRozan will have to find a way to score consistently against this elite-level defense. On the same note, Antetokounmpo can’t simply be relied on to act as a stopper on defense. He remains Milwaukee’s most valuable asset on the offensive end of the court as well.
More than pretty much any other first-round series, this one matchup will likely play the biggest role in who comes out on top between Milwaukee and Toronto.
Stephen Curry vs Damian Lillard
We know Lillard is going to want to prove himself against the two-time reigning NBA MVP. We also know that he has a chip on his shoulder when he takes on his home-town Golden State Warriors.
The issue here is that Lillard has struggled to an extent against the Warriors recently.
Maybe it has to do with him trying too hard, but his numbers against the Warriors have not been up to snuff. He shot just 36 percent from the field against Golden State in the playoffs last spring and is hitting at just a 39 percent mark in his past 10 games against the Warriors.
We all remember Curry’s return from injury in Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals when he came off the bench to score 40 points while proclaiming himself to be back. But Curry has lit it up against Portland numerous times in the past.
During the regular season, Curry averaged 27.3 points while shooting at a 48 percent mark from distance. That came on the heels of him averaging 32.5 points and shooting 53 percent from three-point range against Portland last season.
Should Curry put up similar numbers, Portland won’t be able to make a series of this one. That’s where Lillard and McCollum must step up against the Splash Brothers, both offensively and on the defensive end of the court.
LeBron James vs Paul George (and Lance Stephenson)
This is just all sorts of sexy. Not only will the reigning NBA Finals MVP go up against a long-time nemesis and fellow All-Star, he’ll be battling it out with the ultimate on-court instigator after Indiana brought Stephenson back towards the end of the regular season. There’s so much to look at here.
Cleveland posted a 3-1 mark against Indiana in the regular season, winning the final matchup between the two teams in triple overtime. All said, James averaged 32.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game against the Pacers during the year. Meanwhile, George went for 24.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists in matchups against LeBron and Co. Needless to say, these are two of the best small forwards in the game.
As to where James will have help from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, George continues to find himself without an elite-level secondary option. That’s been one of the biggest issues between the All-Star and his franchise, an issue that has led to trade speculation in the recent past. George not only needs to do his part on defense, he must average nearly 30 points per game for Indy to have a chance to upset Cleveland.
This could be aided by the presence of Stephenson on the Pacers. While he’s best known for blowing in LeBron’s ear during the playoffs a few years ago, Stephenson remains an elite-level defender. If he can take up some of the time guarding James, that will surely help George perform better offensively while not having to exhaust as much energy on defense. This is pretty much one of the primary reasons Indiana added Stephenson to the mix late in the season.
James Harden vs Russell Westbrook
Elite against elite. The two top MVP contenders. Dominating at the same position. These two will go at it in the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs with an opportunity to rise to title contention status. Without a doubt, this is one of the best individual matchups we have seen in the first round of the playoffs in some time.
What Westbrook has done for his Oklahoma City Thunder is already well known. Including his absurd 50-point triple-double against Denver on Sunday, Westbrook accomplished something we have not seen in the modern history of the game.
Here’s a dude that averaged a triple-double throughout the season, breaking Oscar Robertson’s mark for the most triple-doubles in a single season in the history of the NBA. Despite a less-than-stellar supporting cast, this enabled Westbrook to lead his Thunder to a 47-35 mark and the sixth seed out west. That’s an amazing accomplishment in and of itself.
On the other hand, Harden and the Houston Rockets acted as one of the biggest surprises during the regular season. A year after finishing with a 41-41 mark and getting destroyed by Golden State in the opening round, Houston enters the playoffs as the third seed out west with a 55-27 record.
More than anything, Harden’s ability to transition from shooting guard to point guard in Mike D’Antoni’s system has to be considered one of the best accomplishments of the season. While he did average an NBA-high 5.7 turnovers, Harden also put up 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and an NBA-best 11.2 assists. It was an amazing individual performance from Harden. It also has Houston thinking NBA Finals.
While both Oklahoma City and Houston have to be considered long shots to come out of the west, it’s going to be an absolute joy to watch these two MVP candidates go at it. Here’s hoping for seven games.