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NBA Playoffs: Lakers vs. Blazers, Chris Paul’s Houston revenge tour tops the most intriguing first round fights

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Reaction: Trail Blazers earn the right to play against the Lakers in the first round
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NBA playoff bouts are officially set after the Portland Trail Blazers knocked out the Memphis Grizzlies in the first game of the West’s play-in series to secure the No. 8 Saturday. Portland will face the Lakers seeded in the first round and let the upset energy start in earnest. As usual, the Western Conference pitch is stacked from top to bottom and each series has its own kind of intrigue. The East as a whole looks like it won’t get really interesting until round two.

With that in mind, below is a ranking of the four most intriguing first round matchups.

1. Blazers versus Lakers

If you have Damian Lillard, you have a chance. It’s that simple. With the way he’s playing, the scrambling and double team attention that will ask a Lakers team that misses a primary perimeter defender in Avery Bradley will open plenty of shots. And Portland has guys who can take those shots. Carmelo Anthony. Gary Trent Jr. We’ll see if CJ McCollum can play in a high clip with a fractured back (he was great in the play-in match against Memphis), but if he can, once again Portland will score a ton of points.

At the very least, that should make this series exciting, and indeed Portland’s offensive exploits are the foundation of what is sure to be a bubbling up of shattered speeches as the first game of this series looms on Tuesday.

Defending the Blazers, however, is a BIG problem. They have no one who can reasonably match LeBron James with Trevor Ariza who chose to get out of the bubble. Carmelo Anthony and Jusuf Nurkic are about to be put on an island as LeBron probably hunts them to death.

You can bet the Blazers will play as much drop coverage as possible and force the Lakers to 3-pointer, and there’s a reasonable chance they won’t. They are not a great shooting team, and if the ball gets out of LeBron’s hands, their secondary creators are minimal beyond Anthony Davis and dare I say Dion Waiters.

So we’ll see. The Lakers almost always have the top two players every time they step on the floor, but right now Lillard is able to be better than both LeBron and AD Can he be better than both of them put together? Most certainly not. But it will be a hell of a sight to see him try.

2. Thunder vs. Rockets

We all need to send a collective prayer to the basketball gods that Russell Westbrook will be able not only to play in this series, but to play close enough to 100 percent that he can truly see the potential of this Rockets experiment. This is a dangerous team when at full strength, but without Westbrook attacking the space created by the extended double teams starting to throw at Harden, it all feels a bit empty.

This is not to say that Rockets would have sunk in this series. Frankly, I think they will win. Harden has enough shooters around him to punish double teams again. But there is a clear ceiling in Houston without Westbrook.

If he plays Westbrook, the intrigue of this particular series is obvious. The Thunder sold him to Houston last summer for Chris Paul, who himself was effectively canceled before proceeding to put together yet another ALL-NBA season. James Harden wanted CP3 out of Houston. Westbrook’s critics are as loud as any other group in the NBA landscape. Shoulder chips in this series will be, let’s say, significant.

But Westbrook has to play to get that full dynamic. I assume it will at some point. Or maybe I’m just hoping.

3. Mavericks vs. Clippers

Like the Blazers, the Mavericks can beat anyone on any given night due to an unstoppable offense orchestrated by one of the five most gifted creators in the world. In a series starring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Luka Doncic is good enough to be the best player on the track. It will have to be for Dallas to stand a chance against an incredibly deep Clippers team that feels like the favorite to win it all, at least in my book.

And it’s not just Doncic – who averaged just under a triple-double in Dallas’ eight seeded matches (9.7 AST) – who is swinging right now for the Mavs. Kristaps Porzingis averaged over 30 points and nine rebounds in Dallas series games while shooting 38% from three. Dallas has shooters – Seth Curry, Maxi Kleber, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Trey Burke, etc. – and secondary authors. Boban can give the Clippers some trouble with shooting stretches when they go small, which they do a lot with Montrezl Harrell on five.

The Clippers are the best and most complete team. I assume it will prevail in the end. But Dallas is a real threat to make it very interesting.

4. 76ers against Celtics

The fact that Ben Simmons is out for the Sixers takes a lot of punch from this series, but it’s also what makes it interesting. There is an ongoing undercurrent of doubt that the Sixers, and particularly Joel Embiid, can function more naturally and efficiently without Simmons bogging down the offense mid-court. We would have seen Brett Brown use more Simmons in fourth place, but he was still taking up a lot of the same spaces (there’s only so much you can do with a guy who doesn’t pose a threat outside of paint as a scorer).

If this was last year’s Sixers team and you had a Jimmy Butler to handle the offense and a shooter like JJ Redick to optimize the distance between floors for Embiid, I think there would be a real question of whether the Sixers would be able to beat Boston without Simmons. I don’t think they can do it with this year’s team. Simmons’ sole defense will be a catastrophic defeat for the Sixers against a Boston team loaded with perimeter options.

But I’m just wondering. If Shake Milton, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson all manage to cook, and the Sixers can finally give Embiid the ball and let him have all the room to paint he wants to go to work, can Philly really be okay, if not better, without Simmons? At least that’s enough to make me want to watch.

Plus, Jayson Tatum is super fun. And I’d like to see Kemba Walker transform back into the monster we know she can be.

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