“The regular season doesn’t determine playoff success.” “The playoffs are a whole different ballgame.” “Teams show their true selves in the postseason.”
You’ve probably heard various fans and pundits utter these sayings at many points in your NBA fandom, and they’re right. The playoffs are the best opportunity for individual players and teams to prove themselves. I mean, you can win all the games you want in the regular season, but you probably won’t be remembered as a historically great team if you can’t escape the first round.
All that to say, some teams have elevated their play in the second season this year. Others have, well, not.
So how do the 16 squads who qualified for the playoffs stack up through the first week-and-a-half of the postseason? Let’s find out.
Think of this as more of a barometer for how teams have played in the first round than a general ranking of how good the squads have been throughout the year.
1. Golden State Warriors
Regular season record: 67-15, No. 1 seed in West
Playoff record: Beat New Orleans Pelicans 4-0
The league’s clear-cut top team in the regular season has validated that status in the playoffs’ first round, taking care of the Anthony Davis-led, eighth-seeded Pelicans in four games. There were a few moments where it looked like New Orleans might steal a game, most notably when it led Golden State by 17 with six minutes to go in the fourth quarter of Game 3.
But no lead is safe against the Warriors. Capping a furious comeback, Stephen Curry nailed an impossible three-pointer in the waning seconds of regulation to send the game into overtime.
The Warriors should be heavily favored against their second-round opponent, whether it’s the Memphis Grizzlies or the Portland Trail Blazers.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Regular season record: 53-29, No. 2 seed in East
Playoff record: Beat Boston Celtics 4-0
The Cavaliers had a similar first-round series to the Warriors, their fellow conference favorites.
Although Cleveland swept the upstart Celtics, they weren’t dominant by any means. The Cavs’ four wins were by just 13, eight, eight and eight points, respectively. Jae Crowder did a great job limiting LeBron James’ impact while Avery Bradley’s lateral quickness meant the Celtics didn’t have to help as much guarding Kyrie Irving. However, there was a sense of inevitability every game that the more talented team would come out on top, and it did.
The Cavs will enter the Conference Semifinals shorthanded, with star forward Kevin Love’s shoulder injury from Game 4 leaving him out for the entire next round. Shooting guard J.R. Smith is also suspended for the next two games for a malicious hit to Crowder’s face in Game 4.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
Regular season record: 55-27, No. 5 seed in West
Playoff record: Leading Portland Trail Blazers 3-1
The Grizzlies’ defensive identity has once again proved to benefit them in the playoffs.
Memphis has continued the Trail Blazers’ late-season tailspin by playing great defense, taking a 3-1 over Portland. The series has been a bit more lopsided than most thought, considering Memphis’ late-season struggles of its own, but the Grizzlies do look a lot better than the squad that was playing at the end of the regular season.
Something to be concerned about, however, is Mike Conley. The Grizzlies’ starting point guard didn’t play in Game 4 due to facial surgery, and his status for upcoming contests is not set in stone yet.
4A. San Antonio Spurs
Regular season record: 55-27, No. 6 seed in West
Playoff record: Tied with Los Angeles Clippers 2-2
The Spurs’ series against the Clippers has been easily the most entertaining matchup of the first round. We’ve seen both teams play at a championship level, but neither has been consistent throughout series, which is tied at two games apiece.
For San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard has become the superstar his 2014 Finals MVP and 2015 Defensive Player of the Year awards would suggest he is. The Claw’s offensive game is becoming nearly as lethal as his stifling ball pressure.
Overall, I’m giving the Spurs the 4A spot over Los Angeles because they’ve reached a higher level (their 100-73 win over the Clippers in Game 3) and have outscored their opponents by seven points over the four games.
4B. Los Angeles Clippers
Regular season record: 56-26, No. 3 seed in West
Playoff record: Tied with San Antonio Spurs 2-2
If you’ve been watching the Clippers throughout the season, you’d know this team has a very legitimate shot at a title. With Chris Paul’s and Blake Griffin’s continued excellence and DeAndre Jordan’s emergence, Los Angeles now has the best Big Three in the NBA.
The Clippers’ obvious weakness is their bench, but when Jamal Crawford gets some help from his fellow reserves, Los Angeles can play with anybody.
6. Houston Rockets
Regular season record: 56-26, No. 2 seed in West
Playoff record: Leading Dallas Mavericks 3-1
The dysfunctional nature of the Mavericks, especially pertaining to mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo, has stolen a lot of the headlines from this series. In all the buzz about Rondo, one fact has gone under the radar: the Rockets are actually playing really well, especially offensively.
James Harden has been predictably awesome while his supporting cast has given him a nice lift. Dwight Howard is playing at a star level and Josh Smith and Corey Brewer are balling out of their minds off the Rockets bench.
An NBA title isn’t out of the question for this feisty Houston team.
7. Washington Wizards
Regular season record: 46-36, No. 5 seed in East
Playoff record: Beat Toronto Raptors 4-0
Alright, let’s have a show of hands—who saw the fifth-seeded Wizards sweep of the fourth-seeded Raptors coming?
The series was supposed to be a tight one between two floundering teams. The Wizards entered the playoffs on an extended 24-28 slide while the Raptors won just 12 of their final 28 games.
However, Washington channeled its January selves, easily disposing of the inefficient and defensively challenged Raptors behind great performances from Marcin Gortat, John Wall and Paul Pierce.
8. Chicago Bulls
Regular season record: 50-32, No. 3 seed in East
Playoff record: Leading Milwaukee Bucks 3-2
Inconsistency continues to plague the Bulls, and it starts with their leader, Derrick Rose.
The star point guard is finally back in the postseason after a two-year hiatus due to injuries. He’s been great at times in Chicago’s first-round series against the Bucks, but he’s also been really, really bad.
In Game 2, Rose scored 34 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out eight assists. Those are MVP-type numbers for the 2011 winner of the award. However, just three games later, he put up 13 points on 5-of-20 shooting, with just two assists against six turnovers. Not surprisingly, the former performance resulted in a Bulls win and the latter showing led to a Bulls loss.
I’ve held all season that Chicago, when healthy, is the most talented team in the East. The Bulls can contend for a championship with their current roster, but they’ll have to play to their full potential more frequently.
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