After 82 games, the regular season has come to a close and the match-ups are set for the first round of the playoffs. These are a couple of the encounters that will be the most fun to watch in the first round.
So who’s taking the next step towards hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy?
(3) Houston Rockets vs (6) Oklahoma City Thunder
This one has the potential to be the most entertaining match-up of the first round with two MVP frontrunners going head to head.
In his first season in Houston, head coach Mike D’Antoni and the Rockets (55-27) have found themselves in title contention just a year after finishing with a .500 record. A major part of the team’s improvement has come from D’Antoni’s system and moving James Harden to point guard where he has excelled. Harden has enjoyed a remarkable campaign, averaging 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds.
Boasting the second-highest scoring offence in the league, the Rockets love to spread the floor; as a team, they take and make the most threes in the NBA and surround Harden with dangerous shooters at every position. This gives their star man an open lane or provides space for someone else. The franchise has an embarrassment of riches, with two Sixth Man of the Year candidates in Lou Williams and Eric Gordon coming off the bench and giving the Rockets valuable minutes.
Meanwhile, the Thunder (47-35) weren’t expected to be a playoff team after the departure of Kevin Durant in the offseason. But what has transpired is one of the greatest statistical seasons by any player as Russell Westbrook became just the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double for the season with averages of 31.6 points, 10.4 assists and 10.7 rebounds per game.
Westbrook’s dominance is so important to the Thunder that their win percentage skyrockets to 78.6% when he records a triple-double versus winning just 35% of games when he doesn’t. The Thunder don’t have as much depth as Houston and will need all of their starters firing of they’re to advance.
While the Westbrook-Harden battle will be the focus, the Rockets pace, shooting and depth will be what takes the Thunder down. Unless Westbrook’s having 40-point triple-double every game, the Rockets are moving on.
Prediction: Rockets in 6.
(3) Toronto Raptors vs (6) Milwaukee Bucks
Two young up-and-coming teams go at it in the Eastern Conference with the potential to scare a couple of teams in the second round.
The Raptors (51-31) have experienced a tumultuous season. DeMar DeRozan had a career season in the absence of Kyle Lowry who missed 18 fixtures after the All-Star break with a wrist injury. Lowry has returned and looks to be ready for the postseason with some crucial performances to close the calendar, including 27 points and 10 assists in his return. The Raptors bolstered their defence, adding Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker at the trade deadline. Tucker, in particular, has been a great addition for Toronto, routinely shutting down opponents for all 24 seconds of a possession.
The Bucks (42-40) weren’t expected to be this good this soon but they’re a young, tall and athletic team that find themselves in a position to cause some trouble in the playoffs. Led by one of the most impressive young players in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steal and blocks, the Bucks are starting to deliver on their potential and this appears to just be the start of their rise up the Eastern Conference. Following the loss of Jabari Parker to a knee injury, the Bucks don’t have many players other than Antetokounmpo who can really hurt teams.
The Raptors have more star power in DeRozan and Lowry and more playoff experience after taking Cleveland to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Milwaukee will put up a fight but Antetokounmpo alone won’t be enough for the Bucks.
Prediction: Raptors in 6.