NBA playoffs: Ranking five best games in postseason’s first week with 76ers-Raptors at No. 1

Welcome to the postseason. From this point forward, there is no more filler. No more back-to-backs, no more tanking, no more load management. All we have left are the NBA’s best teams fighting for a chance at the Larry O’Brien trophy, and the quality of this week’s games reflects that. 

Whittling this list down (full schedule for first week here) to just five was a nearly impossible task, but in the end, the following set of games stood out. 

  • Saturday, April 16, 6 p.m. ET — ESPN (streaming on fuboTV)

Rarely is a Game 1 ever considered “must-win” for a favorite, but the 76ers have a tiny margin for error in this series. Their defense has been over 10 points per 100 possessions better with Matisse Thybulle on the floor since the trade deadline, but he will only be able to play in home games in this series due to his vaccination status and Canada’s stricter guidelines. That makes Philadelphia’s home-court advantage critical against an opponent that is 23-11 since Feb. 1 and has a 31-17 record in games in which OG Anunoby plays. Those paces would be good for the No. 1 seed if stretched over 82 games. When healthy, Toronto is as dangerous as any team in the East. The 76ers have to take care of business in their four home games, because if they have to win on the road without Thybulle, they’re in deep, deep trouble. That urgency will be felt on the floor Saturday.

2. Eastern Conference No. 7 seed at Boston Celtics

This game missed out on No. 1 only by virtue of its uncertainty. If we assume the Nets take care of business on Tuesday, Nets-Celtics instantly becomes the most interesting series of the first round. When these two teams played a year ago, their seeds were reversed. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were drafted by picks originally belonging to Brooklyn. Kyrie Irving once played for the Celtics and has never hid his disdain for the organization since leaving. Rarely do two championship contenders play in the first round. Even rarer do those contenders have such a rich and complicated series. Buckle up folks. This is going to be one of the best series of the entire postseason.

  • Saturday, April 16, 1 p.m. ET — ESPN (streaming on fuboTV)

One of two things is going to happen when Game 1 of Mavericks vs. Jazz tips off Sunday. Either Luka Doncic is going to play, in which case, we’ll not only get to see perhaps the best one-man band of the past few postseasons go to work against a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, or he won’t, in which case, we’ll get to see how good a job the Mavericks have done building a supporting cast around him. Nobody would expect Dallas to win a series without Doncic, but stealing a game while he recovers would go a long way in proving that he isn’t in this alone. And if he does play? Little in basketball is more thrilling than watching a hobbled superstar grit through the pain to try to lead his team through the biggest moments of the season.

  • Tuesday, April 12, 7 p.m. ET — TNT

One way or another, the Nets were going to appear on this list. This game would’ve been ranked higher if we were getting the Cavaliers from December or January. When they had a healthy Jarrett Allen and were rolling, they were one of the great surprises of the season. They’re 2-10 in their last 12 competitive games, though, and if the Nets weren’t fighting through some injuries of their own this would be a fairly lopsided matchup. Still, the history only adds to the intrigue of the play-in setting. This is Kyrie Irving’s first postseason game against his first NBA team, and Kevin Durant shares plenty of playoff history with the Cavs as well. Brooklyn will therefore launch its journey into the playoffs with a game against a fitting opponent. 

  • Saturday, April 16, 8:30 p.m. ET — ABC

Rounding out the top five we have the man who is ending the season as the MVP favorite, Nikola Jokic, traveling to potentially face off with the one who started the year as the MVP favorite, Stephen Curry. Golden State’s marksman hasn’t played since mid-March, and we might not even see him in this game, but if the worst-case scenario is the Jordan Poole show, you can bet this game will be entertaining at the very least. The two best passing big men on earth will participate in this game, so if nothing else, the highlights should be very, very fun.