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Every Projected NBA Playoff Team’s Nightmare Matchup

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Every Projected NBA Playoff Team’s Nightmare Matchup

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    With NBA teams beginning to separate themselves as we reach the final stretch of the 2022-23 season, every squad should have at least one opponent they’d prefer not to see in the playoffs.

    Whether it be poor regular-season showings, individual mismatches or an unpleasant experience from the 2022 postseason, there’s a reason why at least one team should strike a little fear into the hearts of even the most talented franchises.

    Since playoff seeding (and the play-in tournament) are still weeks away from being decided, we’re using Basketball-Reference’s playoff probability report to determine the 16 postseason teams.

East No. 1: Milwaukee Bucks

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    Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo drives to the basket against Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 4, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

    AP Photo/Aaron Gash

    Nightmare Matchup: Philadelphia 76ers

    Season Record Against: 1-2

    Net Rating Against: minus-3.1

    Milwaukee’s recent 16-game win streak looked like it would reach 17 against the 76ers until a fourth-quarter meltdown saw the Bucks give up a whopping 48 points.

    Allowing 133 points in total to the Sixers should have Milwaukee a little hesitant to face Joel Embiid, James Harden and company again, especially since both stars registered 30-plus point double-doubles.

    If there’s anyone who can make Giannis Antetokounmpo appear mortal, it’s Embiid. The two-time MVP was just 9-of-21 from the floor with seven turnovers in the loss to Philly, and is shooting just 41.4 percent overall in three games against the Sixers with Embiid or P.J. Tucker as the primary defender, per NBA.com matchup data.

    There are few teams in the league who can match Milwaukee’s combination of star power, depth and playoff experience. The 76ers check all of these boxes and more.

East No. 2: Boston Celtics

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    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - MARCH 05: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics drives to the basket against Trevor Keels #3 of the New York Knicks during overtime at the TD Garden on March 05, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images)

    Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: New York Knicks

    Season Record Against: 1-3

    Net Rating Against: minus-1.5

    While the Knicks looked like a favorable matchup for the East’s top teams a few weeks ago, New York has won nine of its last 10 games and is now one of the hottest squads in all of basketball.

    Since the end of January, the Knicks are a perfect 3-0 against Boston, including a thrilling double-overtime win on March 5 despite New York missing Jalen Brunson.

    Celtics star forward Jayson Tatum has also struggled in this matchup, shooting just 9-of-33 (27.3 percent) from three in the three losses.

    With Immanuel Quickley torching Boston’s strong perimeter defense for a season-high 38 points in the double-OT win and Julius Randle putting up 30.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists on 50.0 percent shooting over the teams’ four games, the Knicks would be an extremely tough matchup for the Celtics in their quest to return to the Finals.

East No. 3: Philadelphia 76ers

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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 25: James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers dribbles the ball during the game against the Boston Celtics on February 25, 2023 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

    David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: Boston Celtics

    Season Record Against: 0-3

    Net Rating Against: minus-7.1

    While the 76ers have had success against the Milwaukee Bucks, they’ve struggled to take down the other top team in the East.

    Boston is a perfect 3-0 against Philly this season, including two victories in the last month alone. The Celtics’ fourth-ranked defense (111.2 rating) has held a high-powered Sixers scoring attack to just 107 and 99 total points over their last two contests.

    What should make Philly truly concerned is that Joel Embiid is still putting up his usual dominant numbers in these meetings (31.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.7 blocks) and the 76ers still haven’t been able to come away with a win.

    The Celtics have enough stoppers on the perimeter in Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown and others to slow down James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, putting extra pressure on the rest of Philly’s core to make shots around Embiid.

East No. 4: Cleveland Cavaliers

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    CLEVELAND, OHIO - DECEMBER 21: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dribbles the ball to the basket around Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the first quarter at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on December 21, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: Milwaukee Bucks

    Season Record Against: 2-2

    Net Rating Against: minus-2.3

    Cleveland is going to be a tricky team to take down in the playoffs with one of the NBA’s top postseason scorers of all time (Donovan Mitchell, 28.3 points per game) and the league’s top-rated defense.

    Outside of Mitchell, however, this team lacks playoff experience and could run into trouble against more veteran-led teams like the Bucks, who have already won a championship together.

    Although the two squads have split the season series, the Cavs are just 1-2 against Milwaukee this season when Giannis Antetokounmpo plays. The two-time MVP has proven to be too much for even Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen to handle, averaging 33.0 points, 11.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and shooting 55.4 percent overall.

    Cleveland can probably win a playoff series, especially if it stays at No. 4 overall and keeps homecourt advantage in the first round.

    Should the Cavs run into the Bucks in the East semifinals, however, their playoff run will be short-lived.

East No. 5: New York Knicks

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    NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 9: Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks dribbles the ball during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on January 9, 2023 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE  (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: Milwaukee Bucks

    Season Record Against: 0-3

    Net Rating Against: minus-8.3

    While the Knicks have beat up on some other East playoff teams (3-1 vs. the Boston Celtics, 2-0 vs. the Miami Heat), they’ve yet to figure out a way to defeat the Bucks.

    Similar to the Cleveland Cavaliers, this is a young-ish Knicks team that doesn’t possess a ton of postseason experience together, something the veteran-led Bucks can take advantage of.

    As talented as Julius Randle is offensively, going up against a frontline of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez has proved extremely challenging. Randle is averaging just 19.0 points on 31.7 percent shooting in the season series, including a 2-of-22 record (9.1 percent) from three.

    Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett can’t take down the Bucks by themselves, especially with Jrue Holiday taking turns locking up one or the other. Randle would need a huge series to have a chance to get past Milwaukee, something he hasn’t looked capable of doing.

East No. 6: Brooklyn Nets

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    BROOKLYN, NY - FEBRUARY 11: Nicolas Claxton #33 of the Brooklyn Nets plays defense during the game on Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers on February 11, 2023 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: Philadelphia 76ers

    Season Record Against: 0-3

    Net Rating Against: minus-6.1

    It’s tough to gauge who the Nets would struggle against the most in the postseason, considering this current version of the team looks far different than the one that began the year.

    A 28-point comeback win on the road in Boston to beat the Celtics should eliminate any fear factor there, however, with an 0-3 record against Philly this season proving far more intimidating.

    Brooklyn is still pretty thin up front with Nic Claxton and Nerlens Noel, allowing Joel Embiid the opportunity to feast inside. There’s the James Harden revenge factor to consider as well, given the way his Brooklyn tenure ended, and Ben Simmons will continue to receive a warm ovation from the Philly faithful when the Nets go on the road.

    Brooklyn has enough talent to win a game in a potential series, but it would ultimately have no shot at taking the Sixers down overall.

East No. 7: Miami Heat

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    MIAMI, FLORIDA - MARCH 25: Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat posts up Quentin Grimes #6 of the New York Knicks during the second half at FTX Arena on March 25, 2022 in Miami, Florida.NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,  by downloading and or using this photograph,  User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

    Eric Espada/Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: New York Knicks

    Season Record Against: 0-2

    Net Rating Against: minus-1.5

    Miami has played New York just twice thus far this season, but both times ended in losses and took place over the past five weeks.

    The sting of a 122-120 home loss on March 2 still hurts, as Julius Randle put up 43 points behind eight three-pointers to sink a Heat team that’s desperately trying to climb out of the play-in tournament.

    The addition of Josh Hart gives New York a talented wing defender to put on Jimmy Butler, while Mitchell Robinson’s size makes Bam Adebayo’s job more difficult as well.

    Even if Kyle Lowry can return for the postseason from a sore knee, expecting a backcourt of he and Tyler Herro to contain players like Jalen Brunson, Immanuel Quickley and others is asking for punishment.

    Having defeated teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics in the playoffs in recent years, Miami should hope to avoid the Knicks instead.

East No. 8: Atlanta Hawks

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    ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 27: Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks drives to the basket during the game against the Miami Heat on November 27, 2022 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: Miami Heat

    Season Record Against: 1-3

    Net Rating Against: minus-2.2

    If the Hawks were finally over the nightmare of last year’s playoff series against the Heat (a 4-1 first-round beatdown), Miami has recently resurrected those ill feelings.

    The Heat have defeated the Hawks twice in the last week to improve to 3-1 overall on the year against them, thanks to a strong defensive effort around Trae Young.

    Cutting off the head of the snake (bird?) has proved successful, as Young is averaging just 19.8 points on 35.6 percent overall and 20.8 percent from deep in the three games, his lowest scoring output against any Eastern Conference team.

    Atlanta’s defense isn’t going to win many games, and this team needs Young to have a monster series in order to make it out of the first round. Should they run into Miami at any point (an unlikely scenario given their projected seeding), it will be 2022 all over again.

West No. 1: Denver Nuggets

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    DENVER, CO - FEBUARY 15:  Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets handles the ball during the game  on Febuary 15, 2023 at the Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: Dallas Mavericks

    Season Record Against: 2-2

    Net Rating Against: minus-5.5

    The Nuggets are beginning to run away in the Western Conference, with seven-and-a-half games now separating them from the No. 2-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.

    Should they face the Mavericks as early as Round 1, however, there should rightfully be some apprehension.

    Although 2-2 on the season against Dallas, the two teams have only played each other once since the Mavs traded for Kyrie Irving. Even with Irving missing the game, a 37-point effort from Luka Dončić was enough to take down the Nuggets on their own floor, handing Denver just its fourth home loss (now an NBA-best 30-4 overall) all season.

    There’s no good defensive answer for Dončić on this Nuggets roster, nor is there for Kyrie Irving, who’s yet to play against Denver this season.

    The Nuggets will be the No. 1 seed in the West when the playoffs begin, a figure Dončić will undoubtedly care very little about.

West No. 2: Memphis Grizzies

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    SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 25: Desmond Bane #22 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket against Anthony Lamb #40 of the Golden State Warriors in the second quarter at Chase Center on January 25, 2023 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: Golden State Warriors

    Season Record Against: 0-2

    Net Rating Against: minus-6.5

    This is already one of the great budding rivalries in the NBA, thanks in part to some elite trash-talking and a spark that turned into fire during last year’s playoffs.

    Going back to the 2022 Western Conference Semifinals, Golden State has won five of its last six meetings against the Grizzlies, a battle between the past, present and future of the conference.

    Stephen Curry’s 34 points helped defeat Memphis in late January, and the Warriors’ didn’t even need their superstar to beat the Grizzlies 123-109 on Christmas Day.

    As much as Memphis likes to pretend there’s no fear when facing any of the more veteran teams in the league, there has to be a bit of a mental block when it comes to the Warriors, a dynasty that began when most of these Grizzlies were still in high school.

West No. 3: Sacramento Kings

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    PHOENIX, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 14: Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings handles the ball against Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on February 14, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Kings 120-109. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: Phoenix Suns

    Season Record Against: 0-2

    Net Rating Against: minus-9.6

    The Kings recently gave up 120 points in a loss to the Suns on Valentine’s Day in Kevin Durant’s first appearance in Phoenix.

    The real problem?

    Durant was merely a spectator, cheering his new team on from the bench while still resting from an MCL sprain. His absence didn’t mean much for the Suns, who took down Sacramento thanks to 61 total points from Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

    Adding Durant to this core should absolutely terrify the Kings’ shaky defense, one that ranks 28th overall (120.7 rating) since the beginning of February.

    There are few teams in the league that Sacramento may not be able to match up with offensively. The Suns are definitely one.

West No. 4: Phoenix Suns

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    DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 10: Devin Booker (1) of the Phoenix Suns drives on Jeff Green (32) of the Denver Nuggets during the first quarter on Monday, October 10, 2022. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

    AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: Denver Nuggets

    Season Record Against: 0-2

    Net Rating Against: minus-15.2

    Given that the Suns haven’t lost with a healthy Kevin Durant in the lineup, it’s tough to identify who their nightmare matchup would be just yet. Through 198 total possessions, Phoenix has a net rating of plus-23.7 (100th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass) with Durant on the floor.

    A heavyweight fight with the Nuggets could prove the most challenging matchup, given the amount of star power and depth on Denver’s roster as well.

    Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are capable of putting up points in a hurry, while Aaron Gordon is big and athletic enough to make Durant work for his shots. The Suns also don’t have an answer for Nikola Jokić, who has averaged 31.0 points, 16.5 rebounds and 12.0 assists on 65.0 percent shooting in two games against Phoenix.

    While we’re all hoping for a Suns-Mavericks series at some point, the Suns should be most concerned about running into the top-seeded Nuggets.

West No. 5: Golden State Warriors

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    Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

    AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

    Nightmare Matchup: Phoenix Suns

    Season Record Against: 0-3

    Net Rating Against: minus-15.6

    Kevin Durant vs. the Warriors in the playoffs, anyone?

    As if Golden State didn’t already have problems stopping the Suns (129.7 points allowed during their three meetings), now the Warriors also have to slow down one of the greatest scoring machines the NBA has ever seen.

    Durant will certainly have some extra motivation, wanting to prove he can win a title without the backing of a 73-win team.

    Chris Paul likely hasn’t forgotten 2018, either, after a hamstring injury suffered in the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors cost him his best chance at a title while a member of the Houston Rockets.

    After winning four championships together, not much will scare these Warriors. A team featuring Durant, Devin Booker, Paul and Deandre Ayton just might, however.

West No. 6: Dallas Mavericks

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    DALLAS, TX - FEBRUARY 13: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Dallas Mavericks makes a no look pass against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first half at American Airlines Center on February 13, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

    Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Season Record Against: 1-2

    Net Rating Against: minus-3.2

    While the Wolves may not scare teams the way the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors or Denver Nuggets would, they remain a bad matchup for these Mavericks.

    Dallas has already dropped their first meeting in the Kyrie Irving era, a 124-121 loss on February 13. It’s a bad sign for the Mavs that Irving and Luka Dončić combined for 69 total points and still couldn’t secure a W.

    Rudy Gobert (21 points on 9-of-9 shooting and 14 rebounds) offers enough rim deterrence to force Irving and Dončić to make jumpers, while neither has the defensive chops to slow down Anthony Edwards (32 points in the recent win).

    Assuming Karl-Anthony Towns is back from a calf strain in time for the playoffs, Minnesota could be an extremely dangerous team, especially for Dallas.

West No. 7: Minnesota Timberwolves

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    MINNEAPOLIS, MN -  FEBRUARY 1: Anthony Edwards #1 of the Minnesota Timberwolves drives to the basket during the game against the Golden State Warriors on February 1, 2023 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: Golden State Warriors

    Season Record Against: 1-2

    Net Rating Against: minus-7.5

    The key to beating the Rudy Gobert-led Utah Jazz teams in the playoffs the past few years was to go small, space the floor and pull the talented shot-blocker out of the paint as much as possible.

    What team can go small better than these Warriors?

    Golden State has a net rating of plus-6.7 (88th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass) in lineups where Draymond Green plays center this season, a move that allows the Warriors to get all of their most talented players (Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins) on the floor at the same time.

    Add in the playoff experience against a new Wolves core that’s yet to make a postseason run together, and this would truly be a nightmare scenario for Minnesota.

West No. 8: Los Angeles Clippers

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    DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 26: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers drives to the basket during the game against the Denver Nuggets on February 26, 2023 at the Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

    Nightmare Matchup: Denver Nuggets

    Season Record Against: 0-4

    Net Rating Against: minus-15.9

    There’s no debate on who the Clippers will want to avoid this postseason.

    Unfortunately, a projected No. 8 seed would mean a first-round meeting with these Nuggets, who they’ve yet to beat in four regular-season meetings.

    Kawhi Leonard has suited up in three of these losses, although the Clippers have been outscored by a whopping 49 points in his 95 total minutes.

    Even if Leonard and Paul George can slow down players like Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Los Angeles has no answers for Nikola Jokić in the paint. Former Clippers point guard Reggie Jackson, now with the Nuggets after being traded to and bought out by the Orlando Magic, will have some extra motivation as well.

    This is a horrendous matchup for the wing-heavy Clippers, who could be in for a long offseason after being eliminated in the first round.

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