* * *
In your eyes, what’s the most intriguing first-round matchup?
* * *
Steve Aschburner: Give me OKC-Houston. Heck, give me best of nine in that series. Feisty Chris Paul vs. the team that dumped him to the Thunder — that was the sense at the time, before he and his teammates got busy proving people wrong — should have enough chippiness to last a couple extra games. Russell Westbrook’s absence for “a few” games is an equalizer that will either bring out James Harden’s best or put him on the brink of further reputational damage in terms of winning. I’m also thinking Steven Adams could have a field day against the small ball crew.
Shaun Powell: I favor Clippers-Mavericks not because I smell an upset, but the star-power is intoxicating. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Luka Doncic make for must-see TV. Doncic is already next-level and coming off a strong last few weeks and his growth is something to behold. However, the Clippers bring a pair of elite defenders in Leonard and George and the switching off on Doncic will create a chess match disguised as a basketball game.
John Schuhmann: Even with Russell Westbrook out for (at least) the start of the series, Thunder-Rockets has the most intrigue — and not just because they made a huge trade last summer. These are two really good teams, capable of winning multiple series in the right circumstances. OKC defended Houston really well this season (Luguentz Dort, if healthy, will get after James Harden), but all three meetings took place before Houston committed to full-time small-ball. The Rockets’ switch-everything scheme will make it tougher for Chris Paul to get to his spot in the pick-and-roll, but their defenders will have a tough time keeping Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder in front of them, and Steven Adams could obviously have a big series on the glass. The Thunder have a lineup that’s been dominant in limited minutes and the Western Conference’s best record since Thanksgiving. The Rockets have a dude averaging an efficient 34.4 points (Harden’s true shooting percentage ranks third among high-usage players) and the second best record (18-12 through Thursday) in games played between the 13 teams over .500.
Sekou Smith: Both teams in the Denver-Utah series present an intriguing matchup of Western Conference teams that fancy themselves as threats to break up a potential Lakers-Clippers conference finals showdown. I’m not sure if I buy either one of them being ready for that level of disruption. I need to see them in action against each other before I entertain anything of the sort. But I appreciate the ambition of both the Nuggets and Jazz. Nikola Jokic battling Rudy Gobert and Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell going at it should make this series pop. The wild card is what the Nuggets get from Michael Porter Jr., who flashed talent during the seeding games that require anybody dealing with the Nuggets to rewrite his scouting report profile. This series should be wildly entertaining.
Michael C. Wright: Oklahoma City-Houston because it looks like it’ll be the most competitive, and it features three future Hall of Fame guards in Harden, Paul and Westbrook (provided he returns in time from his quadriceps injury). The history between that trio with those teams makes the matchup even more compelling. The difference in styles should also be interesting. Westbrook’s injury situation could take some luster of this matchup, but I have a hard time believing he’ll sit out against his former team.