It wasn’t the most exciting first round of the NBA playoffs. In fact, there were exactly zero upsets as the higher-seeded teams won every single series. There were a few dramatic moments (thank you very much Damian Lillard) and one seven-game series (Nuggets-Spurs) but all in all it just made most basketball fans thirsty for the far sweeter match-ups taking place in the Conference Semifinals. Taking account of the Game 1’s that have already been played, here’s our revamped NBA power rankings of the remaining teams.
1) Golden State Warriors
Nobody expected the Los Angeles Clippers to beat the Warriors twice – well except the Clippers, obviously – but Golden State’s slips may have come because they weren’t fully engaged. Clearly, it’s difficult to come up with another reason why a team with Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green could drop a 31-point lead in Game 2. Probably more concerning, the Warriors lost center DeMarcus Cousins indefinitely with a quad injury. If everybody plays up to expectations, the Warriors are the most dangerous team in the postseason, but they have shown more creaks than usual and will now face opponents who are superior to the Clippers. The Rockets should still feel good about their chances after playing them down to the wire in Sunday’s Game 1.
2) Houston Rockets
What is a team down 0-1 in their series doing in second place in these rankings? Whoever wins between the Rockets and Warriors should be considered favorites to make the NBA Finals and whoever makes the Finals should be favored to beat any team who emerges from the East. So, there you have it, despite their Game 1 loss, James Harden and the Rockets are still good enough to be in second place. Plus, to put it mildly, they have some refereeing calls coming their way after how their 104-100 loss played out on Sunday.
3) Toronto Raptors
So the whole “not playing Kawhi Leonard too often in the regular season” thing is starting to pay off for Toronto. Leonard scored 45 points in their 108-95 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 on Saturday. Nearly as impressively, Marc Gasol showed why the Raptors traded for him mid-season by doing a remarkable job helping the team shut down Philadelphia center Joel Embiid. In a seven-game series, a Game 1 win can be crucial, perhaps doubly so for Toronto who have historically had some issues with them. With the Raptors’ win and the Milwaukee Bucks’ stumble against the Boston Celtics on Sunday, Toronto – at least temporarily – look to be in the best position in the East. But things can swing wildly in an Eastern Conference that no longer seems to have a clear favorite.
4) Boston Celtics
Have the Celtics become the team that everybody was expecting them to be during the offseason? After a regular season where they could never manage to string together a consistent stretch of games, the Celtics promised to flip the switch during the playoffs. They have now won five straight games, and are the only remaining undefeated team thanks to a Game 1 victory that allowed them to wrestle away home court advantage from a stunned Milwaukee Bucks. Hey, and all that’s been without the help of their best defensive player in Marcus Smart, who has been out with an oblique injury and could return by the end of this series based on his current timetable. The main question now is: can they be trusted or are they just gaslighting their fans again?
5) Milwaukee Bucks
My initial position before Sunday’s game against the Boston Celtics was, “no matter how Game 1 goes, the Bucks have to be marked as the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference based on their regular season success, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP case and the fact that they just swept the Detroit Pistons.” Then they went on to lose 112-90 and forfeit their home court advantage on an afternoon when Antetokounmpo went 7-for-21 from the floor. So, it’s hard to rank them above the Toronto Raptors or the team that just trounced them. The Bucks have the talent to bounce back from this with a win in Game 2 on Tuesday, but we don’t know exactly how the NBA’s top seed will react after being dealt their first major setback.
6) Portland Trail Blazers
Last time around we wrote, “it feels like a failure when [Damian Lillard] doesn’t” make the game-winning shot. Well, about that. In Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Lillard hit the most ridiculous buzzer-beating three pointer that you will see, stunning the Oklahoma City Thunder 118-115. After that elimination, the Thunder’s Paul George called the three a “bad shot,” which it would have been for nearly any player not named Lillard (or Steph Curry). In beating the Thunder in five games, the Trail Blazers also won themselves some rest as the Denver Nuggets would end up needing seven to put away the San Antonio Spurs. Despite the fact that they will be starting the series on the road, the Blazers look to have a solid chance at making the Western Conference Finals. If they get there, the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors will end up being a mighty challenge unless Lillard has a few more of those in his pocket (and he might).
7) Denver Nuggets
The biggest knock against the Nuggets heading into the playoffs was their inexperience, so it was unsurprising that the battle-tested San Antonio Spurs proved to have their number, pushing them all the way to a Game 7. In fact, it needed a rare late-game miscue by San Antonio for Denver to squeeze home. So, the Nuggets come into their series against Portland with plenty to prove when Game 1 starts on Monday night. They’ll have to face the hottest shooter in the league in Damian Lillard and a CJ McCollum who looks to be regaining his health at the right time. It’s still something of a coin flip, however, and the Nuggets do have home court advantage and the Popovich-christened “Magnificent” Nikola Jokic on their side.
8) Philadelphia 76ers
It’s not that the Sixers can’t beat the Toronto Raptors in a seven-game series, it’s just that somebody had to be last on this list. The Raptors came into Sunday’s Game 1 as favorites and exited as favorites after a 108-95 win. Their best guy, Kawhi Leonard, scored 45 points while Philadelphia’s best guy, Joel Embiid, went a dreadful 5-for-18. The Sixers have an extremely talented group of starters, but the bench depth remains an issue. A loss in Game 2 and a once-promising 76ers season could be on life-support by the time it heads back to Philly.