The first game of the 2019 NBA postseason also might be the most intriguing game of the 2019 postseason, because the Brooklyn Nets actually have a puncher’s chance against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Because Philly is not at full strength going into Game 1 of the best-of-7 series with Joel Embiid suffering from a knee injury, and because Brooklyn’s point guard tandem of D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie presents matchup nightmares for the Sixers.
The Nets went 2-2 against Philly, but an epic collapse that ended with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Jimmy Butler at the Barclays Center prevented that record from being 3-1.
The series tips off Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia, where coach Brett Brown will be on the hot seat later this spring if the Sixers fail to reach the Eastern Conference finals. The Sixers have have the most talented starting five in the NBA when they are at full strength, but there is only one basketball to be shared by Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, J.J. Redick and Jimmy Butler, and keeping all of them happy and on the same page has been particularly vexing for Brown, whose old-school messages sometimes fall on deaf ears in a locker room populated by members of a younger generation who do not know or care all that much about Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs culture — the culture where Brown was groomed under Coach Gregg Popovich.
Sometimes, when one team has high expectations and the other has very little to lose, it creates an advantage for the underdog.
In this series, that works in favor of the Nets, who are more interested in what they can accomplish in free agency this summer than in what they can get done in the postseason. That will allow them to play loose … which sometimes makes things easier because the pressure is on the other team.
“We’re planning on him playing,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “I think that’s what’s going to happen. That’s my experience. We’ll adjust if he doesn’t play.”
Embiid told reporters Friday: “I have no idea.” And that means we will all probably be waiting until tipoff to see what the Sixers’ starting lineup looks like. If Embiid sits, Brooklyn could steal Game 1. And if that happens, that series could go seven games. PREDICTION: Sixers in 6.
Let’s have a look at the other seven NBA postseason matchups:
No. 1 Milwaukee vs. No. 8 Detroit
True story: I was on the phone with a high-ranking Pistons official on Wednesday morning prior to Detroit clinching a playoff berth with a road victory against the Knicks. “We are horrible,” the person said, “and Blake is not going to be able to go.”
That pretty much sums up the least sexy of the eight first round matchups, one that will be watched closely in Wisconsin and Greece and few other places. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a shoo-in the the MVP award, and Detroit has nobody who can defend him. The matchup most worrisome to the Bucks is Andre Drummond vs.. Brook Lopez, and the only want the Pistons can steal a game is by getting big 3-point contributions in the same game from Wayne Ellington and Luke Kennard. PREDICTION: Bucks in 4.
No. 2 Toronto vs. No. 7 Orlando
No NBA executive took as big of an offseason gamble as Masai Ujiri of Toronto, who dealt DeMar DeRozan and Jacob Poeltl to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard with the hope that Leonard will agree to stay in Canada long-term despite his desire to play in his hometown of Los Angeles.
The Raptors treated Leonard with kid gloves all season, often resting him on one end of a back-to-back. The Clippers had personnel at nearly every Raptors game, sending a not-so-subtle message that they are making him their No. 1 free agency target in the offseason. Orlando’s hopes are pegged to the production of center Nikola Vucevic, who may be the most talented 2019 free agent that nobody ever talks about. PREDICTION: Toronto in 5.
No. 4 Boston vs. No. 5 Indiana
The Celtics have internal chemistry issues that are more acute then people realize, which is one of the reasons that the word on the street in February was that Anthony Davis would be a “rental” if Danny Ainge traded for him. Last season, the Celtics were an extremely strong team with Kyrie Irving sidelined for the playoffs, making it all the way to a Game 7 against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Indiana is a team everyone has been sleeping on all season, and although they lost Victor Oladipo, they picked up a conceptually adequate replacement in Wes Matthews. Problem is, Matthews was less than adequate in his 23 games with Indiana, averaging just 10.9 points.
Boston is the more talented team, but Indiana has a degree of chemistry that the Celtics cannot match. PREDICTION: Boston in 7.
No. 1 Golden State vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Clippers
Doc Rivers’ crew are huge underdogs against Steph Curry and the rest of the two-time defending champs, but the Clippers are a better team than many folks realize … and their “chemistry was instant,” according to Danilo Gallinari, after dealing Tobias Harris to Philadelphia and acquiring Ivica Zubac from the Clippers.
The Warriors have been dealing with Kevin Durant’s impending free agency departure throughout the season, and anyone who says it is not a distraction is misinformed. The Draymond Green vs. Steve Kerr dysfunction dynamic is worth noting, and Rivers has an exceptional backcourt defender in Patrick Beverley.
This one will be more interesting than many folks expect. PREDICTION: Warriors in 6.
No. 2 Denver vs. No. 7 San Antonio
Nikola Jokic is the best player that nobody talks about, and he would have drawn a handful of first-place MVP votes had the Nuggets won the West. San Antonio will use Poeltl to defend him, with LaMarcus Aldridge getting the gig if Poeltl gets into foul trouble.
The Spurs won 15 of their final 20 games, with Aldridge and DeRozan providing the bulk of the offensive firepower. Pop’s squad is sneaky deep, but they went 2-2 against the Nuggets … including a 28-point loss on April as Jokic shot 9-for-10.
Props to the Spurs for being the NBA’s biggest overachievers, but Jokic will dominate this series. PREDICTION: Nuggets in 5.
No. 3 Portland vs. No. 6 Oklahoma City
For entertainment value, nothing will come close to this one. Porland has the better backcourt with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but Oklahoma has two true superstars in Paul George and Ruyssell Westbrook … and George can be the primary defender against either of the Blazers’ two guards if Billy Donovan wants to throw something unconventional at Terry Stotts. The x-factor player is Portland’s Evan Turner, who finished the season strong.
Oklahoma City swept the season series, which tells you something: They matched up well with Portland even before Jusuf Nurkic went down with a season-ending broken leg.
Having the series open in Portland is an advantage to the Blazers, but a Game 1 loss would be especially deflating given the 0-4 record during the regular season. Like Brooklyn-Philadelphia, the series-opener carries an extra bit of weight. PREDICTION: Thunder in 6.
No. 4 Houston vs. No. 5 Utah
James Harden and his crew won 20 of their final 24 games, and Harden ran away with the scoring title. The Rockets are loaded after adding Kenneth Faried and getting Clint Capela healthy, and perhaps the biggest question mark is how well Chris Paul will play. His game has been declining for the past couple of seasons, but when he is doing his thing with maximum efficiency the Rockets are close to unbeatable.
Utah has the better defensive center, Rudy Gobert, and a budding superstar in Donovan Mitchell who will produce Harden-like scoring numbers if he continues to improve his game (this is just his second season). Joe Ingles is going to have to be especially productive from 3-point range for Utah to have a chance to get out of the first round. PREDICTION: Rockets in 5.