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Ranking the First Round Matchups by Upset Potential


In last year’s first round, we saw two upsets in the first round, both in the Western Conference. The sixth-seeded Pelicans swept the third-seeded Blazers, and the fifth-seeded Jazz took down the fourth-seeded Thunder in six games. Will we see more of the same this year? Or will all the top seeds make it to the second round? To find out, here’s a look at how each team stacks up against their opponent, as well as their point differentials. Who is most likely to be upset?

In terms of point differential, Golden State, Milwaukee and Boston were the only teams to average a differential greater than 10 points against their first-round foe. Several lower seeds, however, had a differential greater than their opponent. Oklahoma City, Utah, Orlando and Brooklyn all beat their first-round matchups, on average, by more than they lost by. So who’s the most likely to get upset in round one?

1. Portland Trail Blazers (3) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (6)

This one is difficult to call an upset given that Jusuf Nurkic, arguably the Blazers’ second-most important player, is out for the season. Nonetheless, by seeding this would qualify as an upset. Additionally, a loss for Portland would make two years in a row losing to the sixth seed as the third seed.

The main indicators for an upset here are that the Thunder swept the Blazers on the year, and that on paper, their team is much stronger. While Damian Lillard is a far better shooter than Russell Westbrook, Brodie brings a lot more to the table on a nightly basis. At best, this is a wash at the point guard position. Where the Blazers are most outmatched is between the team’s secondary stars in Paul George and CJ McCollum. McCollum is just returning from an injury, and he hasn’t looked great in the few games since his return. Furthermore, PG is elite on both ends of the floor, and better on both ends than CJ. Additionally, Steven Adams might create a huge mismatch for Enes Kanter, who is statistically poor on the defensive end.

2. Denver Nuggets (2) vs. San Antonio Spurs (7)

Seeding-wise, this would be a massive upset if the Spurs pulled it off. While Denver outscored them this year, the Spurs went even with the Nuggets on the year in terms of head to head. Where the Spurs most have an advantage though is in coaching and player playoff experience. Gregg Popovich is a legendary playoff coach, whereas Mike Malone has never been the head coach of a playoff team. Granted, he was an assistant for the New Orleans Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in years that they went to the playoffs, however, he has never been at the helm for a playoff run. Furthermore, almost none of the Nuggets’ key players have been to the postseason. While Paul Millsap has significant playoff experience, the only other Nuggets to make the playoffs are Will Barton, Mason Plumlee and Isaiah Thomas.

Assuming that the younger Nuggets play well in their first playoff run, Denver does have several things going for them. Firstly, they are superior both offensively and defensively to the Spurs. Secondly, they have the best player on either team in Nikola Jokic, which is a valuable asset for any playoff series. Finally, their team as a whole is much deeper than that of the Spurs.

3. Philadelphia 76ers (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)

To be frank, this isn’t a very likely upset, however, it is marginally more likely than the other first-round matchups. Brooklyn tied the season series with Philly, and they won in terms of point differential. Furthermore, Joel Embiid is just returning from injury for game one, which gives the Nets a valuable opportunity to get ahead. The problem for Brooklyn is that their team largely lacks playoff experience, and while their bench is better than that of the 76ers’, their starting lineup is much less talented. This series is unlikely to be a sweep, however, it’ll take a sustained injury to Embiid and a poor performance from the rest of the 76ers for them to be upset.

4. Houston Rockets (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5)

This series will most likely play out how it did in last season’s second round, however, the Jazz might not take two games off of Houston again. The rosters are essentially the same, and Harden only looks better as compared to last season. Barring a complete collapse from the Beard, the Rockets should make it to the second round.

5. Boston Celtics (4) vs. Indiana Pacers (5)

Without Victor Oladipo, this isn’t the same Pacers team that took LeBron James and the Cavaliers to seven games in last year’s first round. In the playoffs, the team with more star power generally wins, and the Celtics easily have more of that. Furthermore, Al Horford’s ability to stretch the floor offensively will pull an elite shot blocker in Myles Turner out of the paint and onto the perimeter, opening up driving lanes for Kyrie Irving. While the Celtics are missing their best defender in Marcus Smart, it’s unlikely that they drop four games against Indiana.

6. Toronto Raptors (2) vs. Orlando Magic (7)

Although the Magic split the season series with Toronto, the Raptors were missing Kawhi Leonard for one of those games, and both Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas were out for the other one. When the teams last met about two weeks ago, the Raptors were at full strength and had Marc Gasol on board. In that game, the Raptors won by 12. Unless Kawhi is injured in this series, the Raptors are more than likely moving on to the second round.

7. Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs. Detroit Pistons (8)

This upset is about as likely as the Clippers beating the Warriors, however Golden State slightly edges out Milwaukee by virtue of being Golden State. In theory, the Pistons match up somewhat well with the Bucks in that Andre Drummond can dominate the boards and thus limit Giannis Antetokounmpo in the fast break. Blake Griffin is currently day to day with a knee injury, however, and it’s uncertain if he’ll be ready for game one. Even with Griffin, the Pistons’ chances of winning are incredibly small.

8. Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (8)

A loss in the first round for the Warriors would flip the entire Western Conference Playoffs, and NBA Playoffs for that matter, on its head. The Clippers are a deep and energetic team, and while they’ll give the Warriors some trouble for parts of games, they’ll be hard pressed to pick up more than a win against Golden State.

Stats courtesy of ESPN

Featured image courtesy of Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

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